What is Mary Harron's Problem?
The Feminist Director Always Casts A Superficial Spotlight onto the Darkness
The Notorious Bettie Page follows American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol
Director Mary Harron is drawn to dark personalities and behaviors but is too afraid to look straight-on at what she's exploring in her movies. Because of this her movies always wind up incredibly, disappointingly shallow. They are studies of the superficial when they could and should have been so much more. It makes me wish she wouldn't bother to "explore" these topics.
First Harron did it to radical feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto who famously later shot Andy Warhol. In I Shot Andy Warhol, Solanas comes off as ... a dishrag-limp personality! We're talking about an early 1970s radical who's over-the-top SCUM Manifesto continues to rile those who read it today and who, yes, then became a fixture in the art world and shot Andy Warhol. Next Harron did her distorting to Bret Easton Ellis's dark, perverse, and downright terrifying imaginings of a true American Psycho. His work was so graphic and disturbing that the book was the subject of countless protests and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by publishers and reams of newspaper commentary. Yet Harron somehow managed to distort Bret Easton Ellis's depiction into a ... light-as-air unthreatening comedy. And now it's The Notorious Bettie Page, in which Harron turns the pinup and bondage model cum symbol of burgeoning 1960s sexual freedom into ... a vapid June Cleaver twit.
Mary Harron is frustrating because she's drawn to material so rich for exploration -- this is exactly the stuff ripe for feminist discussion. Harron's impulse is to gravitate toward contemporary pop culture's most explosive personalities and behaviors and trends and patterns, but then she doesn't deliver. It's as though she's afraid of her material. She can't or won't go into the substance of what she wants to focus on, so she shoots her story in as contrived and untruthful a light as possible. She turns the terrifying and threatening and dark and perverse sides of human nature into little nothingnesses. There is nothing disturbing here to see or explore, is what she's finally saying.
That's not true, of course, and Harron's severely distorted interpretations aren't feminist filmmaking. In fact I'd argue that Harron's inability to look directly into the darkness and accurately represent what exists there is a quality endemic among a large share of the current U.S. feminist movement. And yet, like Harron, feminists also continue to do it -- to pretend to look into the darkness and describe and present what exists there when they aren't even scratching the superficial surface. It means nothing dark can really be explored or discussed truthfully in this movement and feminists, as well as Harron, apparently are happy to live with such emotionally and substantively lacking "explorations." It makes contempory U.S. feminism, and Harron's filmmaking, irrelevant to any deeper understanding of human nature or pop culture's influence on society.