Sunday, October 26, 2008

Horror Movie Marathon Wrap-Up, Part 1: Rosemary's Baby

A caveat before I begin: my goal with this post (and the next few posts) is not necessarily to construct a cohesive argument regarding these films. Rather, I am hoping to use this space to simply respond to them, as they might be considered both independently and (eventually and more interestingly) together. I'm not sure where this is going to go--in fact, I haven't even figured out how to start this write up yet. But I feel like I should say something, if only because I spent ten hours of my life watching these five films this past weekend.

I suppose the best way to start is to introduce the format: my wife and I host an annual Halloween movie party at our house each year. In the past, this party has consisted of three or four horror movies, watched in between any number of breaks for snacks, meals and board games. Although this has been a pretty successful program, the introduction of Facebook to our lives prompted us to do something special this year: with the benefit of semi-formal "invitations" and a month of planning, we decided to organize a bona-fide schedule for this years events, all based around a particular theme for the movies. The theme we selected was originally conceived as a joke: having recently welcomed our first child into our home, Meredith and I thought watching movies about "evil children" would be just the right kind of "twisted." We were right, but we were also shortsighted: although we had recently started a family ourselves with the birth of Evangeline, several of our friends who were in attendance at the party were still "in transit" to this goal. Over the course of the party, not one, not two, but three pregnant women made an appearance, and as each new mother and prospective father entered the room, my confidence in our movie selections (and our taste) dwindled.

The problems were apparent from the start: our first film was ROSEMARY'S BABY, and although the film itself surprised me with the quality of its performances and its production, its politics were more unsettling than I remembered. Sure, everyone remembers the general set-up of the narrative: a woman falls victim to an elaborate plot hatched by a Satanic cult to impregnate her with the spawn of the Devil; she must uncover said plot and stop said hellspawn. But the problems come in with exactly how the film chooses to portray the heroine: Rosemary Woodhouse is not just a woman, she is an impossibly young and naive housewife to a small-fish/big-pond stage actor. She is never confident, never capable, and never particularly intelligent. Her childlike status is a sticking point for the director during the film's first half, as she frequently appears in oversized clothing, her hair in pigtails, her chin down on her chest and her large eyes looking up as if she had done something to get in trouble. She is a waif, and she is will-less. This makes her relationship to her husband, "Guy," all the more unsettling: Guy, who embodies approximately 47 of the 48 most common Italian stereotypes found in Hollywood cinema, is also loud-mouthed, self-centered and condescending (no, those are not Italian stereotypes). His idea of a romantic evening: she cooks, and then, mid-dinner, he takes his pants off (without a word) for sex. For her part, Rosemary is upsettingly compliant when things like this happen: when Guy begins to undo his jeans, she puts down her fork--also without speaking--and pulls her dress over her head. The resulting sex scene is filmed by a static camera and is one of the least erotic consensual sex scenes I can think of.

Of course, that's part of the issue: although Rosemary goes along with Guy's "request" without complaining, her lack of any agency up this point in the film prevents her from being able to offer any real "consent" to the encounter. This is the problem with her marriage to Guy: she is less than a child to him (or to us); she is an ornament, or a piece of furniture, to which Guy (and the movie) can do as they please. The fact, then, that Guy sells their unborn son to the Satanic cult next door in exchange for a part in an off-Broadway play is not a tremendous moral decision for him: as his wife, Rosemary's job is to produce babies, and since she is young, fertile and compliant (she mentions twice to random strangers how easy it will be for her to have a baby, even before she assumes, after a single sexual encounter, that she "MUST be pregnant!"), Guy assumes there won't be any problem having more children after the one he gives away is gone. The logic mirrors a kindergartener's response to the story of Rumpelstiltskin: losing your "first born son" (especially on the day of his birth!) is only traumatic if you don't have any more kids; therefore, just as the heroine of that story is able to make gold from hay (read: nothing), so the mother IS ALSO CAPABLE of making a potentially infinite number of children and, logically speaking, negate the terror of the crazy dwarf's threat of stealing (only!) one of them. In other words: what's the big deal? There's always more where that came from.

But this is where ROSEMARY'S BABY gets interesting: for Rosemary, the narrative purpose for being put in this predicament--her "job," so to speak, as a character--is not to solve the plot, but to successfully terminate it. Since she has already been raped and impregnated by the time she "awakens" in the movie from her passivity and blind obedience, the only "active" thing for her to do is to find a way (and the willpower) to terminate her pregnancy before she gives birth. However, there is, of course, a double-bind: as a "real mother," she is wholly and completely attached to the life of her child, even to the point where she puts her own life in danger to preserve it. The movie presents this as a completely natural response: this is what mothers "do." I can go with that. However, she is also bound by an intricate system of specifically male acquaintances who are responsible for controlling her actions, such that even when she begins to suspect Guy, she is still bound by a network of other men. At no point is this more apparent than in her frantic visit to Dr. Hill, a physician recommended to her by her girlfriends, who listens patiently to Rosemary's explanation of the plot against her ("and her baby"), only to tuck her in for a nap and then call all the people she just told him were evil so they can come pick her up. The problem isn't just the chauvinistic Guy; it's a patriarchal conspiracy, headed up (ultimately) by the Devil himself.

After Dr. Hill's betrayal, it is a narrative formality for her to give birth to her son and to have him taken by the cult that has control over her. It is also an efficient way to move through the threat that abortion poses to the sanctity of the narrative itself: by stripping Rosemary of agency (and even knowledge) regarding the devil-baby in her belly, the movie makes sure we know the social/political stakes of her quest to uncover the "truth" about the conspiracy that surrounds her: she is a girl playing detective and nothing more; in the end, what she finds is only relevant if it can persuade a presumably neutral man to call a hospital instead of her husband.

So what, then, is Rosemary "good" for, and why does a patriarchal order topped by Satan carry the day here? Well, the film's answer to the second question is most obvious, so we'll begin there: Satan is at the end and beginning of all plots here because "God Is Dead"--so saith a copy of TIME magazine Rosemary picks up at the doctor's office; so saith the high priest of her friendly neighborhood Satanic cult at the very end of the film. In fact, so saith the film itself, at least in terms of the faith it bothers to reward: the closest we come to a "Christian" presence is probably a tie between the Woodhouse's old friend Hutch and a young woman Rosemary meets in the laundry room of her hotel, and both of those characters end up dead, in both cases by suicide, and in both cases, through the direct interference of members of the Satanic cult that takes Rosemary's baby. But the pronouncement is also a strange one in itself, and it never receives sufficient explanation: if God is Dead, who killed Him and why? The movie dangles a few of the usual suspects before us--consumerism, materialism, greed, power, etc.--but nothing ever rises to the surface with any authority other than good old fashion Procreation: the Devil needs a son, and there ain't no she-devils in Hell. So, I suppose we might say it was Man who killed God, but only in that both God and the Devil need heirs to keep their kingdoms going, and (apparently) the only way to get them is to seduce literal or figurative twelve-year-olds.

But, to close this thing out, let's give brief attention to the former question from a moment ago: what is Rosemary "good" for? The deeply upsetting answer the movie gives is that Rosemary's purpose is, quite simply, to take care of her baby. In the movie's closing scene, Rosemary confronts the cult that has tormented her and demands to see her baby. When she gets what she asks for, her initial response is to recoil in horror: the child is a monster, too horrific for the camera to see, conceivable only through a flashback to Rosemary's rape and a shot of the eyes of the baby's father. However, after a few minutes of closing exposition, Rosemary asks the cult leader an interesting question: what can I do? Of course, the movie has prepped us for a particular response: you can kill it! You can take the crucifix hanging over its crib and stab it into the little bastard's heart! You can WIN! YOU CAN ACT!

But the cultist has a different response: "You can be its mother, Rosemary. After all, that's what you are." Rosemary's role, even unto the anti-Christ, is to hold, feed and nurture a baby, not because the movie is certain that "mothers mothering" is an important message to send but because there is simply no other message women like Rosemary--which is to say, all women--are capable of hearing. Thus, Rosemary is not--and perhaps was never--a moral agent; in fact, her disaster was set in motion before she spoke an independent line by the one who spoke and continues to speak for her--her husband, Guy. Of course, this is slimy to us, the viewers, but that's only because we've forgotten the rational way out of the old paradox with first-born sons: children are a dime a dozen, but a part off-Broadway? That's the Devil's bargain.


Gaston Monescu said...

It was long! And good!

Couple of thoughts:
1. In a film about the lack of (female) agency, Guy's ironic role as an "actor" doesn't buy him anything, especially potency.

2. You might want to address all of this in terms of the film's specifically Catholic in its outlook, RoseMARY being the bizzaro Mary and all. That church too has a paradoxical relationship to female agency. No female priests, but Mary is venerated like no other male saint and merits her own prayers.

3. If God is dead, then the devil is on life support. His minions have an average age of 67. The over the top ridiculous "Hail, Satan"s at the movie's end only confirm the bloated corpse of evil. That is, the movie is MUCH more pernicious then even you're arguing, T., because it's not JUST that God has been replaced, but that his replacement has been raiding the AARP member files just to get numbers up.

4. All that is to say, that I think you underestimate the importance of age in this film. This has Vietnam written all over it. The older generation doesn't hold the keys to wisdom. In fact, their piety is Satanic. This is about motherhood sure, but it's actually about control over the next generation of children. For instance, I bet Ruth Gordon wears Elect Richard Nixon pins when she goes to the grocery store. Rosemary is a women, but she's also the idealistic faith believing youngsters who are committed to the immorality of war and the sanctity of life. Guy is a Robert McNamara type, one the best and the brightest (ironic) who sold his soul to the corporate machine. Now, the idealism of the hippies was as naive and groundless as the opinions that inform Rosemary's conceptions of motherhood, children, etc. I think the film is using gender politics, however, to get at generational politics.

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

the age issue is a fascinating take: I agree that the old age of the cult is critical, but I tend to transfer the importance of old age immediately to the gods these geezers are worshipping and how they might go about re-filling their respective church pews...but your critique is interesting. I also missed the Vietnam war politics here, as, no doubt, I was too eager to get my teeth into the gender politics of the late '60s and Roe v. Wade--but this was a clever move on your part, and I think you're on to something.

But, for my money, there are still two unanswered questions: first, why do the Woodhouse's quirky, cultic neighbors first adopt and then kill the girl Rosemary meets in the laundry room? Her character makes no sense in either of our models for the film's politics. And second, what are we supposed to do about A) our cult leader's obsession with world travel ("Name a place: I've been there!") and its relationship to B) their ability/desire to transgress geographic boundaries? In terms of the latter, I can't help but think of that strange secret passageway: why would the cultists build a door between their sanctuary and the closet of an old lady's apartment? And why would that old lady block it up? Are we missing our "God" figure? Is it possible the old lady the Woodhouse's buy the house from was the "God" who turned out to be "dead"? And if so, what's with the microcosmic apartment building/hotel set-up? God and Satan are all over 75 years old and cohabitating in a split penthouse suite in Manhattan? That's hardly a global take on heavenly affairs, which makes MAN'S ability to travel all the more interesting: name a place and I've been there, indeed.

So, this complicates both of our arguments: if its about believers dying off, it's strange that its the gods who are competing for offspring. If its Vietnam fearmongering, its strange that our hippie youthfuls are impotent morons. And if its about motherhood, its signals get crazy-crossed with the laundry lady and Rosemary's strange quasi-Catholic allegorical status.

The film's a mystery, I tells ya, but it seems convinced of its own logic: maybe Britt or Areopagus can explain it to us?

Gaston Monescu said...

1. The girl is a Vietnam casualty. Her name is on the Memorial in Washington.

2. The fact that the Satanists are world-travelers only lets me think that their age is associated with the global marauding politics of Johnson/Nixon/et al. Also, it explains the weird Asian guy taking photos of the baby.

3. I think the apartment house is a reworked heaven, or a symbol of how God and the devil are ultimately connected. That is, I think you would be wrong if you read this as a simplistic pro-Satan movie (BTW, isn't that the problem w/ movies today? Too many simplistic pro-Satan films...). This is pro-Satan movie, but only insomuch as the entire thing is nihilistic and God and Satan, then, are portrayed as two sides of the same coin, indistinguishable fixident users who need walkers and wear bow ties.

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

excellent read, sir. I am in your debt.

Britt said...

So, dig this:

What we have are two models of female agency: one shown by Rosemary and the other by Minnie.

I was going to mention that Rosemary's actions (or in-actions) are a inversion of the Biblical Mary, right down to her being impregnated. Instead of Mary's response to the annunciation (let it be unto me...) we get the nightmarish vision of Rosemary's rape. (Incidentally, Mary is often symbolized with a rose, so I think there's some kind of intensifier there) She never consents, and by definition here has not agency.

But the actions first remarked upon, then, take the role prescribed and modeled by the Biblical Mary. Rosemary submits to her husband (and patriarchy) and look how it all turns out. Her lack of agency is defined to her biologically prescribed roles and by the patriarchical church. She's a mother and a woman, and therefore her choices are limited.

Here I'd mention theories surrounding the plots of nineteenth century novels. Critics often point out that writers had to wait for or "invent" the middle class capitalism so that their fictional heroines could navigate a realistic world without being hampered by childbirth or child-rearing. Therefore, this movie seems to be critiquing female agency in a biological fashion too--again because Rosemary either doesn't choose or cannot choose to be active. She is raped, and she does submit quite willingly and disturbingly to her toolbox of a husband.

Then there's Minnie. She is nothing but active, so I think that complicates things. In some way, she seems super-feminine, or at best a garish caricature of what femininity and womanhood are defined by this film. She wheedles Rosemary into drinking the tannis root, she convinces her to see the doctor, etc. IF anything, she's the brains behind the operation, and she's the one who becomes the baby's surrogate.

Though it's not cool to say it, but can we think about the roles and the actors along with the director? We've remarked on Mia Farrow's waifish frame, and she honestly looks like a doll through most of this movie. I wonder if our knowledge of her public persona can work while we think about her role, especially since Polanski is the director. I find it utterly creepy.

I'm sure what to make of these observations just yet, but I don't think we can forget the fact that Minnie drives this plot, even though it's going straight to hell.

Gaston Monescu said...

The Wikipedia article indicates that Polanski did NOT want Farrow because of her waifish appearance.

Note: she had just married Sinatra, so there is a sense in which this union of youth and the country's past glory feeds into my reading of the film as primarily about generational politics.

My first instinct is that Minnie is as caught in an agency bind as Rosemary; she has simply figured out a way to mobilize them differently. She's still serving Satan, and she herself is sterile. If Rosemary is the inverse of Mary at the moment of conception, Minnie is the inverse of the archetypal mother/caretaker. She gains a modicum of agency only at the expense of 1) her own soul and 2) her willingness to torture and prey upon a fellow woman in the service of a man.