Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #11: Thelma & Louise

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Thelma & Louise (released May 1991)

Susan Sarandon (right) as Louise; Geena Davis (right) as Thelma

Here's the artwork designed for the 20th anniversary Blu-ray release.
Notice the emphasis on the gun; there wasn't even a hint of one on the original poster. 

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Anton Chekhov, the 19th century author and dramaturge, insisted: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." Movies and TV shows have been jerking us around with this trope, dubbed "Chekhov's gun," forever. Within the first ten minutes of Thelma & Louise, one of the titular characters packs a handgun for a weekend trip to the mountains, sort of half-seriously explaining that it might come in handy if they encounter any psycho killers, bears or snakes. It gets fired before the end of the first act. Two ordinary women had some idyllic little excursion planned, but an impromptu stop at a roadhouse bar goes gravely wrong, turning a housewife and a waitress into fugitives.

Watch the trailer and see how Thelma & Louise was originally advertised as a lighthearted female buddy road trip picture. In fact, it's almost made to look like one of those low-budget 1960's era drive-in features that were the specialty of American International Pictures, the now-defunct studio whose marketing philosophy was simple: To catch your greatest audience, zero in on the 19-year-old male. Perhaps that explains the emphasis on two beautiful women with an apparent disdain for the law, a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible and one big-ass explosion. I bet the 19-year-old guys who bought tickets to Thelma & Louise back in the summer of 1991 got taken for a darker ride than they were anticipating. And I suspect a lot of the women who accompanied them were surprised to discover that Thelma & Louise was no silly romp.

Doing some research on how the film was received back in 1991, I discovered that a lot of critics and essayists described it as a well-crafted feminist road movie. Most of the negative criticism can be summed up sort of like this: I didn't like this picture because the women do some stuff that we're used to seeing men do, and that's just wrong. The former is worthy of debate; the latter is specious nonsense belched up by people who should never be allowed near a keyboard. If this movie is guilty of anything, it's for having the temerity to take a tired genre dominated by brooding,  disaffected men -- the road movie -- and telling its story entirely (and freshly) from the perspective of two women. It's defiantly forthright about sexism, without ever really crossing the line into overt male-bashing. Midway through the movie, a male law enforcement officer schools Thelma's boorish, patronizing husband in the fine art of sweet-talking a woman so she can be cajoled into surrendering the next time she phones home. "Women love that shit," he contends. The script, by Callie Khouri, is a powerful, revolutionary treatise on all the shit women do not, in fact, love -- like non-consensual sex and paternalism.

Director Ridley Scott, who'd made six films and was primarily known for 1979's Alien and 1982's Blade Runner, took on the project after a lot of others passed. According to interviews with Scott, at least one other director summarily dismissed the script for Thelma & Louise: "Listen, dude, it's two bitches in a car." A lot of different actresses were considered for the roles of Thelma and Louise: Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Scott saw Susan Sarandon as Louise. Geena Davis, an Oscar winner for 1988's The Accidental Tourist, also wanted to play Louise. Ridley Scott thought she'd make a better Thelma. He was right. Geena Davis demonstrates stunning range that probably should have earned her a second Oscar (she lost to Jodie Foster, collecting her second Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs.)

Stray Gay Observations: This is widely considered to be Brad Pitt's breakout role. He plays a charming, hitchhiking robber who has a sexual rendezvous with love-starved and sexually unfulfilled Thelma. Afterwards, Thelma confides to Louise, "I finally understand what all the fuss is about." Pitt has never caused a stirring in my loins, but he's perfectly cast and terrific here -- you also get a quick glimpse of his ass. We can all thank Geena Davis for the ascendance of Mr. Pitt. During the casting process, she read lines with a bunch of guys, then finally told Ridley Scott to hire "the blond one." Their chemistry is palpable. Personally, I was crushing on Michael Madsen -- he  plays Louise's musician boyfriend, Jimmy. It's the kind of part that can easily slip into self-conscious parody, but Madsen gives it plausible nuance.

Should You See It? Sure, I know that Thelma & Louise and The Sixth Sense have had their endings spoiled more than any other movies made in the '90s, but in this case, knowing the finish doesn't make the preceding two hours any less exciting or compelling. It's a helluva road trip. There's so much to recommend here: outstanding performances, an Oscar-winning screenplay, fearless direction, flawless cinematography. My only complaint is the musical soundtrack -- there are a number of carefully chosen classic tracks by people like B.B. King and Marianne Faithfull, yes, but then Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald (whom I can appreciate in a different context) do some generic pop wailing, too. In this film, that's a fail.

Look, movies that examine the bonds between women are fairly rare: this isn't BeachesFried Green Tomatoes or Terms of Endearment. Thelma & Louise was controversial in its day -- probably because it brazenly dares to tell the truth in some dramatically cunning and wincingly funny ways. It may leave you conflicted. Great films do that sometimes.

Next Week: Johnny Guitar (1954)

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