Thursday, October 15, 2015

She Was Abused and Violated...It Will Never Happen Again!

Ms. 45 (1981)

Zoe Tamerlis as Thana in MS. 45

Normally I'm much happier by myself obsessing over things other people think are disturbing, but I decided to give online dating a try. I haven't been getting any responses to my profile so maybe you, gentle readers, can tell me what you think:

"Wisecracking paralegal/writer, shoots hipsters on sight, despises public displays of affection but is fine with you feeding me pizza while I marathon DALLAS.

Likes:  Reading, psychopaths, outrageous nihilism

Dislikes: Other people's needs

Must like horror movies. Shady criminal defense lawyer or mad scientist preferred. Only serious applicants needs inquire (No, seriously, dude, I will cut you).

So far, I have not found my soulmate but I have received a plethora of "DUR, u r hot" messages and most of them weren't even that articulate. And I tell ya, a lot of the guys I went to school with were like the dudes in AMERICAN PSYCHO without the looks or money, so I've had enough of despicable male behavior in real life to put up with any of it on the internet.

There is a particularly horrifying species in this generation of men and unfortunately, I think it's spread too quickly across the United States for us to capture it and quarantine it. I think you'll recognize it when you see it: it's the type that has no discernable skills (except whining) but no shortage of a superiority complex, has few interests except for himself, cries like a spoiled child over everything and believes all women must want them because their mother told them so. And most disturbing of all, since their mother is getting too old to take care of them and stroke their ego, they are now looking for a girlfriend to fill that role. I don't know many women that would appeal to unless they're one of those people with a giant baby fetish. Far more annoyingly, many of these would-be kings for a day insist the problem is not that they lack the ability to relate to women in a mature and respectful way or that they have no emotional regulation: "You don't understand," they'll bleat. "I'm a sensitive guy!" When did sensitivity become equated with being a self-absorbed wussy whinemaster? There's a reason the whiny guy always dies in horror movies, folks. I'm not sure why men who act like seventh grade mean girls are considered to be a positive example of evolving gender norms -- especially when I've been treated with more respect by so-called macho rednecks than these slobs. And I don't know what made these women raise their sons to be recruits for the Future John Hinckleys of America Training Camp. If they were going to do that, they should have paid the extra money to have them neutered too.  HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote of the Generation of Swine, this is the Generation of Wusses.
This foul breed must be stopped. From now on, I'm going to taser every single one that crosses my path in the crotch with my Hello Kitty taser.

And speaking of despicable male behavior and senseless violence, it's time for the fourth film in the 31 Days of Halloween Review-a-thon, MS. 45 (1981), the rape-revenge cult classic and one of my all-time favorites, written by NICHOLAS ST. JOHN and directed by ABEL FERRARA.

The film stars ZOE TAMERLIS in a knock-out performance as the enigmatic Thana, a shy, mute young woman who works as a seamstress in New York City's Garment District.  A twisted sister to Carol Ledoux in REPULSION, fragile Thana cowers from the male sexual aggression she is subjected to on a daily basis.  Men hurl catcalls and insults at her and her co-workers as they walk down the street. Outspoken Laurie (DARLENE STUTO) shouts back and flips them the bird, but a close-up of Thana reveals only distress and fear. Thana's boss Albert (ALBERT SINKYS) pats her on the head like a child and sexually harasses her. When Thana is raped by an unknown attacker (played by FERRARA himself under the name JIMMY LAINE) coming home from the grocery store, she returns to her apartment only to be raped again by a burglar. Thana strikes back at this second attacker, stunning him with an apple paperweight (Eve?) and then bashing him over the head with an iron (the tool of her trade).

Thana enters into a dissociative state and begins to exhibit traits of post traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares and extreme anxiety when anything triggers memories of the traumatic incident. Despite the concern of her co-workers, Thana does not seek their support and feels threatened by their attention. Perhaps she feels isolated from them due to her muteness or perhaps she has learned that others are not to be trusted.
Whatever the reason, Thana feels alone and she will deal with her problems alone.
The attention she receives from men, once unsettling, is now unbearable.
"I just wish they would leave me alone," Thana writes in a note to her co-worker after being subjected to unwanted touching and harassment from Albert.

Finally, fearful that her intrusive landlady, Ms. Nasone (imagine a combination of SYLVIA MILES and EDITH MASSEY) will discover what has transpired, she dismembers the body in her bathtub and makes trips around the city to dispose of the garbage-bagged pieces. She begins to carry her attacker's .45 with her for protection when she goes out.  On one of her body disposal adventures, a Fonzie wannabe assumes she has accidentally left behind a bag and chases her down. Fearing another sexual attack, a cornered Thana shoots him in the head.
The incident transforms Thana: vampishly dressed, she prowls the streets of New York, armed with the dead rapist's .45, blowing away men who behave in a sexually aggressive manner towards women. Thana refuses to remain a victim, instead taking action against misogynistic transgressors. She'll make them leave her alone. Her special brand of SCUM MANIFESTO feminism culminates in a rampage at a Halloween party where Thana turns her gun on her victimizer/boss and the other male guests before being literally and figuratively stabbed in the back with a phallic knife by Laurie. I guess that's what Betty Friedan meant when she said, "Men are not the enemy but fellow victims. The real enemy is women's denigration of themselves."

Whether it's through unwanted come-ons, workplace harassment or sexual violence, men in the film consistently view women is little more than pleasurable objects.  Albert treats his all-female staff in a patronizing fashion (he refers to them as "my little little workers") and sexually harasses Thana because she is young and vulnerable. Some viewers balk at the outrageousness of someone enduring two rapes in a single day, but I think that's the point that the film is trying to make. Sexual violence as a means of subjugation is epidemic and though CAMILLE PAGLIA would cry "I spit on this blog!" at the mention of Rape Culture, I think it's fair to say that in the world that the film presents, misogyny has been normalized.

The male characters do not notice Thana's muteness, instead interpreting her silence as feminine passivity. It is even questionable in the film if Thana is indeed mute, or if it's the psychological result of childhood trauma. Thana has been silenced through abuse and invalidation; she has learned not to speak up for herself or express her wants and needs. She finds her voice, so to speak, in her rampage, allowing her gun to speak for her. In many narratives, a young woman will embark upon a journey of self-discovery, usually through more traditional rites of passage. In MS. 45, Thana discovers herself through survival and self-assertive violence. Unlike Carol Ledoux, Thana is a fighter.

The film is refreshingly from Thana's perspective and Thana is never sexualized for the viewer's voyeuristic pleasure. The street harassment Thana and her co-workers must face is seen through Thana's point of view. Her second rapist is filmed from her point of view. The rape scenes focus heavily on close-ups of Thana's agonized reaction rather than the sexuality of the act itself. After dismembering her second attacker's body in the bathtub, Thana stands before the mirror and unbuttons her shirt. As she disrobes, an imaginary hand reaches out and grabs her. Stunned, Thana crosses her arms protectively over her chest and hallucinates the rapist from the alley appearing behind her in the mirror. An exploitation audience expecting to be titillated by the sight of Thana's breasts is only greeted with a shock -- which places them in the same shoes as the traumatized antiheroine.

Thana's journey from timid seamstress to vengeance-wreaking femme fatale is both an empowering and self-destructive one. After the trauma of the double-whammy rapes, she refuses to surrender to fear and will not allow herself to continue being abused. Though she reclaims the phallus by arming herself with the dead rapist's .45, symbolically castrating him and using it further to castrate other male predators, she does not assume male characteristics. She actually begins to embrace her own feminine sexuality, wearing more make-up, styling her hair and wearing vampish figure-accentuating dresses, leather pants and knee-high boots. Once nervous and socially awkward, she exudes confidence and grace. No longer afraid of male aggression, she feels free to express herself as a death-dealin' vixen.

In the Halloween party finale, Thana arrives dressed as a sexy nun: she is both the Madonna and the Whore, a union of both rigid categories in which women are placed. Having lured her away from the party under the mistaken impression that he will finally seduce her, Albert lifts Thana's skirt. To his dismay, rather than exposing Thana's genitals, he sees the .45 positioned in her garter belt, and a cross from the beads around her waist dangles between her thighs.
Thana has fully transformed from a victim to angel of vengeance: once sexually victimized by men, she now uses her sexuality to lure and punish misogynistic would-be attackers. After blasting them into oblivion she could easily smile and explain they were asking for it.

However, while other rape-revenge films such as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE, end on a close-up of the antiheroine once her revenge has been completed, MS. 45 ends with Thana being stabbed in the back by her friend and co-worker. While the women in those two films have simpler quests in punishing those who have directly wronged them so that they can heal and move on, Thana is on a mission to punish all men who abuse women. In that way, Thana is similar to Paul Kersey in DEATH WISH. Both characters' rampages are a violent form of activism.

But while her revenge is initially empowering, Thana's refusal to let go of her anger causes her to spiral further and further out of control and finally destroy herself.
How effective was her one-woman war against the patriarchy? Though there are a few more misogynists six feet under, there is no hint in the film that Thana's killing spree has instigated any social change or made the world a fairer place for women.
Much like the GLORIA STEINAM wing of feminism but I digress.
Paul Kersey, however, becomes a sort of modern-day Western hero. Because society has broken down so much, the institutions we have established to protect us fail to do so and it must be up to the people to take action. Paul's spree actually inspires change in that the people of New York City finally want to take a stand to protect themselves. I think this would have been a subversive wrinkle for MS. 45, but Thana's motives are a mystery to the other characters.

Unlike her cinematic sisters, Jennifer Hills in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and Madeline in THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE whose victims ultimately all deserve their fate by having done violence to the heroine or even Paul Kersey who only shoots those who prove themselves to be criminals, Thana comes to see all men as aggressors. Her hostility towards men is understandable in that, like Carol in REPULSION, pretty much every man she encounters behaves like a would-be date rapist, but it also causes her to lose her grip on reality.

In a scene that echoes the famous "You talkin' to me?" sequence in TAXI DRIVER, Thana prepares for the Halloween party, blessing each bullet with a kiss. She poses in front of her mirror with her gun, playacting shooting and smiles at herself. You know how I'm always saying the mirrors generally represent a psychological space in these kind of movies? Well, get ready to read it about it again. The mirror, once indicating Thana's fear of victimization, now -- much like the aforementioned scene in TAXI DRIVER -- represents her isolation from the reality of the rest of the world, sinking further into the warped reality created by her mind. Her revenge has consumed her entire life.
Once an angel of vengeance, she loses her ability to distinguish predatory men and instead seeks to exterminate all men. Her name itself is significant deriving from the Greek word "Thanatos" or personification of death. Rather than being a campaign for justice, Thana's crusade is ultimately a nihilistic one.

A romantic relationship is never a cure-all, but I have to wonder if Thana's journey might have been less difficult had she met her soulmate, Travis Bickle.

MS. 45 is an excellent female companion piece to TAXI DRIVER, both being films set in a grim, garbage-strewn New York City and featuring an alienated protagonist driven to madness by the everyday brutality in its streets and the "scum" that inhabit it, finally finding catharsis through violence. Travis's violent actions, much like those of Paul Kersey, are construed as heroic - though he could have easily turned his gun on the political candidate instead -- illustrating the film's point that society has become so insane the line between hero and villain are indistinguishable. However, while Travis drives on to an uncertain future at the end of the film and DEATH WISH implies that Paul Kersey's campaign against the scum on the streets will continue, Thana's violent crusade is ended by another woman.  Is male violence simply more acceptable then female violence?  Or has Thana simply gone further off the deep end than her male counterparts?

Laurie's final knife in the back can be interpreted in a few ways. Perhaps it's the equivalent of women maintaining the restrictions placed upon them by degrading one another. Maybe it's the equivalent of bitch policing (ie when a woman tries to stand up for herself, she is reprimanded with "Don't be a bitch").  The large knife penetrating Thana's back is a nasty visual metaphor for her previous rapes, perhaps indicating that the system of oppression cannot ever truly be destroyed.
On the other hand, feisty Laurie does not allow herself to be victimized by men and is able to stand up for herself without resorting to violence the way Thana does. Laurie may be a healthier alternative (and a true feminist rather than a misandrist) to what Thana ultimately becomes.

It cannot be denied much of MS. 45's power comes from ZOE TAMERLIS as Thana. A genius, musical prodigy and political activist, Ms. Tamerlis delivers an emotionally agile performance, and invests Thana with intelligence, feline grace, mystery, beauty and inner-strength. She is able to convey so much with her body language, facial expressions and soulful eyes. She died prematurely at only 37 due to complications from drug use and the film world is a lesser place without her. "I think she was unhappy a lot of the time...Maybe she got too old too fast," her mother laments in the documentary short ZOE RISING. At only nineteen, she gives Thana a world-weariness and tragedy that a different actress might not have brought to the part. She has been quoted as saying that MS. 45 is not specifically a feminist film; that it is a film championing all disempowered and disenfranchised people. However, I would have to ask, what is the significance of making the stand-in for all the disempowered a woman?

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