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Skepticism at the Margins: Tom Noonan’s The Wife

2013/08/16 2 comments

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.

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Perverting Pascal (on Mabel’s Madness)

2013/06/22 2 comments

Addendum to Is Mabel Longhetti Crazy

Fortuitously, I came across the following quote from Pascal’s Pensées tonight, only a few days after my recent viewing of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Though Pascal’s original intention must be perverted to make it so, it nicely summarizes the world of Cassavetes’ film, in which the only truly sane person is deemed mad:

Men are so necessarily mad that it would be another twist of madness not to be mad. (§31)

The madness of the world, seen most prominently in Margaret, permeates everything, infuses it so thoroughly, that to escape from the madness, as Mabel does, is to be mad, to need to be locked away. It is a further twist of madness: the non-mad cannot function in a mad world, and so are mad, insofar as inability to function is a sign of madness.

With due apologies to Pascal, who would not doubt be horrified by the tremendous violence perpetrated against him in this brief post.

Two Sedation Scenes

2013/06/21 1 comment

Continuing my run of posts reflecting upon my recent viewing of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, I would now like to think about the sedative scene in Cassavetes’ film as it relates to the sedative scene in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

I have already written about the way the sedation scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice forces the viewer to sin. We, the viewers, are made so uncomfortable by the Alexander’s wife’s horrible, panicked yelling that we long for nothing more desperately than for her to shut up, and so we are gratified when Victor finally gives her the sedative. We get so swept up in the unpleasantness of the moment that we come to desire what, in hindsight, is not at all what we should desire. The wife’s response to the threat of nuclear warfare is, in its own way, entirely rational and understandable: the news is horrible, and too much for her. Does this mean she needs to be sedated, for her own good? Or is it simply that we project our own desires as her needs so that we may think of our selfishness as noble? In this case, I think it is the latter.

In the Tarkovsky scene, the object of our attention (the hysterical wife) is a relatively peripheral character, though there are so few characters that none is of little importance. Her breakdown and sedation serves to exemplify the concept of sin as that which is unnecessary, given voice (literally) earlier in the film—it is only in this scene that the impact of those words is fully felt. This scene, if we realize how it has made us sin, prepares us for Alexander’s sacrifice to follow. In this way, the scene marks a turning point in the film: we are brought to an awareness of our own wretchedness just in time to sympathize with Alexander as he confesses his own wretchedness to God.

The scene in A Woman Under the Influence is similarly uncomfortable, and similarly marks a crucial turning point in the film, yet it works quite differently from the scene in Tarkovsky’s film. The primary source of discomfort here is not Mabel, who is being sedated, but Margaret, whose repeated calls for Dr. Zepp to “do something” (because Mabel is “crazy”) are nauseating, a source of physical revulsion. But it is also uncomfortable for a second reason, which may become apparent only on a second viewing: we feel the injustice of what is being done to Mabel. We come to see just how cornered she is, and for no justifiable reason. We are made uncomfortable in a new way: we see the sick overrunning the healthy. (A sort of Nietzschean disgust.)

When we next see Mabel again, she is traumatized, having been locked away for six months in a place whose horrors of which we get a glimpse before, of course, Mabel is made to shut up, since acknowledging those horrors would be too “impolite” for a party. In what follows, we get the sense that the distinction between Mabel’s treatment in the asylum and her treatment at home is a difference only in degree, and perhaps not a great degree at that. The sedative scene thus marks a decisive turn in Mabel’s life: her being sedated marks the moment at which the world finally succeeds in breaking her, in which insanity finally prevails.

By contrast, the sedative scene in The Sacrifice works to prime the viewer, to make us more sympathetic to Alexander’s apparently “mad” actions to follow. By forcing us to sin and making us aware of our own wretchedness, Tarkovsky brings us closer to Alexander, puts us in a position to understand him, if only marginally. But, in a way, beyond this difference, the sedative scene in A Woman Under the Influence plays a similar role: if there is one scene in the film that proves that Mabel is not crazy, it is the sedative scene.

Sedation is, in the worlds at large of both films, seen as a way of dealing with insanity, whether that insanity is temporary or a lasting condition. But, in both films, the scenes in which sedation plays a role are scenes in which we are prepared or made to realize that what we would normally take for insanity is perhaps the height of human freedom. Tarkovsky and Cassavetes have very different visions of what that freedom is, but they share this: sedation will lead us astray.

Is Mabel Longhetti Crazy?

2013/06/20 4 comments

The title question and my negative answer shall, I hope, serve as a springboard for close in­vestigation of certain aspects of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. It is thus less a thesis than an organizing principle. Since my thesis is not original, I take this as a virtue.

The world certainly believes Mabel is crazy, with perhaps the exception of her husband, Nick (and yet he is the one who calls Dr. Zepp to take her to the nuthouse—more on this later). Thus it has her locked up, treads lightly around her when she is free, and refuses all of her uncomfortable advances. But she is not crazy.

She can be interpreted as crazy because of these uncomfortable advances. For instance, at the beginning of the film, she interacts with one of her husband’s coworkers in a way that, for most people, would constitute flirting. Her husband is right there, as are many other of his coworkers. The night before, she took a man (not her husband) home, then kicked him out screaming in the morning, asking where her kids are (her mother took them the prior day so that she could have time alone with her husband).

There are two other scenes where she might seem crazy. One is the sedative scene, a scene every bit as hard to watch as the sedative scene in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. There, she acts like a deranged, caged animal, terrified and frightened, while the doctor first tries to talk to her, then give her a sedative. She makes what might be taken as paranoid accusations about her mother-in-law keeping her from her kids. The second is the scene, after she is released from the “nuthouse”, in which she tries to commit suicide after a welcome home party in which she becomes increasingly uncomfortable.

Why does she seem crazy? She is clearly aloof from social conventions. In the scene at dinner, early in the film, she gets very close to Billy, violating the norms of reaction bubbles (link to an elucidatory image). Her husband yells at her to stop, and explains later that she didn’t do anything wrong, but that Billy would get the wrong idea. Similarly, just prior to the sedative scene, some of her kids’ friends come over, and Mabel tries to get their father (Harold) to dance. After he refuses, the kids go inside for a costume party, and we end up with two naked young girls running around the house, to the horror of Harold and, when they return, Nick and his mother. (It is this incident that prompts Nick to call Dr. Zepp.) Once again, she has violated social norms.

It is this aloofness from social convention that makes her seem crazy. People can only understand her actions by fitting them to some pre-established social role. Thus Garson (the man she brings home) tries to understand whether she is getting back at her husband using him (or some related alternative). Nick makes Mabel sit down at dinner (when she is getting too close to Billy) because Nick believes Billy will only be able to interpret her actions by fitting them to the social norms of personal space: if Mabel is getting into Billy’s personal and intimate space (see the image above), it must (so he will think) be because she is interested in him romantically, is flirting with him. (Of course she is interested in him, but not like that.)

Such aloofness is not craziness, however. Moreover, Mabel is painfully aware of this, and is constantly asking her husband what she is supposed to, worrying whether she did something wrong, etc. She tries to fit in, to conform to the norms. She fails, and so she is taken as crazy. Yet she is really just trying to get other people to react in a spontaneous, non-socially determined way with her. She wants Garson, Harold, Billy, to dance with her—a request each refuses (except Billy—Nick refuses for him).

But what about the sedative scene? Surely there she has a nervous breakdown, at least. If we closely attend to what happens, though, this interpretation falls apart. She has just been “caught” with the two naked girls, first by Harold, then by Nick and Margaret (his mother). We must understand that up to this point she has done nothing crazy. She has simply done something not socially allowed, though she can see no harm in it. (This for the simple reason that, beyond the social convention, there is no harm in it. In a way, Mabel can be said to have a very pure ethical vision, untainted by the moralizing of social norms.) Nick freaks out, calls the doctor, and freaks out some more, all while his mother is even worse. He yells at Mabel, who is for the most part meek, though clearly upset.

Then Dr. Zepp arrives. From that point on, Mabel more and more starts acting like a caged animal. You might attribute this to her having a nervous breakdown, but there is no need to do so. For her caged-animal-like behavior is fully explained by her literally being a caged animal. She is, in more ways than one, backed into a corner, terrified. So she lashes out. The behavior that ultimately gets her taken away is, in fact, the most sensible, understandable, reasonable, and justified behavior in the entire film: a caged animal acts like a caged animal. (Perhaps she would have gotten out of it by acting “civilized”, responding calmly and “rationally”, but then civilization is precisely what is treating her so savagely. Why should she sell her soul to the devil?)

As for the attempted suicide scene, it too is not at all crazy. Mabel has just come home from the asylum to a party with her family. (Nick wanted a much larger party, but Margaret kicked everybody else out right before Mabel arrived.) She tries to joke, but is clearly uncomfortable, much less free than before—her experience has not left her. At one point she starts recounting parts of it, but is told to stop. Eventually, she can no longer take it, and asks everyone to leave. Margaret, who has so far been quite kind and thoughtful, so it seems, refuses to leave because “I came here for a party.” This immediately reveals that her apparent concern and sympathy earlier was not genuine, but simply part of an attempt to fill the social role of caring mother-in-law. So no one leaves. Mabel starts acting out more and more, until finally it is too much, and people leave. (Does Mabel do this consciously? Perhaps, but then she would have to know a good deal about social roles that she did not before—a chilling thought.)

Alone with Nick, she reprises the dying swan dance from earlier in the film. Before, she and the kids (hers and Harold’s) had performed it in a scene that exemplifies Mabel’s freedom. (It also exemplifies how kids, unlike everyone else, are open to her freedom. In one of the more tragically hilarious scenes in the film, Harold tells Mabel that he worries about leaving his kids with her!) Here, however, it takes on a new resonance: she is the dying swan, and soon after she tries to commit suicide, though Nick stops her. I think it should be clear that it is the hostility of the world, a world that hates her freedom (if patriotic Americans want to know what hatred of freedom is, this film provides a better example than any foreign country), that drives her to such an extreme. It is certainly not an illness.

So Mabel is not crazy. Yet neither is she fully healthy. She is free, unconstrained (internally) by social norms (which is why the external constraints society imposes on her are so traumatic), but her freedom is not a balanced freedom, not stable. Why is this? Precisely because of her aloofness. Instead of being able to trope social norms (e.g. in an Emersonian way), twisting them to her own ends, modifying them, exploring their possibilities, she just hovers above them. Her purity (in the sense described above) is on the one hand admirable, but on the other hand means that she is not well suited to survive in a socially constrained world (and there is no other world to survive in, at least not any other such world with dance partners). Instead of dancing around and on social conventions, she dances entirely outside them. Hence she is unstable. Hence the world is traumatic for her.

The difference between instability and insanity is not merely verbal. It is crucial to understanding the film. If Mabel is crazy, insane, then she needs paternalistic care. She needs Dr. Zepp’s sedative, needs her stay in the asylum. If Mabel is merely unstable, and her instability is the flip side of her freedom, however, what she needs is exactly the opposite of paternalistic care. If she is unstable, paternalistic care is precisely what would break her—which is exactly what happens in the film. Only when she is “offered” (ha!) “help” does she have a nervous breakdown, and only from the perspective of those trying to help can it be characterized as a breakdown. If she is unstable, it is the incessant paternalism of the world that is crazy.

It is the world, not Mabel that is insane. Mabel’s apparent “insanity” is simply her inability to survive in such an insane world, try as she might.