March 21, 2010

Alice doesn't live here anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974)

I’m not a big Scorsese fan. Taxi Driver is to me a highly overrated film. In the 1970s, the goût du jour was amoral characters, from Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy to Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese bookie. It is a trait of the times that I don’t believe appeals to me at all. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle elevates cowardice to a high art. Hating in others what is blatantly obvious in him, he decides to blame everything and everyone for his misfortunes. He attributes himself the role of victim, and the film attempts to bring us to identify with his warped point of view. I don’t mind delving into the dark recesses of humanity but more the stand that Scorsese takes vis-à-vis his anti-hero. David Lynch’s cinema is one of perversion and ugliness but somebody that would label it amoral would be completely missing the filmmaker’s point. That would be like reducing Cronenberg to horror. And, although, having seen The last temptation of Christ, I wouldn’t dare to reduce Scorsese’s work to gangster or dark films; I always felt that those were his preferred subjects. So it was to me a pleasant surprise to see Alice doesn’t live here anymore.

The opening scene is interesting in that it looked completely fabricated and plastic. The red horizon the little girl walked through gave the scene an ethereal-like quality that immediately made me think of two different fairy tale references: Alice in Wonderland, for obvious reasons, and The Wizard of Oz for the farm setting of the first scene. Scorsese will give us more references to the story’s basis in fairy tale. For example, to show us the house where Alice lives, he swoops down from the sky in a quick camera shot and stops in front of this ideal house, adorned with flowers.

However, more interesting is Scorsese’s intentional creation of a surreal atmosphere, from the swooping shots to the endless Elton John song (Doesn’t that song just go on forever?). Even when Alice auditions to get a job as a singer, the camera quickly swoops several times around her, giving her performance a larger-than-life, unreal quality to it.

Is it a feminist movie? Can a man filmmaker look (and film) a woman through a woman’s perspective? I don’t think so. If the movie is feminist, it is from a male perspective on feminist ideologies. The male characters are purposely caricatured, from the verbally abusive husband to the physically abusive psycho-boyfriend to the loud diner owner Mel and even the beard heavy cowboy while the female characters all seem more developed. Both Ben and David are depicted as duplicitous predators, as they both instigate the relationship with Alice, even tough she flat out refuses their advances initially. It certainly puts her in a better victim mould when they both turn out after, in a revealing scene that always follows an initial sexual encounter, to be different men than initially presented. And so Alice is stuck in this patriarchal run-around where she has to dress sexy and look young to get a dead-end job, where she has to assert herself as an individual and not as being defined by her relationship to a man, where she has to take it all with a smile and try to raise a young man on her own.

Tommy and Audrey’s relationship seemed also of importance. It’s interesting to see Audrey, herself a future woman, drag Tommy into her subversion of the patriarchal order. In an additional example of the film’s adherence to feminist ideals, Tommy, who has obviously been feminized, not only by his mother and the other women around him but now by Audrey, steals in opposition to the established patriarchal system, assuming her cause. When both children get caught stealing in a supermarket, their mothers come to bail them out but Tommy is the only one remorseful. By her attitude, demeanour and her appearance, Audrey appropriates the power men hold over women. She’s of the new generation, a woman unafraid of not adhering to convention, ready to put into question the order of things. She’s the essence of the film’s feminist inclination.