DOUBLE FEATURE: "Baby Doll" dir., Elia Kazan, 1956 + "Sucker Punch" dir., Zach Snyder, 2011

Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams were heating up film audiences and the Catholic church in the mid-50's with a film that holds up extremely well, apart from the tremendous controversy that surrounded it upon release and the landmark it has become in changing the rating system since then.  Baby Doll involves a destitute Southern cotton-gin owner, Archie Lee Meighan, played with perfect, balding, sweaty desperation by Karl Malden, and his soon to be bride, the 18 year-old "baby doll" of this picture, played by Caroll Baker.  Everything is crumbling around Meighan as the picture picks up just days before he can marry his captive bride, and, more importantly to him, consummate the marriage.  Malden's portrayal is perverse in its physicality, and our perception of his perversity is compounded by the structure of the opening scene, which finds Archie Lee peeking a glimpse of Baby Doll through a ragged hole he has made in the already crumbling plaster wall of the decrpit Tiger Tail Mansion.  This is our introduction to Baby Doll, and knowing neither the relationship between her and Archie or why she is sleeping in a baby crib with the slats down (all of their proper furniture has been taken away), this image establishes a rather unsettling tone from the get-go, even for a modern audience.  I can only imagine the ways in which it aroused Cardinal Spellman upon the time of its release.

Francis Cardinal Spellman
From the IMDB:  When the film was released in 1956, it was enormously controversial for its extremely risqué subject matter. The Legion of Decency condemned the film for its "carnal suggestiveness". Francis Cardinal Spellman condemned the film in a stunning attack from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral two days before the film opened, saying that the film had been "responsibly judged to be evil in concept" and was certain that it would "exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it", and exhorted all Catholics to refrain from patronizing the film "under pain of sin". Cardinal Spellman's condemnation of the film led to the Legion of Decency's first-ever nationwide boycott of an American-made film produced by a major studio. All over the country, almost 20 million Catholics protested the film and picketed theaters that showed it. The Catholic boycott nearly killed the film; it was cancelled by 77% of theaters scheduled to show it, and it only made a meager $600,000 at the box office. The film was also condemned by Time Magazine, which called it the dirtiest American-made motion picture that had ever been legally exhibited. Surprisingly, despite the film's sordid elements, the Production Code Administration gave it a seal of approval, but only after nearly a year of arguments.  After this film, the PCA drifted farther and farther away from its traditional guidelines until it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system in 1968.

Eli Wallach and Caroll Baker in Baby Doll
Make no mistake, Baby Doll is still quite the turn-on.  This is due, in part, to a performer who had mastered Kazan's acting style, who had every twisted, over-heated motivation of his character firmly in his grasp:  Eli Wallach.  Add to that the exceptionally uninhibited reactions of Caroll Baker to Wallach's advances, and the intimate, pressing camera work of Boris Kaufman (who had also worked with Kazan in On the Waterfront), and it's easy to understand why Baby Doll earns its reputation as one of cinema's most memorably erotic pictures. Particularly, Wallach's portrayal of the cotton baron Silva Vacarro is what pulls all of this together.  I imagine there were a lot of options for Kazan in terms of casting, and although Wallach may not leap to mind as the ideal choice, you can't imagine an actor handling this challenging character so well, as he weighs his options of revenge on Meighan, alternately driven by anger and lust as he chases Baby Doll around the abandoned cars, rusty water pump, and rickety swing set of the once prosperous plantation mansion yard.  Having sent Archie on a wild goose chase, the dance of Silva and Baby Doll around that lawn is the true heart of the picture.

Karl Malden in Baby Doll
The climax of Baby Doll falters a bit, as Archie returns and slowly realizes that Silva's seduction has fully taken hold of Baby Doll.  Here is where the picture should really kick into gear--the first third has belonged to Malden and Baker, the second third to Wallach and Baker, and now we get the three leads of the film together, not to mention the creepy, vacant portrayal of Baby Doll's Aunt Rose Comfort by Mildred Dunnock, occasionally getting involved from her kitchen post (in a great bit of business early on in the film where we are introduced to Aunt Rose, we learn that the Meighan's have a telephone, but cannot rely on Aunt Rose to answer it as it tends to frighten her, sending her running about like a frantic bird).  In the final scenes of Baby Doll the film reveals itself most as a farce, climaxing with Archie waving a pistol and chasing Silva outdoors and into the trees.  The film is redeemed with its unsettling and somewhat ambiguous ending, though it is hard to tell what the overall intent tonally was for Baby Doll.  Kazan would go on to make a true masterpiece the next year, a sort of prototype for Sidney Lumet's Network featuring Andy Griffith in the role of his career, 1957's A Face in the Crowd.  Even though all of these pictures share themes that would play off of one another nicely, I can't help but bounce Kazan and William's Baby Doll off of a chance cinematic encounter with a more recent Baby Doll:  Emily Browning in Zach Snyder's meta-cinematic mainstream skull-fuck, Sucker Punch.

Emily Browning in Sucker Punch
It's impossible to talk about a film like Sucker Punch with the same critical language as Baby Doll.  Baby Doll is subversive and sensual and engaging in a way that Sucker Punch is not.  Sucker Punch is deliberately disorienting and engaged in post-modern pastiche in a way that turns Baby Doll into just another obscure footnote.  Although both films are aware of our cultural obsession with dangerously youthful sexuality, Baby Doll roots that obsession in the primary male characters, whereas Sucker Punch is clearly throwing that obsession back at us for analysis, and doing so in a daring narrative manner.

I can't say that I have seen all of Snyder's previous work, or liked any of it, although what I have seen has always contained some successful passages.  In his remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), featuring a memorable performance by the stellar Sara Polley, he starts off with a bang, but ultimately muddles what makes the original the most successful of Romero social allegories.  And his version of graphic novel purist Alan Moore's The Watchmen was entirely too bloated and wrongheaded in Snyder's choice to maintain the static nature of panel-based imagery, although, like Dawn, you can't deny it has a captivating opening sequence. (I won't get into the number of papers I read on his cartoonish-looking 300, which seemed to be the go-to macho movie for my male film students to write about even years after its release).  Likewise, Sucker Punch thrives most fully on the thrilling shifts of perception that it drags the audience into without warning that exist within the first 40 minutes of the film.  Once we catch on to the narrative trope of how we escape into the fantasy sequences, they lose some of their mystique.

 What then becomes fascinating about the film is the way in which we get to those sequences, and what it suggests about us culturally, particularly the ways in which we avoid serious narratives about violent abuse and exploitation.  Snyder's Baby Doll character is never framed in a realistic manner; in Sucker Punch  we are always in a fictive realm, but the truth the film is trying to uncover always seems to be one pull of a curtain away...just past the Tim Burton movie, or the Gilliam sequence, or the fantasy epic...  Even the opening Warner Brothers logo is layered on a theater curtain that opens to reveal the first "stage" of the film, containing an image of Baby Doll that slowly transitions from a clearly computer generated image into a real actress.  This initial camera movement brings to mind the ideas of the great German Theater maker Bertolt Brecht, and pushes them into the realm of modern screen culture as we literally travel through the 4th wall of a computer animated image, only to have it close behind us, leaving us with flesh and blood.  But Sucker Punch is slippery--even though we are initially flung into what appears to be a dangerous situation of parental abuse, Snyder is always reminding us how removed we are from the very real consequences of that violence, turning the entire incident into a music video, evoking pop nostalgia, fetishizing in slo-mo every move of a revenge fantasy so familiar that we never even question the horror of how easily we go along with it.  Like Brecht, I suspect Snyder wants us to reflect on that aspect of our own mode of spectating, as he continues to jerk the yolk that he so gently dresses us with in the opening passages, leaping from fantasy to fantasy, always hinged upon something truly frightening, and always concealing either an act of exploitation (Baby Doll's hidden dance) or a horrific act of violence (Baby Doll's lobotomy).

John Hamm in Sucker Punch
So, why wasn't this an art-house release instead of an I-MAX release?  I guess because Sucker Punch isn't Sucker Punch if it exists outside of the mainstream.  If it did, it would have to be called something like...Fair Warning.  Ultimately, there are going to be enough critics and audience who will write off Sucker Punch as a misogynistic failure, at worst, or an inept attempt at cheerful exploitation, at best.  I think it's clear why it wasn't so well received as commercial product:  it has a brain.  Not unlike Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), that brain is firmly wrapped up inside a love of movies, but also takes very seriously the impact that movies have on the attitudes of a culture that is saturated with them.  Snyder even reaches beyond the realm of movies with this work, evoking multiple aspects of mediated cultural experience, particularly video-game culture.  But, enough shots have been taken at "fan boys" and "video game nerds" in critique of this film, shoving the movie off onto them, as if it were their fault.  I think Snyder casts his criticisms beyond that demographic. Sucker Punch is looking back at all of us, lobotomy spike firmly in hand, asking a really good question.


No comments: