Moving Pictures from an Institution: Movie notes

Four films linked by a really depressing theme!

Scum: Our institution: a 1970s Borstal (juvenile prison). Does exactly what it says on the tin, not quite two hours of violence and contempt. The use of rules as abuse, creating impossible demands (guard throws a prisoner back into his cell, spilling the guy’s mug of soup, then snaps: “Dirty cell, you’re on report”); use of prisoners’ self-created hierarchies to divide and conquer. The scenes where suicidal prisoners are mocked and beaten are… not exactly unrealistic. As a movie I don’t know what this does, or that you need to watch it. Its outrage is palpable, I’ll say that.

Urban Ghost Story: Our institution: a Scottish high-rise housing project. Fourteen= (maybe fifteen-?) year-old Lizzie (fierce-faced Heather Ann Foster) has survived an alcohol- and Ecstasy-fueled car crash that killed her best friend. Now strange noises are heard in the walls of her family’s apartment, and the furniture moves by itself….

This movie is a great illustration of my upcoming Doxacon talk (it’s a Christian sf/fantasy convention here in DC in August, YOU SHOULD COME) about how often horror movies explore the failure of authority. Lizzie’s mom can’t find anyone to believe her except a local tabloid reporter–and he’s only pretending. Here, the quest for a valid epistemological authority also becomes the quest for dignity, as Lizzie’s mom battles her way through a friendless world that views her as a shiftless liar who probably abuses her kids. Science and seances are both deployed to try to understand what’s going on, but Lizzie turns to religion, poring over illustrations of the Devil being cast out of Heaven.

Ghost stories are often stories about justice, & often about mercy–our two longings, neither of which usually gets fulfilled in this life. Urban Ghost Story has some truly powerful images here, and its climax is genuinely moving.

Some problems: The OD plotline is a bit standard-issue, though I realize not unrealistic. (In general the pileup of misery is really recognizable–I was reminded of one of my clients at the pregnancy center, who also found herself in a situation where a landlord’s neglect cascaded into threats to take away her children. You might pray for her btw.) The bigger problem is the denouement, which is ridiculously rushed. That’s the only real flaw in an otherwise very fine film.

The Hospital: Our institution: a New York hospital, but actually the 1970s white male psyche, yikes. Man, this movie is a mess. George C. Scott as a suicidal doctor, Diana Rigg (sporting a mottled, uneven transatlantic accent–in the ’70s! This is the film’s only charming element) as the dewy maiden who seeks to save him. He rapes her–the dialogue calls it that, and the dialogue is right–but it’s the 1970s so of course she’s totally into it.

The other plot is that someone in the hospital is killing doctors and nurses. This is presented as if it’s a satirical critique of the institution–they kill instead of heal, despair is the iatrogenic illness, etc–and I’d be down for that, but the thing is, spoilers I guess, the identity of the murderer means this isn’t what’s actually happening. The hospital is actually full of noble, dutiful white men! Sure they make mistakes sometimes, as do we all, but the real problem comes from outside.

Really mannered dialogue by Paddy Chayefsky. Tense camerawork, that’s the other good thing besides La Rigg’s accent.

Why did we ever do the ’70s, you guys? Why didn’t we just skip it?

Madchen in Uniform: Our institution: a 1910s Prussian convent school, although what order of 1910 nuns is this that don’t wear habits? Anyway, this is a classic of lesbian cinema and deservedly so. Romy Schneider is just wonderful as Manuela von Meinhardis, the orphan who discovers in her teacher a haven from the convent school’s ferocious discipline. The scenes where she plays Romeo in the school play are just a joy: She’s full of springtime. Lilli Palmer is great in early scenes but gets a bit too tragique as the teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg, a lady with odd motives–there are a few scenes where you’ll wonder, What exactly are you playing at? Fraulein Robinson, are you trying….?

This is a captivating film. The trees look glorious, stark and twisting against a wintry sky. The costumes are really beautiful, several steps beyond reality. The storyline is much less Celluloid Closet than its 1958 release date might lead you to assume.

I have a lot of thoughts on the “schoolgirl/schoolboy crush” narrative in general. It’s a genre of emotion that, like all forms of same-sex desire, came under increasing suspicion in the late 19th century. The central question, I think, is: What do these crushes prepare young people’s hearts for?

If you turned Madchen‘s clock back a few decades (uh, and moved it to the USA because that’s what I know better), the answer might be, “Oh Lord, Manuela’s one of those girls who gets ‘pashes.’ She’ll set up house with her best friend and run some kind of world-improving institution, a women’s college or a settlement house or something. Send her to Boston, we don’t want any world-improvement here.” If you turned the clock back a few centuries it might be, “Well, her cousin’s a beguine and it looks like Manuela is going the same way.”

The classic adolescent same-sex crush can prepare a girl’s or boy’s heart for marriage–you don’t have to belittle that as saying, “It’s just a phase,” as if it’s a detour off the straight path to your life’s real purpose. It can prepare one for parenthood: A woman can shower her child with the tenderness and affection she longed for in boarding school. (More on this in a moment.) It can prepare one for love of God; I think that’s part of my story. It can prepare one for an adult life lived in devoted same-sex friendship, or in a women’s or men’s religious community. Sexual desire may ebb and flow in all of these paths. I know I’m making all of this sound much too sunny and simple–there is no vocational path on which most people escape serious suffering, confusion, feelings of failure and abandonment, and heartbreak. I just want to suggest that the adolescent same-sex crush doesn’t need to “resolve” into heterosexuality in order to prepare someone for her path in life. It doesn’t need to be the emotional equivalent of practicing kissing on a pillow.

In Madchen specifically there are some interesting, subtle hints that the film’s underlying subject is forms of authority: the woman-Hitler who runs the school vs. the maternal tenderness sought by the newly-motherless Manuela. Both the emphasis on Manuela’s mother’s death and a lot of Manuela’s body language with Fraulein von Bernburg suggest to me that she is seeking a mother as much as a lover, someone to exercise loving authority over her, someone she can trust and obey and on whose shoulder she can cry. But her school seeks to make her a “mother of soldiers”: “There’s a reason the doors here are made of iron!”


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