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Switch

(Blake Edwards, USA, 1991)


 

The Price of a New Man           

 

Cinephiles have a remarkable capacity to abstract the films that they love. If, as Laura Mulvey once put it, narrative cinema is “an illusion cut to the measure of desire”, (1) these buffs cut an even finer illusion to the measure of their very particular desire. They can watch the collected works of John Ford and not even remember the racist slurs and dumb Irish jokes; they remain oblivious to all the dead filler between the sublime gags in Jerry Lewis movies; they glide over the scenes of rape and other sexual violence in Sam Peckinpah; they notice none of the wooden, functional bits in Alfred Hitchcock films.

 

As my examples already indicate, one of the most common alibis for a love of cinema is auteurism – the cult of the director. Auteurism has always had objective and polemical ideas to propose about the determining artistic role of the director in motion picture production. But, for the most part, auteurism runs on sheer desire. It abstracts and magnifies the role and contribution of the director. Many cinephiles are not the slightest bit interested in how films are actually written, cast, staged, edited or marketed. They prefer to identify the Soul, the Will, the Holy Ghost who is at the heart of the cinema-machine, which they then give a sacred name: the name of the auteur. It is an exercise in fantasy, but a highly generative kind of fantasy: there would scarcely be any decent film criticism without it.

 

My special affliction is Blake Edwards. There is hardly a single Edwards film that I cannot somehow magically cut to the measure of my desire. I do recognise that there are people in this world who cannot see the greatness of Edwards exactly as I see it. They complain about the Playboy-style ambience of his films, the shameless worship of middle class materialism, the often crass sexual attitudes about men and women, and the ceaseless parade of racial stereotypes. But those ingredients don't make up my Blake. In films including Victor/Victoria (1982), The Tamarind Seed (1974), That's Life! (1986) and 10 (1979), I see not only one of cinema's most inventive filmmakers, but also one of the most moving. I have elsewhere argued the case for Edwards as an artist who, beneath and through everything else that’s there on the surface of his films, yearns and fights in the dark for more of life's dimly glimpsed possibilities – as well as being a master, under-recognised craftsman of narrative space. (2)

 

I wrote about Switch (1991) in my 1993 book Phantasms (3); I might have guessed, but did not want to imagine at the time, that it would be Edwards’ last really notable screen achievement. (Despite a few fine moments, Son of the Pink Panther [1993], with Roberto Benigni, doesn’t work too well.) Switch rates about 8 out of 10 on my Blake scale. Steve (Perry King), a notorious womaniser, is bumped off by three of his aggrieved girlfriends, lands in the afterlife, and is immediately sent back to earth as Amanda (Ellen Barkin). To avoid eternal damnation, Amanda must track down one woman who truly loved Steve.

 

The sex-change premise of the film (closely comparable to the Australian romantic comedy Dating the Enemy [1996]) is curiously compromised and muddled from the beginning. Steve is still himself – complete with his previous ego, brain and male heterosexual desires – only now he is (as the French title of the film unsubtly puts it) “trapped in the body of a blonde”. So much for all the modern philosophy that has struggled to transcend the mind/body split! This means that Edwards can stage mildly grotesque jokes about Steve feeling himself up, while deftly avoiding certain interesting plot possibilities such as: what would it be like for Steve to experience orgasm as a woman? The film is evasive about menstruation and female libido, and positively backward about lesbianism, date rape and abortion (all of which colourfully figure somewhere in the plot).

 

This is not to say that Edwards avoids giving Steve any female experiences whatsoever. It is the film’s raison d’être to bring the hero to enlightenment by giving him a taste of life ‘from both sides now’ (Joni Mitchell’s classic song is used as a theme tune) – so that he knows what it is like to be sexually harassed by macho hoons in the street, or to talk dirty as a woman and no longer consider it an unnatural or unseemly act. At this level, Switch threatens to become merely another case of what Judith Williamson once witheringly called the Tootsie Syndrome in popular film, so named after the 1982 film in which Dustin Hoffman disguised himself as a woman in order to get a role in a TV soap opera.

 

Stories displaying the Tootsie Syndrome are those in which heroes who are (variously) white, well-off or male get to be (variously) black, poor or female for a week or so, in order to finally declare: ‘Now I know how you oppressed folks really feel, and I can truthfully represent your cause to the wider world’. (Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me [2004] infamy is a more recent incarnation of this odious pop-cultural tendency – and he spun a whole TV series off it.) Films like the racial comedy Soul Man (1986), or journalistic features in which a TV or newspaper reporter dresses like a bum for a day, are classic instances of the Tootsie Syndrome - another word for which would be liberalism, in its absolute worst sense.

 

Even on the Tootsie plane, Edwards is sneaky – he has Barkin speak a sympathetic aside now and again about what hell it is for women to put on makeup every day or menstruate once a month – but he doesn’t actually show Steve experiencing any of these more mundane aspects of the feminine condition. Unsurprisingly, as a liberal-feminist tract, Switch is an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps its most painfully embarrassing moments come when Steve gets to lecture his best pal Walter (Jimmy Smits), on behalf of all women, on the politics of date rape; or when Amanda fulfils her biological destiny by giving birth (“God wants me to have this baby”); or the strange interlude that places Amanda amidst the hidden world of predatory, soulless lesbians. Edwards, in short, did not have much deep, imaginative empathy for the Modern Woman.

 

But there’s a whole other film, a rather more arresting one, inside Switch. Unusually, it does not end, like most sex comedies of this sort, with the characters back in their original bodies. Steve dies as Amanda, the moment after she gives birth to a daughter – that baby is, it turns out, the one woman who truly loves him. After all the games with gender roles, the film declares its motivating dream in the final scene. As we see a tombstone engraved with ‘Amanda Brooks Stone – A Great Guy and a Very Special Woman – May They Rest in Peace’, we hear Steve in Heaven equivocating, tenderly and eternally, over whether to be exclusively either male or female – in the court of a God who appears to be both at once. So that is the conscious phantasm of Switch: androgyny.

 

However, Edwards’ airy wish for a Utopian union of the sexes is, finally, just a cover for a far more convoluted, far less conscious dream. It comes back to a more general zeitgeist (discussed in the Phantasms chapter) about the idea of a New Man – and the filmmaker’s projection of his deepest, most fervent wish to be anything but an Old Man.

 

The price to pay in order for such Old Men to reach the Other Side is always extremely high. Firstly, symbolic castration, which figures prominently in virtually every Edwards film: here, Walter has his balls horrendously squeezed over and over by Amanda as she gives birth. Secondly, unconsciousness: the plot is obsessively punctuated with scenes of blind drunkenness, which allows the characters to have no memory of – and the film to avoid the depiction of – several interesting sex scenes (between Amanda and a lesbian, and Amanda and Walter). And last but not least, death: as in The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Edwards’ fascinating remake of François Truffaut’s 1977 film, the pathos of passing cuts short the possibility of this sexual revolution continuing to flower on earth (as distinct from Heaven).

 

What is it, really, that makes the idea of a man turning into a woman such a difficult prospect for Switch to squarely face? Why is there a need for these mystifying gaps in the narrative attributed to drink; why the jokes about the masculine organ facing an almighty knife; why the recourse to death as a device for ending the story? If this is the Price of a New Man, what possible reward could be so terrifying, so unthinkable? The ultimate answer to the riddle is not far different from the one suggested by The Prince of Tides (1991). In Barbra Streisand’s odd and engaging movie, a long-distant act of sodomy secretly paves the way for the birth of a Sensitive New Age Guy. In Edwards’ film, all the narrative evasions, denials and detours, all the nervous jokes, indelibly circle around one unseen, primal scene: Steve fucking his best buddy Walter, liking it, and conceiving a child by him.

 

At the heart of Switch is an exaggerated, extravagant fantasy of homosexual or bisexual love – exaggerated, no doubt, because in the cinematic universe of Blake Edwards, homosexuality especially is something that does not last for long out in the open, under its own name. When asked about the film and its subterranean themes, Edwards described it as having a ‘dark side’, but warned his interviewer: “I can’t talk too much about it”. (4) But why should it be so dark, this realm of the unspoken and the deeply desired? It seems that the price of a New Man will certainly remain high in popular culture if wishful stories take their leading men straight from Old Macho to New Androgyny without directly dealing with any of the delicious complications in-between.

 

Blake Edwards was a guy of his time, caught up in all these confused, dimly articulated values. But he also had a cultivated taste, and an unerring instinct, for the fine mess of such complications. It was his special gift – one we sorely lack today in 21st century popular culture – to be able to mint these complications into complex, multi-layered, satisfying entertainments, whether comic or dramatic, or in some surprising, hybrid space between all the available genres and options.

 

MORE Edwards: The Return of the Pink Panther

 

 

NOTES

1. Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 25. back

 

2. Adrian Martin, “Blake Edwards’ Sad Songs of Love”, Undercurrent, no. 7 (2011). back

 

3. Adrian Martin, Phantasms: The Dreams and Desires at the Heart of Our Popular Culture (Melbourne: Penguin, 1993). back

 

4. See 1991 Edwards interview from Cinema Papers (Australia) reprinted in Screening the Past, no. 30 (April 2011).

© Adrian Martin January 2011


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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