By Christopher Sharrett.
These two films represent disturbances within the relatively repressed mainstream sexual culture of Vietnam-era America.”
The mid-1960s saw Hollywood take advantage of the end of the Production Code and the rise of the rating system, which permitted a new liberal expression, supposedly in sync, according to some film historians, with the sexual liberation movement of the era. There is an assumption that some of these films, like the two I will discuss here, were “transgressive,” a term too-frequently used today, long after the reactionary retrenchment of the U.S. political-economic (and cultural) system beginning at least with the Reagan era. There appears to be an ongoing tendency to confuse certain cultural gestures with political activity, a problem that began deeply to concern me during the rise of so-called theory in the 1970s, when certain kinds of opaque intellectual activity were seen, in and out of academe, as some sort of challenge to the standing order of things, even when politics was seen as passé and off the table.
I would never devalue art as at least a potential, tentative challenge to the existing order, but the question is the same in any era: what exactly is being transgressed, particularly when we are asked to consider works whose innovations seem strictly formal? And when looking at the portrayal of sexuality in the Hollywood cinema of the 1960s, we might consider that films like Weekend and Belle de Jour, both made in 1967 and the year of the two films under consideration here, were immeasurably more important to a sophisticated, intelligent rendering of sex than anything made in America. That said, Mark Rydell’s The Fox, an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novella, and John Huston’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novella Reflections in a Golden Eye, represented disturbances within the relatively repressed mainstream sexual culture of Vietnam-era America. (I recall, vaguely, that Pauline Kael wrote a piece on the films I will discuss below, but I have no desire to research the matter, or even to think about that reprehensible person, with her cute wordsmithing and essential contempt for cinema – and humanity.) But these disturbances should not make us avoid the uneven and very conflicted positions these film adaptations have toward the topic of sex.
Huston’s film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, a not-insignificant ban, noticed even by the pious unaffiliated with the Catholic Church. The Fox was eventually cut, its nude scenes and a scene of masturbation removed, eventually getting a PG rating for the film. We can say, then, that both films were legitimately involved in a struggle for human liberation against forces of repression – in the case of the Catholic Church, an especially noxious and hypocritical force.
Michelangelo Antonioni remarked that his films of the early Sixties (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse, Il Deserto Rosso) were in part an observation of “the sickness of eros,” that is, the impossibility of the erotic impulse among humans (along with any form of authentic communication, in which eros is inextricably involved) due to the suffocation caused by industrialism and the postwar “economic miracle” that restored capitalist Italy – of course the “sickness” is represented as universal.
What I will discuss here is the deformation of eros in two films ostensibly (and not disingenuously) aimed at provocation and the freeing of the sex drive within late-Sixties capitalist America, as Thanatos, the death urge, was being fully marshalled by state power during the attack on Southeast Asia, and against sexual liberation, contained in, among other locations, the youth counterculture movement. The deformation occurs, in both films, within the films and source material, one film trying to defeat, perhaps accidentally, the regressive tendency of its source (The Fox). I say deformed because these films attempt to take part in what seems to be enlightened discourse about sexuality, but in fact stigmatize sex, making it even more alien to us. The word “perverse” is relevant here. This word can be used in at least two ways: to suggest a brilliant cultural gesture offensive to the mainstream (Pasolini’s Salo), or human activity grotesque beyond comprehension – the death camps, the U.S. war on Vietnam, the U.S. attack on the Middle East – or simply misjudgments so bad as to be risible or contemptible. The latter uses are relevant to Reflections in a Golden Eye, and to a good deal of The Fox.
We have to admit, at this date, that D.H. Lawrence was important to the struggle for sexual liberation. The 1959 and 1960 “trials” and acquittal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (and we can say of Lawrence as well, along with the earlier bans on his novel The Rainbow) are enough to remind us what the stakes were, then, in what was essentially Victorian society, and now, when both religiosity and stupidity threaten us (we might also recall Pasolini, who warned against the false repressive tolerance of consumer society, when eros is placed in service of commerce and escapism). But we must also recall the cautions (to say the least) of Kate Millett in her superb central work of feminist criticism Sexual Politics. Lawrence’s liberation serves the fantasies of the male, as is painfully evident in The Fox, which might be his (tentative) position paper on sexuality. As Millett argues, Lawrence hardly dreams of a sexual utopia with the two genders equal, with both sets of genitals valorized. With critic F.R. Leavis, who fought for Lawrence’s recognition, Lawrence fantasizes a peaceful, pre-industrial, and wholly organic English village of old, a nostalgia for something that never existed. The lionizing of the phallus, and the privileging of the penis in narratives about intercourse, are, for the most part, at the heart of Lawrence’s problems, thoughtfully taken on in Rydell’s film of The Fox. I say “for the most part” since, while Lawrence could be ridiculous on the subject of gender, certainly not all the time, and certainly not in The Rainbow, and in at least part of Women in Love (where homoeroticism frightened him, even as he was aware of its presence in his life and work), which can be seen as the story of female dissatisfaction, and pursuit of an authentic love (Lawrence adopts the female concern) and its relation to sexual satisfaction. For all of his worship of the penis, Lawrence, the product of a distinctly repressive age, is remarkable on the topic of sexual politics.
A quick note about the premiere of The Fox in the United States. It was accompanied by photo spreads in skin magazines like Playboy, featuring the masturbation scene with the voluptuous Anne Heywood in the nude. More on this scene momentarily. Playboy and other magazines tended to present this scene, along with other sexual moments from other films, in galleries of sorts to update us on “what’s going on with sex in cinema,” for the titillation of the mostly male readership, as if to measure the sexual breakthroughs of mass culture. First, I want to say I find nothing wrong in this, then or now. I know the objections to Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, and the like. The points are mostly well-taken – but the strong element of vulgar satire in Hustler seems to have missed most of its critics. Feminist criticism has, however, not been incorrect. The “playboy philosophy” seems especially offensive and crack-brained when we look at what publisher Hugh Hefner did with his magazine. Pictures of nude women were set side-by-side with ads for stereos, automobiles, expensive clothes – not a new insight, I know. The female was less than a human object of the male gaze; she was a commodity, with sexual freedom posed as a luxury to be enjoyed by rich men. That said, Playboy and the like were not merely about the commodity, and offensive and unrealistic as its image of women was, there was a struggle happening in the pages of Playboy, especially given the discourse offered in its extraordinary interviews with some of the most important people of the last century (I think offhand of Jean-Paul Sartre, Fidel Castro, Ingmar Bergman, Marlon Brando, on and on). No magazine could match Playboy for this content in the Sixties and Seventies.
In Rydell’s film, two women, Nell March (Anne Heywood) and Jill Banford (Sandy Dennis), live together on a farm once owned by a now-deceased man (women take over the patriarchal domain, but tentatively). A lesbian relationship is implied in both book and film, the film more explicitly (and at a crucial moment) than the novel, but Lawrence’s prose, moving from realism to near-metaphysics as he often does, still makes the point obvious. The film misses some key elements most regrettably: the novella is set in the UK, but not the film. The film misses the important backdrop of industrialism and World War I, both missing from the film, which ignores the wars threatening humans in the 1960s that could have served as Lawrentian backdrop. In the story Grenfel is a returning soldier; in the film a merchant seaman. Grenfel’s emotional damage, caused by WWI, can be seen as a crucial factor motivating his involvement with March and Banford.
March and Banford are, thankfully, not portrayed as the archetypal “butch” and “femme” relationship, although Lawrence gets close. In the film, March is more “masculine” in her physical skills and habits: she sits on the kitchen table munching a biscuit, drawing the scolding of Banford. In the opening, March aims a shotgun at the eponymous fox, but misses. The suggestion, especially given her slight smile and Banford’s reaction, is that she wanted to miss. This is the proverbial fox in the hen house story, with the animal representing the male principle – although one can see it as sexuality embodied. If so read, March is connected to the fox: she is fully involved with her own sexuality, emphasized first in the masturbation scene, where March uses the bathroom as traditional refuge. We see her full-length in the nude, attending to her body after bathing. She looks in the mirror for signs of aging, stroking her face as if to remove evidence of the years. She looks down her body as if with a spirit of discovery, then touches her genitalia. The camera becomes demure, cutting to a shot of her from the waist up as she masturbates, leaning on the wall, obviously for support as her orgasm approaches, although her gesture momentarily evokes a wave. Her orgasm is conveyed to us through a close-up of her face, following the example of a similar moment in The Silence (1963). The strategy is sensible and moral: the moment is the woman’s own. Later, March is emphasized still more as a sexual being when she is outside, in a padded, rather masculine jacket, communing with nature in a moment perhaps too Lawrentian; she cups her breasts and shuts her eyes. A moment later, she is aware of a presence. The camera pans to reveal the fox, its face nearly in a snarl.
I need to say at this point that, while March is the most markedly sexual of the two women, it is a mistake to assume, as many have done, that Banford is not sexual, especially because her characterization is rendered by Sandy Dennis, an actress whose physical qualities have been the subject of the most base obloquy by the likes of, again, the awful Pauline Kael. I won’t repeat her attack on Dennis. Dennis’s acting style was eccentric. Here, she rolls her eyes about, stammering at times to suggest her insecurity, perfectly sensible as her position worsens. But at moments, like during the vicious challenge by Grenfel, her finely styled hair shimmers, her white skin incandescent. More, Banford and March seem to have something of a mother-child relationship that is endearing, maintaining the charm of such a relationship while not constructing its eroticism as taboo (Banford cuddling up to a distracted March in bed, thanking her for making the bed warm).
The fox anticipates the arrival of Grenfel (Keir Dullea), whose grandfather owned the house now occupied by Jill and Nell. Like an animal marking his territory, Grenfel tells the women that he recalls the imperfections in the house, the tear in the sofa, the initials he carved on the mantle. Grenfel is a noticeable intruder, but not of the kind I wrote about some months back in Film International (“The Magnificent Stranger: Pasolini’s Teorema and its Tradition“), the visitor with ability to disturb conservative behaviors, and enable people to achieve a positive common good (Shane). And his messianic function often involves awakening a disturbing sexual potential in individual or groups (the visitor in Teorema). Grenfel has little in common with these figures.
He is wholly predatory, ultimately focusing on March as a sexual conquest, and by so doing disrupting the same-sex household the two women have established. In Lawrence’s novel, Grenfel is young and naïve if headstrong; he is referred to as “the youth,” or “the boy.” His seduction of March is transparent, at points resembling a young man offering himself to two frustrated “old maids” (the point is made that since March and Banford approach thirty, they are regarded as women no longer in their prime and therefore “marriage material” by the standards of their moment). Elsewhere in the novella, Lawrence seems to be toying with the idea of a sexual triad, developed much more (if unresolved) in his major novels, especially Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
In the novella The Fox, it is hard to avoid the notion that Lawrence wants to assert the male presence, even that of a young, damaged veteran, against a household of women, and worse, that he uses Grenfel to “convert” a lesbian in the manner of James Bond’s conquest of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. But I am being too literal-minded. This idea circulates in the story, but Lawrence gives the two women authentic presence, and the elliptical ending suggests Grenfel has achieved little.
The film offers a host of problems in the rendering of Grenfel by Keir Dullea, whose performance is wooden and often sinister. He gives a lecture on the importance of “the will” in hunting game; this evil little rant is offered as an internal musing in the novella. As his pursuit of March becomes obvious, Banford is challenged with Grenfel not hesitating to threaten her outright; in a crucial scene, the two argue, with the phallic shotgun, with which Grenfel kills the fox and several other creatures, situated between them. Banford is close to begging Grenfel not to take March away; he is snide and condescending, asking her why she never married, commenting on her face and legs, the scene ending in what looks like a near-rape as Grenfel grabs the woman by the arm.
By this point it is difficult to have sympathetic interest in Grenfel, or interest of any kind. A central flaw is March’s interest in Grenfel, beyond the prospect of continued life on the hardscrabble farm. Early in Grenfel’s relationship with the two women, March asserts her own eroticism by playing a guitar, singing the bawdy Oscar Brand song “Roll it Over.” Several critics have remarked that March sings the song to Grenfel, when she is clearly turned toward Banford, who takes the most joy in the performance, especially in her remarks about March’s naughtiness. But Grenfel’s authority is steadily imposed; March exchanges her work clothes for a pink dress. Now that March has become heterosexually appealing to Grenfel, the two retreat to the barn, where they make love in the nude, the camera staying above the waist. An outright struggle among March, Banford, and Grenfel ensues, with Grenfel insisting to March that she must leave with him, and Banford begging March to stay: Banford’s anxious calling her friend’s name during the love-making in the barn introduces the final act. That moment is complemented by a similar – although clothed – love-making between March and Banford, with the two sequences forming a kind of dialectical montage.
Most annoying is Grenfel’s self-assurance about March and his dominance of her, particularly since March doesn’t seem to know her own will and desire; she answers “I don’t know” to each question posed to her by Banford about her love of Grenfel and the future. What is clear, and so stated, is March’s love of Banford. Grenfel is nothing more than an obnoxious interloper destroying a household. As portrayed by Dullea, one wonders, with Banford, why March – or anyone – is drawn to him, since the film deletes the background of war and Grenfel as metaphor for life that is barely hanging on. The film might work as a feminist discussion of the destructive power of men, but women seem thoroughly undermined except perhaps in the climax, and the film seems to assert that the dominance of the male is inevitable. The novel ends with ambiguity; the film, oddly enough, perhaps more so. Banford is dead, an estate manager itemizing her possessions. The film has been gray, although the landscape is penetrated by sunshine; and the end, rain prevails, and the farm looks especially sodden and tumbledown. Grenfel, in a black suit and overcoat, holds an umbrella over March as she gets into a taxi, Grenfel assuring her that she will be happy. She answers “Will I?” as the film ends.
The ambiguity of Lawrence’s novella is best emphasized by the debate over the tree in the yard behind the house. Its bottom half is alive, but the branches of its top are black, twisted, gothic. March wants the thing down, but Banford argues that it still lives, as if Banford can live with something not done, something ambiguous. At the end, while Grenfel is away, the two women squabble happily over the tree, March making half-hearted efforts to chop at it with an axe. Grenfel suddenly reappears, causing the two women to lose all mirth. Again, as he has done throughout the film, Grenfel insists on justifying his presence by a display of male skill and strength. He warns Banford to stand away, but Banford holds her position. The tree comes down and kills Banford, in a series of images suggesting that the act is suicide more than murder. So Grenfel wins March and she acquiesces, even though we know that her only moments of joy were with Banford.
The conquest of the female by the male is not unusual in Lawrence, but, as suggested, ambiguity is common in many of his works, including The Fox. The youth and naiveté of Grenfel in the novel are missing here, as is Grenfel as figure of survival and the future. Perhaps the film is best read wholly as a tract about the predation of the male, best captured in the final image if the fox’s head and pelt, nailed by Grenfel to the barn. The camera closes in on a ragged thing soaked by rain, the head with black eyes and the mouth a rictus. Has the male turned sex into death? The way forward is into the darkness of male rule, even as the female seems to know all prospects for joy have been destroyed. The sexual joy that the film promises – at least by its advertisers – has vanished, by implication in our lives as well as March’s.
The yellow pall that coats the films renders well the absolute sense of suffocation that destroys the personalities of the narrative. But one can’t help, at various time, but be annoyed or embarrassed by the image of sex that this Hollywood film offers.”
The beginning of John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye offers a title from Carson McCullers’s source novella: “There is a fort in the south where a few years ago a murder was committed.” The film cuts to a pastoral scene, a barn in the deep background. The location for the story’s action is kept vague. “The fort in the south,” where a terrible thing happened, is Anywhere USA, a Peyton Place or Winesburg, Ohio. It’s the type of small town which, prior to the two world wars, was seen as the American utopia achieved, but after World War II were represented increasingly as places where the forces of repression and mendacity take a serious toll, with the consequent explosions of disappointed rage. This “fort in the South” is a typical American middle-class enclave, except that the military factor makes it something more: repression is doubled, and the strictures and rituals of military life make thriving human life impossible. By invoking this idea of Our Town, the idea of a murder, which happened, it seems, because of the location itself, makes sense very quickly. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), twenty years later, makes clear the dehumanizing of the human being by state power, the turning of the human subject into something less than an animal in a condition that allows the male to do virtually any barbarous thing so long as it serves the state (defending the nude statues of Arno Breker, Goebbels said “we are not prudes!”). The deforming of the human libido seen in Kubrick’s film is useful framework with which to examine films like Reflections in a Golden Eye.
I first saw Reflections in a Golden Eye when it was released in 1967. At the time, the print had a faint golden cast, with primary colors obvious. This was not received well by the public, so a Technicolor print was quickly issued. Memory may not serve, but the original print I saw had a slight tint. Warner Brothers Archive Collection has released the film in its two forms, the Technicolor and the “golden hue” versions (see the accompanying frame), both on Blu-ray. The gold version is rather like watching the film through a thin coating of mustard, the color more yellow than gold, and this may serve a purpose other than what was intended by the filmmakers.
One can’t help but think of the association of yellow with jaundice (I certainly can, having had serious hepatitis in 1980), with disease and decadence, as with The Yellow Kid and his journalism, the Gilded Age with gold that isn’t gold, and tales of the supernatural by Robert W. Chambers, like “The Yellow Sign” and “The King in Yellow.” Reflections in a Golden Eye deals with the consequences of repression, but it becomes an adumbration of these bizarreies, a gallery of the peculiar whose strangeness is central to the odd project of the film. Hence, the journalists of the day were prone to list all of the “perversities” (I mean the word in the second definition above) before us: voyeurism, homosexuality, fetishism, sadomasochism, exhibitionism.
Carson McCullers’ work is often placed in the category of Southern Gothic, but I could never quite see the placement accommodating her as it does, say, Tennessee Williams, with his idea that life and beauty inevitably succumb to death at its most hideous, in the South of the past and present. Death and “perversity” are central to the mood of the film, with the tinted cinematography of Aldo Tonti and the sullen, reed-driven score by Toshiro Mayuzumi, making the gothic prevail, much more so, in my view, than in the novel. The atmosphere is suffocating, with the jaundice representing well the atmosphere of total repression that inevitably turns to violence, which is foreshadowed in the discussion of Alison Langdon’s amputation of her nipples with garden clippers, after the death of her newborn.
The real difficulty with the film centers on hyperbole bordering camp; the film has been too often categorized, unfairly I think, as low camp. There are elements of the film deserving of the term, beginning with Marlon Brando’s performance as Major Weldon Penderton. On the one hand, this is a very brave (and at times ingenious) effort for an actor so associated with machismo, although Brando was the leader of part of the Method school that challenged some received notions of gender (including James Dean and Montgomery Clift – Clift was a candidate for the Penderton role). But at times this looks like an image of gay sexuality made by and for the heterosexual world, beginning with Penderton feverishly entertaining himself with a fetish box, containing a silver Georgian teaspoon he stole from the home of Capt. Murray Weincheck (who is Other twice over, gay and Jewish – that he “plays the violin and reads Proust,” as Alison says, makes us know quickly that his end will be sad and quick). He’s a junior officer harassed and forced out of the army by Penderton, who is obviously threatened by the man’s presence, which perhaps challenges Penderton’s closeted identity. The box also contains a photo of a semi-nude statue of Greco-Roman origin (I could never quite make it out, but one is thankful we don’t get the cliché of Michelangelo’s David). Penderton strokes his chin absent mindedly as he leans in, placing the photo closer to the lamp in the solitude of his office – which is violated one time by an angry Alison. The fetish box will contain a Baby Ruth candy wrapper, discarded by Private Williams and thoughtlessly crushed by Penderton, oblivious to the real nature of things. Penderton usually walks in quick, prim steps, his back so straight he has the proverbial steel rod up his ass.
There is Anacleto (Zorro David, with voice dubbed), Alison’s body servant, another caricature as the embodiment of the “screaming faggot” who dances about Alison’s bedroom, blowing kisses, making oblique remarks about Rachmaninoff. Alison Langdon, played by Julie Harris, perhaps emphasizes too much the type of character the actress so often played on stage and screen, the suffering, neurotic Emily Dickinson figure struggling with her sexual identity, perhaps best used in Robert Wise’s horror masterpiece The Haunting (1963).
Alison is a witness to sexual goings-on, like the visits of the voyeur L.G. Williams (Robert Forster in his first role) to the Penderton house, and the affair between Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and Alison’s husband Morris (Brian Keith). But she is prone to misinterpretation (Williams’s voyeurism is no more than that), and her witnessing leads her into trouble; her husband has her incarcerated in a pricey asylum, where she quickly dies (her sensitivity kills her, yet there are hints of murder, like when her husband picks up a small pair of scissors from a sewing basket before his surreptitious call to “Colonel Kelly” that begins his wife’s incarceration). Her misinterpretations correspond with Penderton’s, who thinks Williams pursues him, when the soldier in fact desires – at one level at least – Leonora. Langdon assures Leonora that Alison has no notion of their affair, even as they pet publically. Alison become a symbolic figure, but unlike Vee Talbot in Orpheus Descending, a symbol of fragile, creative sensibility easily destroyed by the coarseness of her environment; Alison is mostly a neurotic who prefers her state and her catered-to solitude, although surely driven mad by the male culture of her husband. Alison is a figure of humanity long since destroyed by the assumptions of her society, by Leonora, the Southern floozy, near “white trash” and army brat whose marriage to Penderton seems about nothing more than an outlet for her sadism. He debases himself by accepting repression and opting for the closet, to Langdon, a stereotyped manifestation of machismo whose persona crumbles after his wife’s suicide – he suddenly has affection for the missing Anacleto.
The sexual act doesn’t exist in the world of the film, except for the furtive, ugly assignations of Leonora and Langdon in the bushes, whose sexual life, as is so often the case in heteronormative society, is circumscribed by the lie. The sexual act is deformed and then replaced with violence, especially the murder of the ending, which achieves nothing.
Camp returns regularly, like Penderton’s encounter with the naked Williams, offered to us a Nature Boy in the nude, a primal force controlling the wilderness. The encounter happens when Penderton takes Firebird, Leonora’s white horse (she notes that the horse is a “stallion,” as if to construct the animal as a giant phallus which only she can control), for a ride to prove Penderton’s mastery, an exercise resulting in disaster. He is thrown from the horse; for a moment, the image cites Caravaggio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, with Penderton at the feet of the horse, then Williams’s bare legs passing by. Flying into a rage, Penderton lashes the horse brutally, an act repaid at Leonora’s crass cocktail party, where Langdon holds forth on the virtues of polo as a trainer of leaders (“Pershing played it, and Patton, MacArthur, Terry Allen!”). We have a pantheon of necessary killers, before Leonora confronts Penderton with a riding quirt, lashing his face savagely.
But camp is replaced at several moments within the screenplay with material as thoughtful as anything of its era on the topic of sexual politics. The Pendertons and Morris Langdon are in the Langdon’s study, all forlorn after Alison’s suicide. Leonora and Langdon play cards (and flirt) while Penderton sits slumped in a chair. Langdon is fixated on the missing Anacleto, wanting to make a man of the little houseboy by putting him in the army (“he’d sure be miserable… but anything’s better than a man dancin’ around on his toes and all that mess”). Langdon seems overwhelmed with confusion and self-pity. He is too dense to see the ambivalent feelings he now shows, less for his lost wife (with whom he had even less a relationship than Penderton has with Leonora; those two are at least bound by sadomasochism) than for the man he treated with derision. An actor more sensitive than Brian Keith (who nevertheless has some fine moments of machismo adamant in its lack of introspection) may have been able to unearth Langdon’s sudden motivations.
As Langdon mutters his idle thoughts about the sissy houseboy who would profit from military intruction, Penderton delivers a remarkable little speech, taken from McCullers, which goes over the heads of the others:
Any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normality is wrong and should not be allowed to bring happiness. It’s better, because morally honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping around in a round hole rather than discover and use the unorthodox one that would fit it.”
The dunderhead Langdon says, defensively, “Well, yeah Weldon, do you agree with me?” to which Penderton says, very quietly “no, I don’t.” But the meaning of his words, stated somewhat obliquely of course, pass everyone by. There are other moments displaying Marlon Brando as creative artist: Penderton stands in front of a mirror, trying various stern and happy expressions, seeing if he is viable as a social being. This is a true Brando work, as the actor shows the powers of observation that made him a master of his art – while suggesting that his character may be a psychopath lacking in any personality at all.
The moment changes as Penderton goes to the mantle, accidentally knocking off a porcelain figurine. Leonora, now sad and vulnerable, comes over to gather the remains of the black boy called “Rufus,” a companion to Leonora since boarding school. The moment recalls momentarily the fragility of the world of The Glass Menagerie, while also remarking – all too briefly and in isolation – on the racial history of the socially blighted South. Penderton apologizes but, seeing no guilt in his clumsiness, transitions the moment to a new discourse, an idealized view of enlisted life, which is without “clutter,” a world of “men among men,” which is “rough and coarse perhaps, but it’s clean, clean as a rifle.” He further assures himself: “they’re seldom out of each other’s sight, and they guard the next man’s privacy as if it were their own.” This fantasy, far beyond anything by Genet, contrasts with the barracks life we see, where the disturbed Williams starts a fight born of his frustrations; another soldier knocks him down, but Williams merely walks away, bewildering the other men.
The yellow pall that coats the films renders well the absolute sense of suffocation that destroys the personalities of the narrative. But one can’t help, at various time, but be annoyed or embarrassed by the image of sex that this Hollywood film offers. As Amos Vogel noted, embarrassment or humor often accompanies the industry’s idea of sexual expression, as if sex itself cannot exist outside the realm of sickness or aberration. Films like Pasolini’s Salo, or, at less of an extreme, Renoir’s Le Regle du Jeu, have long since shown us the costs of the bourgeois attitude toward sex. But surely sex, in a healthy form, is still available to the artist.
The Fox and Reflections in a Golden Eye are both important, at least as exercises suggesting what should and should not be done in adaptations. The coyness of the two films, their inability to deal honestly with outlawed sexual expression, might be written off as reflective of their moment. Yet, we can use these films as a measure with which to examine contemporary disingenuousness. The Fox now seems a more scathing and final dismissal of the male than Lawrence ever allowed. Reflections in a Golden Eye might be dismissed as an outdated presentation of gay life and the marriage (“we aren’t that screwed up these days”). Or it might be read as one of Huston’s fractured films, of which there are several (The Kremlin Letter, butchered in the editing, always strikes me as one of the best portraits of the Cold War’s amorality, with gay life deformed by it with everything else – with camp pounding down the door). Understanding Huston’s limitations might allow better appreciation of what he did, if such understanding doesn’t demolish him.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International. His book on the TV series Breaking Bad will appear this October from Wayne State University Press.