Raise the Red Lantern: Generational Misogyny

There are few films that have had enough courage to address misogyny in all its complexity the way Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern did back in 1991. I use the word complexity because Hollywood has had a long history of avoiding the multi-faceted nature of misogyny in favor of a more narrow minded depiction of this cultural phenomenon.
Very often movies (starting in the 1940s with Mildred Pierce) failed to contribute to a larger, more political discussion for fear of audiences’ and studios’ backlash. American cinema, especially in the times of studio control with the likes of MGM, United Artists, Universal, RKO literally taking apart each film that contained a grain of avant-garde politics in them for the sake of keeping the audiences dumb and happy. Many great films suffered this way, most notably Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which initially was conceived as a dark examination of racism and corruption in small-town America, but ended up being put together as a more conventional film noir meant to be sold to the masses. To be outspoken in Hollywood can often mean getting crucified by a politically-safe industry.
Fortunately, on the other side of the world, directors like Zhang Yimou, a member of the Fifth Generation cinema that emerged from Maoist China following the Cultural Revolution, did not share the same scruples and did not back down even in the face of a totalitarian regime. His film, Raise the Red Lantern, is to this day a remarkable achievement of subtle storytelling and powerful imagery concerning China’s abusive traditional and misogynistic social structure that, turns out, is not so different from our own.

vlcsnap-2020-05-16-17h09m37s176
A young girl must accept the fate forced upon her.

Misogyny is an oppressive system. An entrapment. The same way Yimou’s film opens with a 19-year-old girl, Songlian, who after her father’s death is forced to quit university and dedicate the rest of her life to being a master’s concubine. The year is 1920 and the custom states that the girl, in order to support herself and her family, must abandon home and become another man’s wife (he already has three).
With tears streaming down her face she accepts her fate and enters the wealthy Chen residence, surrounded by tall, stone walls, just like a prison. Here, she is treated like a lady and served by a maid whose ambition is to become a mistress in her own right. The other concubines know fully well that the new concubine will be the master’s favorite for quite some time. Every day they anxiously await the master’s decision regarding which concubine he will choose to spend the night with (the lucky one is signaled by having red lanterns lit in front of her house). The custom states that the lucky one will be treated better than the others. The exclusive treatment involves the opportunity to deviate from the day’s menu of foods, asking for an endless series of foot massages and obviously, not spending the night alone, which within these grey walls can feel like the worst of punishments.

vlcsnap-2020-05-16-17h11m00s127
The master is never clearly seen, but his power is always felt.

Yimou smartly approaches the theme of misogyny by focusing on the alienated bodies of the four concubines. The master is rarely seen on screen, and in the few instances that he appears in the frame, he is shot from a distance or obscured by a dim light or is out of focus. His power and influence over the lives of these four women is felt rather than seen.
The concubines, on the other hand, are very physical and vulnerable in their presentation. The first one is old and wrinkled, the second one fragile and preoccupied, the third one beautiful and seductive, and Songlian, the fourth one, naive and innocent. Their oppression at the hands of the centuries-old traditions under which the Chen residence operates (and the entire Chinese society, for that matter) lies in this presentation: reduced solely to their physical appearance and their obedience to the master’s commands and needs. They are expected to express themselves only in bed, when the master allows for conversation. Otherwise, the concubines are forced to live their lives in utter silence, awaiting the day’s verdict on whether concubine number one, two, three or four will get to delight the master with her body, and who knows, perhaps even with a successful pregnancy (of a boy, obviously).

vlcsnap-2020-05-16-15h56m03s731
Songlian’s actions lead to dangerous consequences.

As the film progresses, we start to notice a pattern. Misogyny and the patriarchal oppression that have been carried out in the Chen residence for centuries on end is implemented by the concubines themselves. Through the acceptance of their fate and the act of seeking fulfillment to the master’s sexual needs, the concubines become complicit in their oppression. Because their sole purpose in life lies in offering their body to master Chen, they are driven to acts of pure hatred and hostility toward one another. Lies are spread around the residence, rumors are raised to favor one concubine over the other, and there are even stories of two concubines from past generations hanging themselves out of sheer desperation in a small tool shed.
As mere objects in a male-dominated society, these women find themselves actively hurting each other, accepting their positions and further deepening their own oppression. Sex is never shown on screen. It is simply implied, but not as an act of love and intimacy, but as an act of transaction: the master’s satisfaction and assertion of his control and the woman’s acknowledgment of her own worth.

vlcsnap-2020-05-16-17h03m21s800
The Chen residence is full of broken dreams and deadly secrets.

The ambitions of these concubines never rise over and above the day ahead of them. Their survival is never guaranteed, as it is never a sure bet that the master will select the same woman for a number of consecutive nights. The eldest of the four, a shy yet firm woman of around fifty has become used to this oppressive state of existence, while the other three are tormented by the simple thought of being overlooked by their master. The lack of a foot massage and lack of say in the creation of the day’s menu signify lack of self-worth and utter humiliation in the face of society. Songlian’s initial look of innocence is replaced with the cunning instinct of someone is who fighting for survival, no matter the cost or consequences of her actions. Faking a potential pregnancy or spreading falsehoods about the other concubines is the only way out of this trap. It at least guarantees you a few days of comfort, perhaps even a month of delicious meals and healing massages. But the only liberation beyond these walls takes place in the master’s bedroom. The only acknowledgment of their existence are the red lanterns hanging outside their house.

vlcsnap-2020-05-16-16h54m25s629
As the film progresses, the initial warm look is replaced with an equally cold one.

The dreams of the maid whose ambition was to become a mistress are ultimately crushed. The hierarchy among women in the Chen residence closely resembles the hierarchy of a totalitarian regime, perhaps the one under which this movie was made and consequently banned for a number of years. Whether it is a cry for help or a manifesto against the powers that be, Raise the Red Lantern shows how simple it is to effectively oppress other human beings through the implementation of customs and traditions. Their morality is never questioned, but rather taken for granted and set aside in favor of their legality. As a result of this, the protagonists of this film are simultaneously presented as victims and perpetrators of each other’s fate. They suffer and inflict suffering on others in the name of a misogynistic society that values their bodies and their silence above all. Their existence never leaves the bedroom, and if it does, it will not go unpunished.

vlcsnap-2020-05-16-17h12m11s459
Crushed dreams in the form of burning lanterns.

Mad Gena

I want to talk about a woman today. There are many women in film. Probably the first name that comes to mind is Meryl Streep. Or maybe Glenn Close. Grace Kelly. Lauren Bacall. Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Rita Hayworth. Ingrid Bergman. Audrey Hepburn. Katherine Hepburn. And many, many more. However the one woman I cannot stop thinking about since having watched John Cassavetes’ magical Love Streams from 1984, is John’s wife, the great, fearless, ballsy Gena Rowlands.

film-gloria6

Gena is an actress  whose career in the entertainment industry has spanned over six decades. She is still rolling strong. A woman that always went all out in her roles and maybe that’s why she is so interesting to me. During a time when classic Hollywood always had the same prepared formulas, ways of writing, ways of directing and ways of acting, such a formidable force of nature like Gena emerged at the end of the 1950s and shook the world of film with her incredible attitude. Women at the time were mostly paid to play devoted wives, widows who’d fall for the gardener, objects of obsession and trophy girlfriends. Even the great actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall played these stereotypical parts at one point in their lives. Then something happened to cinema. The beat generation appeared out of nowhere. The hippies joined in. European cinema and the idea of Cinéma vérité (‘the cinema of truth’, a style of documentary filmmaking) started taking over the once magic film industry in the West. Suddenly all the rules were being broken all at once, and one of the people responsible for this was Gena and her natural approach to acting. Gena was married to the great late John Cassavetes,  master of improvisation and an inspiration to all the New Wave filmmakers and other young explorers like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. Gena, on the other hand, is still to this day an inspiration to all modern actresses. You’ll see glimpses of her in Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton and Jennifer Lawrence. The question is, why is that? What was so unique about Gena Rowlands?

opening-night-1977-002-gena-rowlands-lipstick

Gena was special. She still is. She is 86 years old now and still going strong. Her years of multiple collaborations with her husband in movies like Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening NightGloria, and Love Streams made of her a legend of realism in the acting field of cinema. There was something very weird about her. Perhaps the word ‘weird’ doesn’t do her justice. Mad. yes, there was something absolutely mad about her. She rocked the screen. Her characters were always hurt, squeezed into a pulp, used, abused, damaged, and yet she always managed to stand up and face whatever challenge awaited her. She played women with problems because she understood the situations her characters found themselves in. She knew what she was doing and yet we, as viewers, seem to be completely blown away by her spontaneity, sometimes unsure if what she is doing on screen doesn’t reflect her actions off screen. Take A Woman Under the Influence for example; the main character is a loving wife, a dear mother, but most of all a sick, trapped person. Trapped inside her own mind, tormented by her painful condition, crowded by her corrupt thoughts. It’s one the most harrowing experiences to watch her character stumble on the floor, yell at herself, run out on the street wearing nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, wait for a bus that never comes. We cringe, we want to turn it off and yet Gena’s presence keeps us glued. Every character of hers is like a well oiled machine, it just keeps on moving forward, speeding up, never taking a break. In Minnie and Moskowitz, Gena, who plays Minnie, cannot find true love. How do you play a character like that? How to you show to the audience the fact that you can’t find love? Love is not material. We don’t know what love is. So how does she do it? Gena becomes the character. That’s her secret. She puts all the rules, all the laws of golden Hollywood acting behind her and pours her soul into every scene. She understands the character and she understands life. She understands the difficulties a woman faces on a daily basis. Maybe she even understood the importance of her roles. After all, nobody up to that point was interested in seeing a film solely focused on a female protagonist. Every audience member awaited a Rock Hudson, or a James Dean or a Cary Grant to appear on screen and dominate the story. Maybe that was her secret. With each character she brought something new. Usually it was something heavy, difficult to digest and yet, there she was carrying that incredibly heavy burden on her back. Gena felt compelled to do justice to her characters. She never went overboard. There was always a certain limit to what her character could do. As viewers we try to root for her, but that craziness, that madness of Gena sometimes prevents us from doing so. When I watch her, I want to cheer, I want to say ”You go, Gena. Show them how it’s done”. But her characters aren’t Superman. They can’t save the world and they were never intended to do so. They make mistakes, they’re goofy, they’re naive and too honest. They stood out. They were outsiders, and usually we don’t cheer for outsiders, do we?

primary_a-woman-under-the-influence-02

In most of her roles you get the sense that Gena is crazy, that there is something very unsettling about the way she acts. But that’s what makes her this great, avant-garde actress. It’s the raw truth that she represents, the sad moments and heart breaking finales. It’s the pain, the happiness, the embarrassment, the courage, all fighting one another inside of her mind, her gestures, her voice. It’s her relationship with Cassavetes. A relationship that was built on real love and devotion and understanding. John is one of the reasons Gena was so real. He knew her, he studied her and wrote the finest, most difficult roles just for his wife. And it worked. Gena had and still has that incredible spark of life in her eyes. That’s the sign of a unique, brilliant, fearless actress. A woman that changed the role of women in cinema forever. A woman under a very special kind of influence.

lovestreams_grab01_current_large
This is Gena. Remember her.

Double Standards

Today’s topic: dual personality. Every once in awhile we come across the concept of having multiple personalities, especially in cinema with movies like Fight ClubEnemy or even with the character of Smeagol in The Lord of The Rings franchise. However, the subject matter is often understood and categorized as a kind of sickness, a mental disorder, which of course gives the writers an interesting idea to develop quirky plots and mind bending storylines. That’s why today I want to write about the 1982 gem of a comedy Tootsie. It’s a movie that has shaped the genre of comedy and managed to touch some serious subjects like the role of women in today’s society, the way we look at women in the film and TV industry, and what it feels like to live in someone else’s skin. It’s a movie that, in my opinion, is still ahead of its time, and that’s why I want to go deep and see why.

For those who don’t know, Michael Dorsey (played by an incredible, post-Graduate-post-Midnight Cowboy Dustin Hoffman) is a New York actor. He loves acting and he loves the smell of the theatre. What’s wrong with him? He’s a perfectionist, or what we call today, an asshole. Nobody wants him because he just doesn’t fit anywhere. Michael drives everybody mad. He teaches a few of his friends and students some basics for the perfect “Michael acting”. That’s when at a party, he learns of a soap opera part that pays good money but with only one problem – it’s a female character. Who, cares. He goes for it. Meet Dorothy Michaels, a tough woman who can literally act her ass off in front of the cameras. What should have been a short term job becomes the only job Michael has. It’s a great job, maybe too great. And that’s when the real questions come into play. It’s when this acting job becomes a real journey, an eye-opening experience.

It gets scary when you can't tell the difference.
It gets scary when you can’t tell the difference.

The character of Dorothy Michaels is strong, loud, and when it comes to facing someone or something, Dorothy always comes out as the winner. That’s why Michael gets the part in the first place; he creates a masculine character, that aside from making us laugh to tears, makes us reflect on the current idea and perception of the woman we had in the 80s and probably still have today. It’s that masculinity, that grit that makes the show’s director change his mind and make an offer to Michael, because he sees what he rarely sees in a woman. A woman is supposed to be delicate, sweet, sensitive. Dorothy is a whole other animal. She’s a predator. Michael creates the ideal of what he considers to be a great person. Outside the Dorothy costume, he’s still an asshole that always begs his friends for money and advice, forgets about his date, doesn’t pay attention to his flatmate in need, and well, is a huge egomaniac. But with Dorothy he becomes someone else. He enters a new world, a world where he can start a whole new story and get to live it. As Dorothy he makes new friends, and especially with a fellow actress and castmate, Julie. Julie brings out a feeling that Michael had forgotten about; the feeling when you fall in love with someone. For real. But, as Dorothy he cannot show it. So now, the new skin becomes a trap that makes it impossible for Michael to demonstrate who he really is.

Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.
Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.

Maybe, it’s for the better. Because only as Dorothy is he capable of forming a true friendship, a real meaningful bond, one where two people got each other’s back no matter what situation comes up. It’s love that isn’t love. It’s not about having those discussions and arguments couples have, it’s something different. Something that Michael has never tasted before. The days go by, and Michael feels less and less comfortable as his own self: he tries a dress at his girlfriend’s place, he pays more attention to the amount of hair he shaves everyday than the amount of food he consumes, he watches his hips and ankles, he comments on other women’s appearance and overall, starts thinking like a woman. Perhaps it’s the frustration and anger against a world that has never appreciated him for who he is as a man, as a male actor, or perhaps it’s the wish of the inner child to finally get to live the life he always wanted to live: the one of a famous, respected, well paid soap opera star. Maybe that’s the real dream that Michael has always chased. Or maybe not. Soon the fans overwhelm him and his life, the publicity makes him lose track of the real objective and gets in the way of his feelings toward Julie, and after a while he realizes that he’s not living the life that was given to him as Michael. Being Dorothy Michaels was supposed to be a short term job, that would help him get back on his feet and direct the play he always wanted to. The love for Julie is by now, too strong to hide.

A not so perfect kiss.
A not so perfect kiss.

We get to see what it feels like to live two separate lives: it’s fun and it gives a lot of satisfaction but we, as humans, can’t deal with it for too long. Maybe some do. But Michael can’t. Life as Dorothy proves to be exhausting and it’s more of an educational adventure: Michael understands that you need other people to feel fulfilled, you need to give to receive, and a love that’s mutual and feels real does exist. It’s no fairy tale. It’s real life. There are important values in life, and sure, there’s more than the usual nights spent in front of the TV with a couple of beers and an over worked script on your lap. Now Michael has to learn to be Dorothy Michaels without actually being her, is that possible?

Tootsie’s one of a kind, so yeah. It is.

An adventure that keeps on going.
An adventure that keeps on going.