Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The People with No Place

One critic praised Ridley Scott for making a great American road film, 1991's Thelma & Louise, despite the fact that he's British. In addition to the implicit national or cultural pride, the statement is also stupid in that it ignores the history of the basic framework of what we call the "road movie" to-day which goes back at least as far as The Odyssey. The U.S. is a naturally excellent setting for such a picture with its wide open spaces and the preoccupation with individual freedom in the United States. Arguing that an Englishman can't tell a story of Americans is as silly as arguing a man can't make a great film about women, which Thelma & Louise also is. Unapologetically a fantasy film, it's part of a tradition of hero myths, beautifully shot with great performances by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

Hey, come on, there's nothing wrong with Geena Davis in this movie. So she's no Meryl Streep but I absolutely believe her conversion from oppressed and nervous housewife to liberated human being. I'm not sure why Davis has such a bad reputation. Sure, she's been in a lot of turkeys but not nearly as many as David Warner and I think he's generally considered a good actor.

Her character, Thelma, arguably undergoes a more profound change than Sarandon's Louise who seems to have been made hard and distrustful by a lifetime of experiences the younger Thelma has only just begun to encounter. Two thirds of the way through the film, Thelma starts talking about how alive she feels now that they've broken the constraints of a civilisation dominated by the unfair rules of men unable or unwilling to empathise with women. Louise looks at her smiling appreciatively but cautiously. Sarandon is, indeed, the better actress and can convey with just a few looks the impression of someone who wants to give in to what Thelma is feeling but who is too aware of life's penchant for treachery.

The two women are like the same woman on different points in her timeline--this is backed up visually by the fact that they both have red hair, both wear blue for almost the entire film (though most of the characters do), and there's a shot, reminiscent of Bergman's Persona, where Scott deliberately dissolves one woman's face into the other and back again. It's to show the passage of time as they drive day after day, night after night, taking turns at the wheel so their merging identities are also merged with the experience of the journey. Louise is also like the mind and Thelma is like the heart--Louise has the psychological defences and Thelma is the woman of action--she falls for Brad Pitt's homme fatale character and she discovers she has a knack for armed robbery. The pair's troubles start when another man attempts to rape Thelma and Louise takes control of the situation--Thelma is attacked for her body and the situation is resolved by Louise's psychology.

Thelma is deprived of control first by an abusive husband and then by men the two women meet on the road. Is this a film noir? It could be argued the movie is similar to the noir classic Detour, also a road movie, where the protagonist accidentally kills a man and then falls in with a femme fatale. But the film, with its probably unreliable narrator, has the guilt of actual wrongdoing in its protagonist and Thelma and Louise seem like they have nothing they ought to be ashamed of, something even the cop played by Harvey Keitel sees. The shooting of Harlan, the man who attempted to rape Thelma, is set up like it should be ethically ambiguous--the immediate danger had passed and the two woman could have walked away. And yet, in Harlan's inability to resist throwing a final insult at the women as they start to leave, there is unmistakably the manifestation of an entire system that's worked against these women all their lives, something that manifests again and again in the film, right to the end when the Feds have decided the best way to deal with these two is a whole team of men with automatic rifles and helicopters.

When Thelma does take control, I worried she was going to murder the annoying truck driver who catcalls at them. But, no, the burden of wrongdoing remains in the culture--blowing up the guy's truck seems pretty insignificant next to the fact that they realise--we know quite rightly--they never could have gone to the police because Thelma would never have been believed.

The movie is compared to a lot of other road movies but to me it most resembles 1971's Vanishing Point. Coming at a time when the optimism of the hippies was being replaced by a sense of less concrete goal or purpose, Vanishing Point's Kowalski embarks on a cross country trip where he's chased by police. Like in Thelma & Louise, the police become a metaphor for an oppressive system--Kowalski even has a flashback of a rape he witnessed committed by a police officer. Kowalski also seems to embody that sense of being alive Thelma refers to and the movie ends almost exactly like Thelma & Louise. One difference between the two films is that as Kowalski travels across the U.S. he becomes a kind of folk hero where people all over the country begin to identify with his sudden break from society. This was also seen in the movie Convoy which is almost a remake of Vanishing Point. By 1991, there was less of this faith in a community of humanity in the country but there are still some echoes of it in Thelma & Louise--there's the waitress who tells the police that Harlan deserved to be shot and who defends the character of the two women. There's the black runner who stops to blow marijuana smoke through the air holes in the trunk where Thelma and Louise have left a cop. There's an implicit solidarity there and we can see that Thelma and Louise would probably be just as big folk heroes as--and in reality they're much better known than--Kowalski.

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