06 April 2008

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), directed by Elia Kazan, proves to be another mesmerising classic film. I remembered watching his On the Waterfront (1954) quite a while ago in Buenos Aires (which was quite opportune as it was a harbour city) and Kazan did a very great job. In this film, based on Tennessee Williams' play of the same name, Kazan managed to sympathetically portray the descent into madness of Blanche Dubois, with the aid of her brute brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

The film intentionally plays on the binary opposition between female fragility and male brutality. Patriarchy is tacitly symbolised by Stanley himself, who never stops terrorising his wife and her sister. However, what complicates the matter is that male charisma is closely tied to that brutality and that's the reason why Stella cannot stop loving him despite his coarse behaviour. I believe there's some sort of attraction there, not dissimilar to "I'm drawn towards bad guys", an expression Thai girls like to use (and exculpate themselves in the process) whenever they fall in love with wrong men. Hence, the portrayal of Stanley in the film is both sexually alluring and threatening. Marlon Brando is thus not a wrong choice, though I think that he's more of the former than the latter.

I can't help sympathising with Blanche and her wild imagination. Her descent into madness somehow is not her fault but signals her entrapment in patriarchal codes where they have until then led her to the 'illusive' construction of selfhood. But who can say that it's illusive when in fact women have no choice but to identify themselves as men dictate or in accordance with the ideological appellation of patriarchal society? Stella is likewise weak and has no choice but subjugating herself to the manipulating Stanley (though at times he's not aware of his scheming as he is subject to his own emotional tantrums).

Thus, it's symbolically suitable that Blanche asks Mitch, one of her suitors, to put a fancy cover over a bare light bulb, as it means that Blanche depends on the kindness of men around her to construct her own fanciful imagination. What is sad is the fact that Blanche cannot do this without male intervention. Besides, what is even sadder is in the film she's portrayed as buying the cover herself. In fact, it's men who are the reason for her destruction, yet patriarchy always has a way to hide itself and graciously bestow the guilt onto women, to make it appear as though women were the ones who ask for and should thus be responsible for their own downfall.

Is there a glimmer of hope at the end when Stella escapes from home with her baby? I doubt that. As soon as Stanley pleads her to come back, she will be unable to resist her own temptation. I think this is precisely the point that feminism should take a close look at. Some of the feminist works I have read have simply repudiated patriarchal codes tout court, yet what they should pay attention to are the allure of patriarchy and how it makes itself indispensable to women's dependent construction of selfhood. Why does this ambivalent attitude occur? Does it mean that the love-hate relationship between women and patriarchy is unavoidable?

The film begs a lot of questions that need further scrutiny. But I've found touchingly sad is that, despite more than half a century that have gone by, we're still talking about the plight of women and their inescapable situation. What I am wondering now is whether we should stop talking about escape and find a new perspective to look at female entrapment. This will probably need another fifty years or so ...


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