Sunday, May 14, 2006


This is going to be a long piece and perhaps not to the taste of some people.

I begin by reminding the reader that I came to the east slope of the Rockies in 1961 to teach English in the Blackfeet Reservation school system, which is not different from the rest of the state-supervised education districts -- in fact, was less different then than it is now. Then it was very much a white-normed school, without the Blackfeet teachers and curriculum parts that make it more specific now. I was deeper into the “dark” parts of the community than most teachers ever are, because of Bob Scriver being the City Magistrate and Justice of the Peace. I also had a lot to do with animals.

When I left here in 1973 -- reluctantly but necessarily -- I went back to Portland, OR, and became an animal control officer, what many people call a “dog catcher.” I’m just beginning a book about the five years I spent doing that, but what’s relevant here is that animal control is “law enforcement lite,” which is to say that officers are on the same turf as regular police and -- like most emergency responders -- see a lot of extraordinary things. Out of this came an interest in “Hill Street Blues,” the seminal cop show that mixed intense realism and considerable sex (“clean” -- as in while showering) with the weird slapstick comedy that is often part of emergencies.

I followed along with “NYPD Blue,” which continued the same pattern, and then “Homicide,” which was not in Manhattan anymore and lost some of the zaniness simply by being in Baltimore. It was quite a bit darker and more philosophical. I’ve always been a fan of the PBS English mysteries -- all costume, dialogue, and gorgeous scenery -- but thought I should check out an American series again. (I don’t have regular TV or cable -- just DVD’s and video.) “The Shield” came up among Netflix suggestions so I ordered the first season and also watched part of “Deadwood.” “Deadwood” was clearly a variation on the theme of “NYPD Blue” with the same skinny neurotic women and the same boundary-busting villains who ironically keep order while the Gary-Cooper-earnest characters either make trouble or get killed. “The Shield” was again the same formula, but this time in LA where crime is a group act and the bad cops had also become a group.

The main insight that came to me about “The Shield” came through listening to the voice-overs of the producer/writer/director teams, who created the show as a group: the rogue cops against the corrupt system were very much a projection of maverick media guys (NO gals) who felt they were evading oppressive “suits” (money men) in order to explore real life. They had a lot of head-trippy things to say, but basically they were channeling Sipowitz without the voice-over of the sane and competent head of police. There was NO decent Gary Cooper figure of any power -- the one dependable conscience was a middle-aged black woman. There are no model marriages.

So now I come to what I’m really writing about: a double media work called “In the Cut,” both a book and a movie. “In the Cut” is slang meaning getting one’s male equipment into the birth/sex canal called in slang “the Virginia” which is adorned with the “broccoli,” pubic hair. It also means a place of safety. For many men, who need the comfort of women but hate their need and reject mothers or even wives, the moments of renewal are “in the cut” or “gash” or “slit.” Women know this, of course, and take advantage of it even as the men take advantage of them.

The plot of “in the cut” is very simple in the book. A woman professor and collector of slang is teaching in New York City and a serial murderer -- who kills by cutting off the heads of the women -- is at large. The prof, Frannie, begins an affair with the investigating officer and is murdered. The author is a Phillipina who previously wrote “The Lovely Bones” which is narrated by a dead woman, a victim of violence. I haven’t read it -- just about it. From her photo, she seems a lot like those thin, smart, hip female officers on “NYPD Blues.”

In the movie, which is directed by Jane Campion, the heroine is played by Meg Ryan, who had just had failed plastic surgery before the movie was shot. (She was badly “cut.”) Nicole Kidman had been scheduled to do this part and either stepped aside or had other commitments. Much is made in the online reviews about Meg Ryan trying to stay young, trying to make a career jump by taking such a hard part (highly emotional parts are always considered very difficult), but I think the change in her appearance pretty much forced her out of her previous niche and this one was a good attempt at finding a new one -- new enough that the old image wouldn’t haunt her. Her face is lumpy, her hair is straight, and she appears in the nude -- evidently with a little help from a better plastic surgeon. I say all this to get it out of the way because some people stop right there.

In the Cut” turned up on the “used & cheap” rack at the Valier gas station: $3. I’ll watch anything for $3. (Except “Eraserhead” which I won’t watch again for any amount of money.) Then I was in Great Falls and the book was remaindered for $5. So it was clear that I had material for a comparison. I’m an admirer of Jane Campion because I loved “The Piano,” and I’ve been curious about Susanna Moore because of her earlier book, “The Lovely Bones.” “In the Cut” was clearly meant to be a followup, which is at least part of the reason it ends with the death of the heroine. (Once you get a good gimmick, why let it go?) It’s only 180 pages of big print, much of which is descriptions of sex. Campion took this as a framework which she covered with her own ideas, highly political and ingenious versions of the war between the sexes -- not the struggle for security in prosperity through marriage (Jane Austen), but in an equally patterned struggle for security through physical relationship. She is not so pessimistic as Edith Wharton, who felt women were hopelessly trapped in their social roles.

Campion’s heroines always have a close female echo, which in this case she inflated out of a character merely mentioned in the book. The echo is Jennifer Jason Leigh, intensified from a friend to a half-sister. (There is also a “cold” echo in a sepia dream version of Meg’s character’s mother meeting her father while ice-skating.) No one enjoys giving decadent misery more than JJL and she really offers it up in this movie, leaving “Frannie” to seem just vague, mixed-up, and -- hey, do you suppose it’s drugs? Or does she need them? The problem seems to be that she was raised in cold prosperity and never learned to form relationships. (Oh, sigh. It’s so tough to be rich. Incidentally, that’s JJL’s background -- prosperous though hardly chilly. Her mother is a screen writer, her father an actor.)

The guys are all variations on the most blatantly phallic symbol in a while: a bright red lighthouse which is echoed in a souvenir on a desk, a drawing in the classroom, and the real thing -- which is a haven for the cops and a place of death for women. “Cornelius,” the black student who defends John Wayne Gacy, is played by the same actor as one of the characters on “The Shield.” He knows the slang but he don’t “get” Frannie. The whole movie is a crossword puzzle of such metaphorical stuff, including the fact that Frannie teaches “To the Lighthouse” by VIRGINIA Wolfe. A student says “it wasn’t no good because it took so long and only one woman died.” “How many women have to die to make it good?” asks Frannie, sounding more like Meg Ryan than usual.

Sex, most often mixed with violence of one sort of another (the erasure of uniqueness and identity -- including plastic surgery -- is also a violence), saturates our culture. Even the most polite people constantly use symbols that point to sex. But sex is not so often seen as a symbol-system that stands for other things, perhaps parts of our culture grown even more cynical and dangerous than sex. Power, oil, war, death.

For those who can count, three women die in this movie so maybe it’s a little better than the book. The third death, not in the book, is a woman found in pieces in the washing machine of the basement laundry room of her apartment building and it is the most gruesome though the “cleanest” of the deaths. But wait -- the narrator dies at the end of the book, her slate wiped clean. So that’s three again.

Campion’s Frannie survives because she shoots the murderer with her cop lover’s (phallic symbol) gun -- which he teaches her how to use. When she practices, it is on “garbage” in a place by water ideal for dumping bodies. She has disempowered her lover by handcuffing him to a radiator pipe. Is this feminism? Or the empowerment of an individual through the disempowerment of another? (I won’t pursue the homoerotic stuff, like cop partners, etc.)

For an English teacher the most interesting part is not necessarily the transit poetry that Frannie reads and records as she rides the subway, but rather her dispassionate and nonjudgmental attitude towards wickedness, even when she is the victim. This attitude seems to have had its origin in anthropology in the 19th century when Euros were constantly invading some other culture and trying to understand it but without any particular empathy.

The earliest Euro anthros on the rez were so dispassionate that they didn’t really understand relationships and bowlderized the pungent mythology so it was suitable for children. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists have picked up the attitude and define everything in what is supposed to be dispassionate but -- in my opinion -- often ends up being bizaarely skewed to narcissism. (My counselor at seminary, a black Baptist minister, told me that he had doubts about me as a minister because I wasn’t having sex with anyone. If I didn’t have an intimate connection with one person, he said, how could I hope to be emotionally accessible to a congregation? I thought of that counselor when a weird little man came to my minsterial study to demand that I sleep with him because that’s what he needed and I was there to serve his needs. What happened to theology? The relationship to God?)

So looking back at “In the Cut,” what does it tell us once we get over the candy high of sex? I think it speaks to 1) the flight of intimacy from marriage. (The cop lover lives at home, sleeps on the sofa, but not with his wife, and only because she can’t “control” the kids.) 2) The loss of connection to generativity: in the book the charm bracelet commemorates an abortion -- in the movie it’s about getting married and having babies. 3) The drive to “make the cut” by “scoring,” relieved only by those moments of safety “in the cut.”

The corruption of the cops, the multi-ethnicity of the streets, the commodification and sentimentalization of sex (The JJL charcter lives over a topless bar where a sweet gay pimp sits by the doorway with one of his “girls” on his knee.), the weirdness of culturally supposed saviors (Kevin Bacon is a doctor who stalks Franny, carrying his Chinese Crested dog, surely the most uncuddly breed on the planet -- which Franny refuses to care for even when the Bacon character hints he will kill it.), the proliferation of tinkling Malibu Beach mobiles and Manhattan prints of tortured nudes -- it’s stylized bi-coastal decadence, a presumed norm that the nation seems to agree is attractive so long as it is circumscribed. (When ministers met at our denominational headquarters in Boston, there was always one who set out to explore the red light district as a place of great fascination and supposed “reality” as in “relating to the real people.” Solid farm citizens around here take their vacations at sleazy gambling cities.)

Our public distaste for political corruption and wartime death/terrorism seems to be equally matched by curiosity for “what the secret meanings are” and “exactly what happened,” but no attempt is made to envision what a better world might be like or how to get to it. There is no hint that Frannie and her lover will marry and live well with happy children. We don’t even know whether the characters are fertile -- evidently not and evidently immune to disease as well. The highest value is simply orgasm.

When people come to the reservation, they either drive through with their windows rolled up for fear of danger, or they head to the nearest bar and pick out some dangerous character to guide them through what they think will be like a movie. Unluckiest, they end up dead. Locals, especially women and children, can find protection by sticking together and creating a sort of alternative inner community which visitors rarely even imagine, which is one of the factors that makes it safe. They hide from strangers.

So this two-layered society -- Frannie and the cops’ worlds versus the mysterious “normal” world of the cop’s family -- is present even here on the high prairie, in a place that is supposed to be so deep into healing nature that evil can only be like the magical Brujo of “The Missing.” It all keys into the Christian binary: above/below, saved/damned, devil/angel -- and the necessity of being extraordinarily powerful and outside the rules (god-like -- or Being President will do) in order to save the weak and innocent. (The Tommy Lee Jones character.) At least in “The Missing” and in the movie version of “In the Cut” the women (in the end) take strong action, but it seems sudden and situational.

One of the most amoral little characters I ever knew was a Blackfeet/Philippino child raised in an urban ghetto. Lie, steal, cheat, hurt others, even destroy himself -- s/he wasn’t really amoral, s/he was antimoral. Two of my male relatives -- generations back and one on each side -- were “lost” in the Philippino wars of their generation -- another U.S. interference in a troubled and different culture that left the country a shambles. (Remember that a shambles is a slaughter-house.) Both came back alcoholic and traumatized, very much like Vietnam vets. One was last seen digging a grave. Being adult is not a protection. Being male is not a protection.

But the movies insist that being in an intimate relationship with a powerful male WILL be a protection. The reservation constantly looks for an heroic man to set things right. The whole nation does the same, looking for a way to be “in the cut,” “in the pink,” by walling off whatever is dangerous. That wall costs money. There are other costs, which the once-fenced rez knows about, like loss of autonomy and growing dependence.

There’s one other factor in this book. Mutilation by cutting, which was a practice among the Blackfeet (cutting off fingers of women and girls to show grief and cutting off noses of immoral women to punish them), and may have some relationship to Asian practices. In “The Object Stares Back: on the Nature of Seeing” by James Elkins there is a chapter called “Looking Away and Seeing Too Much.” A remarkable series of photos shows a woman being executed by slicing her top to bottom with a machete. Machete deaths, even mass exterminations, have become familiar in the newspaper among people too poor to own guns. We look away and we see too much.

Of course, any feminist could tell you that cutting off women's heads keeps them from thinking, makes them manageable.

I wonder what the citizens of Valier thought when they rented this movie. I feel fairly sure no one but me has read the book.

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