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Wonder Woman

Warner Bros. owns Wonder Woman and they need permission for every little thing you do,…Unfortunately, they didn’t want them stepping on the character that they own. – Lynda Carter

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In October, 2016, the character Wonder Woman was designated by the United Nations to be the Honorary Ambassador For The Empowerment Of Women And Girls. This was months before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) had its domestic release, but this gesture on the part of the UN is clearly indicative of both the strength of Warner Brothers/DC Comics’ publicity machine as well as the discourse surrounding the film that this publicity machine perpetuated.

When Wonder Woman was released a couple of weeks ago social networks exploded with enthusiasm. Adjectives that have long been foreign to Warner Brothers’ productions were being bandied about right and left; “queer friendly”, “feminist”, “empowering”, “progressive”, “non-binary”, and so on and so forth. Words such as these are obviously befitting Patty Jenkins’ achievement with the commercial success of her film. Women directors rarely find themselves selected to helm these kinds of summer blockbusters, let alone open with the astronomical grosses of Wonder Woman. Even more incredible is that Patty Jenkins is returning to the commercial film format for the first time since her 2003 film Monster after a long spell directing for television. Though such a transition may be far more conceivable today it is still rather difficult for directors to move back into feature films from television that it is to do the opposite. But does the praise afforded to the film Wonder Woman on social media itself actually befit accolades the likes of “progressive”?

Wonder Woman is a film about a heroic, super powered woman whose strengths and determination single-handedly bring about the end of WWI. Wonder Woman is the first film of the “superhero” genre with a female lead since 2005. Wonder Woman is also a film that abounds in casual racism. Wonder Woman propagates social stereotypes concerning beauty. These points considered, does the progression of a female lead character necessarily excuse the racism and superficiality that color the narrative world of that character? What if one also considers the classically heteronormative relationship and attraction between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Chris Pine’s Captain Steve?

Let’s address these concerns in their narrative sequence. The story of Wonder Woman’s youth on the Amazon isle of Themyscira is rather standard in its construction. This portion of the film moves with the grace and sentimentality of a Disney cartoon. Images Jenkins presents us with during this portion of sword and sandal bearing warrior women manages to just barely negate any visual reference to the Italian sexploitation films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (a film like Terence Young’s War Goddess for instance)  while also never intentionally suggesting that there is any lesbianism on an island of women (an island de-eroticized by familial affections). Then, when Chris Pine arrives and the narrative of the film truly begins to move beyond the expositional un-ease of Themyscira a new aesthetic is introduced.

The romance between Wonder Woman, the naive do-gooder, and Steve, the charming but world-weary patriot, is derived from the classic heteronormative odd couple pairings found in the best romantic comedies, be it The Thin Man (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) or Pillow Talk (1959). The tropes from these older films that have been appropriated over the years by action blockbusters, to great effect (beginning with Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981), seem only to be acceptable if the film sets itself prior to 1960. The elements preserved in the case of Wonder Woman are the opposition of the character’s world views, their degree of sexual experience, and their differing approaches to conflict (in the case of Wonder Woman, these conflicts are primarily physical) which are all indicated in the witty banter that Wonder Woman and Steve share.

The argument that Wonder Woman is a work of feminist cinema first runs aground soon after Pine and Gadot have linked up, when the film introduces its two main villains. Danny Huston has his traditionally campy turn as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison is exactly everything one can find endearing in a villain out of a Hammer Horror film. However, the juxtaposition between beauty/good and ugly/evil is problematic in so far as it is a cliché that has been the source of perpetuating some unhealthy assumptions regarding beauty. Gal Gadot is classically beautiful as Wonder Woman while Elena Anaya is made to appear disfigured by cyanide (in the comic Dr. Poison is Japanese and is not disfigured). This implies, as I am sure most readers already know, that traditionally western views of beauty are inherently good, while all others are inherently bad or, at best, comical (Lucy Davis’ character Etta Candy also supports this antiquated view within the film). Wonder Woman goes so far as to state this explicitly in a scene where an undercover Chris Pine is flirting with Anaya to retrieve valuable information when Gadot’s entrance foils Pine’s sexual maneuvering.

Wonder Woman’s treatment of Pine’s ragtag team of “outsider” mercenaries is equally problematic. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are never permitted to develop their characters beyond their function as signifiers, nor are they taken at all seriously by either Wonder Woman or Steve. This international “dirty dozen” exists for comic relief, and every member belongs to a singular racial stereotype (an approach better suited to the satirical works of Richard F. Outcault). The casual racism here does little service to the film, continuing to oppress presumably Middle Eastern, Native American and Scottish characters for the benefit of Pine and Gadot. This element of the film gets to the very heart of the hypocrisy of the argument that Wonder Woman is either a “progressive” or an “inclusive” work in mainstream cinema.

This brings us to an interesting issue regarding the choice to relocate Wonder Woman’s narrative from WWII (the comic book timeline) to WWI (the film). The possibilities offered by such a temporal relocation would have allowed the narrative to focus on the Eastern Front of WWI just as easily as the Western. Wonder Woman could have explored the theme of war from the perspective of the deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire by European Imperialist powers, telling a story that is more relevant today and also a more likely place to find Aries the God of War. But Wonder Woman prefers to continue the American tradition of killing multitudes of faceless German soldiers instead.

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By the time David Thewlis reveals himself to be Aries, audiences are primed for a white-knuckle showdown. It is to Jenkins’ credit, and that of the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, that we get something just a bit more cerebral instead. Cross-cutting from Pine’s sacrifice to Wonder Woman’s battle makes it clear that it is the power of “belief” or “love” in and for the human race that is ultimately Aries undoing. Regretfully, the moment after this climax the film cuts to dazed soldiers awaking in the rubble and embracing one another. This about-face in the film’s attitude to war as a grizzly, politically complicated affair smacks of late-sixties anti-war idealism, the kind associated with the cartoon Yellow Submarine (1969).

Despite all of this, I would not say that Wonder Woman is a bad film. It is just like any other PG-13 blockbuster of this last decade. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Patty Jenkins and what her role in Wonder Woman clearly means to women working in the film industry. The issue here is that Wonder Woman is being bought and sold as something it is not. Maybe it is a small baby-step towards a more inclusive mainstream, but it does not represent feminism as anything other than a superficial means to a capitalist minded end, nor does it do any service to the LGBTQ communities. The character of Wonder Woman, by simply existing, empowers women, and the LGBTQ communities seemed to never have appeared at all in the Wonder Woman film universe. Warner Bros’ promotion of the film and the ensuing debates surrounding the film put it into the contexts of feminist and queer discourses while the film itself has the same priorities as any multi-million dollar spectacle; to turn a profit.

-Robert Curry

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The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

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