Monday, May 12, 2014

Mute, but not to be silenced

She’s introduced only at the end of the opening sequence, when her paternalistic douchebag employer dismisses her with a pat on the head. Thana (Zoë Tamerlis Lund) is a seamstress working in Manhattan’s garment district, her beauty woman-childish, her doe-eyes and pouting lips arresting but do not express confidence or wantonness or any interest in the superabundance of crudely catcalling lechers who form ogling hedgerows everywhere she goes. The epitome of a woman without a voice, Thana is mute. In no way is she “asking for it.” But she gets it. In fact, she gets it twice in the first ten minutes of Ms. 45 (1981), Abel Ferrara’s low-budget rape revenge cult classic, a definitive portrait of pre-Giuliani New York, a feminist exploitation film, if such a hybrid can be reconciled. Drafthouse has re-released the film in theatres (it plays Edmonton's Metro Cinema next Wednesday night) and on home video.

Written by Ferrara’s frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John, the well-calibrated Ms. 45 strikes a compelling balance between artifice—goopey fake blood, outlandish coincidence—with gritty realism—the brilliant location work—and bracing sociological critique—the ubiquity of rapacious males, not limited to but encapsulated by the pair who perpetrate Thana’s consecutive rapes, the first premeditated, the second performed as an afterthought when a robbery is interrupted. The narrative reason for the double-rape is utilitarian: it pushes Thana over the edge and into some fugue state. The rest is opportunity: Thana is able to stun her second rapist before spotting her hot iron—itself a gendered implement, an icon of homemaking—and beating him with it in a shot that would be quoted and grossly expanded upon in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). Thana then appropriates her assailant’s firearm: the voiceless finds a vehicle for expression. She becomes a ventriloquist, the .45 her dummy. She quietly goes about employing it in a campaign that might initially seem guided by vigilante vision but gradually proves driven by pure misandry. Thana is only able to kill men, so even when a woman picks up a knife, wielding it conspicuously at cock-level, and moves to attack, Thana can’t fire in self-defence. Like the tragically programmed titular animal in Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982), transformative trauma renders Thana single-minded in her deployment of violence.

As noted, Ms. 45 has been quoted, and it is itself riddled with quotes, from the obvious—Thana mirror poses with her gun recall Taxi Driver (1976)—to the curious—one shot recreates the poster tableau from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979)—to the provocative—scenes of dead body disposal and blood swirling down the drain recall Psycho (1960), and make us wonder if Thana isn’t to be regarded as some variation on Marion Crane, who this time around survives her attack but never recovers her wits. The film is a composite of politics, cinephilia and an almost documentary sense of place: the shit-faced panhandlers, the trash-strewn alleys and abandoned boxes butted up against aluminium fences, the bat-shit busybody landlady, the pimps shaking down their ladies for ostensibly hidden reserves. Young Ferrara—who, incidentally, has a cameo as Thana’s first rapist (!)—exhibits remarkable control over all of these resources while fully surrendering to the inherent trashy outrageousness of the material—a meat-grinder will make a memorable appearance. The striking Tamerlis Lund, meanwhile, is perfect, her fear near-palpable, her character sympathetic but not to be identified with. Tamerlis Lund had a woefully abbreviated career, one that included co-writing the script for Ferrara’s sleaze masterpiece Bad Lieutenant (1992). She died in 1999, at age 37, from heart failure prompted by cocaine use. She appeared on screen precious few times, but Thana is enough to burn her face into your memory forever. 

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