Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Slaughter Rule - Andrew & Alex Smith 2002


A tale of friendship between down & out coach  Gideon Ferguson (David Morse) and his reluctant protogé quarterback Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling), The Slaughter Rule may not be the most subtle of films--first efforts seldom are--but it is an important one about manhood and the nature of courage. Certainly the best prove-you’re-a-man story set against the snowy expanses of an isolated Montana homestead in my memory.

Dealing with the spectrum of 'manliness'--from brawn to moral bravery--the Smith brothers' film takes us on a bumpy ride through the treacherous terrain of male honor before resolving itself in an unlikely moment of supervenient grace. In effecting resolution through absolution The Slaughter Rule straddles the divide between bracing subversion and sentimental kitsch. That it comes out on the side of the former and very much against the cynicism of the Zeitgeist, is a credit to the sensitivity and idealism of its young creators. 


Gosling--in the flower of fleeting youth--strikes an intriguing balance between cocky-smug and perplexed; his trademark wry superciliousness refracting but never displacing the basic vulnerability of his character. Morse gives an intense and discomfiting portrayal of the beleaguered, off-kilter couch with-a-past eking out an existence on the fringes of impoverished middle-America. A gentle giant adept at conveying tortured consciences, Morse must have relished the opportunity to channel the brittle anguish of his character.


To anticipate a bit, the moral of The Slaughter Rule is that compassion trumps fear in the pure of heart: moral courage doesn't overcome fight-or-flight by steeling itself against vulnerability, but by exercising the strength of its own weakness. Such a depressive insight is at odds with the quest for self-substantiation by the male adolescent, who readily submits to tests of fortitude and prowess while skirting the most threatening trial of all--that of assuming another's pain as one's own. In showing how compassion humanizes the "enemy," The Slaughter Rule calls into question the exclusion of vulnerability that the code of masculine honor seems to mandate among jocks. By way of the crucible of masculine identification, it takes us to a place where nothing else matters but honoring the desperation of one with no apparent honor left. It is a story of the triumph of compassion over disgust and the redemption of unruly desire through forgiveness, yet for its duration plays like a demonstration of La Rochefoucauld's aphorism:

It is easier to love someone we hate than someone who loves us more than we want to be loved.


Roy's love-interest Skyla (Clea DuVall) remains peripheral to the heart of the story, functioning primarily to vouch for his heterosexual bone fides. Her attraction to him is mainly physical, but when things don't gel erotically to her satisfaction, she grows restless, withdraws, and eventually leaves town. Roy, who just happens to find her waiting at the bus station, casually rebuffs her half-hearted show of remorse. The Slaughter Rule is not about the mating game, in any case, but Roy's development into a fully fledged human being through his complicated friendship with Ferguson. Skyla represents the negative example of failed loyalty in a relationship based on infatuation. The test of loyalty in such relationships often amounts to an on-going overcoming of the satiety that domesticated erotic passion brings with it. Only a context not qualified by sexual dependence, yet fraught with unwanted desire and enmity, could provide the setting for the test of loyalty to which Roy is submitted.


The Slaughter Rule belongs on a long list of films dealing with the vicissitudes of love, honor, and loyalty between men (think: Grand Illusion, Tune's of Glory, Billy Budd, Midnight Cowboy, The Best Way to Walk, Beau Travail, and Enduring Love). Centrally or peripherally each takes up the subject of masculine self-definition--amity/emulation v. enmity--
in a more or less homosocial environment. Films like My Beautiful Laundrette, Priest, Brokeback Mountain, etc., don't quite fit into this category because each resolves the conflict sexually, taking the feasibility of erotic fulfillment and reciprocated love for granted, then problematizing the homosexual bond in the context of a hostile social setting, to establish a distinct thematic constellation. In The Slaughter Rule the homoerotic dimension--unwanted desire, its renunciation and forgiveness--obtains as threat to amity and compassion. In this regard it is a more tragic film than those that cross the barrier into reciprocated intimacy, and, arguably, one on a higher spiritual plane. 


Ferguson's buddy in low-life Flloyd--a diabetic who lives in a Studebaker--knows Ferguson as well as anyone. They're bound together by need, including, we assume, sexual need. Flloyd resents Ferguson's fixation on Roy, while Ferguson is contemptuous of Flloyd's unselfconscious weirdness. Having s
trayed into their desperate lives like some innocent fool, Roy, despite rumors and their obvious 'atypical' behavior, manages to maintain his trusting openness, getting into Flloyd's car at one point to help him inject insulin. The suicide of Roy's father may be behind his susceptibility to Ferguson's flattery, the preferred strategy of smitten souls without a prayer.

Frustrated by his unspendable passion, Ferguson assumes an exacting avuncular attitude. He takes Roy to task for indulging in a few beers, then insists on showing him the large scar running vertically along his torso. Having been 
"pickled" in utero as a result of maternal alcoholism, he has an enlarged heart. He begrudges Roy his closeness to Skyla, responding with exaggerated solicitude. Roy's nonchalance angers him. He wants a sign of reciprocal election, not the trust he keeps disingenuously invoking but a guarantee that his investment hasn't been in vain. His need to impress on Roy the sanctity of his status as star athlete functions to emphasize the exclusive preference he would see reciprocated. The quintessential manipulator, Ferguson imagines himself the rescuer of Roy's floundering young soul. He exhausts all means forcing Roy to return his love, eventually settling for his pity. That he settles for it with gratitude is what makes The Slaughter Rule at once up-lifting and excrutiatingly poignant.


By way of innuendo about Ferguson's involvement with a boy who met a mysterious end in a boating accident and their own increasingly intense encounters, it dawns on Roy that his overzealous mentor's feelings for him cross the line dividing friendship from madness. The beauty of the Smith's film is that Ferguson's desire is not primarily shown as lustful but as a longing directed at Roy's total person. This invests Roy with unconditional power and challenges his ability to withstand the temptation of being made absolutely essential.


It is just this elevation to essentiality that represents the test and temptation of being loved more than one wants to be. The challenge is to maintain the distance to the obstreperous lover that allows for respect to be preserved, a distance disgust threatens to annul. Just as true forgiveness draws a line under an offense and confines it to the past for the sake of the future, and not in order to move on by severing ties and effectively forgetting, so the overcoming of defensive disgust is estimable and genuine only if it enables friendship to continue. Not ending their "toxic" relationship by rejecting Ferguson and taking flight, but transmuting it from within, is the moral test facing Roy

At some level the desperate nature of Ferguson's passion is probably fed by the realization that there is no going back from his all-or-nothing claim to the disinterest of friendship, and no hope of consumation through sexual congress. He is condemned to being ravenous while erotically destitute, masquerading his deranged longing as paternal solicitude


Not until Ferguson lets his mask slip to reveal his turmoil does the central conflict begin to work itself out. From cautious curiosity Roy, never completely comfortable with Ferguson, turns to open disgust. 

After bandaging Roy's hand and giving him an impassioned pep-talk, things turn physical. Ferguson charges into a wall, then bullies Roy into pitting his strength against his. They lunge forward and lock shoulders like rutting bison. The display of prowess is just a pretext for Ferguson to make physical contact with his fixation, of coursePanting with exertion, he relaxes to embrace Roy, who puts up with the quasi consoling gesture until Ferguson presses his mouth against his ear as if to inhale his very being. Ferguson's ardor provokes an equally primal repudiation, with Roy breaking away to vent his rage. 


The Smiths don't recoil from showing the confusion and fear of this supremely awkward moment. Roy's rejection packs a fury to match the uncanny intensity of Ferguson's unwanted erotic fixation. 

When friends cross the line from equable reciprocity to the disequilibrium of sexual idealization, they up-end amity's disinterested balance. Only when both parties succumb and love is requited, is a new order of justice put in play--the "fairness" of love & war qua psychological state of exception. But such a truce is not in the offing for Roy and his mentor. Their only options are a complete break, renunciation, or reconciliation. The film's resolution represents a mixture of all three.

At this cross-roads things usually fall apart in “real life”--the friend who desires is repudiated and the relationship ends. But for Roy and his coach life goes on. There is no final rupture, just a series of increasingly hostile encounters. Roy's sense of loyalty is such that even Ferguson's abuse of the notion of "trust," of which he demands endless demonstrations, doesn't cause Roy to repudiate him. 

Only upon rewatching the film did the full extent of Roy's ability to over-come his discomfort with Ferguson became apparent. When Ferguson and Flloyd sing a duet in a honky-tonk Roy listens with his teammates before applauding good-naturedly. It is as if the seeds of compassion sown in Roy's encounter with the stricken deer in the opening sequence continued to germinate.

One winter night Flloyd commits suicide by asphyxiation in his Studebaker. From within a tent on a frozen lake Ferguson and Roy sprinkle his ashes through a fishing hole. Roy places a blanket around the shoulders of his shivering couch, who motions for him to join him under it. But Ron wants nothing to do with physical contiguity. 


The final straw comes after Ferguson calls a game in which one of his players gets injured and Roy wants to continue playing--to "give pain" by hitting back with "renegade pride." In front of the other increasingly perplexed players Ferguson calls him a punk. When Ferguson grabs him by the groin and calls him a "suger-tit" Roy brutally knocks him to the ground with his helmet. "You're a sorry-ass queer," he exclaims. As Ferguson lies pleading Roy
angrily quits the field. 


After his apparently final rejection in full view of his teammates, Ferguson trudges off into the night. Impeded at a train crossing, Roy has an epiphany, recalling the plight of the wounded deer he couldn't bring himself to euthanize. In flashback we see him lying next to it in an attitude of futile but irresistible compassion. 

The unthinkable becomes the unavoidable: he must find Ferguson and do what he can to make amends. Compassion is about putting oneself on the line and staying loyal in the context of many small betrayals. Roy finds Ferguson lying corpse-like in a snow-covered field, preparing to die. Roy revives him with blows to the chest and tender coaxing, then cradles him like some mother of sorrows.


In the final scene Roy visits a battered Ferguson in hospital and allows his hand to be placed on Ferguson's scabby forehead. An ambi-valent but powerful gesture--conveying absence of fear, absolution, a wish for peace, and farewell--it transposes the sordid tale of lecherous couch and his star quarterback into the mytho-poetic. 

The Slaughter Rule shows that the issue at the core of masculine identity--a response to the two great exigences of a man's existence--mating and warfare--is finally less about gender than about what subsumes all polarities: the ideal of 'humanity.' Compassion tests character as much as any test of ‘mettle’ by challenging us where we are weakest, and, through the workings of fear and disgust--most contracted into our own impotence. 

Only a cynic could object to the Smith's parable, in which a simple laying-on of hands suffices to refute the self-immunizing resignation of the world-weary and absolve a man defeated by life. Possessing the gall but not the guile of the tendentious, it avoids sententiousness by a wide margin. Assuming the authority to which Ferguson's solicitude elevates him, Roy comes into his own as an angel of mercy. His gesture is 'subversive' in the way that all acts of mercy are. The question who is 'stronger'--Roy in complying or Ferguson in prompting and accepting reconciliation--probably depends on who has the most to lose. In the final analysis--the end-time in which parables are at home--the agonistic question of strength is sublated in a moment of perfect reciprocity. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Swept Away (by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August) - Lina Wertmüller 1974 


A classic tale of tables turned, Swept Away begins in the same sun drenched Mediterranean seascape as L’Aventura. Except Wertmüller’s glamorous color version is populated by self-consciously outspoken intellectuals more concerned about the effect of garbage on the environment and the overpopulation that will turn their paradise into a sewer— (”a shit hole full of starving people”)--than the vicissitudes of anomic individualism. We are far away from the high seriousness of Antonioni’s stylish existential futility; no negative spaces trace the movements of enfeebled but earnest seekers of meaning in an inhuman universe. Instead, cynical-privileged hedonists on holiday, determined to enjoy the world so long as it withstands their collective assault, make a sport of spewing invective and disparaging the hypocrisy of their competing political allegiances. 


It's apparent from the start that Wertmüller has satirical intentions and an appetite for controversy. Such fearlessness is rather thrilling in the context of present day political correctness. She is less concerned about challenging our preparedness to include behavior by expanding the horizon of tolerance--as so much of what passes as 'subversive' tends to do these days--than in rubbing our noses in the fact that we have contrived to embrace human spontaneity as the wellspring of cultural self-redemption. Against this tendency she shows that jungle rules, for all their naturalness, are not sustainably corrective of civilization's disenchantment. Return to Eden entails repristinating hell-on-earth: the rule of necessity and the degradation of brute force. 

Whatever her actual ideological motivation, Wertmüller winds up producing one of the most controversial and profound explorations of pair formation ever put on film. Sexual bonding as ethologist Konrad Lorentz--who famously found the erotic drive sprouting from the spiny shoot of intra-special aggression--envisioned it. Swept Away fully merits the 'iconoclastic' moniker, demolishing as it does the prohibition against violence between the sexes, sundry sacrosanct idols of gender-feminisim and, not least of all, common-sense notions of civility and good taste. 


The decks of Wertmüller's farce are stacked, or rather crowded, with polarities. Beside male-female, there's rich-poor, North-South, Fascist-Communist, bourgeois-proletarian, high-brow-low-brow, etc. Such multi-layered over-determination makes the humor a bit facile. But given that it's a basically a tale of transformation--the high made low and vice versa--the goal-posts needed to be secured as firmly as possible. At the end of the day what matters is that Wertmüller has fashioned an enormously entertaining and intellectually engaging film—a furious face-off bordering on pure, unadulterated anarchy.


Stock-characters are the stuff of comedy, and the obvious polarities of the ideological commitments this modern-day Tracy-Hepburn duo embodies, make the brutal spectacle of the mating game genuinely riveting and side-splittingly funny, even as it's vulgarity furnishes endless occasion for shocked incredulity. 

Members of the monied intelligentsia, the Lanzetti’s
vociferously quarrel  about Communists, the Vatican, Stalin, and Hiroshima in rapid succession in what feels like a send up of the cliché of the impassioned, child-like Italian. They gesticulate, shout, and threaten one another in abrupt close-ups while lounging on the deck of their spotless sailboat. The opening scenes are important in establishing both the intellectual bone fides and woefully haughty personality of our heroin--brash and exacting queen bee Raffaella (Mariangela Melato).


Her antagonist and lover-to-be, hired-hand Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), is at first relegated to the background going about his servant duties, seen but not heard. He makes his official entrance when his tousle-haired head pops up meekly from below deck to see what all the commotion is about. A Sicilian communist by have-not instinct, he's the hard-up “sloppy Southerner” desperate to make money.  It doesn’t take long for him to figure out he’s working for a “fascist bitch.” Or, as he will later call her in one of the funnier insults of the film, an “industrial whore,” a compound beautifully encapsulating the affective contagion of ideological valences.

As the Lanzetti's squabble the generally dopey Gennarino, taking umbrage, fixes an ireful gaze on Raffaella. "Damn Commie," she exclaims to her husband, who defends him as an activist and "top dog in his neck of the woods." "He thinks we steal from the poor," she retorts contemptuously. 


As she lies tanning on deck with the other women, Gennarino peeps sheepishly out of a hatch window and the two briefly exchange less supercharged, almost inquisitive glances, moving forward the tale of their rapprochement by one small, subliminal increment. Gennarino may simply be leering at the unattainable. If so, Wertmüller has opted to underplay the element of desire and suggest discretion--an almost deferential shyness precluding manly self-declaration. The sequence subtly undermines the dynamic heretofore established by suggesting that beyond her vexation at his incompetence, Raffaella--dimly and confusingly--is aware of Gennarino as something other than a servant, which further irritates and mildly intrigues her. This would support the interpretation of Gennarino, heretofore a disposable object, as lusting 'subject of desire.' Whatever their respective intents, any expectation of a crumbling dominance hierarchy proves premature when the dynamic between them continues to head south in the next scene, with Raffaella refusing the rewarmed coffee Gennarionio attempts to serve her. "He's already getting sloppy," she kvetches. Gennarino complains to his mate, threatening to slap her the next time she crosses the line, only to be told to grin and bear it for the sake of the generous wages. "That fucking fascist bitch had better watch out," he muses with a certain weary resolve. But when she next complains about over-cooked spaghetti, he meekly shrugs and apologizes."While we're waiting for the revolution," she quips, "just for once cook the spaghetti as it should be!" 

When her party absconds the next day, Raffaella requests Gennarino take her out in a dinghy to catch up. They depart, only to break down in the middle of nowhere, therewith beginning their misadventure proper--basically a series of humiliations for Raffaella--as mismatched castaways. The whole thing may be interpreted as the story of modern Woman--that product of industrial revolution, emancipation, and the pill--getting her long-overdue comeuppance. Except that Raffaella carries the equally important ideological valence of the wealthy, socially dominant anti-communist.

Having come ashore on a tiny island things deteriorate when Gennarino balks at following orders. What had simmered as long as they occupied roles dictated by the social dominance hierarchy, turns into all-out warfare in the wilderness of post-conventional Nature. In a funny little montage sequence they go their separate ways, obscenities flying fast and furious. "Now we'll have some fun...we'll suck some bitter dicks!" he chuckles. "This shit thinks he's Spartacus!" she rages: "sub-proletarian!" 

Driven by hunger Raffaella attempts to bite into a spikey sea urchin scavaged from a tide pool as Gennarino, lithe and bronzed, dives into the ocean and hauls a huge lobster-like crab ashore. It's readily apparent who is more resourceful in the state of nature. 

"You eat and let others starve to death," she accuses, disheveled and dirty after following him through a lagoon. "If there was a law against it, all the rich would be in jail...But since there is no law, only the poor are locked up," Gennarino retorts superciliously. Raffaella leaves in a huff to look for eggs. "I hate nature!" she exclaims petulantly. Then reflects on the treachery of proletarians ("worse than Hitler"). She returns soon enough to barter: "I'll pay you whatever you want." Gennarino, stuffing his face with fish, blithely ignores her. 


Raffaella resolves to try a different tack, informing Gennarino she's not feeling well and has hurt her foot. Her wounded appeal for mercy has no effect on the resolutely indifferent Gennarino. Reverting to abusiveness, she asks "How about a hundred dollars, swine?" "Keep the insults coming," he muses menacingly, relishing the reversal of power. 


What makes these two base is that each exploits the other at different times by means of the rank circumstance invests them with rather than any genuine authority. The vengeful Gennarino, motivated by pique, has every intention of exacting the ultimate punishment. "Lesson number one!--: if you want food to eat, you have to earn it. Wash my underpants!" he bellows, throwing his drawers in her face. "Never!" she shrieks. Abrupt cut to Raffaella slaving away at her washerwoman chores.

Gennarino is just getting started. Raffaella has a lot to learn and his unsubtle program of servitude and deference training is designed for maximum impact. 

The claim that Wertmüller, who had communist sympathies, was on the side of Gennarino seems implausible. I certainly don't find myself cheering him on as he exacts his revenge. An ideological slob bent on vengeance who unwittingly arrives at the truce of romantic infatuation, Gennarino is the instrument of a proud woman's downfall rather than a hero to be emulated. Such a hero would be conspicuously out-of-place in a comedy, anyway. Though his abusiveness must afford anyone who has suffered at the hands of a powerful love-matrix (viz., had a mother) some degree of vicarious vindictive pleasure. 

Wertmüller doesn't emasculate the men in her film--in itself something of an affront to reformist gender-manderers--declining to turn them into so many sociopathic killers, hapless autists, and spineless conciliators. Instead, she grants them equal dignity as thinking and volitional agents, therewith preserving the playing field on which social equalization projects have always been transacted; the pitch on which women took-on the hegemony of males, and eventually redrew the coordinates to better suit their needs (miraculously coinciding with those of a changing marketplace). 

Raffaella, as the spokesperson of "fascistic" capitalism, comes away as the party most beholden to the interests of bourgeois status and security. To confer on either a representative capacity vis-a-vis the director remains pure conjecture. To say Wertmüller was a communist isn't saying much as a left-wing political persuasion (or rather stance) was legion among the Italian intelligentsia of 20th century--witness the famous example of Count Visconti, the Marxist blue-blood. As "opium of the intellectuals" (Raymond Aron), communism amounted to little more than the belief that capitalism, in and of itself, wasn't enough to create the good society. It was in practice the perfect ideology for idealists, dependent as it was upon the revolution's never-ending non-occurrence.  

†The ultimate implication of gender-feminism is the lesbian's nullification of the male as redundant (an inferior version of the female). In her capacity as making him obsolete she represents the identity-in-opposition of the gender polarity).* At the level of the master-slave conflict--the life-or-death struggle for recognition qua hegemonic supremacy--the moment of elimination pertains to the self-consciousness of the rival that must be made subservient. Sociologically, the hierarchy of rank determined by who is instrumentalized as servant (and therewith exploited), effects this subordination. Raffaella occupies her position of superiority by the fortuity of socio-economic circumstance. She has not earned it, yet she may look down on her hired hand as inferior because of her place in the hierarchy. 

* Homosexual object-choice is in some sense the "solution" to the problem of the opposite sex, but it is also an identificatory process by way of iteration. Still, complementarity also plays a role given the inevitable differences of temperament among any two individuals. Love per se strives for unification with the other, and desire makes sure othernesss in some capacity is operative so that the requisite barrier of disidentification, however conceived, is there to be over-come, regardless of whether two genders are in play. The main thing is that the challenge of the desired other be surmounted and assimilated into the self, as that is how erotic love 'feeds.' 

A relationship between unequals can never satisfy a self seeking recognitive mutuality. Recognition from an inferior affords no satisfaction. The hierarchy of subjectivity (of him who judges and disposes) establishes whose perception counts, and whose recognition is null and void. Dramatically manifest in the case of actual slavery, this devaluation is present at all levels of inequality. The old habit of addressing subordinates in the third person exemplifies such asymmetry. This illuminates why marginalization continues to mobilize such deep indignation.

A form of mundane-social revolution is the precondition for the inversion in Swept Away. Gennarino's ruthless aggression stands in direct proportion to his previous degradation. His vengeance is fueled by a need to vindicate the disregard of his dignity and autonomy as an individual. Wertmüller's film is a commentary on the virulence of the resentment informing all revolutionary redistributions of power. 


Swept Away's power-sharing is less a recreation of the gender-battles previously waged by Tracy and Hepburn, than their continuation. Except that in the ensuing thirty odd years female protagonists of the battle, once nobly beleaguered frontierspersons, have themselves become fair game for satirists. After the attainment of its main political objectives, feminism's contest has issued in a new status quo and may henceforth be shown as the latest chapter of the age-old face-off between gender-factions.


Yet the spectacle of evolving power dynamics need not be seen as a parable of male-female relationships or even a comment on their politicization as a result of the real leveling of difference. What feminism there is in Wertmüller's vision emerges by way of the antagonism between two discrete individuals who, being male and female and out of options, resolve their conflict in the age-old way, viz., the erotic merger of mind and body. Whether this makes her vision post-feminist or just a slap in the face of female pride, is open to debate. It may simply be the repudiation of a certain feminist mind-set supervenient upon political and economic developments it did not create and enabling a willful oblivion towards what once was biological exigence. In this broadest perspective Wertmüller's film reveals itself as a show-down between history and culture's repressed biological underpinnings. 


Swept Away emplots a master-slave dynamic up-ended by happenstance; a dialectic of recognition, initially withheld then forcibly compelled, and intimately related to the evolution of love out of hatred. In this way too the film is over-determined, not just in the sense of over-ripeness but of allegorical super-abundance.

What is so controversial about this perennial yet insufficiently appreciated dynamic is the primitive way in which Wertmüller has her pair of marooned morons enact it. The conceit of the film is to stage an experiment whereby a modern-day couple is transplanted Crusoe-style into the primordial jungle, but with all its ideological commitments and culturally transmitted neuroses intact. What Wertmüller demonstrates is that under circumstances of deprivation and forced hunter-gatherer mode, a balance of power re-emerges based on physical inequality. Due to the loaded nature of her ciphers, the conflict gets transacted on several levels: the master becomes servant, the servant master; the emancipated woman is reduced to a quivering supplicant of the Inferior she once commanded; the proud intellectual is unmasked as clueless dependent of a simple and dogmatic "peasant," etc. 


En route to her transformation into re-natured Woman Raffaella withdraws to ponder what is happening. With one short shot of her being pensive Wertmüller tips our investment in her favor. In the ensuing scene she silently prostrates herself before Gennarino, indelicately impaling a freshly skinned rabbit on a stick. "I feel like that rabbit," she reflects. "You are really cruel." The blasé Gennarino doesn't bat an eye. In a trance-like state the kneeling Raffaella bends over, grabs his ankle, and reverently plants her lips on his foot. Gennarino is taken-aback but gratified. When she rises they look at one another for what feels like the first time. 


Placing his hand on her head in a sort of benediction, Raffaella wordlessly declares: 'I accept your authority and place myself under it--be well-pleased with me!' Wertmüller cuts to an impossibly blue ocean after sundown, then back to the couple kissing passionately. Stroking her, Gennarino extols her sweet femininity as she murmurs, "You kill me, my love." 


Having entered the inner sanctum of sexual transport he demands she call him "Sire." She gladly complies. "Sire, master, beat me, kill me. Do what you will with me. Only hold me tight." Even after her capitulation Gennarino can't help asking whether people of her class ("filthy rich...pigs on drugs") make love in such a passionate, animalistic fashion. "How many times have you cheated on your husband?" 

"Who says a rich woman's automatically a whore? the Communist party?" she retorts, only to be slapped. Even now his ideological commitment prevails over the fire of erotic passion: "The party is sacred--wash your mouth out!" 

Desire makes her delirious. Yet he, deranged by his lust for unconditional lordship, defiantly disdains to satisfy it. "No--when I say so." Until she worships at his feet and "writhes like a worm," he won't be satisfied. His need to control her is not just a retributive assertion of power but a direct reflection of his past sense of threat. The male of the species has devised countless ways of controlling the availability and proffering of sexual services, including the enduring half-fiction that women are less promiscuous. Gennarino demands Raffaella confess her indiscretions, but eventually his own growing passion displaces his inquisition and he turns to the business of fucking his "well-heeled slut-cum-slave."

Wertmüller cuts to the couple frolicking in the dunes, a plaintiff lullaby adding depressive depth to the bucolic mood. In this idyllic pastoral interlude reciprocated erotic love seems finally to have vanquished ego, if not inequality. But the harmony is more a momentary cessation of hostilities than a permanent modality of the relationship. The contrast afforded by its exceptional valence is what invests it with such power, attenuating the mood of ribaldry in the watery depths of a cosmic implication.


The next morning Gennarino wakes to find his crotch decorated with pink blossoms. Raffaella appears, proudly announcing a seagull egg omelet garnished with rabbit fat "prepared to nourish my adored lover." It is her first. "My lord," she asks, "...is it disgusting?" "Mildly disgusting," he replies. 


Oblivious to her station, she waxes lyrical about her bliss, but he's unimpressed. No working-class woman would act like such a "feather-brain." They laugh, and, kissing his forehead, she affectionately calls him a silly idiot. Out of the blue he slaps her and she winces in pain. "Are we back to being familiar?" he asks. "Woman is a love-thing, an object of pleasure for the working man," he explains. A boor for whom "whore" is a term of endearment, Gennarino remains contemptuous of the affectations of the wealthy. Raffaella, too enamoured to be put off, smiles deliriously and kisses him. She has finally found her place--at his beck and call, her once proud independence replaced by the grateful submissiveness of erotic servitude. One would think such an affront to the emancipated modern female's pride, even absent all explicit sexuality, would to have merited an NC-17 rating in the US--the land of "boundless respect for women," as C.G. Jung once observed. Were the censors asleep at the controls?


At this point the infamous "female masochism" concept feminists found politically inconvenient and relegated to the junk heap of theoretical history, suggests itself. Its banishment is reason enough to consider what merit it may have. No one with any understanding of human psychology will fail to appreciate its pertinence to Raffaella's transformation, a process involving not just the birth of love out of hatred, but the defeat of pride and the loss of dignity through her literal subjugation. The stumbling stone for audiences is precisely the coincidence of those changes. But only because it seems to go without saying that any female figure--in art and life--stands in for the entire female gender. If there is any remaining circumstance feminists should address it is this exemplification function of individuals who, through no fault of their own, happens also to be female. (The bigger question: can one 'entertain' a gender-identity without committing the 'essentialist' error?)   

Feminist protectors of Woman's honor recoiled at what they perceived as Wermüller's betrayal. While their disapprobation is understandable given the indelicacy of her farce, such indignation forgets that comedies are by nature about inferior types rather than role-models. Swept Away may not be a pure comedy of manners, but there is more than enough humor in it to warrant the label. More importantly, such criticism confuses the perspective of characters with authorial intent. It assumes that a female director will automatically champion emancipation from old stereotypes. It could be argued that Wertmüller has in fact made a comedy only a radically emancipated gender-feminist would dare to, with the assaults Raffaella endures at the hands of her tormenter constituting proof positive of the literal equality of male and female. To find such violence objectionable, on the other hand, suggests the belief that women are in need of special protection. It was, of course, in the name of just such chivalric homage and protectiveness that women were patronized by the "patriarchy" for centuries. Statistics of sexual violence suggest why.

Before dismissing the concept of female masochism as a myth, I shall attempt to comprehend its relative validity. On the best reading the concept refers to the moment of resignation at the heart of the crucible borne by the bearer of life. "Masochism" in this instance is female by virtue of the biological division of labor and anatomical destiny. Psychologically, it refers to the meaning-making that accompanies the burden of procreation and the weight of female receptivity; to the fact that the answer to the question Woman embodies is an other being: a man first, then a child, and that their co-mingling exposes her to special dangers--as a sex partner and mother. These vulnerabilities need to be off-set by courage. Courage both in facing risk and submitting to her procreative role; the courageous opening-oneself-up to the psych-biological exigences of womanhood. This dimension of courage is not normally contained in the pejorative concept of masochism, which implies an ignoble attachment to suffering rather than the discovery of meaning through it. Given that it's easy to understand why feminists might reject the whole notion, suggestive as it is of pathology. Defined as a feature of sexual desire, attachment to pain is characteristic of a subgroup of women rather than woman per se, and it ignores what female suffering is actually and legitimately about. To be attached to suffering is to be attached to love and sacrifice. And with that we seem to be squarely back in the pre-modern ambient of threatened damsels, mother-worship, and double-standards, including the biblical one of bearing punishment for the myth of man's original transgression, viz. questioning divine authority. Such understanding constitutes a victory by defeat for gender-feminists.   


My restoration-by-abolition of the concept of masochism would be incomplete without the element of attachment to and a desire for suffering as it is found in abusive sexual relationships. It is a fact that some women become serially attached to violent males. It seems self-explanatory to conclude that this sub-group at some level prefers such arrangements. The alternative is the half-truth of female victimization. That masochistic women, being politically incorrect, are an embarrassment to feminists, does not refute the fact that they exist. 

Dignity is the inviolate state of autonomous persons while to be free is to be unsubjugated. No one who is attached to suffering is free in this sense. Willful subjugation is therefore problematic to say the least, and this is what makes it inconvenient, regardless which gender is involved. Even as exception to the rule, the female masochist must invalidate all generalizations about what women want. 

Emotional attachment to suffering is not typically female, even if it is demonstrable that, statistically, such attachment preponderates among women.

But does the concept apply to Raffaella? It is certainly undeniable that Wertmüller emplots her degradation and abuse and shows Raffaella not simply as resigning herself to her new status, but as embracing it as the state "nature" intended, albeit under the constraint of extraordinary circumstances. The attachment to suffering itself must be at least an expression of making a virtue of necessity and finding the "rose in the cross." In this regard so-called "female" masochism is indistinguishable from resignation to fate.


It is undeniable that Raffaella has undergone a transformation from power to weakness and that she developes a taste for the rough treatment meted out to her my Gennarino. It is also true that certain women gravitate towards abusive imbalances of power--whether out of a sense of worthlessness, lust, courage, or a foolhardy but irresistible need to face the crucible of male aggression. 

I suspect both Wertmüller's upper-class origins and her predilection for over-the-top drama predisposed her to a more playful, even mischievous, approach to gender dynamics than your average feminist.

In the ensuing years a cinema of gender-narcissism that flatters the (presumably) fragile female ego has become the rule. Such therapeutic revisionism--most conspicuous in period dramas, where the concerns (and fixations) of modern women are projected onto the past--is the product of the confluence of two developments: the victory of feminist egalitarianism, and the youth-fixation of  marketing savvy of media moguls. Thankfully Wertmüller doesn't serve either agenda. 

If Wermüller is guilty of anything it is caricature. Yet the abusiveness of the antics she stages are off-set by moments of genuine tenderness. Her film is brutal, but it has heart with a capital H. 


Adjusting fishing lines at the beach, Raffaella catches a glimpse of a vessel. After briefly signaling to it, she runs breathlessly to her lord like some star-struck school-girl. "Mr. Carunchio!" she cries, using the form of address she's been instructed to employ. She explains that she didn't hail the yacht because she's been "swept away by an unusual destiny, a dream..." He slaps her for lying, just in case that she is lying. Or, on the off chance she isn't lying, for telling the truth but failing to inform him before initiating a course of action. Raffaella forces herself to smile through the indignity of it all, nodding her approval in abject yet sincere submissiveness. She's so deranged by love she's taken to assuming Gennarino's perspective without thinking. Talk about love as the basis of credulity! 

An implicit criticism of the plight of women "brain-washed" by the patriarchy may be discerned in this grotesque situation. Except that Raffaella has been cowed into submission by fear and love. To enforce social mores, including the command hierarchy in families, moral authority must be rooted in love as much as fear. Only as such does it become effectively internalized ('authoritative'). This is only "brain-washing" if all character-forming internalizations are. It might be better to call it 'coping' from a position of inferiority. Or simply--the human condition. 

More importantly, perhaps, Raffaella's obedience illustrates the conformist modus operandi of what in the post-war era was called, somewhat misguidedly, the "authoritarian" personality. Wertmüller's real point may just be to highlight capitalistic Raffaella's susceptibility to fascistic (= groveling) enthrallment to power

The feminist critique is too narrow as framework for the film's critical reception. The psychology of power per se, rather than the subjugation of women is being emploted. It is only as love-stricken and childishly deferential that Raffaella becomes genuinely human. The proud joy she manifests as devoted servant demands protection. That Genarino should degrade her to a state without dignity suggests that his motivation comes from a place of wounded pride and a fragile sense of manhood. Having attained to power, he could easily dispense with brute force if he chose to. That he continues on in his primitive manner marks him as distinctly inferior and further erodes the case for Wertmüller's preference for his character.   

"You are the original man who nature meant for us women, before everything changed," she muses in ecstatic communion. Just when we think we've hit bottom in the humiliation of Raffaella, she pleads: "My love, I beg you. Sodomize me." Gennarino is taken a back. Or perhaps simply confused. "You're...using long words to make me feel small...Call a spade a spade." "The language of love does not permit it. It would become vulgar," she tells him. "There is no vulgarity in love," he replies. 

At long last Raffaella and Gennarino attain a genuinely tender reciprocity--living and loving as a marooned Adam and Eve. So it's with heavy hearts and much apprehension that they observe the approach of another boat. Raffaella wants to hide: "Why go back and become part of that monstrous scenario again?" But Gennarino needs proof her devotion won't change back in civilization. He sends smoke signals to draw in the sailboat, and they are rescued. 

Gennarino is asked how he managed to preserve his manhood having been shipwrecked with the biggest "ball breaker" sailing the Mediterranean. "The fight for survival took the ginger out of her," Gennarino replies, reluctant to elaborate.  


Raffaella's husband formally thanks him for his troubles. Gennarino reunites with his frumpy wife, who's received a million Lire for his troubles, much to his indignation. He goes and buys Raffaella a "divorce ring."  Then calls to tell her he's chartered a boat to take them back to the island. She professes her unabating love, anguished by the decision facing her. After hanging up Gennarino, in extreme close-up, muses with deep sadness: "Now do you understand, Lady Raffaella, who Gennarino Carunchio is?" a query expressing what has been his motivation all along--a desire for recognition--only this time as the pensive wish of a an enfeebled man with something to prove. 

During its final act the comedy turns bittersweet. As Gennarino sits on the pier waiting for Raffaella, a little messenger boy returns with a note telling him of her decision to return to the life she had known before. Gennarino, eyes full of tears, races towards her helicopter as it takes off. "Lousy slut!" he shouts, "you leave me all alone." When his wife returns and assaults him for betraying her, Gennarino swears off the whole "female race." "One whore above me, one whore below me. And the sea has turned traitor."


The next morning he sits in the pale light, his face bearing the scratches of his wife's attack. He takes off Raffaella's earring and tosses it into the water. In the final scene he and his wife walk along the dock with a suitcase to the plaintive stains of a guitar and a humming female voice. A rueful ending to a blissful if bruising odyssey.