Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Chained Melody

In Jean Negulesco’s late-50s estrogen-fest The Best of Everything, Gregg (Suzy Parker) stalks Louis Jourdan’s chronic womanizer and eventually gets her heel stuck in his fire escape grating. This illogically catapults her over the edge to her death. In the same film, April (Diane Baker) falls for a loathsome playboy (played by the equally loathsome Robert Evans) and gets pregnant with his child. Unwilling to compromise his bachelorhood, he concocts the cruelest plan ever and tricks her into believing that he is taking her to get married. She gets all dolled up, and he even brings the flowers and a ring. On the way, he informs her that, in fact, they aren’t getting married. He’s actually taking her to get an abortion. Surprise! Justifiably aghast, April somehow manages to tumble out of the moving car, causing a miscarriage. She then proceeds to fall in love with her doctor. This is the type of subtlety that Black Snake Moan lacks.

All right, I might be exaggerating just a bit, but that is exactly the sort of grand declaration a character in Black Snake Moan would shout with the utmost conviction. In the tradition of great melodramas like The Best of Everything, these characters do not speak in any humanly recognizable way, and each scene is more unbelievable and absurd than the previous one. There’s only one problem – Black Snake Moan is neither a melodrama nor great.

The story, written and directed by Craig Brewer of Hustle and Flow fame, finds Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a blues musician hardened by life, still reeling from learning about his wife’s affair with his brother. In another part of the sleepy southern town, Rae (Christina Ricci) bids farewell to her military-bound boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). As soon as he drives away, she falls to the ground and writhes around in agony, consumed by nymphomania. One male would even later describe her as being “in heat.” She proceeds to get hussied up and prowls the town for any man she can find. Unfortunately, she runs into the wrong man, Ronnie’s friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James), who inexplicably beats her to a bloody pulp and leaves her for dead on the side of the road. The next morning, Lazarus finds her and takes it upon himself to rehabilitate her.

If this sounds like it has the potential to be a sweet, quiet tale about a man and a young woman, both chewed up and spit out by society, who find redemption through each other’s friendship, don’t be fooled. This is an exploitation film on every level. Let’s start with the fact that Christina Ricci is practically naked for the entire film. Her main costume, if it can be called that, consists of white cotton panties and a ridiculously cropped shirt that falls off her shoulders and barely covers the bottom of her breasts. The film takes an insanely sadomasochistic turn when Lazarus decides to chain Rae up to his radiator in order to “cure” her of her demons and her sluttiness. Lazarus believes finding Rae was some sort of sign, a call to spiritual action, and taking care of her becomes his primary concern, even if his methods are questionable.

Rae is understandably horrified when she regains consciousness and discovers the massive industrial-strength chain around her waist. After a lot of shrieking and fighting, she surrenders. There is a particularly upsetting scene soon after in which Lazarus pulls her along by the chain in his fields like a dog, insisting that she needs her exercise. Later, he makes the mistake of leaving her alone in the house, where she becomes possessed by one of her fits. A young, unsuspecting virgin named Lincoln (Neimus K. Williams) comes to collect some beans, and he lingers for an impossibly long time when it is clear that Lazarus isn’t home. He finally decides to go in the house, and Rae immediately rips off her shirt and attacks him like a mad animal. Lazarus comes home and erupts, and the mood is so awkward and unsure that I half-expected to hear a laugh track. He then takes Lincoln to the barn and basically congratulates him on his first time. In a totally random monologue, Lazarus describes losing his virginity to his second cousin. As we have seen before, logic is not one of the film’s strong points.

There are some feeble attempts at subplots, including one about Ronnie and his anxiety. The military apparently discharges him after only a week, which seems rather hasty even for the United States. He explains to Gill somberly that they told him he had “severe anxiety.” I think I may have to consult the DSM-IV on this one, but “severe anxiety” is not a real psychiatric illness. In fact, the asinine oversimplification of anxiety in this film is insulting to anyone who has ever suffered from it.

None of the characters’ motivations are too convincing. We know that Lazarus was betrayed, but it just doesn’t seem like enough to warrant what basically amounts to a kidnapping and hostage situation. For all of her histrionics, I can at least empathize with Rae a bit more. We learn the cause of her nymphomania and meet her cruel mother, and her issues suddenly seem to make some sense. But why are we asked to focus so much on Ronnie’s problem, and why would anyone think we’d care? The answer is simple – this is a man’s world, baby. Rae is an object, beaten down into submission and asked to like it. She is expected to cater to his needs, forever chained to her femininity.

But nothing is more infuriating than the blatant misogyny plaguing Black Snake Moan. The woman is the one who must pay for her sins. The woman has to be chained up like a feral beast. The woman has to parade around nearly nude the whole film. Lazarus’ first order of business should have been to get the poor girl some clothes, but he doesn’t get around to it for days. Even then, the clothes he picks are not the most modest. The chain is the ultimate symbol of oppression, and it makes an appearance in another form near the end of the film, in a gesture so horrifically demeaning that it obliterates about a hundred years of women’s progress.

The blues music in the film is phenomenal, and the acting is solid for the most part. Timberlake proves that he’s more than just a pretty face by bringing some raw emotion to a pretty useless character. As the kind pharmacist interested in Lazarus, S. Epatha Merkerson’s gentle, pure presence is a constant joy to watch. Jackson, a rather good blues singer, successfully blends grittiness and tenderness. Ricci contrasts her very grown-up body and blatant sexuality with a childlike vulnerability that is almost touching when she is not twisting and writhing around. She screams a lot and is quite overdramatic, but she does have a few quiet moments that are very sweet and moving, like when she listens to Lazarus sing during a storm and when she tries playing the guitar and singing herself. It’s nice to see her smile.

This film is distasteful and pretty much an affront to women and humanity in general. It also resorts to the sort of moralizing prevalent in many movies today that I find so insulting. And the imposed religiosity is condescending. I mean, Lazarus? Come on. While I was watching Black Snake Moan, my face was frozen in a look of what can only be called appalled disbelief. That being said, I had a blast watching this film. That look of bewilderment was topped off by a faint, goofy grin that was plastered on my face the whole time. I have never laughed harder at a subject matter that is so painfully unfunny. I haven’t had this much fun in the theater since I saw Borat, a film equally ludicrous, but actually intelligent and self-aware. When it was over and the credits were rolling over scenes from the film that were apparently supposed to remind us fondly of the good times we had, I burst out laughing. Oh yeah! I remember him pulling her through the field by the chain like a donkey. That was absolutely hilarious!

I’m incredibly conflicted about this film. Every fiber of my being is telling me that, as a woman, I should go burn my bra or something. But I enjoyed myself so much that it’s kind of frightening. It is a beautiful, uproarious mess. It’s not great or even good, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun in its sheer audacity. Ultimately, I can’t ignore the fact that it is a failure, and the entertainment is only a result of that. Sure, there are some intentionally funny moments, but mostly, it is misfire after misfire. And when something sort of works accidentally, I’m reluctant to give the filmmakers too much credit. But I do respect a filmmaker for trying to make something different and ambitious and failing rather than playing it ridiculously safe and making, say, Norbit. For that, I do give Craig Brewer credit. He is, to say the least, very earnest. Yet I’m reminded of a kid at a recital who gives a terrible performance, but the audience is afraid to hurt his feelings and humors him, praising his efforts, but meanwhile just gritting their teeth and praying for it to end.

Still, if you go see this film, I promise that you will never be bored. I’m offended by its message, and I don’t think it’s done very well, but I enjoyed watching it. Confused yet? So am I. Ultimately, does all this mean that I like it? Hell no. I might still burn my bra. I had a good, fun time because it was so absurdly offensive and awful that I couldn't fathom what I was seeing. All I could do was laugh...so as not to weep for humanity, I suppose. This is, without question, a funny-bad movie, meaning it's so bad that it's funny. But all chuckles aside, it doesn't make the misogyny acceptable, forgettable, or any less potent.

There is a disturbing trend in films of recent years – the endorsement of female victimization. In 2006’s The Dead Girl, all of the women are destroyed or controlled by the male world around them. Without a doubt, writer-director Karen Moncrieff cares about these women and certainly does not propose that it is acceptable to abuse women, but they are solely defined by their victimization. There is really no hope, and I got the sense that they were doomed to repeat the same patterns. That sort of bleak, reductionist thinking allows the sexist system to persist and thrive. Similarly, in Black Snake Moan, Rae is damaged and victimized. Instead of allowing her the opportunity to find her own way in life, the film takes the easy way out and promotes co-dependency. It is humiliating and pathetic that Rae’s only hope lies in her relationship with Ronnie. Sure, people in relationships are supposed to support each other, but if you literally cannot exist independently, then it may be time to reevaluate things. Even worse, she has to be “saved” by a man in the first place. Lazarus adopts her like some sort of Jezebel charity case. She is completely incapable of doing anything without the assistance of men.

To anyone who believes that films released during the Golden Age of Hollywood are sexist, I challenge you to find a film more degrading to women than Black Snake Moan. Of course, the Production Code and the religious fanatics (yes, they were around then, too) demanded that women pay much more harshly for their transgressions than men. And yes, the woman almost always ends up with the man at the end. But there is no way that Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, or Barbara Stanwyck would have been as complacently submissive as Rae in Black Snake Moan. Their characters were witty, vibrant, and strong. They never would have allowed a man to chain them. They had too much self-respect for that. So say what you will about “archaic” notions in older movies, but those women, both the characters and the actresses themselves, possess a class and dignity that is utterly obsolete in today’s society.

But despite my amusement, which I can only assume is shock that it wasn’t just some crazy dream, Black Snake Moan suffers from its total lack of consistency. Is it a romantic comedy? Is it a pure exploitation film? Is it a melodrama, after all? If it fully committed to one path, maybe it could have worked. In a film totally obsessed with sex, nothing is ever consummated, and I was left feeling unsatisfied. Ironic, isn’t it?

Rating: * (out of 5)

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