a woman under the influence

 

Many times before on this site, I’ve talked about the sorts of movies I like to watch when I’m home on a sick day. I have said – and I maintain – that I prefer my cinematic sick day company to be dark, bleak, sometimes depressing, and sad. The idea being that if I’m feeling miserable, that I want to look out on a world that is more miserable.

As fate would have it, this weekend brought about a sick day. Also as fate would have it, the blindpsot I’d chosen for October was bleak, depressing, and sad.

In a strange plot twist, it left me thinking that I may have to rethink my sick day choices.

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a 1974 film from director John Cassavettes. Presented in a somewhat vérité style, the film is the story of one working class family. As we meet the couple who head up the household, we can see that Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) is a blue-collar worker who is still very close to his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) after many years of marriage. Unfortunately, Nick and Mabel can’t always seem to get on the same page, which leaves Mabel prone to curious actions. She drinks to excess, cavorts with strangers, and seemingly hears music in her head. This deeply troubles Nick, and he eventually has Mabel institutionalized  for six months.

During the time she is away, Nick struggles to keep the family unit together, and himself shows signs of fraying at his ends. when six months end, Nick prepares to welcome Mable home with a large gathering of friends and acquaintances. He soon realizes that this is a bad idea, and shoo’s away all but the closest family and friends. Mabel eventually reveals that these people, too, are more than she can bear.

We spend the films final moments with the immediate family…witnessing how troubled Mable still is, but how the love of those closest to her might be enough to see her through.

 

Falk and Rowlands

 

There aren’t enough words to describe the immense talent Gena Rowlands brings to this film, so I won’t try to express them. All I will say is that this is the performance of a lifetime, and something that needs to be witnessed to be believed. Her work is emblematic of life in America in the 1970’s, and in many ways has not aged a day.

Mable is beautiful, powerful, tragic, troubled, and determined.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about her story (and the part Nick and the children factor into it), is the way it romaticizes middle class American life. There are lengthy scenes that take place at the dining room table, since that’s where so many of the conversations happen for families like theirs. This is a family that is constantly going in five different directions, so coming together at the table is one of the few moments where everyone is on the same page. It allows intimacy so seldom afforded a working family.

This is also true for the family’s friends, neighbours, co-workers, and acquaintances. It’s one thing to invite someone in for coffee; it’s quite another to offer them a chair at the dinner table. It’s an intimate gesture in its own right, and one that encourages all to open-up.

This stands in stark contrast to the gossiping that happens around work sites or over neighbours’ fences (some of which we see in the film). Sitting down to supper says “You are welcome here; please be welcoming to us in return”.

This communion is rare in film. Seeing it given so much currency in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE was a sweet that helped offset the film’s bitterness.

 

Peter Falk

 

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE seems bent on reminding us that the things that affect us deepest in life don’t really and truly go away. There’s no “getting well”, there’s no “moving on”. There’s just a constant ebb and flow that must be dealt with. Sometimes we can stay away from the darkest corners of our own personalities for years at a time. Other times, we my always have one foot in the shadows. Admittedly, we have come a long way since the days of Nick and Mabel – we understand a lot more about how the brain and nerves work, and can take a more targeted approach.

However, these cracks will always be there in the ceramic finish of our psyche. They may even threaten to grow or give. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, so the people we bring into our lives need to understand that. There’s no magic pill; no miracle treatment. Sure, sometimes the people closest to us may take drastic measures for our own good…but the end result shouldn’t be about being fixed. It should be about seeing the cracks and knowing that they are who we are.

Seeing Mabel “get well” was never in the cards for this film, so why bring us on this journey? Is it, perhaps, to watch the tide come and go for her, and see what happens when the issue is forced.  Is it to make us feel better by allowing us to say “Well, at least I’m not that bad!”. Or does it want us to feel a greater deal of empathy for the honest and hard-working people we know who have always seemed “a little off”?

These people in our lives are going through a lot. They may never “move on”. They may never “get well”. It’s on the rest of us to deal with that, not them. Perhaps that’s what this film wants us to most understand.

 

Gena Rowlands

 

I sit here now – still stuffy, still sneezy – wondering if I really should be taking comfort in other people’s misery anymore. A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE isn’t reality TV – it’s not watching rich and famous people go through life’s dramas behind closed doors. This is the story of people who work hard for what little they have, and then need to work that much harder just to keep it. That doesn’t make me feel better. Doesn’t make me feel like I’m any better off just because I’m not them.

I know people like Nick and Mable – I’ve sat at their table, I grew up with their kids. I feel lucky to have been welcomed into their lives and their homes. Nothing about their hardships – or the hardships of people like them – bring me any comfort.

The way these people push themselves each day to provide for their own is inspiring; seeing how damned much can stand in the way of that is nothing short of tragic. I didn’t think it was possible to feel worse that I did with that headache, fever, cough and all-over ache…and yet, here I am.

 

blind-spot-01

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

 

Here’s the round-up for October…

 

Holy Shit – Mette’s Back!! And she watched ROCKY!!!

Erin watched TOM JONES

Keisha watched SECRETS & LIES

Coog watched THE EXORCIST

Sean watched RITUAL

Brittani watched VIDEODROME

Beatrice watched A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

Dell watched FROM HELL

Joshua watched OTHELLO