Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, June 14, 2013

Favorite Critic Series - Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell is one of those brazenly feminist cultural critics who prefer to dazzle, excite, and thrill rather than deflate, demoralize, and despair. She's from the generation of women who came to prominence in the 70s, a time when feminism did not preclude casual heterosexual intercourse in an airport bathroom, and one felt one could do without condoms (or last names) as long as one was on the pill. Haskell's grand, seminal book, From Reverence to Rape, was a first of its kind, displaying an exhaustive (but never exhausting) knowledge of film history from the 1930s up through the then current 70s, evincing--in an era before home video--a familiarity with pre-code film, enough to know what few of the time could, that before 1934's huge step back, women ruled Hollywood. Competent female doctors, CEOs, aviators, and ambitious gold-digging social climbers abounded, making it all the harder to endure when, after 1934, they had to give all that up and do whatever their doltish husbands said. It was the cinematic equivalent of, say, taking back a woman's right to vote. But of course, it didn't stay that way, and after WW2 many women refused to return to their housewife-second class citizen status after working men's jobs, and Hollywood was right there with them. With her clear-eyed grasp of the whole spectrum of this struggle, Haskell locked onto the dark heart of feminist oppression and began to squeeze until its black blood ran across the page.

With the pain and despair of the post-code Handmaid's Tale-style reversal of social progress so present in her work, Haskell shouldn't be so fun to read, but her irrepressible love of movies never makes her half-full glass runneth over. Her book isn't just well-written and a stunning defense of the women's film, it's a point of no return --there can be no going back to your blissful state of patriarchal ignorance once you've read it, no way to dismiss the casual misogyny that runs deep through film history. One's perceptions are eternally expanded, but Haskell never even wakes the baby as the bathwater drains away --that is her miracle.

To say Haskell is one of my literary idols isn't doing her justice; her late husband Andrew Sarris is also an idol, the man who brought the auteur concept to America, but it's to Haskell I turn to get jazzed on wanting to see movies. Sarris can be very wrong (how can a man so smart and knowing about film be so wrong about Von Sternberg?) while Haskell's opinions have never forked from my own. Like Camille Paglia, she eschews banging her head against the patriarchal walls in favor of daring to walk around it, like Hitler through Belgium around the Maginot Line. Rather than whine for a man to come unlock the door, Haskell liberates herself. She was from that generation, the ones who didn't begrudge man his fiefdoms, just went and made their own, better verions. You can't even get mad at the dumb male fantasies that passed for art after reading Haskell because she shows you the way to still enjoy them despite your new knowledge. She deflates the Stanley Kubrick mystique within a few sentences, not because of his misogyny per se but because it's not "a visceral explosion of deep Swiftian disgust [which she has no truck with] but a fashionable and fastidious distaste," then lets him go, like a fish that's under the limit, and you find she hasn't spoiled your appreciation of his work. She's not nitpicking, she's merely pointing out how much better, how broader and more of an enduring classic a film could have been if its maker hadn't been afraid of women.

In addition to their focus on the male proprietary gaze, many academic feminist film critics seem to feel obligated to push for a democratization of cinema. They want more races and classes and most of all, more plain-looking people in films so all of us can feel represented. These critics may be right from a certain standpoint, but who would wants to pay to see themselves after a hard day's work? No one imagines themselves in the movies as plain; in the dark we're all gods and goddesses, changing back to trolls and trogs only when the house lights rise, and Haskell gets that. She sees that glamor isn't a realm for females to waste valuable time looking pretty for the male gaze, but rather a tool with which to court androgyny. She points out that the big female stars of the 1930s and 40s all had a certain drag queen essence. She also defends actresses you'd think she'd be against: she points out the fallacy inherent in labeling Doris Day as some icon of 1950s bland hausfrauization, as if her tomboy aura masks her fear of sex. Haskell sees way, way past that but at the same time gestures towards the insufferably phony innocence of husband 'trap,' Debbie Reynolds -- "where Marilyn was false to her sexuality in the most innocent way, Debbie Reynolds was false to her innocence in the most calculating way," notes Haskell. Reynolds was "the professional virgin, and the final retribution for the polarization of women into good girls and bad... the sweetheart as purview of the wife, the justification of misogamy before the fact." (263)

Her spirited 70s 'lib' acumen illuminates the deep misunderstanding of film's ultimate function in so many of her contemporaries' writing, and how the 'no social group left behind' aesthetic robs everything it touches of resonant power even more so than the past moral codes once did. For Haskell, a film is better if its misogyny is overt, passionately-felt, instead of passive-aggressively engaging in virgin/whore dichotomies, turning a whole woman into separate neurotic factions so her man can feel wondrously whole by comparison. I work at an art school and I've seen how over time actual free-thinking 'subversive' art has become more and more oppressed in favor of a 'safe' egalitarian aesthetic, and I always stress to students how the 'women's lib' voice of the 70s was never about stripping sparkling surface glamor and beauty from art, lest some dull, plain person feel left out. It was about the right to enjoy sexual pleasure, art and artifice, free from the suffocation of 'baby peer pressure' or prudish disgust.

And one can always just bask in Haskell's brilliant sentences, her use of beautiful, strange words, as in From Reverence's chapter on "The Woman's Film," when she writes about Michael Curtiz's acclaimed soaper Mildred Pierce:
 "Mildred's ambitions are from a "higher purpose" than self-fulfillment. Her words to Pierce, her first husband, elided into one sesquipedalian word, might stand as the motto of the woman's film: "I'lldoanythingforthosekidsdoyouundersandanything," she says, packing another homemade pie into a box for delivery." (The Woman's Film)
I read the book awhile ago and forgot just how refreshingly against Hollywood's nuclear family-worship it is. I always have to take a step or two back from film bloggers (who shall be nameless) who gravitate towards the empty-headed all-white, all-straight, kid-ridden post-code style embodied by, say, MGM. No offense against them, it's just to me too emblematic of all that's wrong in popular culture. Haskell sees just how passive-aggressively anti-woman this style is, with the wife or fiancee always determined to end the male's fun, to get him to settle down and to stop risking his life, to stop doing all the things we want to see him do. Woman as buzzkill with no other idea in her head but getting her man to and settle down (which of course is not what we came to the film to see), "is a hoary Anglo-Saxon idea." (157):
 "Marriage becomes the heavy. The implication is clear: All the excitement of life--the passion, the risk--occurs outside of marriage rather than within it. Marriage is a deadly bore, made to play the role of spoilsport, the ugly cousin one has to dance with at the ball. " (The Woman's Film, 156)
In her follow-up to Reverence, Holding My Own in No Man’s Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists, Haskell discusses some of the female icons of the era, including Mae West:
"Her image, complete with body language and voice, lifts buoyantly out of celluloid into space, like the inflatable life preserver that was named after her in World War II. She's a pneumatic floozy presiding over an army of panting camp followers, a Catherine the Great from Brooklyn, a Salome who adds on the layers instead of subtracting them, a Cleopatra whose infinite variety is debatable. [...] Looking at her now, we can't but applaud this middle-aged woman (she was forty when she made her first film), undisguisedly rotund, flaunting an unliposcuted, unsiliconed body, and demanding her sexual privileges (72-3)
Haskell's book includes the word 'Rape' which I had to blacken out on my copy as even the word has become toxic to the point to me and the world, to the point I was drawing stares in the subway while reading it, as if it was some unholy primer. And of course it's anything but that. Haskell's ire isn't directed against sex, or even violence but the dangers of 're-telling' and Hollywood's misreading of the romance novel 'rape fantasy', noting that :
"The minute you describe a sexual encounter to another person it is transformed by the listener or reader into something else, in accordance with his or her fantasy life. I have become aware, in the process of telling of my being "felt up" in the movie theater or rubbed against in the subway, of that person's excitement. The odor and ugliness, the hostility of the actual experience, disappear in the re-telling; the episode is filtered through the imagination of the listener and turned into a sexual fantasy. To describe a sexual act is to launch a balloon whose destiny one can't control." (130)
She also deals with another vile symptom of this strange anti-feminist advocation: the 'sensitive men raising children alone while their wives are bitches, missing, or dead' fantasy (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Mr. Mom, Author! Author!, Table for Five, etc.):
"Run these fantasies through the data processor and what do we get? The best woman is a dead woman, especially a dead independent woman! Next best is one who pulls a disappearing act in a manner that reflects badly on her character rather than the husband's. Third preference (where the woman is determined to hang in there and stay married) is an all-forgiving mother-wife, who looks the other way at her mate's peccadilloes and embraces the fruit of his waywardness afterward. Although the women's magazines like to tell us we can "have it all," the message of these movies is that we can't have much of anything... Presumably a great many women are paying good money to choke back tears over a doting Dudley Moore or a fumbling Al Pacino or a misty-eyed Jon Voight. We ought to instead be laughing these male mothers off the screen (126)
Lastly, a measure of her continued brilliance is found here and there in magazines and collections. She's appeared as a talking head on some TCM documentaries, curated some pre-codes, and so forth. She's the only critic I've read who understood the same thing I saw and liked about Lost in Translation, the understanding between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson that their budding love affair hinges on staying platonic, and the beauty and subliminal creative power that might be harnessed therein:
"It's really the repression of sex (think of old stories like Brief Encounter and Love Affair) and the acceptance of a carnal boundary that can't be crossed that becomes, in their eloquent silence-filled rapport, a form of love more life-altering than the sexual contortions now monotonously de rigueur." (2003)
In the end it's not just that Molly Haskell is a genius with a staggering knowledge of film history and canny insights into the sexual politics of film that are miraculously free of malice, but that she creates a sense of excitement and hope that incorporates even feminist anger into its giddy breadth. In reminding us that 'our' ideas of sex and marriage were fostered by racist, sexist censors from the mid 1930s, Haskell vindicates actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Shirley MacLaine, and Doris Day, and shows us that film needn't have any correlation with reality, because reality is too busy trying to correlate to film as it is. If we can weed the censor's meddling out of our psyches, maybe sex--even one night stands--will no longer be a source of shame and regret, and marriage won't need to be defined by jealousy and suffocation. Maybe if everyone interested in film reads From Reverence to Rape we can be as cool as we were in the 70s and like Europe still is. Instead of being a nation bemoaning its lack of sex while persecuting 'loose' women as whores, never getting the irony, let us collectively come to the realm Haskell, where irony shall set you free for a million lays to come.


  1. Erich,

    This is a wonderful look at Molly Haskell and her incredible talents as both a writer and film critic.

    I had the pleasure of being her student guide when she visited the University of Richmond back in 1988 as a guest speaker. She was warm and charming, and we had a great discussion about film. I remember we talked about horror, and in particular Monkey Shines (1988), which had only recently premiered. I have very fond memories of meeting and getting to know Molly Haskell from that I was thrilled to read your in-depth profile today.

  2. "enough to know how the production code instilled in 1934 was a huge step back for women, who were shown in pre-code film as competent doctors, CEOs, aviators, and ambitious gold-digging social climbers, and after 1934 had to give all that up and do whatever their doltish husbands told them to."

    You know this is total BS. Don't be such a castrated politically correct tool.

  3. Clavelly Reductionist16 June, 2013

    Erich, geezer, have you ever read Andrea Ostrov Letanias blogs ?, they`re astonishing, that bird must be the only person on the entire internet who knows more about films than you do my old mate ! ! !. Actually i think she might just be THE cleverest person in the whole world (with regards to literally everything, not just movies ! ! !).


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