Speaking against a film – especially at the moment that it is a topical hit – is an aggressive position from which to practice criticism. It makes me immediately uncomfortable, since I have no sympathy for the typical strike maneuvres of cultural debate – the kind of writing or talk which claims that anyone who likes or supports a particular contested film (for instance) is either ignorant, possessed of a coarse sensibility, or has been hopelessly sucked in by prevailing hype.
It's perfectly fine by me if someone likes Thelma and Louise, or is moved to make a case for it. For no cultural object is, in and of itself, good or bad, worthwhile or worthless; a part (perhaps a very large part) of its reality derives from the investments that people make in it. And already some very interesting ideas have been spun out of Ridley Scott's film by investing fans (like Patricia Mellencamp in her 1991 Power Institute lecture delivered in Sydney, Australia). (1)
Nonetheless, I find myself feeling very against Thelma and Louise. I want to use this occasion not to discredit anyone else's intelligent, positive position on the film, but to explain (partly to myself) my own deep dissatisfaction and irritation with it – to work out the interpretative frames that might give rise to a negative investment in this particular cultural object.
Let me say straight away that my argument with the film has absolutely nothing to do – even unconsciously! – with the idea that there's something unseemly about women protagonists running around an action movie shooting men (or trucks). There are plenty of female man-killers on screen I have no hesitation investing myself in, from Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980) to Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1990). Indeed, I suspect even the imaginary male spectator hypothesised in some film theory would find very little to disturb their patriarchal psyches in Thelma and Louise. For as James Cameron proves every few years, there's sometimes no greater fetishistic turn-on than a girl with a gun.
There's another popularly expressed idea about Thelma and Louise – this one more of a journalistic cliché – that I don't think gets us far into the film. It's the notion that, for good or ill, the film's essential strategy is to conjure female Rambos or Schwarzeneggers, simply by putting women actors into the tough hero roles that men would usually fill – a notion that led one reviewer to (rather oddly) describe the film as a "transvestite".
I don't think this observation is even accurate. Films that really do have straight-out female Terminators or Robocops in this sense are obviously deemed so strange and unfit for mainstream theatrical consumption that they are emptied out, very quietly, into the home video stream (which is where the fetishists certainly find them). But Thelma and Louise is very far from this kind of mechanistically kinky exploitation cinema.
The contemporaneous crop of important films about women who kill men – Thelma and Louise, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Mortal Thoughts (1991) – are, more correctly, dialogical in nature. Film criticism has, in the last years, taken on the idea of dialogism from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. It refers to the play of voices or discourses in a text, often via the differential positions of characters – discourse not only in the sense of a train of speech, but the embodiment or tracing of a whole set of experiences or values.
Of course, movies have always been in the business of making characters represent certain values, and then comparing or contrasting them so as to generate and resolve a fiction – that is probably the essential semantic operation of the classical narrative film. But, as the classic '70s critical text Women In Film Noir showed, the various discourses arrayed in much classical cinema are inexorably racked into a hierarchy, whereby some emerge as dominant (lawful, truth-telling, wise, etc) and others are subordinated (as ridiculous, duplicitous, marginal, etc).
A dialogical film, in its ideal state, would be something quite different: a textual space wherein different voices, equally charged with personal and social significance, might pass, meet, echo, clash, enter into new and surprising relations. It would not be obsessed with laying down hierarchical tracks for its chosen elements, but would allow them to float, or interleave (to use Marie MacLean's term). In cinema history, two key dialogical filmmakers are Preston Sturges – whose films, as Jean-Pierre Gorin memorably put it, are like open courtrooms where people spring up to speak "in terms comprehensible only to themselves" – and Jean Renoir.
Thelma and Louise is, from the outset, a dialogical film because it so clearly sets about distinguishing, and then interrelating, the separate voices of women's and men's experiences under patriarchy, without (it would seem) the clear-cut moral hierarchies of older Hollywood fictions. It can't be a transvestite, since a great deal of its detail is lovingly given over to the feminine culture of its main characters: for example, their ways of talking with each other about life, sex and their mutual predicament.
Perhaps the richest period of dialogism in the American cinema is the 1970s. In the films of a mightily influential figure like Robert Altman, and in whole genres like the road movie, there arises a post-classicism, at least to the extent that everything loosens up: stories sprawl, minor or eccentric characters suddenly hi-jack plots and take them into strange territories, unusual or never before represented lifestyles proliferate, interleave, and make a hell of a noise.
For Altman (as for his '80s protégé, Alan Rudolph), the very act of making a film becomes less a matter of rigid control than of a highly intuitive setting into play of diverse, heterogeneous elements: actors who bring in their own characterisations and wander around the set interacting spontaneously with the other performers, script contributions employed in a freeform manner, a commissioned or plundered musical voice/discourse floating on its own independent path above the existing mélange of images and sounds.
Thelma and Louise has been applauded as a film that revisits the '70s in cinematic terms – not nostalgically, but in order to revitalise a mainstream cinema that has become in many cases safe, formulaic and predigested in the '80s. The idea is certainly exciting; whether Ridley Scott's film lives up to it is quite another matter, and one worth testing.
One of the key ways that dialogism works in narrative cinema is through genre – specifically, the mixing of genres whose elements are usually kept mutually exclusive. This is something we tend to forget about genres: they are not only formulae for generating stories, but also ways of adumbrating a world view that includes some things whilst vigorously excluding others.
That is why it is so surprising when, for instance, certain male heroes are revealed to have parents (as happens in James Toback's films), or Jamie Lee Curtis resolves her domestic tensions by arresting her father in Blue Steel. In these cases, it is as if the world of the action film has suddenly been invaded by the concerns of human drama – whether melodrama, family drama or woman's drama.
Generically, '70s cinema tended towards a great fluidity. There is an easy continuum between the art hits of Altman (M*A*S*H*, 1970 and Nashville, 1975) and his more seemingly populist assignments (like his teen movie O. C. and Stiggs, 1987, scripted by National Lampoon writers); the same goes for Rudolph, moving between Roadie (1980) or Songwriter (1984) and Choose Me (1984) or Trouble In Mind (1985). In fact, with the extraordinary interleaving of diverse genres in this period, it was quite impossible for even those in the distribution and exhibition business to separate art specials from entertainment fodder. Some directors strongly marked by the '70s have managed to continue making dazzlingly mixed films that are surprising and confounding in this fashion, such as Jonathan Demme with Something Wild (1986).
There is no more central example of the special situation of genre in the '70s than the road movie – the first frame through which I want to try looking at Thelma and Louise. Throughout that decade (and beyond), the road movie genre moved back and forth between two extreme treatments, never really having to settle at either end. At one extreme, there's the arty road movies of Wenders, Ian Pringle, Alain Tanner, Esben Storm, Aki Kaurismaki and many others – films about emptiness, waste, disillusionment and open space. At the other extreme, there's the redneck road movie – films like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) or Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose (1978) in which ordinary outlaws exact marvellously vulgar revenge on every anally retentive authority figure in sight.
These two types of road movie might seem very far from one another, but in fact, in practice, they are not – for even the most Antonioni-esque of road movies (like Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971) simply has to digress into a bit of knockabout business or rev up with a rock song from a car radio to rendezvous with its redneck genre-brother.
Thelma and Louise draws on a particular road movie formula – that of the couple on the run from the law, fleeing the scene of an initial crime, robbing banks en route for survival, reflecting on the homes and identities they leave increasingly behind. The pleasure-principle rules in this scenario until the "reality principle" insists – with the inevitable arrival of police cars and helicopters ominously filling the sky and blocking the horizon of the road ahead. This very premise has an enormous amount of in-built, interleaving possibilities: for it has (potentially) dramatic pathos and tragedy as well as redneck high jinks, and films including Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Sugarland Express (1974) and The Legend of Billie Jean (1985) have succeeded brilliantly in milking the formula for both.
It's the redneck comedy bits in Thelma and Louise – the exploding trucks, oafish husbands and spirited cussing about the two "bitches from hell" – that seem to trouble some sensitive filmgoers, as if these moments were somehow out of place in a Ridley Scott film. But I don't think it's a problem that Thelma and Louise alternates serious moments with comic ones in the sprawl of story-lines; in a road movie, that much is usually guaranteed. The problem for me is Scott's particular sensibility at the helm of such a road movie.
Where any road movie should be loose, carefully destructured, open to all sorts of moment-to-moment possibilities, Scott directs with an empty, stodgy flair. His shots (characteristically) are showy, staged: they pin the characters into the frame like so many showcase butterflies, so that the camera and the lights can do a chintzy arabesque around them. Scott shows no feel at all for the high times on the road – for the reckless velocities and open framings that animate car films from Demme's Citizens Band (1977) to Godard's Passion (1982). The film's scenes of rednecks at play (in bars or cars) are like slick Southern Comfort ads – pumped up with painstakingly contrived bursts of energy. And they betray an uneasiness, a faint distaste on the part of the filmmaker: you can hear that Scott just can't wait to drop gritty Southern blues music for an extended play of Marianne Faithfull's syntho-dirge "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" on the soundtrack – accompanied, of course, by ghostly, flood-lit shots of the American landscape.
What I find inadequate in my own argument to this point is that (like so much negatively charged film criticism) it is normative; i.e., it posits (or assumes) what a certain mode of cinema should (and shouldn't) be, and then faults an individual film for not conforming, or living up to that model. So what if Thelma and Louise isn't a road movie like other previous movies of the type? Sometimes the most interesting films that emerge in a tradition are those that hold nothing given or sacred and that – whether by accident or by design – take the tradition somewhere else entirety. Even a seemingly failed genre experiment – one which seems to have little feel for the genre in question – can do this, substituting for the old texture a different ambience, approach, sensibility. Some may argue for the film as a radical departure from the road movie norm in terms something like these – particularly since we have on our hands a predominantly male-buddy genre helmed by two women.
But before I take on that point, I need to get to the bottom of my dissatisfaction with the film by raising another interpretative frame. At root, Ridley Scott's film strikes me through and through as inauthentic. Now, authenticity is undoubtedly a dangerously vague aesthetic concept, one that is often wisely avoided by contemporary criticism. Authenticity isn't something material you can isolate and point to in a frozen film frame; it's a matter of how the film feels – and how any two people feel about the one film is, as we know, rarely the same (sometimes it isn't even comparable!). Nonetheless, I think it's worthwhile trying to nail down what it is in Scott's style that might create a feeling of pervasive emptiness – the sense that he is a filmmaker on an endless quest for cheap dramatic and comic effects.
Here it might be useful to draw a map connecting Scott to other filmmakers – so as to figure out the pertinent family resemblances. In articles in Filmviews and Metro, Gerald Fitzgerald has already proposed one such mapping for Scott, and it is a very suggestive one. For Fitzgerald, Scott can be aligned with Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Mike Figgis as one of the practitioners of a new cinema – a cinema "saturated in significance, largely because of its deployment of a huge field of signifying processes always inherent in cinema". (2) He argues that style and content are so intricately interlocked, so intensely worked over by these directors that their films achieve a radical extreme of ambiguity, textual mobility and polysemy – simultaneously a deconstructive "dissolution of forms" and a boundless generation of interpretative possibilities.
But I would suggest another reading of this map. Putting William Friedkin at the head of this family tree of Scott-Lyne-Parker-Figgis, and adding others including Oliver Stone, Ken Russell, Martin Campbell (Criminal Law, 1988), Morton & Jankel (D.O.A., 1988) and Zalman King (Wild Orchid, 1990), one could hypothesise the existence of a certain cinematic tradition: the cinema of hysteria. This is a cinema indeed "saturated in significance", but in a wild, scattershot way – calculated to press all buttons and have it all ways simultaneously. Robin Wood (in his book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan) diagnosed in Friedkin's Cruising (1980), Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Richard Brooks' Looking For Mr Goodbar (1977) an involuntary breakdown of meaning, a symptomatic formation of incoherent texts for our troubled times. What he did not see is that his examples were films actively seeking the production of incoherence – mainly for the sake of spectacular effect.
For effect rules in hysterical cinema: the sudden gasp, the revelatory dramatic frisson, the split-second turn-around of meaning or mood, the disorientating gear-change into high comedy or gross tragedy. It is hardly surprising that what links many filmmakers in this tradition is a background (and continued employment) in television advertising and music video – those areas of audiovisual culture most governed by spectacular, moment-to-moment selling. Thelma and Louise is not the most hysterical of Scott's films, but it certainly partakes of the familiar house-style.
It would be far too sweeping for me to now equate hysteria with inauthenticity. There are many fascinating films in the hysterical mode, some which have not only their own intensity, madness and inventiveness, but also their own truth (such as Stone's The Doors, 1991, or Friedkin's Rampage, 1988). But hysterical cinema is sometimes certainly empty and inauthentic cinema – entirely uninterested in its own material and the issues it raises, merely exploiting it for its artfully spectacular possibilities. Thelma and Louise strikes me as such a movie, with its twin heroines given to ominous, hushed, pointedly thematic statements like "we can't go back now...", its too-neat game with lit and unlit cigarettes marking the start and end of the voyage, and its One Good Man (Harvey Keitel) clairvoyantly attuned to the suffering of woman amidst a veritable sea of Southern male grotesques. (Is Keitel, one wonders with a shudder, meant to figure as the director's stand-in? Such a self-flattering phantasm would certainly not be new in hysterical cinema.)
I've finally reached that interpretative frame that people are predominantly arguing about in relation to Thelma and Louise: is it really an instance of a feminist film made by a man? It is not (as so few commentators have noted) the first or only example of a female-buddy road movie; Messidor (1979), Heartaches (1981), Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975) have travelled this road before while, in the Australian context, High Tide (1987) offers an interesting interleaving of Paris, Texas (1984) with woman's melodrama.
But – even accepting the at least minimal dialogical genre-gender functioning of Thelma and Louise – what does it actually do to this film to have female heroes? In a very real and thorough sense, the film's trajectory is pure late-1940s Hollywood. As in the film noir or delirious gangster-action films like Joseph Lewis' Gun Crazy (1949), these protagonists are doomed from the moment they cut free of society. Arguably, there is a sense conveyed by the film that these gals are too wild, too free, too out of control – to the point where their only option is to surrender to what Freud called the death-drive – and Thelma and Louise, in its appallingly cheap, hysterical ending, is literally a film about a death-drive.
One might profitably argue here about the possible endings open to the film and its makers. Thelma and Louise could have been hauled back to the bosom of patriarchal society – something that might be viewed by the film and/or its viewers with either conservative approval or deep, subversive irony. They might have made it home free to Mexico, and kept up their high time – a not uncommon redneck movie ending (and one that might have worked). Of course, the ending that the film prepares us for (well in advance) is the classically fatalistic one – the meaningful frisson that the only escape from patriarchy is in a slo-mo, freeze-frame, musical crescendo dive over a cliff.
A fatalistic ending to such a tale, however rueful or pessimistic, is of course not a bad or invalid choice, in and of itself. The ending of Thelma and Louise might have had a tragic wallop – a sense of loss and wasted possibilities, a felt insight into the brutality and limitedness of this Western, patriarchal world, like we find in Spielberg's brilliant (and forgotten) road movie, The Sugarland Express (to which Scott's film can be closely compared). But is hard for me to see the realised ending of Thelma and Louise as anything other than the ultimate in a very long line of cheap dramatic effects – a throwaway moment in the tradition not of the ending of Bonnie and Clyde but that of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
At least when Gun Crazy wallowed in its offering of fatalism, it was intuitively at the cutting edge of the contradictions of the immediate post-war era. Thelma and Louise seems to me a film in touch with nothing except the easy topicality of its subject matter. It's not, ultimately, a dialogical film because it grants so little reality or seriousness to any of its "voices", female or male. And in this respect, it's not half as interesting as a less-touted film that followed it, Mortal Thoughts – an extraordinarily canny and subtle film, very seriously getting inside and derailing its given determinations of gender and genre.
In that film, Ian Rudolph continues to practice, brilliantly, what he learnt from his apprenticeship in '70s American cinema. From the first to the last in Mortal Thoughts, there's a strange cleaving between two worlds, two registers of voices, two orders of experience: that of men, and of women. In fact, from one angle, it all seems like an uncanny replay of what the classic late '70s booklet Women In Film Noir found so classical and conservative in the 1940s film noir: fatal women on the side of duplicity, evasion, flightiness; men on the side of law, justice, truth. Even the press kit for the film (and this is a worry) notes that what started as a script about women's response to domestic violence ended more as a thriller about how cops ferret out the truth from shifty murder suspects.
But something else is happening in Mortal Thoughts, and one suspects it has a lot to do with Rudolph. As he has shown again and again (especially in Remember My Name , a fascinating version of the Fatal Attraction  scenario), his aversion for predigested, unambiguous morality plays is surpassed only by his intense empathy for his female characters. Whatever Mortal Thoughts was originally about on the page, Rudolph has introduced into it clouds, refractions, complications. Harvey Keitel as the cop, for instance, plays the mirror inversion of his part in Thelma and Louise: there he was benevolent and understanding of the women's plight; here, his police manners are resolutely creepy, quietly but insidiously misogynist.
With this character as with everything, Rudolph focuses relentlessly on the lethal non-communication and non-exchange between the sexes. In one unforgettable domestic moment, Demi Moore is trying to get a gun upstairs in a brown paper bag; when her husband bullishly demands to know what's in the bag, she immediately produces the response certain to deflect him: "It's my tampax." To me at least, that one line is more authentic, more telling, more powerful than any of the effects so laboriously generated in Thelma and Louise.
© Adrian Martin October 1991
1. Cf. Mellencamp, "Five Ages of Film Feminism", in Laleen Jayamanne (ed.) Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism & Cinema for the Moment (Sydney: Power Publications, 1995), pp. 18-76. back
2. Gerald Fitzgerald, "Black Rain: Ridley Scott's 'New' Cinema", Metro, no. 84. back