Entry from July 30, 2009

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of “Crime and Punishment” at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The seventh film in the series, Body Heat, by Lawrence Kasdan, was screened Tuesday evening, July 28, 2009. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes as follows:

Once again, I want to start my introduction to this week’s movie with a reference back to last week’s. I’ll get back to Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, made in 1981, in a few minutes, but first I want to mention what I think we missed in our discussion of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde last week. After that discussion, I got to thinking about what there was about the movie, exactly, that seemed to so many people in 1967 to be “revolutionary” — that word which so often pops up in later discussions of it. It occurred to me that what must have struck people either for good or ill about that movie, as about so many other things that were going on in the culture at the same time, was its shamelessness. Think back to Tommy Powers in The Public Enemy and how, for all his cockiness, he would never have wanted his mother to know how he made his living, just as his mother never wanted to know, though she gets some pretty broad hints about it from her other son, Michael. She pays no attention to these. Her only concern is to stop her two boys from fighting.

In all the other films we saw from the far side of the 1960s watershed, the shame of the criminals could be taken for granted. Think of the palpable horror in John Garfield’s voice in The Postman Always Rings Twice when he says: “They hang you for that!” He wasn’t just thinking about his own prospective fate but about the shame of the deed itself. All this changes with Bonnie and Clyde. The film took its tag-line from Bonnie’s proud announcement: “We rob banks.” Or remember her self-satisfaction in informing Michael J. Pollard’s C.W. Moss that what they are driving is “a stolen four-cylinder Ford coupé.” Shame is of course something that results from social expectation. We feel it because we have internalized the values of others who assume that we — or anybody — ought to feel it. But in Bonnie and Clyde those expectations have apparently collapsed. It is set only a couple of years after the date of The Public Enemy (1931), where criminality is still obviously a matter of public shame, but in its world there is no such shame. Compare Mrs Powers with Mrs Parker. Bonnie proudly brings home, as it were, her bank-robber boyfriend to meet mom and all the family — who then tell her that they have been keeping a scrapbook of the already legendary couple’s exploits as recorded by the newspapers.

We see Clyde’s regret when he is forced, as he sees it, to kill the bank manager, but that seems a merely private remorse, and it is bound up with his anger with C.W. for parking the car and so making possible the pursuit that results in his death. Nor does either Clyde or Bonnie feel any apparent regret at the deaths of numbers of policemen. Given the period, what is almost more remarkable than their not being ashamed of robbery and murder is their not being ashamed of being unmarried. Again, neither Mrs Parker nor any of the family at the picnic remarks on the fact that they are living as man an wife, let alone expresses any disapproval of it. Old man Moss, played by Dub Taylor is meant to be a figure of fun for making such a point of C.W.’s tattoo while saying nothing of his being an accomplice to capital crimes, but at least he is capable of shame about something — and something about which his feelings of shame are meant to discredit him.

For the man who eventually betrays our heroes to “the laws” — we always knew he was a wrong ‘un — is almost the film’s sole representative of a lower class shame culture which we know from having watched those other movies was still alive and well at the time but which everyone else in Bonnie and Clyde seems miraculously to have escaped. His own social anxiety is apparent in his lumping together Bonnie and Clyde and tattooed people as “trash,” by which he means a social class inferior to his own. He is a small and seemingly independent farmer, but he is not so far superior to those beneath him that he does not feel his own or his son’s danger of slipping back down among them. He and Denver Pyle’s Frank Hamer are the only people in the movie who are apparently capable of feeling shame, and I don’t think it can be a coincidence that they are also the only people in the movie whom the movie clearly disapproves of. In the middle of this shocking crime spree, they are the only two bad guys.

I am old enough to remember when to be a man was to feel the shame of being thought a coward, while to be a woman was to feel the shame of being thought “easy” or promiscuous. Both those age-old cultural sources of shame were being undermined by the “make love not war” culture of the time — which was not called the counter-culture for nothing. With Bonnie and Clyde, the Hollywood film industry, which had grown to world prominence on the strength of the popular honor culture of the Western and the war movie, the moralizing gangster film, and the romantic comedy was announcing that it had thrown its lot in with the counter-culture, where it has been ever since. To disapprove of criminals on account of their mere criminality would now be thought of as hypocritical. All of us would be Bonnie and Clyde if we dared. Shame and hypocrisy, two sides of the same coin, were henceforward to be the only evils that Hollywood could acknowledge.

Crucial to the counter-culture is the myth that ordinary people loved the bank robbers of the Depression and regarded them as heroes, which is why the myth is repeated and embellished with every new period gangster movie that comes out, like Public Enemies. As I mentioned last week, this myth is partly political in inspiration. Marxists have never had an easy time of it in America, trying to rouse the masses to revolution, so they are naturally keen to claim the odd bank robber as a proto-revolutionary hero and to assume that the masses must secretly admire him — or her. But there is also a sort of anarchic joy in this view of the world which corresponds to the actual left, what at the time was called the New Left, that was coming into existence in the country at the time. Made up of hippies and yippies who preached “revolution for the hell of it,” they never became properly organized because they were opposed to, among many other things, organization. Their revolution was not against a social class but against responsibility and restraint and delayed gratification and good manners as well as honor and shame. It was a revolution, in short, against adulthood, and its battles are still being fought today by sexagenarian teenagers and their young admirers.

At any rate, that is the background against which we ought to see tonight’s movie. As in Bonnie and Clyde, the Hays office is a distant memory. We know in advance that neither the law nor the gods are required to intervene to ensure that the good end happily and the bad end unhappily — if only because there are no clearly marked good and bad characters. Or, rather, what goodness and badness there is hardly emerges apart from the context of personal loyalties and betrayals — not, that is, from any violations of society’s codes of law or ethics. By 1981, when Body Heat was made, the assumptions of the shameless society could be taken for granted, both by the audience and by the film’s characters. In one way that must have seemed like a great liberation to the film-makers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, since it allowed for cleaner treatment of the plot and a merely intellectual appreciation of its complexities untroubled by unnecessary moral considerations. But it also created a problem. Heroes who have no struggles, no triumphs and tragedies — heroes who are not, at least to some extent, also victims — are hard to care very much about. The grand theatricality of Bonnie and Clyde’s victimization was obviously not an option in a bourgeois domestic drama like this, so Mr Kasdan had to make one of his heroes the victim of the other.

In doing so, he tapped in to a different kind of social anxiety of the 1980s. It’s not the big questions of crime and punishment that agitate Lawrence Kasdan or his audience but rather the fear that the kinds of casual sexual attachments that were by then the norm between young men and women could mask terrible betrayals, and in particular that the women whom men had grown used to using for their own sexual pleasure in the wake of the sexual revolution might also be capable of using them. At one level, Body Heat belongs to a new class of films — like Rosemary’s Baby or Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct or The Good Son or Double Jeopardy — designed to exploit people’s fears of relationships contracted in a social context from which traditional restraints enforced by shame are absent. The new movie, Orphan, seems to be another of this type. Of course, betrayal or what used to be called unnatural behavior by family members towards each other has always existed. We have seen two examples of it already in Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But the crimes in those movies were committed, as we have also seen, against the bias of shame. The cold-blooded remorselessness of the crimes in a movie like the ironically titled Body Heat is a new thing.

I’ll be interested to see if you agree with me that this absence of shame or other social sanction, apart from the law itself, produces in our last two movies a curious sort of reversal of the tendency that has been evident up until now, even in the earlier movies, of romanticizing criminality. If, as I think, Bonnie and Clyde was an attempt — albeit, not very successful in retrospect — to glamorize its criminal heroes, Body Heat is at least in part an attempt to de-glamorize them. Lawrence Kasdan makes a point of the stupidity and incompetence of Ned Racine, played by William Hurt, which is rather like that of John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both are men out of their depth, morally and intellectually, and so are both rather pitiable figures but not at all glamorous. Both movies also have basically the same plot. But where, in Postman, Mr Garfield’s accomplice in crime, played by Lana Turner, is almost as feckless as he is, in Body Heat Kathleen Turner’s Mattie Walker is smart as well as sexy — so smart, indeed, that a smarter man than Ned would have seen that she was trouble from the beginning.

At their first meeting, Mattie says to Ned in what is still the movie’s best-known line, “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.” She is, in effect, announcing her plan to use him but, intent as he is at this point on using her for sex, he hasn’t the wit to see it. Fair enough, we might think. Though there is, apparently, no inherited social stigma about it to deter them from what they are going to do, at least the guy ought to have enough of a care for his own self-interest to see the danger to himself in it, and it’s his own fault if he doesn’t. I don’t think we could feel much sympathy for him if it were only a question of what Mattie is prepared to do to her husband or him. It’s what she’s prepared to do to her childhood friend Mary Ann, played by Kim Zimmer, that really chills the blood, hitherto over-heated by the combination of the Florida weather and the perfervid lust that appears to drive the plot forward. One thing that the shameless society has done is to make her almost a believable figure instead of the caricature she would have seemed back in the 1950s.

Almost. For no matter how many times the movies tell us that we live in a post-shame, post-guilt society in which neither of these inherited sanctions against criminal behavior can be expected to deter it, we know that this is not quite true. The sense of shame may be considerably weakened — partly by movies like these — since the days of our parents and grandparents, but it is not absent altogether. There is just enough of it left, I think, for us to see in the character of Mattie Walker and her paradoxically cold-blooded villainy the same unworldly, cartoonish quality that we noticed two years ago in the heroism of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for which Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay and which came out in the same year as Body Heat. In Raiders he wants us to thrill to Indy’s deeds of derring-do while in Body Heat he wants to make our flesh creep, but in both movies he is forced to go outside the bounds of ordinary human experience and everyday reality to accomplish his purposes.

The question I find myself unable to answer with any certainty is this: does he know that he is writing fantasy or does he believe that we live in the same world as Mattie Walker or Indiana Jones? I’m afraid there’s no hope for Indy as anything but a children’s comic book hero, but in the case of Body Heat, the caricature of evil that Mr Kasdan has given us in Mattie Walker could be regarded as allegorical or symbolic. The young, sexy Kathleen Turner is as much a death’s head posted on the act of adultery — never mind murder and betrayal — as Glenn Close is in Fatal Attraction. We don’t have to believe in her, we only have to believe in the awfulness of the evil she represents. Looked at in this way, the film might even represent a return to older ideas about crime and punishment after more than half a century of the movies’ creeping romanticization of criminality, culminating in Bonnie and Clyde. I don’t know if I believe this myself, but I’ll be interested to hear if anyone else does.

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