We see two men: Jules (German, or maybe Austrian) and Jim (French). They are jolly friends. Jules is shy and romantic; Jim nonchalant and debonair. Girls enter their lives and leave.
One evening they are looking at slides of primitive sculptures. They are so taken with one statue that they seek it out: a large stone head of a smiling woman. Shortly thereafter, they meet Catherine, who has the same smile. (She doesn't, but they say she does.) Jules touches Jim on the arm. "Not this one, Jim."
Jim goes to fetch Catherine for an expedition the three of them are planning. He stands in her apartment; he looks at the wall. Sixteen minutes into the movie, Georges Delerue's lovely score tells us unmistakably the following: This will not end well.
And 16 minutes into the movie, I began to weep. Catherine--one saw it all clearly, in a flash--wished to be what nearly any woman of gumption wished, whether in her day, pre-WWI, or mine, 1963. Catherine wished to be the Greatest Woman in the World. A small world, consisting only of Jules and Jim, but that was what she wished. And because that ambition was overweening, presumptuous, and excessive, she was doomed. A woman who wanted not to be a helpmeet and a handmaid, who wanted to be the Greatest Woman in the World, was doomed--even though no woman of gumption could wish for less.
I try to imagine anybody with half a brain thinking that today. I was right in seeing women with that level of aspiration as doomed, but not in the way I thought. Within 10 years, five years, the profession of mistress to great men had dried up completely. A woman might wish, as a man might, for security or variety or adventure in her personal life, but the idea that being a woman--or a Woman--was a career just kind of disappeared.
Women my age who complain bitterly about the young women of today and the betrayal of our ideals don't want to remember how bad things were, how bad we were inside our heads. I have a daughter in her 20s now, and as a woman she is so far beyond me in 1963 that I could dance for joy. Intelligent women of spirit no longer regard a woman's relations with men as her defining characteristic. Stupid, apathetic women don't. Not even men do. The United States of 2000 is better, if only in this one regard, than the United States of 40 years ago.
So why haven't the movies caught up? Why do I have to defend my movie habit with, let's face it, a certain amount of embarrassment among my fellow feminists? What's wrong?
First off, duh, men still do most behind-the-camera tasks. It's not necessary to impute ill will to them, but they can't tell our stories for us. And even if every script were written by a woman, she would still have to come up with a new story. If every camera were operated by a woman, she would still need to come up with a new angle. Being a woman doesn't automatically give you a fresh, authentic voice.
Old contrivances linger. Think how long it took novelists to stop killing characters off with consumption. Blindness is approximately 1,400 times more common in movies than in real life. So it's no surprise that movie girls still wonder whether movie boys will call long after real-life girls have already dialed the phone. It's no surprise that unplanned pregnancy continues to serve as a plot prop--even though it automatically flips the unplanning female character back into the old paradigm of passivity and muddle.
There's no new paradigm. In the old paradigm, there were two options, the Mother and the Whore, each with subdivisions. Mother could be Earth, Suffering, Victorious, or I Remember. Whore could be Heart o' Gold, One of the Boys, Gun Moll, or Greatest Woman in the World--GWW for short. There's no new classification that reduces all of womankind to two or three or five handy categories. This is not a bad thing.
But stories are hard. Even writing the occasional wee review, I can see how hard it is to write anything, let alone anything different. The old paradigm provided ways of jump-starting a story. Okay, there's this woman and she's... she's a Gun Moll with a Heart of Gold. No, let's make her a Gun Moll but also a Suffering Mother. Or whatever. Those of us who don't have to do it for a living should have a little decency in our hearts toward those who do.
In any era except very recent ones, in any country except a very few, and in all too many situations, women cannot realistically be depicted as full citizens. Female fisherpeople in The Perfect Storm, aged female would-be astronauts in Space Cowboys, female judges and attorneys--and defendants--in Nuremberg? I don't think so. Of course, those would be not only possible but swell onstage. I love both movies and theater, but they're different. Color-blind, disability-blind, gender-blind casting are almost the norm onstage, but there's a weird literalism about film. Who knows, maybe in another 40 years we could have a woman playing Jesus onscreen--not just Jesus, but Pontius Pilate too. Things are okay only when we get both roles.
In one of film's least literal genres, we can see a gleam of hope. Increasingly, women in action films perform actions instead of flopping about waiting to be rescued. Ever since the divine Rene Russo kicked butt in Lethal Weapon 56--and remember, her character was pregnant--things have been looking up. Lori Petty, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis--these women do not take passive roles, and they're not male-identified. True, action movies appeal primarily to adolescent boys, but when women in movies get to pick their own fights, women in the audience might get more in touch with our Inner 14-Year-Old. True, most female characters in action movies end up arm in arm with some guy (although I'm told the Thandie Newton character in M:I-2 remains hardcore to the end). For me the best part is that my daughter and her friends deem hand in hand into the sunset "selling out." We used to call it a "happy ending."
Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who hopes people will be afraid she may kickbox them.