Archive | May, 2011

Body Heat, Part 2: Analyzing Matty Walker

27 May

Matty Walker:  what makes her a new femme fatale in the 1980s?

Obviously it is the fact that she gets away with her crime on a level that we have not seen in  the American Studio Film before.  What could possibly be the reason?  First, the change in the Production Code in the 1960s, from studio self-censorship to the ratings we know today (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, etc.) allowed the writer to create a story where the femme fatale does not have to be punished in order to fulfill a moral code.  In addition, women’s position in society had evolved since the era of classic noir.  More women were in the work force and the second wave of feminism was in full force (and some might say, initially beginning its decline with the stirrings of third wave feminism at its heels).  It is at this point, where women are viable consumers even more than they may have been in the past, that film studios and producers are beginning to target women as a validated audience member. What I mean by this is that women’s position in the narrative will begin to change. Up until this point, most of the female desires that are reflected onscreen will result in death, ruin, or shame for female characters.

Matty Walker’s character does not fit into the old confines of what constitutes female desire. She is no longer the weaker sex; the male, Ned Racine (William Hurt), replaces her. His lack of ambition is the first indicator he is fallible. We learn he’s a two-bit lawyer who doesn’t have half the command of the law that Matty has – and she’s a legal secretary. We also see he has no scruples, the judge berates the class of client Ned represents in court. Ned’s desires drive him and don’t always allow him to see clearly, which is pointed out by two of his best friends, both on the correct side of the law.

It is Matty who takes control of the narrative of the film when she walks past Ned at the outdoor concert. This planned ‘meet’ seems like a lucky coincidence to Ned Racine. He has no idea he was the bait in an elaborate plan hatched by Matty. Unlike his male counterparts in classic noir, Ned can never quite get the upper hand with Matty. Even when she is exposed at the end of the film, Ned is still stuck in prison. And, although we see Matty sipping cocktails on the beach with her new “love interest” it is hard to wonder if she hasn’t created a different sort of prison for herself – but she doesn’t seem to worry about that much as she takes a cool sip from her cocktail and gets on with her life.

Matty controls everything about her existence. The “pre-narrative” or backstory of the film explains through bits of dialogue that Matty was a legal secretary and that she’s married a wealthy man who doesn’t show that much interest in her. She is a possession, just as she desires to have “freedom” to acquire possessions on her terms, not her husband’s. She controls whom she seduces because sex is about power, although we get the distinct impression she also desires Ned at some level. The problem for Ned, in this narrative, is that for Matty, desire can be compartmentalized and she refuses to allow emotion to overpower her intellect, as Ned has.

Matty Walker is one of the first femmes fatales to accomplish this – conquering the male sphere – especially the Law (which tends to be aligned with patriarchy) and manipulating it for her own benefit. This isn’t to say that Matty is a morally good character; she’s left a string of dead bodies in her wake, including her former best friend whose identity she assumed – another level of deception so nobody could actually ‘know’ her. Which leaves me wondering, can Matty even have known herself? Or, was that what she was searching for?

Body Heat or A Few Historical Points to Understand Positioning

23 May

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) is unique in that not only does it have a new beginning postmodern form of the femme fatale, it’s also one of the first films that falls into the neo-noir category.  This film also harkens back to old noir while attempting to embody slightly more modern sensibilities.   It tends to be a mixed bag of narrative elements that while on the surface make the entire story feel traditional, but, surprises the viewer by updating the ending for a modern audience and, for the first time, allows a mainstream Hollywood female lead get away with murder.

A few years ago, I interviewed Mr. Kasdan about his creation, Matty Walker, the ‘new’ femme fatale for neo-noir. It wasn’t hard to see what inspired him – he had a giant one-sheet (movie poster for any of you not in the film business) of Double Indemnity. We had an interesting discussion about why his femme fatale got away with murder – which was…she’s a modern woman in a modern noir world. In my estimation: the rules had changed. But why???

I would argue, there are several reasons why. First, the disintegration of the ratings system in the 1960s changed the rules for film content. Once the Production Code Authority was obliterated, and the Ratings System we know today was instituted, film studios were free (to a much larger extent) to make films which included sex and violence (two of my personal favorites!); unfortunately, taste didn’t always come into play.

Another reason there was an opening for the more ‘evolved’ femme fatale was the type of film distribution setup in place in the early 1980s.  The studios were having a hard time in the 1980s. They were competing with home video and cable television. The studios were scared – the audience was evolving and they (the studios) were not necessarily keeping up with the pace. The studios tried to keep a handle on home video and cable/film rights, but they were dealing with increasing costs for production. While studios struggled, the home video and cable markets allowed for small, independent production/distribution companies to emerge that served niche markets such as art house cinema (think Orion). Even the studios were allowing some of their independent producers more leeway with their film choices, which is how Body Heat came into being. Alan Ladd Jr. who had a fresh new deal at Warner Bros. choose this film to be one of the first projects to be released for his independent production company, The Ladd Company. He wanted a film that appealed to women.

And although this is a bit more in depth than I meant to go, and I haven’t even begun to analyze how Matty Walker functions in the film, I feel it is important for you to understand the context in which this particular film was made because from this point on, whenever I discuss film noir in the 1980s, you can know that this was really the first ‘noir’ film of the 1980s that has embraces and celebrates the new femme fatale, one that gets away with her crimes.

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