WET FACES by Rebecca Cleman
A girl walks alone down a dark suburban street, gluey tears streaming down her face, oozing from her nostrils even, when a boy catches up to her, lifts her in the air, and slips his tongue to her in an exchange of body fluids. For a moment they become a lustful alien form in that landscape, made more so by the tomboy girl’s ambiguous gender, and the vulgar physicality of her tears. This is the happy ending of Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), and the characteristic climax of a John Hughes story: awkward teenagers conjoining in a self-contained zone of sexual and emotional exploration, in which they can fully indulge the messy impulses of their nature.
Hughes grew up in the Cold War America of the 1950s, when teenage rebellion and alien invasion movies conveyed a deep fear of violation from outside forces – or any force at all that might spoil a façade of health and un-corruptibility. In many of his films Hughes portrays the recklessness of teenagers and the seepage of their emotions and desires as a crude stage of development, yet uncontained by the proscriptions of societal, domestic, and mental hygiene. Teenagers are fearsome in their rejection of the status quo.
In The Breakfast Club (1985), he focuses on the alienation of teens as transitional beings – no longer adored children, and not yet adult citizens. When a group of them is sentenced to spend their Saturday locked in the school library, they degenerate into disgusting physical pranks and emotional catharsis. The library becomes a sanctuary or habitat in which the teens slip out of their prescribed roles and inhabit nebulous identities together, culminating in a shared crying session in which they realize the negative influence of the adults in their lives, and the constraints of their class status. The film itself is a nostalgic revelry for the self-contained society of these teens, one that encourages them to discover their true nature, on the brink of the conformity that awaits them. A reoccurring figure in Hughes’s films, Molly Ringwald (as the “Princess” character) is the litmus test of this transformation, beginning her stay in the library pristine and virginal, and ultimately wooed by the brutish guy from the wrong side of the tracks, with whom she no doubt has an uncertain future.
The repressive adult realm of the ‘50s suburbs is the setting for Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), in which similar character transformations occur. A middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) is an icon of reserve and poise – until she is introduced to a handsome outsider (Rock Hudson), a Thoreau-type character who cares for the trees in her tidy upper crust neighborhood. Her unfurling is initiated in his forest home: she breaks down, burying her face in her hands and crying, he takes her in his arms and they presumably have sex, as after a lapse he has to re-open the shutters of his windows. A wintertime landscape of snow and ice externalizes Wyman’s need to be melted, but also evokes the wetness of her emotional and sexual abandon.
The arborist’s character and rustic house suggests that removed from the constraints of civilization, returned to a primal space that harks back to the natural, generative forces of youth, the widow may be sexually and emotionally liberated. Conversely, Sirk shows how a woman can literally have her libidinal juices frozen by the chilly climes of polite society. In a key scene, after Wyman has had to abandon her desire for Hudson in order to conform, she stands at the window of her own home’s white-laced prison, thick trails of glycerine tears applied to her cheeks, their glaze echoing the wintry scene outside.
Wyman’s halted tears symbolize the repression and stagnation Sirk imagined his audience of disenfranchised housewives shared with her. In dogmatic films with a patriarchal view – the films Sirk was reacting to – the iconography of the woman as emotionally fragile and pure would tend to downplay the corporeality of her secretions, disconnecting her tears from the impure and volatile forces that would lead to her crying.
This female archetype was honed from the mid 1930s through the 60s, when the Catholic-influenced Production Code was enforced in Hollywood.
Two decades prior to Heaven, also targeting largely female audiences and showcasing the very themes the Code would later censor, Cecil B. DeMille’s Four Frightened People (1934) portrays women liberated from a repressed society, but with an exactly opposite set design. Claudette Colbert has a miraculous sexual awakening in the jungle following a crying tantrum. Colbert begins as a frail asexual school teacher with pinned-up hair and glasses, stranded with three other castaways on an island in the South Pacific. As the group makes its way through the savage heat and vegetation, Colbert’s reserve is eaten away, leading to an inevitable crisis. After a sequence of emotional and physical exposures – a crying outburst and a nude bathing scene – she emerges transformed into a wild jungle sex goddess. Draped in shredded animal skins, hair down and teased, she seems at ease in the hot-house environment, and there is a sense that this is truly where she belongs. Mainstream films would not endorse a woman’s erotic independence like this for thirty years.
If the women in these films thrive removed from society, there is a related implication that society would be contaminated by their lust, which is perceived as a force that must be contained. It could be observed that liquid in these movies, related to emotional or sexual release, can obliquely reveal the film’s intended audience and ideology, especially as it reflects gender roles in the film specifically and society generally. The connotation of this liquid depends on the degree to which an explicit erotic connection is made to the excretion of orifices, and to the mess of emotional and/or sexual ruptures. This would range from the use of liquid as an uncontainable substance, corrosive to society – perhaps best characterized by the teen/alien invasion movie The Blob (1958) – to the iconography of the tear, and the hope for human salvation it symbolizes.
At the former extreme, in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the introduction of an alien being into the society of a ship’s crew leads to total destruction. Originally co-written by the writer and director Dan O’Bannon, another child of the ‘50s, the film brings the dark trajectory of a horror narrative into the alien-invader genre. Alien depicts a dark future-vision encumbered by wasted states of nature and industry – there is no hope of progress, there is only survival. The amorphous alien monster, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, is suggestive of inchoate metamorphosis not unlike a Hughes teenager; the peculiar organic details of the thing are set against the shabby industrial setting of the spacecraft, which becomes the creature’s nest. In a nightmare vision of DeMille’s correlation of a wet landscape to wet bodies, Alien’s production design emphasizes secretion as a manifestation of primal, and potentially destructive, impulses. The viscous slime that coats every surface (apparently created with K-Y Jelly lubricant) is a frightening rather than a titillating detail – the creature’s acid blood even has the power to corrode the hull of the ship. Though gender-ambiguous, within that destroyed society the alien is the procreator and mother-figure, representing a rebellion of nature against industry and machine.
The iconography of liquid serves an antithetical function in films in which the female is an emblem of regeneration, as in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). At the conclusion of World War I, perhaps reflecting the progressivist view of the perils of industrialization and urban living, Griffith told the plight of a Chinese immigrant suffering in the slums of London. Though a Buddhist, the immigrant (played by Richard Barthelmess) turns to the local opium den to escape his surroundings. One day, out of an opium fog, a frail young girl with a “tear-aged face” (as Griffith’s inter-titles emphasize) appears to him. The girl (Lillian Gish), can barely stand upright she is so fragile, abused by her pugilist father. In many tight close-ups, Gish’s wet, wallowing eyes, rolling about with all the energy her little doll-like body lacks, inspires in the immigrant a love that “remains a pure and holy thing,” though “he dreams her prattle, her bird-like ways, her sweet self – are all his own.
This idealized female figure, physically immobilized but spiritually alive, connects with a depressed, drug-addicted man in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1955 short story. Spielberg was a baby-boom child at the time of its publication, and his alterations impart 50s-era domestic values and the sanctity of the nuclear family.
In Spielberg’s version, the protagonist (Tom Cruise) has lost his son and subsequently become estranged from his wife. These experiences lead him to join the Justice Department’s Pre-Crime Division, a department utilizing the psychic visions of three children born of heroin addicts to prevent murders before they happen. In Dick’s story, the psychics, or “pre-cogs,” are described as deformed, vegetal-state idiots strapped into high-backed chairs, but Spielberg transforms these creatures into precious oracles, bathed in tanks like embryos in a womb-like chamber. Of the three, the female is considered the most vital, the implication being that she is closest to her emotions, and therefore a divining rod for the anguish of mankind.
When Cruise suspects he’s been framed for murder, he abducts the female pre-cog, Agatha, and carts her off to an underworld tech-head who can “hack into” her for information that might confirm Cruise’s innocence. Out on the streets, Agatha’s etherealness stands in stark contrast to her surroundings. Muscles atrophied from being suspended so long in liquid, but fitful with the force of her psychic visions, Agatha is a conduit for the secret pain and suffering she senses all about her. Like Gish in Blossoms, Agatha is both venerated and objectified by the men who encounter her. When Cruise presents her to the tech-head, he initially flaps his tongue at her suggestively, then genuflects realizing she is a pre-cog and a piece of dazzling equipment, exclaiming rapturously to Cruise: “Wow…she works.”
In a later scene, Agatha, filmed in bright light that seems to pass through her angelic body, gives hope to Cruise and his ex-wife, pointing the way to the stunningly unambiguous happy ending of the couple reunited, her pregnant belly heavily swollen. The message, a relic of Broken Blossoms’ era, is that the life of the modern urban man is a broken existence. He lives at odds with nature, without the human roots of family and home, numbing his pain and damning his soul with vice which ultimately leads to his ruin. His cure is represented by a woman, through whom and by whom the hope of family and emotional integrity may be realized.
The ideology engendered by Spielberg and Griffith regarding the woman and her role in society are the inverse of the films by Sirk, Hughes, or DeMille that portray her need to revel in the mess and uncertainty of her own desires. For different ends, however, each of these films makes a distinction between the physicality of liquid as a body fluid, related to gross organic processes, and the perfectly styled tear that is part of a larger virtuous iconography, drawn from religious and cultural contexts in which the woman functions as an icon of purity. In the age of CGI effects, this dichotomy is only becoming more conspicuous.
Cowboys and Aliens (2011), executive produced by Spielberg, opens on a lone man coming to consciousness in an American western landscape circa the late 1800s. This would be another entry into the mythology of the penultimate American male, defining himself in the rugged frontier, but for the sudden arrival of swift alien ships and lasers, colliding genres. In a dusty saloon, a beautiful woman presents herself to the hero, telling him she is there to help him. There is something peculiar about her – she is too clean for that rough and tumble world. It is revealed (spoiler alert!) that the mysterious woman is not, in fact, human– but an emissary from another planet. Whatever it is that inhabits the pretty illusion explains that it has taken a shape to which it knows humankind will be most receptive. At a key moment, the thing releases a glistening tear, understanding the facility of that gesture.
This celestial presence is a byproduct of the corporately-structured, big budget film that produced her, and its superficially upbeat view of salvation and progress. The beauty of the mysterious woman is defined against the ugliness and threat of the other aliens, who are clearly descendents of Scott’s Alien – mucusy and bug-eyed, with sticky inner cavities and recesses. She also seems to be part of the Spielberg lexicon. In both form and content, Minority Report had embodied his desire for a non-porous world that functions under the efficient and just guidance of a higher power – and usually one that revolves around a strong patriarch (related closely to his own role as director, in a making-of featurette, Spielberg can be seen wearing a hat emblazoned DAD), the very figure that would have been idolized in the 50s of Spielberg’s childhood, and against which the woman would have been cast in her domestic role of keeping the home sanitized and uncontaminated. As Sirk observed in his melodramas, this entails more than keeping out the filth of the exterior world, it means keeping the house free of the impurity of her own unconscious.