Flickhead
After Hours
with Richard Armstrong

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Lili Taylor, I Shot Andy Warhol

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Women with Guns

By Richard Armstrong

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    In Britain adult education has always had a reputation for being an unofficial marriage market. Recently it was announced on Britain’s Channel 4 News that, owing to cutbacks in public funding, the adult education sector looked likely to diminish. I recalled an adult education class in Film Studies I ran in Cambridge in 1999 when I fancied one of my students. We became friends and saw each other regularly. She was a vicar’s daughter, but I liked it that she could sit through something like Les Voleurs without getting moral on me. At the time I thought I loved Alison Powell. But unwilling to spoil our friendship, I kept my feelings to myself. I think she could tell from the way I looked at her sometimes that I had a lot on my mind.
    Because my first course had been a success, I was due to run a follow-up and before I’d had a chance to say anything to Alison, she had enrolled. Movies and Methods turned out to be one of the best courses I have ever run and it ran again and again. But it wasn’t always easy. After spending a week on Laura Mulvey and the male gaze, I decided to spice things up by turning the gaze back on the male. To this end, I found three extracts in which women pull guns on men. Then I split the class into smaller groups and invited them to consider what makes these three women outlaws. What relationships do we have with these women? Is the gender of the director an issue...that sort of thing.
    The first extract was from the climax of Double Indemnity in which the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson shoots her lover, shady insurance salesman Walter Neff. The feedback was strong. Students were well aware of the way in which viewpoint shapes the scene’s dynamics, priming us to appreciate Phyllis’ guilt, while low key lighting makes an incandescent object of her. The second extract was from the climax of I Shot Andy Warhol in which Valerie Solanas shoots Warhol. Again, students were very sensitive to point-of-view, noting how it made Solanas appear to shoot at us. Mise-en-scène, meanwhile, finds Warhol talking on the phone to Viva, placing the scene in history and intensifying Solanas’ rebel cause. The third extract was from the rape scene in Thelma and Louise. Students felt that, if the film constructs Thelma as glamorous, for our pleasure, here we do not see her, we only hear her… They noted the shift of power as Louise verbally abuses Thelma’s rapist, making her anger more powerful because she seems to address us. They registered how the organization of this scene made the rape more vicious than the murder. Women with Guns turned out to be one of the most provocative sessions of a good term.
    Like all the best teaching, it ended all too quickly. Amid the gaggle of people making for the door or approaching with a query, I saw Alison. She glared at me. All the euphoria that had been building in me over the past two hours slipped away. If you could kill with a look, she left me in desperate need of a trauma surgeon. I called her when I got home. No answer. The following evening I called her again. No answer. The next evening I tried again. When Alison eventually came to the phone she was brisk. How could I show such a horrific scene as the rape scene from Thelma and Louise! What was I thinking of! No woman had the option of shooting her way out of a situation like that! I should be taken out and shot!
    At the end of term I gave out forms for feedback and the plaudits filled a page of my report. Although she had attended virtually all the sessions, Alison’s had nothing but criticisms of the course. Among them she wrote: “Care needed in choice of film extracts - the rape scene from Thelma and Louise is a very disturbing scene to watch in a group of (almost) complete strangers.”

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Timothy Carhart, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise

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Copyright © 2005 by Richard Armstrong