Monday, December 13, 2004

Fatal Attraction

Saw the old (1987) film Fatal Attraction for the first time last night. A first rate thriller, but also one that derived a lot of its social impact at the time because it fed seamlessly into the "red-blue" dichotomy with which we are so familiar now. This aspect of the film was even addressed, albeit glancingly, in a little short included on the DVD entitled "social attraction."

For those of you who haven't seen it due to youth or lack of interest, here's the rough and tumble synopsis. Man married with child in crowded NYC apartment; man goes to business event with wife (who is not too shabby looking) and encounters exotic 'other'--the career woman. It turns out that man must attend weekend meeting where he meets, yet again, the exotic other. They get caught in a downpour and end up sharing a cab, a dinner and then a night of randy romance, since wifey and the kid are visiting her folks in the countryside for the weekend. He considers the one-night stand over, she does not, tells him she's pregnant and then tries to terrorize and eventually kill the family. Mom ends the terror in a brief outburst of traditional righteous violence straight from Shane.

This brief synopsis doesn't alert you to all the subtle not-so-subtle signals that dad is 'whupped': he is thwarted in his half-hearted attempt to romance his wife by the family dog and his daughter (who spends the night in bed with the parents), his umbrella won't open and when it does it is not a very big or effective one, he fails to get a cab on his own, he fails to get the waiter's attention at dinner etc etc etc. He is the male emasculated by the bonds of marriage.

The career woman, on the other hand, at first alluring and exotic, is quickly exposed as deranged and psychotic. The only innocent people are mom-and-baby, who function as a complete unit for the most part. So, although the thriller is deftly executed, the movie derived a lot of its over the top media coverage due to the fact that it fit so well into the 'morality tale' that was being pushed by certain elements in the Reagan administration, a tale that has since been elevated to the status of article of faith in the Dubya coalition.

What are the aspects of this tale? Working women threaten the family. Sexuality is dangerous. Men (or more precisely, male sexuality) needs to be controlled. The city is full of corruption and temptation. The country is the 'heartland of America.' The only innocence is in the bond between mother and child.

Why do these themes resonate... so far so as to drown out the bad news from the economy and the world at large? They play into a dynamic that is particularly strong in the US (we could argue why that is another time) that leads those who are least able to compete in an increasingly difficult work and social environment to cast blame upon those who are perceived successful. But not those who inherited wealth, after all they couldn't help that. I'm not talking about class warfare here, I'm talking about the cultivation by key elites within the GOP establishment of 'cultural' resentment of those have used education and opportunity to make themselves better off--the so-called 'liberals' that are so often the target of unreasoning hate. 'Liberals' are the one who seek to rise above their 'proper station' through education or deferred child-raising -- 'liberals' who opt out of the traditional sexual social compact of containing sex through early marriage and reproduction, and therefore also supporting a stay-at-home mom.

It is not surprising the Glenn Close was dubbed the "most hated woman in America" for her portrayal. Not only was it an excellent portrayal of a seriously mentally ill individual seeking to control others in order to compensate for deep hurts she suffered long ago (however, no longer a victim, no matter what the actors say about it, but a victimizer) but by adoping a severely mentally ill person as her model -- despite the trappings of success -- she was also able to depict the career woman as utterly alien to motherhood and apple pie. And what put the deranged career woman over the top was her inability to have a normal domestic relationship with a man.

You don't have to be Dr. Freud to understand why this resonates with the roughly half of the population who find it more and more difficult to find success in our increasingly cut-throat and insecure economic and social environment. These people, be they stay-at-home moms dependent on a husband or males who lack the qualifications to compete successfully in a constricted labor market, blame those who succeed in school and in business and also succeed in taking advantage of the new opportunities for intimacy without the sexual blackmail afforded by the sexual revolution.

They blame 'liberals' for destroying the traditional values by taking away their job opportunities and their potential spouses, because if they were 'responsible' (i.e., getting married and not striving to get ahead of their proper station in life) there would be more jobs for down and out palookas, there would be fewer temptations in the workplace, and there would be a larger pool of marriageable partners (men and women) for those who hew to traditional values (sexual division of labor and sexual scarcity to secure the bonds between partners).

This is why abortion, sex ed, and IVF are such a hot issues in this country. These issues not only offer control over reproduction to women who can then choose to pursue a career, but they also offer an 'out' to the wandering male (tellingly sought by Michael Douglas' character). It represents a means by which those who are a success in the the new economy/new sexual society can have their cake and eat it too.

Many stay-at-home mothers view career women as a threat to holding onto their man and as a threat to their man's livelihood. Traditional males view career women as not only a threat to their livelihood but also as unattainable -- a inversion of nature, where women should be subject to men and all women should be potentially 'available.' Both groups view liberated/educated males as effeminate and yet oversexed; effeminate in keeping with the anti-intellectual tenor of American culture, and yet undeservingly oversexed in part due to their presumed ambiguous sexuality but also due to their presumed willingness to exchange their virility for sex with powerful, promiscuous females.

All in all, the 'traditional critique' of liberalism centers on the lack of control of sex and the presumed corrosive effect this has on the economy and mores of society. This Weltanshauung is the core of the appeal of Dubya's creed for millions of 'red' Americans. In this respect Dubya's visceral appeal is not all that different from Franco's or even Hitler's: it is rooted in the (manufactured) fear of socialists, sexual libertines (including gays and lesbians) and rootless cosmopolitan intellectuals eroding the traditional -- yes, even the kitsch -- forms of life familiar to those who must struggle to survive the raw capitalism unleashed by the GOP over the past 35 years.

PS: Another interesting fact about the film is the difference between the ending originally shot and the ending on the theatrical release. The original ending (Glenn Close commits suicide and in so doing frames Michael Douglas) represented a perfect thriller ending, because it was unanticipated twist without being unrealistic or out of the blue and because it preserves the tension between the characters right to the very end. Yet audiences hated it. Why? for the same reasons that made the film a social phenomenon. Audiences wanted cleansing, righteous violence in defense of the traditional family.

By the end the film was no longer merely a thriller as originally intended, it had become the embodiment a large segment of the population's vision of a modern 'morality play.' The fact that those involved with the film couldn't see this supports their contention that they were not purposefully crafting an ideological film. And I believe them. It was only after preview audiences that they decided to reshoot the ending. However, just because the studio was not intentionally crafting an ideological film does not mean that the film was void of ideological resonance, a la Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry films.

Glenn Close was especially opposed to changing the ending, and it turns out she was correct in her reasoning. She feared that the new ending would reduce her character to a caricature of a knife-wielding psycho -- which it did. But it was a caricature that resonated with sentiments that are now associated with 'red Amurika' -- and the changed ending made the difference between a blockbuster and a cultural event. The actors from Fatal Attraction did not end up on the cover of Time magazine simply because they made a good and profitable movie. They were put there as part of an effort to push an agenda, or at the very least to document the mounting success of that agenda.