Friday, September 10, 2010

Tonight on the De Palma Thrillers: Raising Cain (1992)

Movie Geeks United brings its stellar, five-night critical-analysis and retrospective of director Brian De Palma to a close tonight at 10:00 pm with an installment on the director's underrated thriller, Raising Cain (1992).

In the meantime, here's a piece of my review of Raising Cain.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the fantasy of the American man being a "hero" or "conqueror" -- or even the sole bread winner in a traditional nuclear family -- was being torn apart at the seams.

Terms like "Mr. Mom" entered the pop culture lexicon in the mid-eighties after a 1983 comedy starring Michael Keaton unexpectedly became a hit. The nickname was utilized, often derisively, to describe a man who stayed home to raise children while his wife went to work outside the home and functioned as "the hunter-gatherer."
Could a man still be "a man" in the 1990s if he didn't hold down a job? If he stayed home and raised the children? Would women find this 1990s breed of man attractive, absent the more rugged qualities that had made him The Dragon-slayer in generations past?

In her book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, author Susan Jefford argued that "the masculine way has almost run its course...the point at which no alternatives are left" (Rutgers University Press, 1994, page 176). Because of scandals (including Iran Contra and Astrology-Gate), American alpha males -- including President Reagan -- had been transformed from icons of laudable masculinity to mock-able figures of fun: imbecilic, daft, and confused. The new President, George Bush, was disregarded far and wide in the press as a "wimp."

Meanwhile, women had not only made significant in-roads in the workplace, but had also served with great distinction in the American military during the Gulf War (1991), further blurring traditional definitions of gender. Another dividing line for the nation also occurred in 1991, when Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court, faced a contentious confirmation hearing. He had allegedly made lewd remarks to a female co-worker, Anita Hill. But were his actions the very definition of sexual harassment, or was he enjoying dirty jokes, and flirting with a female colleague? I'm not going to take sides in that debate, but this was part and parcel of the crisis in masculinity. What could a man safely say in the 1990s, in the presence of a professional woman? Where was the new line of "appropriateness" to be drawn?

Others viewed the "crisis in masculinity" in a different fashion (and indeed, you can see this opinion reflected in 1999's Fight Club). In particular, author Brian Baker noted in Masculinity in Fiction and Film: Representing Men in Popular Genres, 1945-2000, that the failure of masculinity in modern America was a result of men not being too assertive, but of men not being assertive enough. The men of the 1980s and 1990s were simply "re-capitulating the mistakes" of their fathers, men of the post-war generation (Continuum Literary Studies, 2006, page 123).

In other words, inadequate father figures and a new a culture promoting "sensitivity" had de-fanged a generation of men. The culture was becoming...feminized. Again, I'm not coming down on one side of this argument or the other, just noting that it was a topic of the times and as such, part of Raising Cain's context.

And indeed, this social concern plays out explicitly in the film. The kindly Carter is a touchy-feely milquetoast who lives in thrall to the real alpha male in his life: his father (a robust, arrogant man of the post-war generation). His dad is a world-renowned achiever; Carter just a "regular" psychologist. Carter is indeed a loving father, one who spends more than mere "quality time" with his daughter, Amy. And yet his wife, Jenny is not at all happy with him about his sensitivity and caring. One small, outward sign of this festering problem: Jenny doesn't even take Carter's family name...calling herself Jenny O'Keefe instead of Jenny Nix (forecasting, perhaps, the whole Hilary Rodham kerfuffle...)

At one point in the film, Jenny laments that Carter, the successful child psychologist, has given up his profitable practice for child-rearing...leaving her to work full time outside the home. The freedom she has secured for herself (to be either a career woman or a mother, at her discretion), is not one extended to Carter. Because he has forsaken the hunter-gatherer role, she no longer respects him. And because she no longer respects him, she also no longer sees Carter as sexually desirable.

Early in Raising Cain, Carter attempts to make love to Jenny, but stops suddenly when he hears Amy crying in her nearby bedroom. Jenny is angry with Carter over this act of coitus interruptus, and soon has an adulterous affair with Jack...a man who clearly has his "sexual" priorities straight. Despite the fact that Jenny is married (and the mother of a small child), Jack brazenly makes love to her in a park. In fact, Jack and Jenny first shared a kiss at the exact moment that Jack's sick wife passed away in a hospital room...just feet away from them (and within the dying woman's line of sight!) So Jack is a throwback, the kind of man who society tells us is not supposed to be cherished anymore...but clearly is some women. In fact, Jack is seen as sexually powerful, whereas Carter is a wimpy cuckold.

Carter's many alternate personalities also expose further the crisis in masculinity. Cain is seen as inherently disreputable. He's a smoker for one thing (another big no-no in the Age of Political Correctness), and he's also, well, psychotic. Yet, Cain is the "man of action." Carter outsources his dirty work to Cain, because as a "sensitive" modern male he is deemed incapable of protecting himself or his family. When Carter gets into trouble attempting to subdue Karen, a local mother, Cain suggests that Carter kiss her to allay the suspicions of passers-by. This is something that would never occur to the diffident Carter on his own; but a solution which jumps out immediately to Cain. Cain is Id, through and through. The voice we all hear, but rarely act upon.
Yet another of Carter's personalities, Josh, has regressed to boyhood. He's a terrified child, one constantly fearing the wrath of his father. Again -- not entirely unlike Carter -- Josh is an image of masculinity reverted to a "harmless" or impotent stage, pre-adolescent, and therefore pre-sexual.

Yep, that's a crisis in masculinity, all right.
Raising Cain is thus a satire, exposing the schizophrenic, contradictory messages sometimes sent by our culture to men of the day. They were expected to "cowboy up" and "be a man"...except when they were supposed to be "sensitive" and "express" their feelings. They were to support the family financially; except in those cases that a woman wanted to do so herself. They were supposed to be committed fathers; but never usurp the sacred role of the primary parent: the mother. In Raising Cain, Carter is crazy, splintered into a million pieces over the competing pressures conspiring against him. Ultimately, the only way he can self-actualize is by becoming, literally, a woman.

Throughout the film, Carter is almost constantly besieged by images of perfect women. After kidnapping a little boy, he drives to his idyllic, fairy tale house, and a gorgeous woman pushing an ivory white baby carriage is seen walking across the sidewalk. She is society's image of a perfect parent...something Carter can never be; at least not until he becomes Margo.
Later, Jenny appears briefly inside a heart-shaped icon on a TV set at a local shop celebrating Valentine's Day. This image reminds us that Carter -- the milquetoast -- can never capture his wife's "heart." Indeed, in that very scene, Jack returns to stake his claim on it. Jenny's friend, played by Mel Harris, states that Carter is the "perfect man," but Jenny is already thinking of ways to get out of the marriage to be with Jack, the man who really makes her heart go aflutter (even if he doesn't take care of children). So Carter's final transformation into Margo is a sort of twisted joke on the old proverb "if you can't beat 'em, join em."

In some very important sense, Brian De Palma suffers the same existential crisis as Carter Nix in Raising Cain.

Both men toil under the expansive shadows of their famous "fathers," either biological or spiritual. De Palma is always being called "The New Hitchcock" or "The American Godard," but these labels always contextualize him in terms of other filmmakers; of spiritual cinematic patriarchs. Rarely is he seen as the pioneer, the trail-blazer. Only the second-comer.
In Raising Cain, De Palma once more acknowledges his debts to such cinematic "fathers" with several deliberate homages. Think of this, essentially, as Carter going to work in the same profession as his dad.
Foremost among these homages, De Palma pays tribute to director Michael Powell and his film, Peeping Tom (1960). That movie involved an adult man, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) who was actually a murderer. His violence stemmed from the fact that Mark's father experimented on him as a boy, testing his responses to fear, horror, and death. His Dad then recorded those responses on camera, fostering a strange pathology in Mark, one involving cameras. Importantly, Mark's father was also a psychologist, very much like Dr. Nix.

In Raising Cain, young Carter is also experimented upon, essentially made into a multiple personality case. Like Mark, all of Carter's responses are charted, dissected and recorded. And also like Mark, Carter enters "the family business" after a fashion, even installing cameras in his daughter's bedroom, to gauge her responses. This may be De Palma's expression of the insidious nature of child abuse: a cycle of violence that passes from generation to generation. But regardless of the thematic similarities, it's clear that Carter of Raising Cain and Mark of Peeping Tom are both "weak" sons abused by "bad fathers." Both are carrying on in the family biz; both are mad as hatters.
Almost universally, De Palma develops his homages a step beyond the source material rather than merely imitating them, and that is also true in Raising Cain. Mark ultimately kills himself in Peeping Tom, but Carter -- in Raising Cain's final moments -- doesn't die. His blood is never spilled to satisfy society. Instead, Carter is (willfully) sublimated inside the matriarchal protector, Margo. It's a place where he can finally feel safe; behind the protector and "Big Sister." Carter may no longer be the primary personality, but he is not wiped out either. Instead, his journey may even be one of self-actualization. In Margo's body, he can be the loving, protecting mother that we must presume that Carter never had.
Another spiritual father to De Palma is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock; and again we see him paying homage here. Once more, Psycho appears to be the well-spring for De Palma's creativity since we get a variation on Norman's disposal of bodies (in a swamp), and also the re-appearance of a man dressed as a woman (also deployed in De Palma's Dressed to Kill). Again, it's important to stress that this is not just mindless or rote repetition of familiar Psycho sequences.

Instead, De Palma takes the material and twists and turns it to new purpose. For instance, after apparently dying in the Half Moon Swamp, Jenny surprisingly re-emerges to challenge Cain...something which never occurred to Marion. And far from being a villain (like Mother Bates), Margo -- the man as woman -- is Raising Cain's undeniable hero. She single-handedly rescues the children from the evil Dr. Nix.

What's more interesting, perhaps, than the homages to the "fathers" (Hitchcock, Powell, perhaps even Bunuel...), is the clear self-reflexive aspect of Raising Cain. Here -- after a dramatic career failure, -- De Palma is seen as taking up his life's work, which -- not coincidentally - was the life work of Hitchcock: the formalist cinematic thriller. Just as Carter takes up Nix's work; De Palma resumes his Hitchcockian phase. But, just as Carter transforms, De Palma transforms too. He takes this Hitchcockian thriller to an apex never before imagined, and he does so by giving the film not just one perspective, but many.
Finally, the guardian of the children is the personality named Margo. Importantly, Margo is female. Margo rescues Amy, destroys the Elder Dr. Nix, and restores order. It is a woman, therefore, who finally usurps the role of "hero"/"conqueror" in modern America. Carter can only become a hero when he is...female. The film's valedictory shot is of a looming, powerful Margo, standing heroically behind his family (Jenny and Amy). Carter could only be himself (a caring individual and care-giver) when in the personality and guise of a woman...and the last shot explains this visually. Margo is not menacing; not evil. She is triumphant.

1 comment:

  1. SteveW4:13 PM

    Very interesting movie. Lots of experimental stuff in terms of narrative storytelling, and it doesn't really gel, yet it's definitely something to see--a crazy patchwork of influences and satire and formalist fun 'n games. I remember seeing it in the theater on its first release, and the (small) audience pretty obviously didn't know what to make of it but seemed pretty entertained anyway.

    It does show De Palma toying with a kind of back-and-forth-and-sideways narrative dream logic that he would further develop in "Femme Fatale."