Man Made Feminism: Sexual Politics In Francis Coppola’s The Rain People

In the late sixties and early seventies “road movies” became a popular narrative form with the success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969).  On an international scale, filmmakers embraced the pseudo genre as a way to manufacture not only intimate character portraits, but as a vehicle for showcasing and criticizing national identity.  This pseudo genre has its origins in the American literary movement known as The Beat Generation.  In the works of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac (On The Road and The Dharma Bums) it became evident to a generation of American filmmakers that such stories were capable of telling psychologically complex stories the likes of which may have been too difficult to tell otherwise on the budget afforded them.

Typically these films tell the stories of men, with Hopper’s Easy Rider and Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop being the best of them.  In Germany, Wim Wenders produced two road films (and would name a production company after the genre) Alice In The Cities and Wrong Move.  Unlike Hopper and Hellman, Wenders uses a female character in a strong supporting role to help probe the psychology of the genre and the lead male character.

This device as employed by Wenders is surprisingly effective and allows for parallel views of West Germany.  However, the part of the woman in these films was about to change in America as feminism took hold of the national consciousness and feminism itself became a hip attribute for up and coming film artists.

The root of such an application to the genre is most easily attributed to Barbara Loden’s single directorial effort Wanda.  In this film, Loden plays the lead, Wanda, who leaves her life of domestic suppression for a Bonnie & Clyde style existence on the open road.  However, she flaunts the conventions of Arthur Penn’s film, and allows the film to develop slowly and organically as more of a character study than a road film, and I will even admit that if it weren’t for necessity, I’d call Wanda a character study, not a road film at all.  But the fact of the matter is, that by transposing a female into the lead of the narrative, Loden allowed other filmmakers that same luxury and a chance to be labeled feminist.

Now I will speak explicitly about Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Rain People.  Made before his big break with The Godfather, this little independent film personifies the transposition I mentioned above.  Coppola cast Shirley Knight as a woman on the run from her husband, suburbia and an unwanted pregnancy who happens upon a mentally challenged ex-football star played by James Caan.  From the characters alone it becomes clear that Coppola intends to pull the rug out from under the American dream.  His lead can’t stand the domestic bliss of middle class America and the male supporting lead is a football star depraved of any mental capacity beyond that of a nine year old.

On their journey, the pair encounters all sorts of antagonists from an animal abusing farmer to a rapist cop (played memorably by Robert Duvall).  Every time the antagonist is a male, and he’s abusive.  Yet, Knight is never responsible for resolving or escaping these conflicts, instead it is the slow-witted Caan who is willing to stand up for higher values (Coppola suggests that he does this primarily because he is “slow”, why else would he naively believe the American dream?).  These plot points in themselves seem to negate the feminist message Coppola promised in the films opening, instead favoring the constructs we attribute to the “damsel in distress” pictures of Douglas Fairbanks or Burt Lancaster’s swashbuckling pictures of the early fifties.

Consider for yourself the feminism of a narrative that constantly places its female protagonist in the role of helpless victim?  So it becomes clear that the before mentioned feminism of the film, and others like it, which simply transposes a solitary female into one of the typically male roles does not necessitate feminism.  Instead it bypasses feminism all together and reinforces the machismo of the road movie genre.

Only Loden’s film Wanda seems to achieve anything genuinely feminine within the genre, which it barely adheres to anyway.  We can therefore conclude that to effectively change the social and political mechanics of a genre, one must also change the narrative mechanics equally (a good example of this would be John Cassavetes’ work in the “hitman” genre, Gloria).  Using the example provided by Wanda, such changes in mechanics do not necessarily allow the film in question to remain in the genre that it is manipulating.  Instead, a new genre, or sub-genre, is born out of the venture and constitutes a step forward in narrative filmmaking.  So much for man made feminism.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2012

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