Skepticism at the Margins: Tom Noonan’s The Wife
I read Stanley Cavell’s book on Emersonian perfectionism, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, a while ago, but didn’t make much of it. However, one suggestion he made stuck with me: that we should (read Wittgenstein as) allow(ing) skepticism to exist at the margins, that the possibility of skepticism should be left open, should not be fully dispensed with. (Wittgenstein says,) while we need not be skeptics, the possibility of skepticism should never fully leave us. I did not fully grasp the point in relation to Wittgenstein, but the suggestion itself has bounced around my mind since I finished the work.
The reason why I am interested in Cavell’s suggestion now relates to a quote from David Foster Wallace that I bring up fairly frequently. In an interview, David Foster Wallace explained why he did not care for Bret Easton Ellis’ work:
You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.
I bring this up often on this blog because I use it to understand particular artworks and to understand art in general. When reading a book or watching a film, I hunt for “those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow”. And, because I think searching for those elements is a task for serious intellectual inquiry, I think this characterizes (at least one aspect of) artistic works as contributions to such inquiry (of course, they have other uses as well).
This has led me into trouble at times, however, for some works of art simply do not seem to offer solutions—or worse, they do offer solutions, and then cut them off, show in painful detail how they fail, how people are trapped, how all-too-tangible forces snuff out anything that dares still to glow. Are these works failures, by David Foster Wallace’s admirable criterion? And if they are, can his criterion survive, given that many such works are otherwise of the highest quality? Here I think Cavell helps: the distinction between such works and the Ellis-type works that Wallace condemns—I have never read Ellis so I am just taking Wallace’s critique for granted here—is that such works constitute the skeptical margin of Wallace’s sort of inquiry, a margin that must be kept alive. Perhaps there are no more possibilities for being alive and human; perhaps there never were. And it is not an abdication of responsibility to countenance that possibility, no more than it’s an abdication of responsibility to be a skeptic about knowledge—though of course one may be either sort of skeptic out of just such laziness.
Thus concludes the purely philosophical portion of this post: now I want to look at this idea in relation to Tom Noonan’s film The Wife. Earlier, I wrote a series of four posts on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, looking precisely at the way that it painted “the times” (all times, really) as dark, yet still explored the ways that one might nonetheless be alive and human in them. It explored the pitfalls of these ways as well, of course—Cassavetes’ picture of Mabel is sympathetic but not romantic.
The darkness of the times, for Cassavetes, comes about through the nature of social interaction (hence the darkness of all times, for human interactions feature in all human times). Interaction oppresses on two levels: first, within an individual, the fear of being judged closes her off to the possibilities for freedom that exist (we see this in Margaret especially); second, in the interactions themselves, we see people act in paternalistic rather than fraternal ways, leading in the end to Mabel being locked up “for her own good”.
Noonan’s film, from 1995, is the skeptical side to Cassavetes’ dark but ultimately hopeful vision. Much like Cassavetes’ films, Noonan’s The Wife works by showing in visceral detail the repressive power of human interactions. Unlike Cassavetes, Noonan suggests there is no escape from it, no possibilities for freedom.
Jack and Rita, two (married) therapists, have retired to their home for a bit of a break from their work. At the start of the film, we only see them, and already we see the perils of social interaction. Jack (played by Noonan himself) is constantly stepping on Rita, ignoring her requests, pushing himself away from her, and all with his horrifying smile, the smile of someone who is always joking around to the point where it can only be malicious. At this point, we can perhaps pass it off as simply a struggling marriage: Jack walks all over Rita, and Rita is weak enough to let him.
Soon enough, one of their patients, Cosmo, arrives, having been dragged there against his will by his wife, Arlie. Cosmo is uptight beyond measure, and he is here especially wound up because he is in a place where he does not want to be. His wife, by contrast, is freewheeling, entirely loose. She is basically Cosmo’s opposite.
As Rita prepares dinner, Arlie explores the house, and Cosmo darts around like a scared rabbit, Noonan (as director, not as Jack) pairs up the characters, running through the permutations of possible pairs. Some are obviously strained (Jack-Rita, Rita-Arlie), whereas others sometimes seem open. But these latter, at the precise moment they begin to open up, are interrupted by the introduction of a third person (usually Jack) who cuts off what openness there was. At this point, the pairings change, and the process begins again. Here we begin to hope: if only two people could get time alone together, for the tension comes from there being too many people—if two people got substantial time alone it would all work out.
Noonan’s next step is to separate the men and the women: Rita and Arlie remain inside, cooking, while Jack and Cosmo go for a walk. Rita and Arlie remain tense around each other: Rita treats Arlie like someone who is violating her home, and Arlie for her part, acts this out. They attempt to make conversation, but fail. With Jack and Cosmo, however, there is more hope. Cosmo seems on the verge of a breakthrough (so he and Jack say), and Jack takes him to a quiet place where, Jack says, he (Jack) can find his authenticity. Since this is what Cosmo wants (or has been bamboozled into wanting), it seems that finally something good will happen. They go back to the house with this hope, and in the house it is torn down (and it is revealed to us that it never had any substance, that Jack is a fraud and a tyrant, etc.). But before this, there is the hope: if only Cosmo can survive this trip to the house, he will achieve some redemption. Cosmo expresses his feeling of what oppresses him: his opportunities are always cut off, and now he wants, for once, an opportunity that is not cut off. After Cosmo says this, we see what has been going on in the previous scenes as the constant cutting off of opportunities, and we see Cosmo’s prospects: if only, in the house, this opportunity is not cut off…
In the house, the four sit down to dinner (but only after some machinations by Jack that reveal more of the darkness he embodies). Natural alliances start to form: Rita and Cosmo band together (as victims), while Arlie and Jack cooperate as oppressors. Whenever Cosmo or Rita try to talk, they are cut off. Rita tries to make space for Cosmo to talk (within the weak pairing, she serves as the protector), but is too weak to succeed. Arlie, too, sometimes gets cut off, but Jack always steps in to protect her, to let her speak (in the strong pairing, Jack is thus the protector). The result is an increasingly horrible and awkward dinner, with Jack and Arlie ganging up on Cosmo against the increasingly feeble protests of Rita. But it raises yet another glimmer of light: if only Cosmo and Rita can have time alone—let Jack and Arlie go away, and then finally there can be an opportunity that is not cut off.
So Noonan explores this possibility. After bringing the tensions to a head, with Arlie saying terrible things to Cosmo, Arlie storms out of the house and Jack goes to look for her, leaving Rita and Cosmo alone in the house. Cosmo starts to open up, though Rita seems distant (we find out later that she has been taking Quaaludes). Finally, he achieves his breakthrough, “expressing what he feels” (what he tried and failed to do during the dinner, again and again). At this point, in perhaps the most shattering moment of the film, Rita walks out of the room. Cosmo, so happy to finally be talking, doesn’t notice and simply goes on talking to the air. At this moment, Cosmo is reduced to his lowest point, and the film’s skepticism becomes complete. For every possibility within social interactions has been tried and has failed—Rita’s walking out of the room constitutes the final failure of social interaction—and all that is left is isolation, embodied by Cosmo’s self-expression to nobody. As awful, as painful to watch, as the preceding scenes were, nothing is worse than this, than watching Cosmo finally spin freely, but in a way that makes no contact with the rest of the world, that generates no friction: Cosmo, spinning frictionlessly in a void.
There is more to the film, but this is a good place to stop: it shows the deeply skeptical position of the film with respect to the question: is it possible to be alive and human? (It is possible to read the end of the film as offering a glimmer of hope, but I think what has come before makes this highly implausible.) The two fundamental possibilities, isolation and socialization, are both insufficient as contexts for being alive and human. In isolation, one’s opportunities are not cut off, but only because they generate no friction, contact nothing, affect nothing. Within social interactions, by contrast, the friction generated cuts off all opportunities without fail.
Is Noonan right? Is there really no possibility for human freedom? I want to say no. I want to say that Cassavetes shows how he is wrong, shows that the possibility remains, even if only dimly. But Noonan can always respond: yes, but my film captures the reality of things; Cassavetes’ film is only a fiction. And that is just the point: skepticism always has a rejoinder, always finds its place, even if only at the margins.