Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Woman Under the Influence

I'm still slowly making my way through the John Cassavettes boxset I got two Christmases ago (nothing to speak of for the film noir boxset and the Hitchcock boxset from so long ago that I'm still working on). I sat down with a chai tea latte and watched "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974).

The most striking thing about the film is the idea of perception, being how society views behavior and how it labels that behavior. Gena Rowlands plays Mable, who's a very sweet, whimsical, although childish, mother. At first, she seems a bit overwound, but as the film moves forward, we see that her behavior is out of step with how we expect her to react. While it is odd, her behavior certainly is malevolent, just naive attempts at fun or humor. The point at which they're deemed unacceptable is announced by her husband, played by Peter Falk, often in the form of a loud reprimand.

At one point, he brings home a group of coworkers for lunch/dinner after a night shift. She doesn't introduce herself with a "Hello" or "My name is..." but instead asks, "Would you like some spaghetti?" Later at the dinner table, she begins asking the coworkers at random what their names are, and she asks one of the men to stand up and dance. He replies shyly, saying "No, I don't want to" or "I don't think so." Saying no but being pleasant and gentle about it.

It's at this point that Peter Falk tells her to "Sit your ass down!" that the scene becomes uncomfortable. The moment prior to this has tension, but it's benign, and we assume that she would have eventually given up asking the man to dance. But it's the declaration of Peter Falk that something extremely out of line and socially unacceptable is taking place. And I think there's weight and history behind the way he says it. It's not a sudden anger, but one that's always ready to surface in Falk's character. While he loves his wife and cares for her, it's the years of tension built from people asking what's wrong with his wife and dealing with her behavior that create this fury that can lash out and bring Mable back to Earth.

And this is no justification for his behavior. He often goes too far, screaming to the point of discomfort. And yet his wife's sanity is on the line, not his, because anger is an acceptable emotion, even in these extreme amounts. No matter how hot-tempered he gets, no one would say he's the one who's crazy. Her socially awkward behavior is what's under scrutiny because that's more unfamiliar, and we're not quite sure how to react to it. Anger makes more sense, in some regard, and becomes easier to react to and deal with. But the film shows clearly the damage involved in defaulting to anger to grapple with normalcy and acceptability.

No comments: