Friday, April 13, 2012

Analyzing the Efficacy of Graphic, Misogynistic Violence in Hitchcock’s Frenzy

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy—one of his last—is also one of the most graphically/misogynistically violent films composing his prolific filmography.  Thus, in watching the film, two related questions spring to mind: (1) why does Hitchcock display graphic violence in this film, when he refrained from doing so previously? and (2) what, if any, purpose does this type of violence serve in the film?  Within this essay, I’ll attempt a brief answer at (2).  It’s my contention that throughout the film, Hitchcock effectively uses graphic, misogynistic violence as a means to desensitize his audience, allowing it to view the film from a detached, objective standpoint, and thus freeing it to perceive the film’s omnipresent cynical, dark humor.  In arguing this overarching thesis, I’ll first argue why the film conveys an overall darkly humorous/ironic tone, before analyzing the function of some of the various graphically violent scenes in the context of this dark humor.

The most glaring evidence of the film’s overarching darkly humorous tone is the numerous overtly humorous moments in a film that’s about a deranged, serial, sex murderer.  The detective’s wife’s dinners function as the most obvious examples of these.  The repulsiveness of the dishes that are so elaborately prepared, that have such high-sounding French names in-itself is an example of irony.  The detective’s obvious displeasure upon seeing such meals—displeasure to which we’re privy, although his wife is not, due to his pretense of enjoyment—functions as a dramatic irony as the audience is compelled to wonder whether the wife will ever discover how displeasing her meals are.  And the cartoonish depiction of the detective’s wife is perhaps the scene’s most humorous aspect of all—floating airily, unaware of her disgusting meals and annoyingly shrill jabbering.  In fact, women are on the whole (with the exceptions of Brenda and Babs) represented cartoonishly .  They are too overdrawn to focus as sincere, identifiable characters in the film; rather, they are often objects of humor or pity.

The film may reasonably be seen as ultimately ironic.  Indeed, such irony presents itself in the film’s opening scene.  As the title credits appear onscreen, joyous music blares while the camera careens hither and thither over the sunlight-reflecting waters of Britain on a pleasant afternoon.  But this joyful opening is curiously muddied by the unexpected dark imagery of smoke billowing out of a passing ship.  The juxtaposition of the pleasant day and the joyful music against the black smoke conveys a curious, foreboding irony.  Moreover—and more obviously—the fact that a film centrally focusing around serial murder opens with grand, celebratory music is in-itself irony of the first order.  But even still, irony presents itself in the opening scene: as the public official discusses and declares his success in cleaning up the city’s waters, a naked, murdered girl floats to the shore.  Thus, in the first scene alone, the film is filled with irony.

In explaining Frenzy’s pervasive dark humor, I’ll finally turn to the conversation between the two older men at the bar in the early part of the film.  In this conversation, the men discuss this phenomenon of “the necktie murderer” and what it means for the city.  But contrary to a frightened hatred of the murderer—a ‘find him and get him’ mentality—they seem approving of his murderous deeds.  They say that all this frenzy about the murderer is good for the city, bringing tourists and money.  This disconnect between the audience’s likely expectation—that the citizens of London are frightened and hateful of the murderer—and the reality that these citizens are in fact thankful for the murderer creates heavily dark irony .  Thus having outlined the film’s pervasive darkly humorous tone, I’ll discuss below how Hitchcock effectively uses graphically misogynistic violence to further such.

Brenda’s rape and murder at the hands of Rusk is the most glaring instance of graphic/misogynistic violence in Frenzy, and indeed sets the tone for all following instances of graphic/misogynistic violence.  What’s most interesting about this scene, however, is that it ultimately compels the audience towards a feeling of detachment/desensitivity to the scene and its chief players, rather than identification with the victim and an ensuing personal hatred of the rapist/murderer .  Considering how this display of graphic violence contributes to the film’s tone of dark humor, it seems to me that in objectifying a situation of such intense emotion and victimization, Hitchcock therein creates another irony: such scenes, from a moralistic perspective, should be shown with the murderer obviously displayed despicably, so that the audience can properly identify with the subjective experience of the victim, condemning the murderer as an instance of evil that must be stopped; thus, there is an ironic disconnect between audience expectation and film reality.  The humorous effect of this scene might be seen from another angle: in order to laugh at something, one must be removed from it, able to view it as an object apart from oneself.  Thus, in showing such an emotionally fraught scene with such cold objectivity, Hitchcock objectifies it—thus allowing his audience to view it all as an object, including its murderer and victim.  And in displaying it and its parts as objects, Hitchcock thus allows his audience to find the humor/irony in it.

The recurring images of beaten, strangled women function along the lines of Brenda’s rape.  They are displayed unflatteringly and straightforwardly, devoid of horrifying affects.  One might say that they are displayed objectively, without any directorial tricks compelling the audience to identify with them.  Indeed, their attributes—all topless, bruised, wide-eyed, with the tongue protruding out from the mouth—only further this notion.  Their toplessness objectifies them as sex objects.  Their bruises and wide-eyes objectify them as objects of violence and lifelessness—a lifelessness that leaves them devoid of subjectively identifiable humanity.  And their wide-eyes and protruding tongues objectify them as objects of ridicule, as these looks are archetypal for stupidity/helplessness .  Thus, once again objectifying the victims of terrible crimes, Hitchcock allows his audience to view them with detachment, as objects of irony, pity, and/or humor.

Rusk’s potato scene is perhaps the best illustration of Hitchcock’s humorous use of graphic/misogynistic violence in Frenzy.  First, Rusk’s intense struggle with a corpse for a tiny pin is in-itself mildly humorous; one wouldn’t expect a dead person to put up such a fight.  Second, in filming this scene from Rusk’s perspective, the audience is compelled to seek out—as Rusk does—a resolution to his quandary.  In regaining his pin, Rusk is forced to break Babs’s dead fingers—each accompanied by a gruesome cracking noise.  The irony herein is that the audience identifies with a murderer—someone whom an ordinary person would be loath to identify with—and even wills that Babs’s dead fingers be so gruesomely broken so that Rusk may resolve his problem.

The last instance of graphic/misogynistic violence that I’ll analyze is Richard’s crowbar attack at the end of the film.  Although Richard (and the audience) is led to believe that he’s striking a sleeping Rusk, it turns out that he is beating an already-murdered woman in Rusk’s bed.  Again, here’s an example of irony in the disconnect between audience expectation and eventual film reality.  Moreover, the fact that Richard is soon caught by the detective beating a dead woman, when the very reason he escaped from prison was to avenge his wrongful conviction for murder, functions as an instance of irony, as well.  And despite the fact that Richard unknowingly beats this woman, his violence in the scene undermines his already thin credibility as the story’s hero; he’s shown to be violent and capable of murder just as Rusk is.  In thus undermining the sympathetic appeal of his film’s protagonist, Hitchcock further detaches his audience from any sort of subjective identification; once again, the audience is compelled to view the film through a coldly objective lens.  And only through such a lens may one perceive something as an object, or an object of humor.

Thus I have argued on behalf of Hitchcock’s effective use of graphic/misogynistic violence as a means to create irony and detach his audience, allowing it to view the film with a cold objectivity and thus perceive the film’s overarching cynical, darkly humorous tone.  But the question remains as to why Hitchcock wanted such dark humor in his film—what purpose does dark humor serve in this film, which has a plot centering around a serial sex murderer?  A possible answer might be gleaned from the above-mentioned conversation between the men at the bar.  As noted, they surprisingly claim that murder is good for the economic well-being of the city, because it appeals to people and attracts them as spectators.  Perhaps this conversation is meant to implicitly parallel how Hitchcock has made so much money off of films dealing with sex and murder.  Indeed, Frenzy followed a string of critical and commercial disappointments in Hitchcock’s career—films that dealt with topics other than murder.  Might Hitchcock have intended this film to function as an implicit critique of both the film industry and the public?  One can clearly see, when viewing the bar conversation from this lens, how the film would function as such.  Its dark humor and cold objectivity would undermine and parallel how the film industry has objectified murder in order to make money and satisfy its audience’s base drives.  Such is only one possible explanation.  A much deeper discussion on the topic must be untaken before solid conclusions can be reached.  But the central focus of my paper as expressed above is simply to provide a reasonable explanation of how the film’s graphic/misogynistic violence contributes to its overall tone of cynical, dark humor.

Works Cited

Allen, Jeanne T. "The Representation of Violence to Women: Hitchcock's ‘Frenzy’" University of California Press 38.3 (1985): 30-38. JSTOR. Web. 9 Mar. 2012.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Magnum Opus…I mean, My Meryl Opus, Part I

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© 2011

Attempting to transcribe my Meryl Streep…addiction?, obsession?, fixation? just text cannot, in any significant way, truly establish the vast amount of respect and love I have for this woman. Perhaps that may be due to the taming down of the adjectives we are so familiar with- when one reads that something is “outstanding”, that does not immediately conjure the elements of grandeur as it should, simply because we are so used to the word. In fact, this will be the most challenging piece I will ever have to compose- both in personal or academic tones- as I am trying my hardest to not come off simply sounding quite pathetic and over the top. Those that know me can surely attest to the fact that I am even more infatuated with this particular actress then I will be able to convey, and, to certainly not appear completely crazy, I will only comment on Meryl Streep’s professional career and not how deeply she has affected me personally. (Although, the birthday parties I throw every year, the effort with which I strive to know every single last detail of her life, and the choice to live my life by the codes and ethics most important to her may give you some idea). While by no means exhaustive of the complete importance of her legacy, the sheer amount of films I wish to touch upon means this post must be divided into two parts. This first part can almost be dubbed her “Golden Dramatic Age”.

Kramer vs. Kramer- 1979  (Winner- Best Supporting Actress)
Streep’s first Oscar win proved how adept she was at emphasizing so much emotion with so little screen time. Here she plays Joanna Kramer, a very conflicted woman who leaves her husband and young son before finally asking for a divorce. It is then up to her partner, Dustin Hoffman, to pull his fatherly skills together and raise their son on his own. It is a testament to Streep’s prowess in only her third year of film acting that she manages to convey such divergent emotions while being interspersed throughout the film in only a few short scenes. It is also worth noting that while she was dismayed with the female monologue during the climactic divorce trial scene, the director actually allowed Streep to rewrite her part in the moment to better reflect a mother’s sympathies and defenses, as Streep has just recently given birth to her first child.

Sophie’s Choice- 1982 (Winner- Best Actress)
Here’s where my obsessive love for the woman may sound like it’s coming into play, however, I say this completely honestly and, yes, it is documented: scholars agree that Meryl Streep is the greatest actress in the history of the medium- scholars agree that Sophie’s Choice is her best performance- therefore, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice is the single greatest performance in the history of the medium (I can deduce that thanks to the logic class I took last semester!). Streep’s performance of a tormented Holocaust survivor exceeds any other in an absolutely devastating manner. The final plot reveal at the end of this somewhat long film quite literally broke my heart the first time I saw it but to say any more would be to say too much. The emotional depths Streep is able to plunge into here, combined with the massively complicated Polish accent she adapts, cement her place as the apex of the pantheon of film actors, and led to one of the greatest Oscar wins of all time.

Silkwood- 1983 (Nominee- Best Actress)
Streep’s third consecutive nomination (after The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sophie) is her first for portraying a real life character. Karen Silkwood, an Oklahoman fuel fabrication plant worker, discovered unhealthy and morally wrong working conditions at the plant and attempted to bring the matters to light before she was mysteriously murdered by unknown figures. Streep did something many actresses are loathe to do, and de-glammed her entire persona to create quite an unsympathetic character- for Silkwood had many more enemies than friends in her efforts. Sporting a Southern-Midwest accent and typical 80’s mullet, Streep delivers her most raw performance- most notably in the scene where she is excruciatingly (both for the character and the audience) scrubbed down in radiation baths due to her exposure to the element. One of her slightly more subtle performances, Streep’s first collaboration with director and good friend Mike Nichols established a powerful team that will be investigated upon further in this series.

A Cry in the Dark- 1988 (Nominee- Best Actress)
Notice how every picture I’ve touched upon so far has been one of her nominations…that pattern continues on throughout her career as she is presently at an unsurpassed record of 17(!) nominations. That’s not to say that her films for which she has not been nominated are lesser for any reason, however. In A Cry in the Dark, Streep adopts an Australian accent (another pattern!) to play the real-life victim Lindy Chamberlain, whose newborn baby was eaten by a dingo during a camping trip to Ayres Rock. The subsequent trial, which accused Lindy of fabricating her story and actually murdering her child, captured the nation and divided responses. Streep’s emotions were fine-tuned that much more acutely as she, as Chamberlain, was actually pregnant with her next child through the process. Streep perfectly encapsulated the cold, dismissed demeanor the real Lindy Chamberlain presented during the trial and sported an unfortunate, indescribable haircut to further delve deeper into her portrayal. It is unfortunate that due to length I cannot also touch on her excellent role in 1985’s Out of Africa, but all these films so far, as well as Out of Africa, certainly contribute to Streep’s first decade or so in film with heavy dramas and spot-on accents.
Streep looks as excited as we are to be here!; image ©

Postcards from the Edge- 1990 (Nominee- Best Actress)
The final selection in Part I, Streep again portrays a real-life actress under the guise of a resemblance of Carrie Fisher and her trials and tribulations with drugs and growing up in the shadow of a famous mother (Debbie Reynolds as played magnificently by Shirley MacLaine). The wildly comical Fisher herself adapts the hilarious screenplay which lets Streep expand her comedy chops for the first time. The chemistry between Streep and MacLaine is fierce and powerful, perhaps due to another excellent pairing with director Mike Nichols, and really allows both actresses to hit the high notes of a range as of yet unexplored. While establishing a biting commentary on the entertainment and film industry, Postcards is notable for being the first instance where Streep masterfully sings a full-blown number on screen- she did, however, also provide a beautiful a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace at the end of Silkwood.

Postcards from the Edge is a great place to end Part 1 of this article as it retains the elements of heavy drama for which Streep was famous in the late 70’s and 80’s, while straddling the line into her new birth of comedy that begins to consume some of her films in the 90’s.  There is always more I wish I could say for each film I’ve listed, as well as just literally writing a short blurb as to why EVERY movie in her catalogue is impressive, although if you aren’t already tired of hearing about the fabulous, tremendous, exemplary, stellar, wonderful (there’s all those adjectives again!) Meryl Streep, do stay tuned for Part 2 of the opus!