Saturday night, to cap off a day in Pittsburgh, Roger, Nick and I saw the film Felt. It centers on Amy, an artist, who experienced a sexual trauma before the action begins. The film suggests that she was raped after being given a date rape drug, but never specifies what exactly happened. Her friends try to help her, but nothing seems to work. Amy states at one point that only death or a coma will enable her to forget.
She finds solace, however, in dressing up in a superhero "man" suit, a form fitting nylon unitard to which she has attached a flopping cloth penis and testicles she has made, and on which she has drawn pubic hair. Sometimes wearing masks, sometimes not, she runs around secluded places in her costume, climbing trees and rocks. She also agrees to do a nude photo shot with another woman, but while that woman appears topless, Amy wears a cupped bra, too large for her flat chest, with realistic nipples attached to the outside of it, and high white underpants with a vagina she has made also sewn on to the outside. The photographer is at first annoyed with her, but the other model convinces him it will make a good shoot.
|Amy in her "man suit"|
Amy and the other model's shared anger at men forms the basis of a friendship, so they work together to take low-level revenge on males, in one instance throwing a nice-enough seeming guy they have picked up at a bar out of their car and stranding him.
|The vagina Amy fashions on her sewing machine.|
Finally, Amy meets a nice guy. He engages with her as a full human being, and she invites him to visit her room, which she has painted blue with clouds, and her art studio. She confides in him that she feels devalued as a woman, constantly seen and treated as a sex object, and not understood. This is possibly the most important speech in the film. She tells him about her intense anger. He is kind to her, and for the first time in a long time she feels happy.
Without giving anything away, in the end Amy confronts what may or may not be an Othello scenario--has this seemingly great guy cheated on her?
In a stroke of what I would call good fortune, the sound didn't work as the film started so we watched the first few minutes, which don't need dialogue, in utter silence, stillness even. It was extraordinary, and I was prepared for a stunning film. Yet when mouths began to move and no sound emerged, people alerted the movie house authorities, who restarted the film. With sound, it was more ordinary.
But on thinking about it, I realized that the movie Amy could not be the "real" Amy, no matter what the real Amy asserts, for the movie Amy is not coherent enough to write or star in a movie. I would instead understand the movie Amy as an injured fragment of the real Amy--and while I dislike the term, the visual iconography of the movie suggests we are witnessing Amy's badly damaged "inner child," the traumatized rape victim, engaging in a fantasy game of release. We see the part of Amy that is narcissistic, childish and mean: the angry id, lashing out.
|These toys, set up by Amy to show a woman passed out after being served a date rape drug, becomes a clue to what happened to her. They again underscore the childlike side of Amy, perhaps meant to represent innocence corrupted.|
I appreciated the film for confronting the real damage rape can inflict, and for doing so outside of a Hollywood context. I especially appreciated that the movie didn't show the rape that traumatized Amy, because depicting graphic violence against women, even if ostensibly to deplore it, often becomes a form of voyeurism that allows viewers to experience (possible) titillation. We don't need to gaze repeatedly at acts meant to humiliate, intimidate and subjugate women to understand them: we already know they are a violation.
On the other hand, while we didn't need to see the rape re-enacted, it would have helped to have more a concrete sense of the specifics of Amy's suffering. Roland Barthes notes that in order not to objectify suffering or make it a form of ahistorical fantasy that serves power ("it just happened"), a thing divorced from actual history or power structures, something ideologically free floating, we need some kind of context, perhaps verbalized by Amy. Otherwise, we're allowed to make her "sex trauma" become anything we want it to be or not to be (and the worry is the "not to be" that might be constructed as "all in her head" or "exaggerated" or simply earn her the label "crazy").
|Amy in her body suit.|
Both Amy and the film are obsessed with Amy as surface, Amy as body, Amy in superhero costumes, Amy wearing exaggerated marks of gendering, Amy reduced to pure sex object, often nothing more than genitalia superimposed on the blank white surface of her body suit, be it male genitalia or female or both, her face obliterated by a mask. (In some ways her penis suit becomes the reverse image of the burka, a costume, with mask, that covers her head to toe, obliterating her identity and thus, paradoxically, foregrounding her as only a sex object.) Amy wants to enact male gendering or an angry exaggerated female gendering, but never to defuse her obsessive emphasis on sexuality. Even out of costume, Amy lives primarily as sexual: thin, long-haired, if not Hollywood attractive, still sexually exciting to men, hanging out at pick-up bars, going on dates.
|Amy in costume, both effaced and sexualized.|
Sadly, in the movie, Amy says she hates sexual objectification, but is paradoxically obsessed with objectifying her body as a sex object. This is her trauma.
Amy, the damaged child, presents as childlike. It's not clear what her living situation is, but she appears to occupy her childhood bedroom, complete with a white bunk bed, stuffed animals and toys. The only job she has is one more appropriate for a high schooler: dressing up as a giant chicken and handing out flyers to promote a chicken restaurant, obviously an attractive position for someone who likes to dress in costume.
At first, I thought Amy was a high schooler or even middle schooler, only gradually realizing she must be an adult over the age of 21. Outside of bar hopping, however, we never see her engaging in what normally be understood as the adult world. Instead, she comes across almost as a victim of pedophilia, as if she is a sexualized child with her thin figure, lack of make up, and a predilection for running around parks, playing dress up and surrounding herself with toys.
It would be a violation--and repugnant-- to try to impose a redemptive or even edifying (meaning a main character achieving some self-awareness) grid on to this story. If this is Amy's story, this is Amy's story, and we can appreciate the pain it conveys--appreciate that it communicates that rape is, as the title indicates, felt (the title is also apparently a pun on the material Amy uses to fashion her penises). It would be false, and in some way, horrible, to insist on Amy opening a rape crisis center to show she "grows" or to witness her "learning to forgive." On the other hand, Amy's character, childish, vengeful, castrating, self-obsessed and unable to break out of sexual objectification--a person who continually objectifies her own body as much as any Marilyn Monroe figure, if in different ways--re-enacts many negative stereotypes about women.
One longs for a film in which Amy doesn't give up her anger and doesn't adhere to a fake script, but yet ... could grope towards a constructive way to cope with her trauma that could begin to break her out of the socially constructed cycle of objectification. We long to catch a glimpse of the Amy behind the "man suits," the Amy who has mind and a heart and soul as well as a body. It is hard to imagine rape erased all of this in her. And it could be too easy for men (and women) to dismiss this movie as about a crazy, angry, emotionally arrested woman rather than an indictment of rape culture--to, in fact, blame the victim.
|As she opens up to her boyfriend, Amy shows him one way she is channeling her anger: she has created a toy Hitler fetus, which she says she has aborted.|
I have now just read Ellen Moody's excellent blog on Artemisia Gentileschi, an extraordinary 17th century Italian artist who also suffered from rape trauma.
Ellen also mentions Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," also an apt connection to this film. "The Dinner Party," like Felt, uses vaginal images. The painting, however, subsumes them: they both represent the uniqueness of the woman's perspective and experience, and yet do not define the totality of that experience: the women's contributions bloom out of that center and become greater than that center without ever erasing it. Likewise, Artemisia is able to channel her anger and injury into extraordinary art through an ability to achieve a distance from her own experience.
|Emily Dickinson's place setting in "The Dinner Party." Beauty flows from a woman's center but the center (the vagina) doesn't confine her.|
Felt was a little less fresh and certainly less polished than either Artemisia's work or "The Dinner Party." Showing genitalia, for example, is far less provocative in 2015 than in 1979. Yet the film has power.
The movie is powerful in depicting rape victims not as a class made noble by suffering, but as people like Amy, ill-equipped to deal with trauma and so wholly trapped in the culture's cult of sexual objectification that while the film might parody it (and clearly Amy's man suit is a parody of male potency), it can't break out. Perhaps trauma leads to narcissism, but Amy's narcissism also reflects the lack of empathy that characterizes the worst side of our culture, the effects of a culture that hardens us. Amy's narcissism also mirrors white middle-class culture: Amy's suffering is all important, the only thing that counts, and the movie doesn't make any connection to how much more routine rape might be in less empowered circles--and seems utterly oblivious to the privilege it represents. And while it clearly wasn't made as a political film, it does function politically by presenting rape as an atomized affair, a violation against one white woman.
The movie matters, however, because it focuses attention on the harm rape does, whether or not the victim is privileged. Women don't necessarily "move on," or "get over it." The pain is felt. That message needs to be heard.
Felt did remind me of Warhol's underground films (and Jane Austen) in one way: showing the petty meanness, verbal cruelty and aggressive one-upmanship that surrounds much of ordinary life, something Hollywood films almost universally gloss over. Hollywood works hard to hide that reality--"good" characters are almost never deliberately cruel to each other in small ways (if they are, it is depicted as a great lapse brought on by extraordinary stress and routinely followed by an "apology moment")--and while we see mean talk in bad characters, it is almost always meant as a prelude to the bad acts that define the characters. We can almost measure how ubiquitous and destructive this verbal culture of cruelty is by the efforts mainstream media goes to to hide it--and appreciate the indie film world for articulating this discourse. And clearly, the "surround" of this kind of discourse--demeaning and dehumanizing--becomes a prelude to rape and exploitation.
|Warhol's underground films also show the offhand cruelty of human encounters|
I found Felt a good conversation starter. I am glad we took my 20-year-old son, a college student who said he has thought a lot about sexism and the rape culture. The film generated a thoughtful discussion of these topics, and what it means to treat a woman as fully human, a being with a mind, heart and soul as well as body.