I’m not given to media reviews, but I’m going to break with precedent today. First a quick bow to Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. This came out in 2002 and got a lot of comments, largely because of a savage beating with a fire extinguisher, and brutal, and very extended, rape sequence with Monica Bellucci. The movie is frank, honest, hides nothing and glamorizes nothing. It is a series of things that happen. They are not pretty. It has in many ways all the honesty that the next movie lacks. You may or may not be turned on by any of the sexualized violence, but you’ll be hard placed to say it doesn’t evoke passion.
Black Snake Moan
But today’s movie is Black Snake Moan. This is a little dated (2006), and got bad reviews when it came out, though I am not sure if it got bad reviews for the right reasons. I never get around to seeing movies in the theatre, so I give it a watch when Netflix brings it to the door. I watched this with S. and neither of us expected much of it…was a lark film. We thought it might be “bad good” and have some raunchy sex.
Rape: this started out as a review, but ultimately it got into my private feelings on rape, abuse, incest, etc. I am going to talk about those things. Every American boy knows how to talk about rape. Be completely shocked, tearily comforting, and combine that with some firm macho dick waving about what you’d do to that guy ”if only he were around.” If that behavior doesn’t get the woman in question to stop actually communicating about the uncomfortable topic, then panic. For good measure emphasize that you can’t possibly understand how someone would do that, because of course you’re not like that, thus ensuring that there is no possibility you might actually be called on to talk about it in any detail. This is something that has been a part of my life for a quarter century. So I am going to talk about it and probably say intense uncomfortable things rather than waving my cock around to show how tough I am. You were warned.
Critical Writing: I came early in life to hate critical writing. The easiest way in the world to get a cheap laugh is to deconstruct the flaws in someone else’s art. So, if I’m going to criticize, it’s for more than a cheap laugh.
As I said, I ended up disturbed by this flick, and having ranted about it to several people got convinced that I ought to write it up as a blog entry. Nothing like the desperation of being behind and short on material to turn one’s table conversation into a blog post. “Write what you know” the man said, and when it comes down to it, if the only thing you know is what you were talking about over drinks, spew that into the keyboard.
So…this stars child star Christina Ricci, and “hand me my lightsaber…it’s the one that says ‘bad motherfucker’ on it…” Samuel L. Jackson. That ought to produce something at least amusing.
At the beginning of the movie, Ricci fucks her boyfriend who is Justin Timberlake. I’m not going to bother with the character names, if you want to know them IMDB them. Timberlake leaves to go be in the National Guard. She begs him not to go, he mumbles some bullshit about needing to do things and leaves. She keels over on the lawn. We find out through backstory inserts that every time he leaves town she does drugs and fucks around.
The movie revolves around Ricci’s “sex addiction,” more or less clinical nymphomania. Of course it doesn’t actually show it, because showing her repeatedly compulsively fucking guys would make her less cute and sympathetic.
In the film’s only actual hot sex scene, Ricci fucks rapper David Banner. In the only moment of emotional honesty, she asks him if she has any money…
He responds: What we just did, you askin’ for money, make a man stop. I ain’t callin’ you no ho. But I ain’t gonna be played like no trick, neither. Remember… you called me.
In her one moment of truly good acting, Ricci manages to look disappointed, fidgety, and self conscious.
Arguably that and the other references establish well enough that she fucks around, though I think it’s a bit of a cop out.
That said David Banner’s character is the only one in the film I like. He’s not an ass, and he even comes off a little defensive of Ricci in a tough guy way, later on, without seeming artificially involved.
The next hour or so unfolds a series of events that are promising because of what they could lead to…though I knew the cast well enough to have this horrifying clenching growing gut feeling that Craig Brewer is no Tarantino and that he’s not going to be content with any moral ambiguity.
So…Ricci’s husband’s buddy tries to rape her, and then beats her when she won’t sleep with him. It’s unclear why she won’t other than that she’s fucked up and doesn’t want to shit where she lives and it’s plausible he’s pissed enough to lose his shit and hit her. He doesn’t actually go at her that hard (because everyone in this film has to be slightly sympathetic) but he thinks he’s killed her by accident and dumps her in the road.
In the meantime Jackson is drinking because his woman done left him. The other man tries to make it better, and Jackson takes a noble poke at him then goes on home because he’s not the sort to kill people by accident, but he don’t take shit neither. So we are clear right off he’s a man, and moreover a man with the blues whose woman done him wrong.
Jackson finds Ricci and takes her home. I’ll give a bow to Brewer from managing to keep this scene from being comic, because it really should be. She’s delirious with a fever, and he chains her to a radiator. That’s the hot part that gave the film a vague BDSM connotation that is the reason it came to our attention, and crept towards review here.
She tries to jump him and he realizes that the Devil is in her and like your best old line religious nut pulls out a bible and begins quoting scripture at her. He keeps her chained up for a while, until she can fall under his spell as a magical negro. I should add that of the two things that made me sick about this film, the intense pandering to the magical negro archetype was one. It’s not actually the worst example ever. It isn’t The Legend of Bagger Vance. But it’s not good.
At this point my gut was telling me the film was doomed. Because I did the math. Samuel L. Jackson playing Morgan Freeman is never going to be wrong, or act in vain. And if he isn’t then the film is going to have a warm ending. And this film needed a warm fuzzy ending like Resevoir Dogs needed a group hug scene.
But you keep watching because up to now it’s credible. Nothing truly awful has happened. Jackson’s character would react this way.
I’m getting long so a quick montage.
Jackson plays Ricci Jazz music, lets her go, and gets her to cook dinner. Honestly I have no problem with this. She’s confused and pliant under the spell of a personable, powerful, older man. Nothing about Jackson’s hold on her is inherently unreasonable. He won’t sleep with her, which arguably makes him more fascinating to her. She becomes quiet and almost mystical around him, and that’s honestly all fine…she’s under the spell.
He is convinced to play a club though he hasn’t performed in years. He plays a blues song about murdering men, to prove that he’s okay with violence, just not sexual infidelity. Well, okay he’s not really okay with violence. It’s a wonderful device to make him suddenly less prude without actually sullying his character.
Still, great cultural throw, I’ll buy it. Culture that deplores sexual adventurism but glorifies violence. Welcome to the South of my youth.
Somewhere in all this Ricci is left alone and jumps the boy who brings fresh produce. Samuel L. Jackson has a talk with him in which he somehow manages to evoke shades of Andy Griffith or Eddy Arnold on a old episode of “Green Acres.” “Eb…we have to do something about the girl…she’s getting…whooo…eee…” At this point you can hear the whole film slipping south with the monstrous sucking sound you knew had to be the case from the moment Jackson preached.
He takes Ricci to town to reconcile with her mom. Ricci and mom end up in a fight in the mop aisle. Now this might be a moment of honesty. But since Ricci can’t be a bitch or anything other than a victim, it relies on her mother being a villain of unlikely proportion, who screams rejection at her daughter. There’s no hint of any justification…just bile and venom. I’m buying it, but it just seems a foil. We learn that Ricci was raped as a juvenile by one of her mother’s boyfriends, and her mother let it happen. We are presumably to conclude that this is the source of her profound sexual fuckupedness…
Obviously this is near and dear the root of my dislike of this particular piece of film. Because that particular set of circumstances, or variations on it by Hector Berlioz has been in and out of my life in the form of fucked up girls for a long time, and that’s what brings it to this blog. Some cope better and some worse, but the dirty fingerprints on the sexual psyche…the oilstains, rips and tears. I’ve seen those. So in premise at this point this film had something powerful to say.
Because I know how movies are made, and how cast are written to, I knew it wasn’t going to say it, but I kept watching, hoping. Because this was exciting. Ricci was an abuse victim who wasn’t a sterile chaste victim too aware of her own uncleanness to contemplate…gasp…sex…
Instead, Moan borrowed the ending from To Wong Foo, or a hundred other formula comedies. The ‘colorful celebration.’
Can I just stop telling you about this. It’s painful.
If you like the ending to this film you probably also like the aerial view ending to the 1982 mass release version of Blade Runner, which features tacked on footage from The Shining. The ending has absolutely as much to do with the film.
Boyfriend Timberlake comes back. He’s been kicked out of the National Guard because he has anxiety disorder. So he’s back to claim the woman he abandoned, with proof he’s pretty much the not man that she was able to confide in, but compelled to fuck around on.
Jackson gets the girl. Since he can’t keep the girl he magnanimously passes her off more or less as property to her emotionally deficient beau. He summons his delightful character-actor friends and has a vocalist and a preacher, and makes them marry. Everyone breaks out Sunday best and there is a festive atmosphere. A moment of dignity and grace is brought to the shotgun shack. All is good…
Then Ricci and Timberlake drive off into the sunset.
Somehow we are actually expected to believe that after having been the first influence powerful enough to begin to get through to Ricci, Jackson can play a few bars of music, produce a magical ceremony and “whoosh” everything is alright. You expect him to suddenly give them the fucking ZZ Top car. Jackson as savior is weird and fucked up but sort of plausible. Jackson as “too good to get the girl” not savior, sending the girl off with an anxiety medicated Victor Lazlo is not. Ilse Lund’s problem was not having been raped by her mom’s boyfriend, and she wasn’t compulsively trying to nail Louis because she was sexually unfulfilled by Lazlo.
As Porky Pig would say “Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-That’s all, folks!”
So, there’s one redeeming moment….
On the highway they are boxed in by semis and Timberlake freaks out. He has to pull the car over, panting.
There is nothing so bitter as disappointment. For one brief moment…I actually thought things were going to turn around. Remember that point in Gilliam’s Brazil where there is the pull back and Helpmann says “He’s got away from us, Jack.” And you realize that the entire beautiful ending where he escapes with the girl is just a dream…I thought for one moment it would be like that…
I don’t like people who try to fix other people’s work by fantasizing the “right” ending, so I’m not going to say any of the things that raced through my mind right then. Honestly they weren’t well formed just “oh wow, some reality is going to firebomb this situation.”
But no…it is at best irresolute. Ricci hugs Timberlake and tells him it’s okay.
Clearly the scene was introduced to inject some faint redeeming hint of plausibility after a fantasy sequence worthy of “Cinderella.” To suggest that there was trouble in paradise. But really it turned into just a bit of “we’ll get through because we have each other.”
But it was too little too late. It did nothing to seriously retract the film’s major proposition. Which was more or less “maybe there will be a miracle.”
So why do I dislike this film?
Well first there’s the obvious cruel lie. Having explored a truly significant area of psychosexuality in a way that had a lot of promise, the film ends with a cheesy, hokey, ending that suggests that a few blues riffs and some stern talking to can get you right over those old “my mom’s boyfriend raped me” blues and back into the swing of things. This isn’t fucking Stella getting her groove back for Chrissakes, this is somebody who was sexually abused as a child or teen. And putting her back into the same situation where she was fucking around six weeks earlier is no sort of answer.
The problem is everything about the film suggests it is. She’s reborn and on the right path now, and with the weak boyfriend she fucked around on before she’s bound to go off and make things work. Because you know they…well we don’t know if she loves him or even likes him, but she’s comfortable with him, and he’s devoted to her except in the beginning where he dropped her to go play soldier. It wouldn’t be much of a fix even without her history but in this case it’s comically absurd.
But that’s not really what I hate. I kept turning it over and over in my mind, and I came to something else.
In some historical societies, and even some societies today, when a woman has been raped she is effectively segregated and not allowed to have intercourse. Even if it is not her fault, she’s never allowed to have a sexual existence again, she’s “damaged goods”
Our literature and cinema do that. A woman who has been raped may never be seen in a sexual light. Oh it’s fine to show rape. But the classic “acceptable” portrayal of a rape victim is frigid. She pushes men away, to the point of screaming “don’t touch me.” She feels unclean and therefore doesn’t want sex. If she is ever depicted as having sexual relations again it is because she is “cleansed.” She may get to have quiet vanilla intercourse, if she’s good, and shows that she has totally removed any vestiges of her violent sexual experience from her psyche. That she is “over it.” But as long as she’s tainted by it, she’s unclean. If she is allowed to have sex again this must be portrayed as being gently reclaimed through love.
Why? As long as that influence exists. We’re sharing. And if we can feel that influence, if there is a hunger for wanton sex, or a passion for violence or harsh treatment, then we become the abuser. And we can’t stomach that. Better for us to cut a woman off than come into contact with that in ourselves. Men aren’t big on sexual revelations about themselves, and a woman who might be a mirror in which to see our own tendencies to sexual violence…that’s scarier than most of us are prepared to deal with.
We say that rape doesn’t really make women unclean. But are we in any way prepared to handle the concept that it may have impacted their psychosexual drive? No. And the most ashamed are the ones who go through life hiding it. Who know that it colored their sexual perceptions, and will always be ashamed of what excites them.
This made the portrayal of Ricci’s character awfully promising and poignant to me. I’ve seen a thousand troubled, frigid, and distant abuse victims in film and media. A thousand “don’t touch me” girls, sterile in their own uncleanness. They don’t intimidate anyone because they can be treated like a Victorian housewife. They’ve conveniently put their own sexuality up on the shelf, out of reach where it won’t bother us. But those aren’t the ones I’ve ended up dealing with.
The women I’ve known who had these experiences were incandescent with the same sexual needs as anyone else. Yes in some cases, amplified, twisted. In other cases, probably not but scared as hell about it. In every case, fucked up as much by guilt as by trauma. Isolated forever by the fact that no-one else will touch those dirty spots, is willing to scrub at the oilstains, get down and get their hands dirty, get involved in the sexuality of their trauma. And with its premise this film looked as if it could say something about that.
I’m not saying that every abuse victim becomes a sex-starved nymphomaniac. But I am saying that every woman I have ever been involved with who was abused…and that is more than the fingers of one hand…bore marks of it in her sexual makeup or felt fearful and guilty that parts of her sexuality emanated from that event, whether they did or not. And in more cases than not sexual violence, and abuse or self-abuse formed some part of their sexual closet. And that is not something that most drama can deal with. I don’t fault many films for leaving it alone, but I fault this one for opening the can of worms, then wandering off into an embarassing childish make-believe.
The unclean female must be castrated, or to use the equivalent, locked into a nunnery. So she was. Denied sex by Jackson. He was too moral, too firm, too good just to fuck her. He had to be better than her. He possessed her mind but refused her body. Oh yes, he was married and she was too young and he was “decent.” Not the sort who would do something like that. Pure.
But he used his influence to hand her over to another man. And despite a moderately sweaty sex scene at the beginning of the movie, Timberlake’s character is patently sexless. He says outright he has a gun but can’t use it. He is as symbolically castrated, as close to a eunuch as any male character I have ever seen portrayed. The writers belabor the point. He’s not just broken. He is not a man. He doesn’t have the strength to shoot Jackson. He has no resolve. He’s castrated.
And the powerful man who masters her and denies her sex hands her over to this symbolically sexless man. Oh sure this isn’t the Middle Ages, she should get some vanilla sex. But the vibe is very much that her “wild days” are over, and she has been “tamed.” The “influence” that caused her sexual need is washed away by jazz. We don’t need to investigate it. We just wave our electric guitar and make it disappear. And then the girl is put somewhere very safe. Timberlake might as well be “Our Lady of Perpetual Solace Monastery.”
It’s the same portrayal just external, rather than internal. If she doesn’t have the resolve to force her own sexuality down, Jackson will do it for her. Her sexuality must be alien because it was shaped by her trauma, so rather than treat her as a human and it as a part of her, it must be washed away. And that means limiting her sexuality, and that is what this movie is about.
Black Snake Moan had the potential to say something and by and large it failed by supplying an ending not unbelievable because it couldn’t happen, but because the producers seemed seriously in their framing to suggest that it was a good thing that had potential, not an empty joke. Because it made Jackson a hero for his abrogation of the responsibility that he’d taken on in becoming the focal power in Ricci’s life.
But that’s not what made it cruel. In the end, it reaffirmed what any good boy knows. Abuse is best swept under the carpet, and a woman who has been raped or abused is only clean to touch when that is erased from her, washed away, and she denies any influence of it upon her. If that means denying her own sexuality well…small price to pay for cleaniliness.
And that is where the film stopped being disappointing, and became cruel. Crueler than others, because it promised more than society’s pat answer, and failed to deliver it.
No afterjoke today. Despite my penchant for bad taste, I don’t much feel like it. The afterjoke was the formula ending to this provocative film…