PRINT January 1989

The Cave


WE ALL KNEW that attraction was fatal by the time the attitudes and policies of the nation’s most popular president had rampaged their way through the country, leaving scant options for individual freedom, especially for women. Even so, in the now remote autumn of ’87, when the film of the incomparable Adrian Lyne burst on the scene—with its apocalyptic view of the conjugal relationship and its symmetrical extraconjugal flip side—many of us were alarmed. Not only because it was impossible to fail to read in Lyne’s Fatal Attraction an arrogant revival of the old sawhorse principles of crime/punishment, guilt/ penalty, and one-gets-what-one-has-coming. But more telling, because behind the gruesome-to-the-point-of-absurd elimination of one of the two female sides (the adulterous one, naturally) of a romantic triangle, we could read the beginnings of an even more untenable social configuration. The affair, which for so long in movie iconography had known the role it was supposed to play, known its place in the conjugal balance as passionate, if tragic, complement to the legitimate marriage (think of the self-sacrificing models of Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, 1942, or Susan Hayward in Back Street, 1961), became here the competitive, destabilizing phantasm that generates a war between women. Were we supposed to read Fatal Attraction as Hollywood’s backlash judgment on the sexual experimentation of the ’60s and ’70s? Or was the film, instead, the first glimmer of the only suitable solution to a yet unspoken problem: a shortage of men and a surplus of women? (Author’s note: we are speaking here, of course, not only about a demographic reality, but also about a perceived reduction in the number of “suitable” men—as both men and women have begun to define more clearly and act on their expectations and desires for a particular kind of mate.)

But a lot of water has passed under the bridge in a year or so, and today, Lyne’s little film, along with so many others that suggested the same competition between women—Someone to Watch over Me and No Way Out, both 1987, for example_—seem like relics from the past. For in the meantime, this country, which, let’s admit it, has always stood in the vanguard of both doing harm and then looking for remedies while other nations are still experiencing the first symptoms—had started negotiating an undeniable truth. Which is, there’s no going back to peacetime solutions when fate or fancy has provoked the irreparable damage. The irreparable in this case—and any moviegoer will be able to testify to this—is that if up until a year ago it still worked to present a Disneyesque status quo in which individuals paired off and the leftovers were discarded (as in so many childhood games as well as some of the most resistant archetypes), today, either by choice or not, the leftovers—for the most part, women—have become far too numerous to be ignored. And so, within the engine that powers our social/sexual relationships, the old oil that greased the gears—propaganda for both the happy family and the monogamous couple (or are we thinking of a society populated by nubile aunts?)—simply won’t do any longer. Nor will the vestige traces of sexual-revolution philosophy fit the bill. For why carry condoms in your purse “since you never know,” or be reminded that “a beautiful woman doesn’t go to single bars,” when the ’80s terror of sex has turned the adventure to find a passionate partner into a far more anxiety-ridden hunt just to find, among very slim pickings, a “safe” one?

Here we are, then, winter 1988–89, in the grip of a series of films that objectively, if sometimes tendentiously, try to aim more accurately to redefine the problem, playing on a chessboard where almost all the positions are already occupied, and many must compete for the few that remain empty. And if I beg the pardon of both the filmmakers and my readers—since the movies I will discuss vary radically in quality and structure—consider this rationale: often it is easier to understand the spirit of the times from the cut of the pantyhose and the shoulder pads than from the current theoretical discourse.

Let’s start with two works, Another Woman by Woody Allen and The Good Mother by Leonard Nimoy. Coming from opposite directions—the first the offering of a serious (“art”) auteur, the latter the latest product of a commercial (entertainment) moviemaker—these two films nevertheless propose interpretations of contemporary reality that are surprisingly similar. The former does so with refinement and with a touching, sympathetic sensitivity to women; the latter with awkward, irritating superficiality. But both Allen’s and Nimoy’s films bring to the forefront that female character we have been talking about: the woman without a man.

In both cases, it’s interesting to note, our heroine did have a man, but because she has not known how to sustain the relationship—or because she has not wanted to sustain it—she has let her man go. The two films offer different reasons, causes, explanations. But whether these, as in the first case, are laid at the feet of an excessive attachment to a career, or, as in the second case, at the inability to establish an independent identity through a career—mirror sides of a single image—both women are presented as threatening and castrating to their men. For, in both cases, the woman’s relationship to the issue of career is posited as the manifestation of an unresolved conflict over motherhood. And whether she feels compelled to place motherhood at the center of her life, or to deny it, her female power to make that decision renders her overly powerful in her relationship with her partner, and becomes the basis for a terror of passion. Thus, both she and her partner identify passion with imbalance, loss of self, and seek to substitute for it a tepid, manageable union, smuggled into these films disguised as something other than the obvious regression into a pregenital relationship that the ex-change of a lover for a mother really is. In any case, the result in both relationships is a desolate solitude without hope of change.

Yet once the problems are identified, neither film offers an alternative within the realm of male/female relations. There is no question of looking for another man, even for the “right” man: there are too many interdictions, both subjective and objective. But what do the films offer? Another Woman offers intellectual creation, a book, a work that restores a woman’s sense of self, without always entrusting it to the fickle attention of a man. In the scrupulous absence of a father figure, The Good Mother proposes the woman’s child as a work of art. Both seem to be optimal solutions: how to be happy and fulfilled without having men around. Watch out, however, because neither one nor the other, as posited in these films, are specifically the inventions of women. Rather, it seems that they arise out of the premise of “for lack of something better.” One can’t help but read in these “morality tales” the implicit effort to redress the imbalance between men and women by narrowing the field. First, get out of the way women over a certain age (50 is the watershed year in Allen’s film); then get out of the way those who have already had marriages and children (Nimoy’s heroine); and, going back to Allen’s protagonist, perhaps most important, get out of the running those who can take care of themselves—let them warm themselves with their own thoughts and accomplishments is the message.

Both films are shot as documentarylike portraits, yet softened and blurred, making the edges between objectivity and persuasion, nostalgia and melancholy, dangerously unclear. There is no real breakthrough in either, because both films ultimately circle around the heart of the problem. It is Sam Shepard’s Far North, on the other hand, that hits the target head on, with the noise of a resounding burst of laughter, only to be hastily panned by American critics who have relegated it to the genre of rural nostalgia. Witness this excerpt from Terrence Rafferty’s November 28 capsule review in The New Yorker:

Shepard’s script is a mild rural comedy about a Minnesota family, with all the usual conflicts on display. . . . The central issue (symbolic, of course) is whether [Jessica] Lange will obey her father’s order to shoot an ornery cart horse named Mel. . . .

In fact, with Far North, the former child prodigy of off-off-Broadway has shaken off the cheap, tight garb of the hypernational hero that he’d taken on in his recent Hollywood ventures, to display once again the provocative and enraged grit that marked the beginnings of his theatrical career. Moving from the dead end of a reactionary profamily ruralism, based neither on nostalgia for the past nor ferocious criticism of the present, Far North simply draws attention to the facts. With the subversive candor of one who declares that the emperor has no clothes, the film pushes aside all the familiar terms of contention—men versus women, pro- versus antifamily, monogamy versus sexual freedom, oppression versus female liberation—as hopelessly outdated. For the theme, or, more accurately, the connective thread of the film is the line: “Where have all the men gone?” The men, more or less physically vanished from the scene, remain in Shepard’s film to serve only as the sentimental corollary to a range of objects/“afterimages” that confirm one female character’s dreamy—or regretful?—or hallucinatory?—comment that “There was a time when there were many men around the table.” In this four-generation family portrait, only the signs of men remain: a table overladen with the food one woman insists on preparing and that no one eats: televisions that persist in droning news of war, natural disasters, politics, sports (one of which one woman will obliterate with the blast from a gunshot); a rifle—a long-unused grotesque phallic tool, displaced and surreal signifier without significance, that father tries to pass to daughter; and a horse, hyperbolic symbol of mediation between an extinct male universe and a matriarchy that has evolved more out of necessity than choice.

Yet Far North presents a universe in which women’s bodies—extremely tender, mature, feminine, and maternal bodies—have been catapulted from dependence into solitude without passing through the euphoria of freedom. So that if these bodies speak for women, they must also speak, through the traces that remain, of a previous order, of and for men. Thus they speak with a language, in Shepard’s terms, at the edge of aphasia—subtle, inarticulate, repetitive, metonymic, almost preverbal—that at any given moment threatens to be either extinguished, or to become a parody of itself. Discourse itself, then, which can bring about either communication or miscommunication—and not only, of course, between men and women—remains only to float around the edges of what is not said and what is not sayable. In the form of a very strong metaphoric image, Far North suggests the displacement that occurs when desire has lost its own object, but not its own intensity, for in offering us women’s hallucinatory visions of men, it gives us, of course, men’s vision of women today. By the end of the film, we see, through the father’s hallucinatory eyes, the women in his life, astride that horse and plunging toward him wildly, uncontrolled—in his words, “like barbarians.”

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.