Today in my American literature class with Lynda Zwinger, we viewed Cat People, a Hollywood film from 1942 directed by Jacques Tourneur. Apparently, the film was made for an even-then paltry $133,000, but grossed in the millions, and effectively saved RKO Productions (which also made (? or produced?) Citizen Kane).
I have my reservations about American literature. Much of it sucks. We are still searching, like Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and E. Allan Poe for a real, authentic American literature that defines Americanness. But the US, and Hollywood, created film as we know it. It's like baseball--a decidedly American tradition. So, while my friend Jeremy goes off to do graduate work in film studies, I'm stuck picking out the American and British novels I can stand for my MA list.
But, films like Cat People bring back my hope for good 'ol American ingenuity. The film is about a Serbian immigrant woman (Irlena) who falls for a good 'ol American guy (Ollie). Irlena has a secret: her lineage is one of evil! When jealous and hateful, she can turn into a pantheresque being and rip people to shreds. The plot is that Ollie and Irlena get married, the marriage doesn't go so well, Irlena gets sent to a psychologist for being a cat person, while Ollie realizes that he really loves coworker Alice. Mild terror ensues, psychologist and Irlena die, Ollie and Alice live happily ever after.
Zwinger studied with Leslie Fiedler, and watching Cat People confirms so much of what both have to say. "The American novel is particularly and peculiarly Gothic," writes Fiedler. Zwinger shows us, pace Fiedler, that when it comes to American texts, the fact that the level of narrative avoids real driving, visceral issues (sex, homoeroticism, desire, freedom, and more) actually defines the American literary-filmic tradition. The exact same thing happens in Pretty Woman. It ends so happy! They get together. Except, the ex-whore has no means of economic support, thus no freedom, and the money making man hasn't really changed into a sensitive guy.
It's so weird that obvious storytelling things get so glossed over in films. In Cat People, aren't all women cats? That's what I said in class. Well, yes. The female--her sexuality and freedom--must be controlled, then denied. Alice isn't sexual. Neither is Ollie. He's an American man with no red blooded sexual desire. Imagine that! He doesn't even kiss his wife of a month.
A line in the film, after Irlena kills the psychologist (because he kisses her): "She never lied to us." Freud's accomplishment was to realize that the stories that patients tell are not lying, but the stories tell a particular truth from the body. Cat People shows us that American film is a case whose symptoms indicate the inner feelings of Americanness. And the undertones of homoeroticism, the female-as-monstrous, and anxiety with heterosexuality are part of the storytelling, if only they are textual traces.
Idea: Deniability (as in political contexts) as trope in American mainstream media and art. I'm thinking about Grey's Anatomy, the ABC doctor drama. --adam s.