Saturday, March 31, 2007


THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005, USA, Mary Harron, screenplay with Guinevere Turner)
O Father, we ask that you deliver this woman from sin. Destroy it by the spirit of God. Heal her through and through, including her heart. Make her a new creature in Christ.

I’m not sure Bettie Page ever knew quite what to make of her career posing for girlie pictures in the 1950s. I’m not sure THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE knows what to make of it all, either. Nor am I sure that I know what to make of this seemingly noncommittal film. Which, I’ve decided, is all to the good.

Bettie’s notoriety comes from the fact that she became, quite literally, the poster girl for the whole gamut of erotic photography in the fifties, from cheerful cheesecake bathing beauty shots to nude pictorials in “naturist” magazines to the cheapie fetish and bondage films whose rediscovery in the porn-saturated eighties restored her cult status.

But the fascination with Bettie goes deeper than the merely salacious. Even in the most depressingly tawdry of contexts, she exudes some sort of essential wholesomeness, even innocence, that seems to press the question, “What’s so wrong with all this, anyhow?” And, even more provocatively, an innocence that seems rooted in Page’s own Christian faith, which was never offered as a public apologia for her risqué profession.

Bettie Page grew up in church – portrayed in this HBO film with neither mockery nor sanctimony, nothing to tip us off to the film-makers’ intentions – and in a church-going, grace-praying family – though they are treated here with less detachment: we glimpse the beginnings of an episode of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and her mother’s Christmas table grace years later is bitter with resentment and judgment. Throughout the film, Christianity and most Christians are portrayed sympathetically – just as Bettie’s photo shoots and many of the photographers who shoot them are presented without caricature or judgment. Even the altar call which leads to Bettie’s conversion (or re-commitment) to Christ is rendered without a trace of the mockery, distaste, or even melodrama any other film would offer – particularly in its climactic scene.

Its an even-handedness that is very appealing early on, but which at a certain point stops seeming like a virtue and begins to look like a real failing: the failing of being noncommittal, of detachment, of being so accepting of everything than nothing ends up mattering. The sin of blandness.

So my first viewing of this film was oddly unsatisfying. I loved the look of it, to be sure, utterly convincing in its authentic period look, predominantly black and white with occasional jumps to the vivid colours of super 8 home movies or big screen Technicolor – a visual stylization that draws attention to the fact that everything we see is being photographed. Bettie’s world is the world of the camera. Perhaps this is the story not so much of the woman as of her photographs, her career.

But does it tell even that story, or simply – even simplistically – photograph it as it drifts by? Does it care about the woman in front of the lens, does it understand her conflicts and choices, or is it only interested in what it all looked like? This is a film curiously without affect, where dramatic event and consequence, rising action and narrative reversal and character motivation are flattened into a glossy moving image that ultimately doesn’t care to move us.

At least, that’s what I felt as the final credits rolled, and as I pondered the film in the hours following. In the days following. Until I reached the point where I realized that the simple fact that I was still pondering the film days later told me something significant was going on here. That perhaps the film-makers were up to something, and it was working.

As I lived with the film, and particularly as I began looking at it closely to try to come to terms with my ambivalent response, all sorts of subtleties and complexities began to emerge. The extremely effective opening montage of Times Square street life shows us a theatre marquee for THE WIZARD OF OZ: much later, when the film leaps from black and white into colour, there may be more informing the choice than look and feel, a thought that’s confirmed when, after a long time when “we’re not in Kansas any more,” Dorothy’s – I mean, Bettie’s – journey finally ends with a homecoming. There’s the fascinating interplay between Bettie’s story and the roles she plays in acting class or audition: “I am as like to be saved as thou!” (set up with an iris fade onto Jesus in stained glass), or “This man who is more than man and less at the same time: He will tie you down to anatomize your very soul, he will ring tears of blood from your humiliation and then he will heal the wound with flatteries no woman can resist,” both from Shaw’s “Dark Lady Of The Sonnets” in which a mysterious, beautiful lady supplies the genius that an oafish and pitiful man uses for his own ends (the self-serving oafs in TNBP are everywhere: in GBS, the oaf is William Shakespear!). Responding to her performance, Bettie’s acting teacher (brilliantly performed by Austin Pendeleton, himself a professor at New York’s HB Acting Studio) says more than he knows when he invokes Stanislavski: “To reproduce feelings you must be able to identify them out of your own experience. Now, Bettie, would you tell the class what you did to find the truth in the lady-in-waiting’s emotions.” Only to have dramatic irony give way in a most startling way to the film’s even deeper concerns: “Well, I tried to think of something that would make me really scared. I thought of what Jesus might do to me for all my sins.”

But what might Jesus do to her for her sins? There’s the rub. Does she really see them as sins? Do the filmmakers? Should we? The film certainly isn’t scandalized by Bettie’s modeling (though its viewpoint becomes more complex in a bondage scene late in the film). Nor is it prurient: even Bettie’s nudity is more sweet than sexual, her S&M scenes just plain silly. (As Stephanie Zacharek writes, “Her pictures are so elemental, so lacking in guile, that they often seem to be less "about" sex than about a pure state of being -- maybe even a state of grace.” Director Mary Harron: “This film is not about how the audience is looking at her and getting excited about that image; it’s about capturing her performance, which is more mystical. I think her sense of being photographed was an experience of religion.”) The film alludes gently to sexual abuse at the hands of her father, is slightly more direct in the events leading up to a gang rape, but gently averts its gaze from the actual events. Niether does it look at at cause and effect: we don’t see that Bettie has any idea there’s a connection between these dark events and her self-display for men, which is portrayed as sunny, cheerful, “gee whiz, aw shucks.” But perhaps what is a charming, only slightly alarming ingenuousness in Bettie may be disingenuous on the part of the filmmakers.

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE frustrates with its unwillingness to take a stand, to make its viewpoint known, which seems particularly problematic when considering a character caught in so obvious a dilemma, torn between flesh and spirit. (But ah! The thoughtful reader may begin to see where we’re heading with this.) Mary Harron’s film differs from other faith-and-porn (or morality-and-porn) films in lacking any sense of outrage, or even consequence: there’s none of the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” stuff we find in the films of conflicted TULIP-haunted ex-Calvinist Paul Schrader, and while NOTORIOUS resembles P.T. Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS in its affectionate irony-tinted nostalgia for “the good old innocent days of porn,” the Bettie Page flick never takes on the cautionary tale quality of the latter half of Anderson’s piece. I’m not the only viewer who has qualms about the approach: as Linda Ruth Williams comments in her superb Sight & Sound feature, “Aren’t we becoming tired of nostalgia movies about the sex industry that view the pre-video past as a world of happy families and consensual pleasures? The notion that back then fashions were cooler, sex was hotter and everyone looked after each other is wearing a bit thin.”

So is that all that’s going on in THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE? Is it all just a “boys will be boys,” “Whatever you’re into” brand of hyper-tolerance, self-negating in its unwillingness to acknowledge real weight on either side of the moral, personal scale?

It may be that the key to the film’s conscience may finally be found in an aesthetic closely linked to another of the film’s great strengths, its fifties jazz score. Eschewing the all-too-familiar soundtrack of early rock and roll hits, we hear mostly jazz and Latin pop music, varying from the vintage tackiness of Esquivel (though at the less brazenly cheesy end of his musical spectrum) to the undeniable sophistication of a Charles Mingus composition or a Clifford Brown – Max Roach collaboration. The music is undeniably cool.

Perhaps the director has intentionally chosen an approach to her subject which owes something to that distinctive school of Fifties jazz where the sentimental emotionality of swing. or bebop’s overt expression of passion, were set aside for an intentionally “cooler” approach; smooth melodic lines without rhythmic surprises, gliding over subdued percussion. No builds or crescendos, all very even. Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool, Lennie Tristano, some of Clifford Brown, Gerry Mulligan, early Chet Baker. The Modern Jazz Quartet. Sophisticated, urbane, and above all, modern. Smart, almost detached. Ear-pleasing. And highly addictive.

Director Mary Harron: “One of the things people have had a hard time dealing with about the film is that it uses some of the stylistic elements of 1950s melodrama but at the same time I didn’t want to tell the story in that heightened, structured way that a melodrama would, with a huge rise and a fall. I wanted a more modern, realistic narrative so that things don’t really tie up and motivation isn’t always clear. The storytelling and the style are in contradiction.”

It’s not bland, it’s not banal, it’s not compromised. It’s disciplined. It’s smart. It’s cool.

The lurid story-line – NAÏVE COUNTRY GIRL BECOMES PORN QUEEN, LEAVES IT ALL FOR JESUS – cries out for melodramatic treatment, yet Harron refuses to sensationalize, refuses to psychologize, finding instead a core of decency in the pinup queen throughout her life, even when trussed up in the machinery of bondage or wielding the whip of cheesecake S&M. It’s the frisson between decency and indecency that has always captivated Bettie Page fans, from the furtive magazine flippers in the adult bookstores to the Hugh Hefners and Howard Hugheses of the world, their interest equally tawdry, if less furtive.

There’s a similar aesthetic strategy in Todd Haynes’ Fifties-set FAR FROM HEAVEN, where serious and substantial themes are treated with laughable melodrama, creating tremendous tension between content and form. Or does THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE take the opposite approach, deftly matching its attitude with that of its subject? Bettie seems oblivious throughout to the idea that there could be anything scandalous to her behaviour, or that it could do any harm. Even once she’s left nude modeling behind, and is handing out tracts (in a park, interestingly enough – echoing the settings of her “naturist” photo sessions), Bettie tells a puzzled admirer “I'm not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. When they sinned, they put on clothes."

Which brings us back to the core of the confounding puzzle not only of this film, but of Bettie Page herself: If that’s so, if that is truly her conviction, why did she leave the business? Only a few scenes previous, the quandary at the core of the story has been made explicit, as a particularly sleazy bondage photographer carries on a smirking conversation with Bettie, trussed up in bondage gear, spreadeagled for the camera. Snapping pictures he sings a crude soldier’s ditty, Bettie objects, and he removes the rubber ball from her mouth so she can speak;
Don’t you approve?
I believe in Jesus.
Well of course you do my dear. Of course you do. … Do you mind if I ask you a question, Bettie? What do you think Jesus would say about what you’re doing now?
Well, Mr Willie. I’ve thought about this quite a bit. I’m not really sure anymore. I think God has given each of us some kind of talent and He wants us to use it. That’s why he gave it to us. Mr Willie, would you mind untying my hands? It’s hard for me to think like this. God gave me the talent to pose for pictures. And it seems to make people happy. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?
Not to me it’s not. But what does God think?
Well I can’t say for certain. I can’t speak for him. I do worry sometimes about some of the things that I’ve done.
What things?
I posed naked for photographs.
Have you, my dear? You naughty girl. (He chuckles.)
But is that really bad? Adam and Eve were naked in the garden of Eden.
So they were.
I don’t know what God thinks about all this. I hope that if he’s unhappy with what I’m doing, He’ll let me know somehow.
I’m sure he will, my dear. I’m sure he will.
Gretchen Moll’s performance in this scene epitomizes her considerable accomplishment in the role of Bettie Page. For the most part, her delivery is sunshine and perky confidence, perhaps naïve but with clear-eyed curiosity and intelligence (the film makes the point that Bettie was one missed class away from being the valedictorian of her graduating class). Yet for fleeting moments here, and in other scattered instances, her confidence sags, her sweet and open face clouds: however comfortable she may be with her body, however willing to be looked at – naked and unashamed – she can’t deny that something isn’t quite right. In this scene, of course, the not-quite-rightness is very much brought to the fore, as Bettie is confronted with the pornographer’s sniggering lust and condescension, her chipper assertions about her work being “a gift of God” are (quite literally) in tension with the stark physical reality of her situation.

One scene later, it appears that God begins to answer Bettie’s hope, when Estes Kefauver turns the focus of his Senate investigative committee to the effects of pornography on the nation’s youth. And while our first exposure to the hearings at the beginning of the film played into audience expectations, presenting Kefauver as a standard issue cliché-spouting Fifties prude, the tone is different now: Straithern’s portrayal is more in keeping with the moderate and intelligent Kefauver of history, no Joseph Macarthy, but a concerned legislator with the same concerns about sexual victimization and violence that troubled feminists three decades later.

Eventually Bettie is called to testify, and in one of the movie’s most evocative sequences, she waits outside the hearing room for hours, overhearing snatches of the evasive, self-serving testimony of her employer, Irving Klaw (a telling reversal: to this point, Klaw has been portrayed as a genial, supportive father figure), followed by the earnest testimony of a man whose son’s death seems to him to be linked to bondage pornography in which Bettie herself had appeared. When Bettie is informed that her testimony will no longer be needed after she has waited for twelve hours alone in the lobby – the Klaws don’t even speak to her as they make their way from the hearing – Mol’s face and physical posture embody a certain sadness, a dawning sense that life is changing without any clear sense of how, or why, or what comes next. A woman without guile who means no harm to anyone, who can’t quite put the pieces together but has begun to wonder. “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right” isn’t quite cutting it anymore.

And yet… Even after she wrestles with her conscience along a night-time Florida beach (another jungle/garden image), then follows a neon cross to a simple church, hears the voices sing “Soon I will strike the heavenly lyre / With saints of great renown / And join that great harmonious choir / Oh, I am homeward bound,” goes forward to be prayed for and experiences “a wonderful feeling… a lifting up,” even after she leaves modeling for good, places a silver cross around her neck and heads out to distribute pamphlets and quote scripture to passersby in a city park (“For the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said “Behold, I make all things new.”), the film still doesn’t know what to do with Bettie’s conversion. “I’m not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the garden of Eden, weren’t they? When they sinned, they put on clothes.” So, if she has no remorse, no regrets, why did she leave it behind? Particularly when it gave her so much pleasure? The filmmakers seem unwilling to play out the resolution that Bettie’s story seems to have come to, uncomfortable with the decision she has ultimately made, unwilling to do anything but tolerate… Well, to tolerate anything.

How unsatisfying. How confounding. How noncommittal.

And yet… As my appreciation for the film has grown, I’ve come to think that perhaps in this instance “noncommital” should be rendered “nonjudgmental.” There is something admirable in a film that chooses not to make up our minds for us about this conundrum of a woman – who apparently never did entirely dismiss the modeling career she’d left behind, even through the decades she spent working for a Christian mission (according to David Bruce at HollywoodJesus, Bettie enrolled at Biola College, and was a volunteer worker for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, passing out gospel literature in airports.) Instead of passing judgment on either her vocation or her faith, the filmmakers offer us her story with all its bemusing contradictions intact: artfully told, drained of melodrama, full of respect, and certainly affection.

When I worked my way through this film a second time trying to clarify what I thought and felt about it, I had just finished reading “Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul,” Tony Hendra’s very personal tribute to the Benedictine monk who offered him tremendous love and understanding through decades of personal calamity, ambition, self-indulgence as he swung wildly toward and away from faith. There was rarely a whisper of advice, even when the young man sought it, nor remonstrance, even when the grown-up man probably deserved it. Only love. A love so unconditional as to be divine, a love so relentless as to become a tangible, life-saving manifestation of God when, for the author, any other traces of the divine were gone from the world. It seems Father Joe saw his vocation with utmost clarity, at least with respect to this particular sinner: it was his job simply to love, and to listen, and to leave the judging and convicting of sin entirely to God.

Perhaps the coincidence of timing between reading the Hendra book and close-viewing the Harron film is what led me to this, but I’ve come to have tremendous respect and affection for THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE – both the film and the woman. As for my judgment? Moral, aesthetic, critical? I find that whenever I get close to being ready to hand one down, something in me balks. Should the film have told its story “better,” drawing out the choices and consequences, shaping events and decisions into a more satisfying dramatic flow? Shouldn’t we be clearer about how Bettie comes to her change of heart? Or is it her heart that changes, or only her behaviour? Does she repent of sin, or is she simply called to move on, “lifted up” to something new, something wonderful? At the end of the film, does Bettie want to have it both ways, giving up a livelihood that she enjoyed but never expressing any remorse or regret about what she’s done? Does the film want to have it both ways, burning her pictures yet slipping a few into its pocket?

I don’t know. Perhaps the film-makers don’t know either, and aren’t willing to impose their judgment on the perplexing events of Bettie’s life. They leave such judgments to us, if we’re so inclined. Or to Bettie, perhaps, knowing she would still be alive to view the film. Or to God.

There’s something divine in that.


Available at Videomatica


Elizabeth said...

Thanks so much for this review, Ron. I agree with you that this movie is surprisingly worthwhile because of the way its refusal to tell us what to think makes us keep thinking about it! I also appreciate your commentary of the score; I'm not terribly musical, but you've made me aware of yet another element of the careful construction of this film.


Ron Reed said...

Glad you share my appreciation. It would be an easy film to dismiss - by those who haven't seen it, for its (maybe) benign treatment of the skindustry, and by those who have for its detachment. But it merits more, doesn't it?

I'm still mulling how much weight to put on the director's "cool" treatment of the material, and the analagous "cool school" of fifties jazz. I really do think the aesthetic is the same: what I'm not sure of is whether I should make too much of a claim about that being intentional, or reflected in the soundtrack. Because the jazz artists she uses aren't particularly associated with the cool school. When my copy arrives from eBay and I get the chance to view the film again, I'll try to get a better sense of how much the particular track she's chosen are themselves "cool" - at least the way Gil Evans and Miles used the word.

23 skidoo,