Friday, 6 July 2012

Women Writers on Film: "Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle" 1994, Alan Rudolph


This post will be looking at the experience of writing, of being a writer and a woman and its depiction on screen. The two films that most illustrate the polarities of portrayals of women writers in film, for me are: An Angel at My Table and Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. these two films are concerned with the lives of women writers of prose and poetry - Janet Frame and Dorothy Parker. The films chart the obstacles these women face by just being writers as well as the difficulties gaining any form of acceptance or success as writers. For the protagonists in these two films, the act of writing is also an act of defiance against an oppressive patriarchal cultures that disavows women’s right to live and work in the male-dominated field of literature. I will be discussing how we experience the possible pleasures gained by viewing these films, which often show the women to be performing a masochistic spectacle for the pleasures of the audience. Lastly Ill look at the detail of both films having directors of different sexes, and ask how each director represents the experience of the act of writing for these women, and how these differ, if at all.

The title Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, has Dorothy Parker’s status of ‘married woman’ placed at the forefront. Perhaps this is meant to be ironic, as Parker was famed for her doomed love affairs? Either way, this inclusion of “Mrs” marks her out as being a wife first, and not a person in her own right. Do we call John Donne, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas, “Mr Donne”, “Mr Larkin” or “Mr Thomas”? No, because their marital status has no correlation with their identity as poets. The film starts with rather fetishised close-up shots of Dorothy’s (the fantastic Jennifer Jason Leigh) lips as she reads one of her poems, a (phallic) cigarette is then placed in her mouth and lit-up, becoming an erotic act; the pale smoke leaving her dark painted mouth is visually striking on the black and white film. The camera pans up her face to her eyes that languidly open as non-diegetic sensuous saxophones sounds strike up. This initial sequence posits the desirability of the film's female lead. Strangely as Parker is a writer, it is not writing we see her engaged in, in the establishing shots; it is her physiognomy that has been conceded as the first thing of importance. It also ties together uncomfortably the apparent sexiness of women’s experience of pain - the scene is erotically charged, she sensually drawls: “well and bitterly I know…could it be when I was young, someone dropped me on my head?”. These are the words of a bruised woman, yet the way it is shot, edited and musically accompanied is in such a way that reading the melancholic poem becomes a seduction. Her pain is therefore shown as alluring.

It is then right from the outset of Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle that we the audience watch a masochistic display of painful feminine struggle. The smoking, the dark lipstick and eye make-up adds to the performance of a masochistic masquerade that is played out in public, for most of Dorothy’s meltdowns occur in front of a crowd. Gaylyn Studlar in her book Beyond the Realm of Pleasure, in taking up the masochistic aesthetic of the Von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations, states; “Performance also serves as the focal point for uniting the depictions of female sexuality in a patriarchal society with the formal and psychoanalytic requirements of masochistic desire”. It is in making her pain seen and known to the people around her that it becomes real for Dorothy. As Freud hypothesises, it is an absence (of penis), the “lack of qualities” that characterises women. It is in giving the viewer a sadistic pleasure in witnessing the spectacle of her masochistic display that fills this lack and makes Dorothy’s pain and struggle a reality. During a game of cards, Dorothy’s male friends discus her propensity for falling for men: “with claws flashing and tears falling”, one comments: “she really knows how to suffer, the greatest little runner downer there ever was” answered by another man with “Dotty can’t be suffering and still say all those funny things?” The players halt their game and stare in surprise at the speaker, suggesting they are aware her suffering and her wit are tied, that her black humour is a bitter display of her suffering.

The viewer is not always corroborating sexist sadistic visual enjoyment however; at times we are positioned in the masochist role. There is something defiant about Dorothy’s act of masochistic masquerade, in that it is unpleasant to watch; in identifying with her we confront and share her struggle - a masochistic pain which in itself is more subversive, as it runs against the trend of visual pleasure exclusively being sadistic. Kaja Silverman notes; “It is unfortunate but not surprising that the perversion which has commandeered most of the literary and theoretical attention – sadism - is also the one which is most compatible with conventional heterosexuality”.

The men in the newspaper office all wear cardboard signs around their necks saying variations of “don’t ask”, they have been banned form discussing their wages, and we see Dorothy’s sign states “twenty seven dollars a week”. The subordination of her colleagues is something Dorothy refuses to share. A woman in that (and this) world is not the equal of her male peers, so why share their silence when they do not share her discriminatory pay? Dorothy is shown as obstinate and aggressive - “mind, she bites the hand that feeds her”, is there anything as dangerous and frighting as an intelligent, witty and bolshy woman? Only after these first scenes, where she is presented as object of desire then one of fear, is that we actually see her sat down doing some writing! This writing spell is rather brief, interrupted by a bell ringing which causes Dorothy to get up and change, flashing her garter belt and stockings - back to the desired object role. The camera pans backwards as we see a white sheet of paper stuck in the typewriter, on it the single phase “dear god let me write like a man” suggesting her inability to write/work as she is still, despite her lacerating wit, still a woman. Her figure comes back into focus as she gazes at her refection in the mirror, correcting her hair, face and dress. Could a great poet’s attention really be more rapt over a frock than over a typewriter? It gives the impression that to Dorothy writing is trivial; a woman can only hope to succeed by writing like a man. It also rejects the idea that a woman may have anything unique to write. Virginia Woolf has remarked; “To say what one thought - that was my little problem - against the prodigious Current; to find a sentence that could hold its own against the male flood”.
In this male directed, produced and written film (an exception being one female co-writer), this shallow representation of a woman writer (not writing) has been filtered down from the sexist attitudes that suggest that the highest accolade a woman may have is to write like a man. Andrea Dworkin comments “in a patriarchy, possession of a phallus is the sole signet of worth, the touchstone of human identity…Intellect, moral discernment, creativity, imagination - are all male, or phallic, faculties. When any woman develops any one of these faculties, we are told either that she is striving to behave “like a man” or that she is 'masculine'". This is backed up by Dorothy getting out of her writing clothes and into a revealing frock, to prove that despite being a writer, she wants to be viewed as a woman first.

The next sequence explains the reason she has stopped working - her solider husband is coming to see her. This again implies that a woman writer must be wife first, writer second. What makes this particularly insulting is that said husband says to her “Ibsen, who's he?” Even as her intellectual inferior his time is valued higher than hers, and she must stop what she is writing (or not writing as the case may be) to make time for him. The next time we see Dorothy presented in the act of writing, it is in the new office shared with Mr Benchley, him sat down ready to begin work while she is again situated instead in front of a mirror, this time writing on it with lipstick! After this brief reinforcement of her role as "vain woman" opposed to "serious writer", the rest of the scene is that of symmetry and equality between Dorothy and Mr Benchley. Two typewriters, two chairs either side of two desks pressed together to form one, this visual harmony reflects the mutual affection and intellectual respect these two people feels for each other. There is a continued conflict in this film of how to present Dorothy Parker as a sharp tongued quick witted writer, and it is mostly gathered from dialogue said about her rather than by her. This is more common than the witty remarks she makes herself, so that it seems there is a discrepancy between wanting to express her intelligence and falling back on getting male characters to be the ones expressing it for her, as the rightful judges of such intelligence.

The film is inter-cut with extra-diegetic scenes in black and white in which Dorothy recites poems; these performances dotted among the action of the film, act out her feelings about her unrequited love or failed love affairs depending on the action seen before. These sequences yoke together Dorothy’s writing and her self as one identity, that she puts her life into her work. We see after Charles has cheated on her and she aborts the baby that she cannot write, and a towel has been placed over the typewriter. Her work is her life, when she is ill, when she is dead inside and emotionally bruised she cannot work. So it could be said her writing and her life are one; when she is alive she writes and when she writes she is alive. The personality of Dorothy Parker is presented at times as more important than her writing, the persona of writer takes over, the myth placed higher than the work itself, both becoming intertwined. This early exchange between Charles and Dorothy in which she comes to his apartment for the first time expresses this:

Charles: “Look, before you start analysing my books, there’s something I should clear up I lied when I told you, you were one of my favourite writers”

Dorothy: “and I lied when I smiled”

Charles: “its just that I’ve heard more about you, what Dorothy Parker thinks about this or that, than I have about your actual writing”

Despite the lack of emphasis on the physical act of writing, the film does express the join of the self with work. Perhaps instead of being sexist symbols, the inclusion of mirrors at key stages in the film (Dorothy is also gazing into one before her first suicide attempt) can be seen as her search for her own identity as a writer. Sandra Gilbert suggest, “Before the woman writer can journey through the looking glass towards literary autonomy, however, she must come to terms with the image on the surface of the glass, with, that is, those mythic masks male artists have fastened over her”. Perhaps then these mirror scenes punctuate Dorothy’s struggle against the restrictions placed on a woman writer. Or maybe this is an overly hopeful reading of the film that may use the mirrors to remind the audience of the actress’s desirability making her struggle seem more romantic as she herself is shown to be attractive.

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