Written by: Adam Hollingworth
Whilst I was writing last week’s piece on the link between screen acting and movie stardom, I was conscious of an uneasy hypocrisy omnipresent in my ruminations, looming like a shadow I, like a critical Peter Pan, was simply unable to properly address or pin down. This spectre was not the ultimate realisation that my attempts to draw the line between the star and the actor had only led me to accept that any truly great film actor must embrace both sides of the coin. It was rather that, whilst I was listing off many tremendous actors past and present in support of my argument, hardly any of these examples were women. Meryl Streep got a mention. That was it.
Like I say, I knew I was ignoring the wealth of great female acting talent in film history even as I was working on the piece, but for whatever reason I couldn’t bring myself to reverse my inherent bias. Fundamentally, I vastly prefer male actors: my identification with them is infinitely stronger than with female actors, and as such I respond to them in a much more profound way. At the end of the day, I can appreciate that in “Casablanca” the superior talent on screen in terms of raw acting ability is Ingrid Bergman, and she is giving the more subtle and complex performance: but I’m never really watching her that closely, because I am so powerfully instinctively drawn towards Humphrey Bogart.
Is this just a basic gender psychology thing, or is the nature of narrative film in fact geared to this kind of sexist gender stereotyping and preference in the way the camera captures male and female personae? It would of course be foolish to completely disregard the inbuilt biological gender identification at play here: as children boys revere and come to emulate the perceived strength of the physicality and personality of their fathers, whilst girls generally seek to conform more closely to the maternal warmth of their mothers. We can, if you don’t completely subscribe to the view that he was a raving madman and his theories utter bollocks, also throw Freud’s Oedipus and Electra complex ideas into the mix here: specifically the notion behind the former that all boys are seeking to one day displace their fathers, and are thus much more deeply enamoured of and possessed by the representation of the ideal male psyche.
However, as anyone who has ever studied the basics of film theory will tell you, the film camera in narrative cinema has always had ideas of its own. In analysing the scopophilic gaze of the movie camera and the way this voyeuristic desire to look transmogrifies into something more perversely sexual, it is the widely held belief that the gaze of the camera’s lens is a deliberate reconstruction and representation of the gaze of heterosexual men. The reasons for this are the idolisation of heroic male protagonists, through both prevalence in the frame and the idealisation of their attractive and charismatic personality traits, and the sexualisation of the female body which goes beyond the “sex sells” superficial glamour commercial cinema demands of its starlets. As always, the clearest demonstration of this theory is present in the films of Fred Hitch, or Sir Alfred Hitchcock to you and me. Having the understanding of how cinematic narrative works best for an audience that Hitchcock did, and to be fair he did develop a sizeable slice of the lexicon, the director cast only the most appropriate actors and actresses in leading roles: namely, he cast charismatic and attractive and forceful men as his heroes, and stunningly ethereal and erotic beauties as their love interests. This is why Hitchcock’s stock male actors included the likes of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Sean Connery, and his female favourites included Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Hedren. “Vertigo” provides us with a classic example of the way Hitchcock examined the relationship between audience and their gender representatives in the narrative as tempered by the camera: just as James Stewart attempts to mould Kim Novak’s doppelganger into the ideal subject of his necrophiliac desires, so too does the audience crave the visual reincarnation of the enigmatic woman we had previously been encouraged to lust after. This is the reason the film’s famous reveal, in which the screen blurs in an expressionistic and orgasmic swirl of Technicolor as the reconstituted figure of Novak’s original guise is first seen, is so charged with brooding psycho-sexual tension.
For further proof of the way this masculine camera gaze works in practice, think only of the Bond films and the successful way an ideal male alter ego is permitted to indulge in copious viewings of impossibly beautiful women. There is a reason boys like those films beyond the action scenes. Of course, Bond as an extreme example of a male film character does not mean that similar female super heroes are permitted to leer over their men: on the contrary, I dare you to think of a female heroic protagonist who is not even more overtly sexualised than Bondian damsels.
Anyway, the point is that the strong identification with male characters within a cinematic narrative is something inbuilt in the way a camera films the drama of a story, and is not just an extension of basic male primal biology, I want to talk about Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear winner “A Separation.” I went to see this film based upon very good write-ups, but I must admit I wasn’t exactly overly excited about it. Iranian cinema is not one of my areas of expertise: I know very few things about the films of this country beyond a whistle-stop tour of Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest hits, which uniformly left me cold, underwhelmed and unsatisfied. I am aware, however, of the simple fact that the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and the ban on his making films is enough in itself to make this country’s cinematic output of immense cultural and social importance. Such is the case with “A Separation,” the titular conflict of which beginning as a marriage breaking apart largely for personal and familiar reasons (a husband cannot grant his wife’s wishes of a new life abroad for concern of who will care for his elderly father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer), but which carries the subtle but definite subtext of a woman attempting to build a better life for her daughter outside of Iran. The man’s punishment for remaining in the country and allowing for his marriage to be broken apart out of loyalty to his ailing father is the state’s almost complete disintegration of his family and his life, when an accidental miscarriage incurred by a newly-hired carer enmeshes him in the legal callousness, financial hardships, controlling religious dogma and questionable morality of a struggling population that represent the worst of modern day Iran.
I’ll leave a more detailed analysis of the film as contemporary social commentary to much more informed and authoritative writers, and for now talk about one specific thing in relation to the drama. This will involve some fairly major spoilers, and if you plan to see this film you should stop reading now, as knowing the outcome of the narrative will hinder your enjoyment of the film. The film opens with the camera representing the point of view of a divorce lawyer, and both Nader and Simin address their arguments directly into the lens: directly at both the divorce lawyer and the audience, and both are expected to judge the case before them. In spite of knowing what I know about Iran, I immediately sided with the male, and in doing so sided myself both with loyalty to the father over improving the life opportunities of the daughter, and with Nader as a character for the rest of the story. This turned out to be a very difficult position to occupy as the drama gathered immense depth and complexity. After Simin leaves the family abode, Nader hires a woman to care for his infirm father whilst he is at work. One day, Nader arrives back to find that the woman tied his father to a bed and locked him in the flat so she could run some errands, and this nearly cost the father his life. In confronting the woman of neglect and also of the theft of some money, Nader ejects her from the flat, and after falling on the stairs outside it the woman suffers a miscarriage at 5 months. Nader is accused of murder, and the rest of the film, amongst other concerns, attempts to unravel whether Nader pushed the carer and caused the miscarriage, and whether or not he knew she was pregnant: issues which cause Simin and his daughter to doubt his decency and integrity.
Here’s the thing: having immediately sided with Nader, based upon his humanism and perhaps subtly on instinctive identification with a heroic male protagonist, my sympathy throughout the dilemma was always staunchly with him: I didn’t believe the scene in which he evicted the woman from his flat involved excessive physical force, and I didn’t believe that he knew she was pregnant, and so even when his own family is doubting him I remained loyal to this decent, honest, hard-working and good-natured man. Yet I was deceived, and Nader ultimately reveals that although he is not guilty of causing the miscarriage, he did lie about not knowing the woman was pregnant. My reaction to this unveil led me to question whether my instinctive masculine identification in fact clouded what I thought I was seeing. I could’ve sworn blind that no prior scene in the film showed Nader overhearing that the carer was pregnant, but was I mistaken? I was confident that he had not pushed her out of the building, but I could no longer be sure. In the end, it is revealed that the day before this incident the woman had been hit by a car, and that this in fact caused the miscarriage, but the social, religious and economic pressures surrounding the case had prompted me, despite my almost total belief in the man’s innocence, to believe him to be guilty of manslaughter, when he was only ever guilty of perjury. Perjury which, like his initial grounds for separation, was something committed only to help his family, and spare his daughter and ex-wife three years of separation from him. In this case, the film’s study of Iranian social pressures led me to question my apparently assured identification with a male hero: not a charming adventurer, but a normal man trying to do the best for his family under difficult circumstances.
What I’m still curious about, though, is how I would have reacted to the drama of the narrative had I identified with Simin in that very first scene. Having allied myself with her, and symbolically against Nader, so early in the film would I have believed him guilty of manslaughter straight away, only for my conviction in his guilt to grow and grow right up to the reveal not of his knowledge of the woman’s pregnancy, but of her confession to Simin about the car incident? So, to all of you who’ve seen the film but especially to the women reading this, in that first scene did you identify with Simin more than with Nader, and how did this affect your response to everything that followed?