How to Lobotomize Female Agency

In the wake of this year’s on-going news cycle regarding sexual harassment in Hollywood, the question of separating art from the artists has never been more prominent. On a superficial level, there is a forced comfort when the art in no way reflects the values and morals of the person who created it. However when common traits bleed into said works, it becomes more difficult to suppress the moral dissonance  that is being presented. No more is this confliction obvious found than in the works of Woody Allen.  The man has successfully and slavishly been able to keep up the longevity of his filmography by making a new movie every year since 1982. Although, one common theme that is found in several (but to be fair, not all) of his films involves the impractical May-to-December romance. It never reverses the genders, it is always a put-upon older man often resembling the director himself if not actually being played by him who ends up being enchanted by a much younger woman. This more than anything makes it impossible for some people to separate Allen’s work with his personal life; one that is controversial and more now than ever, is seen in a constant state of question and uncertainty.

For the purposes of this essay, we’re going to refrain from real world discussions involving Woody Allen or anyone else that is under that umbrella of sexual deviance that has come into the light lately. What I am interested in is dissecting that May-to-December romance and discussing the slighted nature of male and female dynamics on film. For some time now I’ve been simmering on two movies in particular regarding this issue, one involving the only Woody Allen movie I’ve seen: Irrational Man. This movie baffled me for the longest time upon watching it, in that I could not decided if I hated it or admired it. Was I imagining this idea that the film was aware of itself? At times it sure seemed that way, but the closing moments truly seemed to undermine any humor to be pulled out of the film and ultimately indulge in what is obstensively a beta male-power fantasy. It disgusted me, and ultimately irritated me to no end because I had made the conclusion earlier in the film that this was a reductionist version of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Shadow of a Doubt.

To the unfortunate reader who was looking for insight on the film as opposed to the critic’s opinion on Woody Allen himself, there were not a lot of worthy viewpoints on Irrational Man, particularly on its merits as a pseudo-crime thriller. This review by Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic nails the meshing of criticizing the artist with his filmography in a time where all anyone could talk about was Dylan Farrow’s then-recently published letter. [So you know if you want a refresher, go there before proceeding].

I had hoped terribly that someone else had seen the parallel of the two films, but that has never seemed to be the case and there does not seem to be any interest in revisiting this film due to its mediocrity And inherent ick-factor that proceeded it. I however, have been stewing on this for over two years now; because I couldn’t believe Woody Allen completely retextualized Shadow of a Doubt and grossly misunderstood the key relationship of the film. Instead he sexualized it at the cost of one of the main characters, the female lead (Emma Stone’s Jill), which in turn removed any sense of identity and self-interest that made the Hitchcock film interesting and suspenseful.

Why does this matter at all? On what authority do I have to talk about how Woody Allen writes female characters? As a female writer, with an inherent interest in character work, consider this a reactionary piece to writing about women without a sense of identity that doesn’t relate to any man she interacts with. Fundamentally speaking, female characters are in someway always intrinsically linked to male characters. They are their wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters or mothers, and often their agency in some capacity revolves around their relationship with one or several men. (Yes, Irrational Man actually does make this same tone-deaf arguement).

There is not a female equivalent to a film like Reservoir Dogs, because we are conditioned to think that men can have self-serving agency that is removed from emotional or personal relationships whereas women are not. There is a recent trend in repurposing properties to include women-only casts, such as the reboot of Ghostbusters or the upcoming Ocean’s Eight, but there isn’t a movie that is made in the vain of having a premise that is illustrated with a cast that is not gender-specific. I think about this constantly.

[Note: Reservoir Dogs and John Carpenter’s The Thing are two of my favorite movies and have an astounding number of merits that surpass the nature of their male-only casts, but it doesn’t erase the fact. If anything, they only motivated my interest in the matter.]

So if we are not at a point where we can have movies that do not codify gender roles instantly, thereby separating what female characters can and cannot do on film as opposed to male characters, then we can evaluate how these relationships are written as it stands. The symmetry of Shadow of a Doubt and Irrational Man is of note because they hit the same cinematic beats but repurpose them in a way where one shades in emotional details for its central characters and the other constantly indulges in bloviating how interesting and important the male character is to the effect of ruining the other characters.

This discussion cannot go further without massively spoiling either movie, because while the plot of Shadow of a Doubt is consistently thorough in its premise, Irrational Man turns from this rambling comedy-drama into what is obstensively the entire plot of Shadow of a Doubt in its final act. Being the nature of critical media, this final act isn’t really brought up in many of the reviews, at least not in the way that I would need to talk about it. From my personal experience, the film didn’t truly click for me until it got to this reveal that would influence the remaining course of the story, because I realized what I was watching and figured out exactly how it was going to end. By foreseeing the conclusion to Allen’s film, it only led me down a path of increasing frustration and eventual infuriation at how the seemingly satirical perspective of the central character was rather played straight all along. The title of the film, Irrational Man, is misleading and does not want us to really think that that “man” was being too “irrational”. And in fact, if we all had the chance, we’d fuck his brains out.

I don’t like this movie. I find it preposterous and disgusting actually. Have I made that clear?

For the intents and purposes of this comparison, I’m going to try not to divulge into the first two acts of Irrational Man unless they merit relevancy to Shadow of a Doubt. Like I said, there are dozens of reviews that, unfavorably mind you, detail the setup of the film and explain why it’s overwrought thoroughly enough (see Gilbert’s review above).

So let’s focus on 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. What is considered to be one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites, it is also arguably his most “American” styled film. Set in the idyllic and charming Santa Rosa, California, the film is a psychological dissection of a classic American family. The intimate relationships of the Newton family are thrown into the wind at the arrival of the matriarch’s youngest brother Charlie (Joseph Cotten) who brings to light the insidious nature of the immoral actions of man and the corruption of innocence. The person most dramatically affect by this is young Charlie (Teresa Wright), that is Uncle Charlie’s niece, in which she was named after.

Part of Uncle Charlie’s corruption upon his niece begins when she suspects his insidious nature and the eventual reveal that he had in fact fled to their home after committing murder. However, Uncle Charlie is so warmly accepted by her family and even the entire town, that it becomes her own personal struggle to challenge his actions and try to be morally right by him. This is in conflict with her teenage listlessness and her admiration for her uncle. They are forged in connection with each other by their names and blood, how could she live to be a representation of a man who is so disturbed?

Excusing the basic plot: A young woman suspects her uncle of having committed murder after he returns to her home after an extended absence; this movie has given the main female character a lot of pathos to work with. When we are introduced to Charlie, we relate with her boredom of her teenage life, one that is reaching an end due to her maturity and the confinement’s of the innocent nature of her safe hometown. Removing the opening sequence, the film could easily be mistaken for a quaint little romantic comedy with its folksy characters and nigh-Disney-like wholesome aesthetic. But most important to note, is that she idealizes and fantasizes about her Uncle Charlie, envisioning her ideas of freedom and individuality that being an adult is surely going to grant her through him.

This movie is driven by Charlie’s journey into adulthood by the devious nature of her uncle. The horror of Uncle Charlie’s actions is all left to Charlie, who throughout the course of the movie gains a sense of determination that conflicts nastily with Uncle Charlie to the point where the two become enemies hidden under the facade of loving relatives.

In the above scene this illustrates not only their brewing conflict but the familial dynamic. Each of the characters in the film play a part in characterizing either the town or Charlie herself. Her siblings are much younger and therefore inquisitive but not aware of the adult subtext lying in front of them while her mother is completely and blindly smitten with her brother to the point of insisting that he never leave. (Even after such a creepy monologue). One bit that is missing is that in an earlier scene, Charlie’s father, in what is a seemingly innocuous conversation with a friend instigates this curiosity inside of her to even consider the nature of Uncle Charlie’s actions and reasonings. The relationship of Uncle and Niece fall apart the further Charlie pushes the boundaries not just of the confounds of her home but the warning signs that Uncle Charlie both verbally and physically emposes on her.

The disillusion Charlie faces is the ultimate dramatic arc of the film. By perpetuating this idea of maturity and identity upon Uncle Charlie, she has allowed herself to be exposed to the grueling reality of adulthood and the destructive nature of amorality. To be clear however, we are not left unexposed to Uncle Charlie’s theology and rationale. In fact he very perfunctorily states his personal philosophy, “What’s the use of looking backward? What’s the use of looking ahead? Today’s the thing.” This in accordance with his sister’s story about a bicycle accident that possibly caused some kind of physical trauma that effected him psychologically, reflects on the thrill-seeking behavior that he’s endured in a negative way.

Both Charlie’s are looking for some kind of out, neither one considering the ramifications of one’s actions until the moment immediately presents itself. The difference being that young Charlie comes to regret her impulsive desires that she saw in Uncle Charlie and realizes that this mindset has set him off on a very destructive path. Interestingly, this is the same kind of parallel that sets off the inciting motion in Irrational Man.

In redundant coinciding narration, Jill (Stone) simplifies and pontificates on the increasingly erratic behavior of Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who in turn spouts off terse cliff-notes of philosophy because he finds life utterly meaningless. The two are also seeking a higher meaning out of their comfort zone; though Abe’s is beyond simple pleasantries of love and life (because he’s read everything, and done everything, and fucked everyone, and been heartbroken, and been beaten down by life because he went to ALL the political rallies and spent time in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and was so disenchanted with EVERYTHING BECAUSE HE’S SO DEEP) [and the writing never gets any more specific than that, a few name drops here and there but it’s surface level exposition vomit].

Meanwhile Jill is determined that her obsessive declaration of love for him is what will fix this down-trodden and broken man, even though she has a steady relationship with a boy who cares about her and up until a certain point keeps getting rebuffed by Abe. Her insistence to advance their relationship in a sexual way is never condemned or even properly scrutinized; she never considers how this is a violation of the student/teacher relationship let alone her own boyfriend whom she strings along and never justifiably has reason to leave him. These two are extremely narcissistic in a way that made me wonder if this was truly playing for laughs, because neither are aware of anyone else’s feelings let alone each other’s and both come across as rather sociopathic.

This comes to a head when Jill finally puts together that Abe set out to achieve his goal in murdering a judge who was going to punish a divorced mother by taking her children away from her on the grounds of bettering her life (and by extension the world because everything is in absolutes). [Does it matter who this woman is? No.] This wouldn’t be so ridiculous if the movie hadn’t fixated on such a myopic viewpoint of these two characters which makes any of their dialogue after the scene in the diner pretty damn obvious because no one else factors in to the movie, so for Jill not to realize that he was planning this is grossly ignorant on her part. But I digress, the following dialogue is the moment that I thought this movie was turning around and the symmetries of the two movies were coming together.

Jill: I believe that you think you did something morally worthwhile.

Abe: I did!

Jill: I do believe that. But you can’t, you can’t justify it! You can’t justify it with all this bullshit. With all this bullshit, French post-war rationalizing. This is murder. It opens the door to more murder Abe.

Unfortunately I’m unable to find the full scene online, but here the movie offered a chance to not only turn its characters around but also propose a title-based theory. If the “man” in question is “irrational” based on his actions of morality, then does that make the “woman” in this case “rational” to be able to see beyond his viewpoint and realize the extreme ramification and consequences of his actions? This point in Shadow of a Doubt comes from a conversation between Charlie and her uncle in a bar, where she has found herself unable to escape his influence both physically and mentally. The two sit across from each other in a bar where Uncle Charlie delves deeper into his philosophy of immediate reaction to the meaningless of life by describing it’s ugliness. This moment signifies a change in the two:

  1. Uncle Charlie has removed any indication that he is willing to change his ways and is happy to embark on his malevolent path so long as no one gets in his way. He believes he can achieve this easily through the emotions and prowess of women, that of which he preys on. He preys on women to murder in order to gain their material possessions but more importantly he has preyed on Charlie and her mother’s affections and used that to manipulate them. There’s a sneaking sense of sexual superiority in Charlie’s motives, hence why the movie chooses to focus on Charlie the young woman instead of the young man.
  2. This factors into how Charlie changes for the remainder of the movie. She understands the danger that he has brought upon her entire life, and while she is afraid of him, she feels obligated to protect her family, particularly her mother. She even goes as far as to threaten him should he go near her. Charlie has accepted her responsibility as a daughter and an independent adult and how that requires courage and legitimate action on her part. She is willing to kill her Uncle.

The parallels between Charlie and her Uncle are the clearest here in the confrontation between Jill and Abe. I believed that this movie was going to turn Jill into our hero, and in a way it did. However because Abe’s act of murder is so removed from our perspective, in that we only experience it through Abe’s resurgence for life and without any consequences to follow, it makes the act bland. There is no sense of mystery here, no indication that Abe is even intelligent enough to throw Jill off. He does because she is stupid, not because he is crafty. (Uncle Charlie gives Charlie a ring that he had stolen from his murder victim, that sets a prescendent for how dark and demented he had become and how he is willing to exploit that, in accordance with his manipulation of the family). Abe’s disregard for what he has done could either have been played more comedically or darker than what is presented, but seeing as the movie has no clear discernible tone, his reactions in the dialogue with Jill become secondary. It becomes Jill’s story.

So as it stands, what have we come to learn about Jill in the movie? Besides the contextual details like she plays piano, she is in good relations with her parents, she’s a bright student, she horseback rides and there was a non-descript concert she wanted to go to but ended up blowing it off to bang her philosophy professor instead. The contents of her dialogue are adnausem just her gushing and gushing about Abe, even when he’s the one she’s talking to, which becomes tiresome rather quickly when we account that narration that’s going on over the dull “tell-not-show” dialogue that plagues the entire movie. The moment the film starts, she is talking about Abe, she has no identity outside of him it seems. She’s not even attached or defined by her relationship as she spends all of those scenes with her boyfriend talking about Abe. Former Dissolve and current Verge writer Tasha Robinson correctly points out how annoying this is to follow:

Jill’s sexual scheming is less excusable, given that it affects a much more visible character, that it’s pitched so shrilly, and that her sexual demands become ploddingly redundant. Yes, Abe’s a murderer, but Jill‘s annoying. … this is a film in which the sexual predation of an obliviously selfish college girl is portrayed as uglier than murder…

Character agency in storytelling revolves around the distinction of “active” versus “reactive”. A character who is active, is perpetuating the story forward, while a reactive character is having the story thrust upon them. There are three key elements of Charlie’s actions during the course of Shadow of a Doubt: 1. Her desire to endure a matured and valued relationship with her Uncle. 2. Her curiosity and ambition to discover his secrets once the police show up. 3. Her immediate need to protect herself and her family from her Uncle once he reveals the kind of person she feared him to be.

Jill has one constant action throughout the plot, pursue a romantic relationship with Abe. She only achieves this once he has actively murdered someone and she is reacting to his influence from such a deed. When she finds out what he has done she insists on not seeing him anymore and after much passiveness decides to go to the police only after someone else is arrested for his murder. This action he took does not influence her character in any way other than running back scared to her boyfriend. This wouldn’t bother me so much if that moment of clarity she had when she realized what Abe had done had stuck with her throughout the remainder of the movie. But the very next time her voice pops up in the narration she insists that she still loves him and that his act was that of heroism. Her entire dialogue at the end of the movie has her appreciating him for teaching her a lesson about the meaning of life after he tried to kill her.

The thing is, is that Irrational Man doesn’t really come to life until Abe murders the judge, thus making the last twenty minutes or so engaging. This is the starting point of Shadow of a Doubt, which allows us to spend the remainder of the film watching the family dynamic unwind. Here however, without a consistent tone or likeable characters or anything beyond banal dialogue, it’s just absurd how it doesn’t do anything interesting with a rather basic setup. As a story about romanticizing another person to find meaning in one’s own life, Irrational Man can’t even manage the romantic aspect.

Both films rely on a woman’s interaction with a man she is close to. Both women are naive about this older man and the world itself, assuming that they are mature enough to handle any new experiences that come before them. Both men can only find true comfort and solace in their criminal actions, even though both are offered unscrupulous amounts of love and respect. The dangerous actions of these men traumatically effect the women and in turn change their perspectives by the end of the film.

So how is it that I can justify Shadow of a Doubt heavily relying on the dynamic of female characters relying on male characters for means of active and reactive support, whereas I can’t let it go that Irrational Man fails miserably at this?

The way I’ve come to look at is that male and female relationships are the basic foundation of society. When it comes to submitting characters to a screen, regardless of gender, there has to be a need for this character to appear. They are serving a purpose that is either active or reactive and is going to help forward the momentum of the story. But it is also necessary to understand why the story is being told. I tend to do character work long before going into a plot, and by understanding the characters, it helps mold the story. Once I understand who the characters are and what their story is, I can go back and refigure aspects of their traits or what is supposed to happen to them.

Character work should be malliable and the characters should not be immediately stagnated in their roles. This applies to male and female characters in that if we constantly position them in designated roles that they are always seen in, there is never going to be change in the broader sense of how we tell stories. Both Shadow of a Doubt and Irrational Man are noir concepts. However the former takes the basic beats of that premise and puts a twist on it by re-establishing the male and female dynamics.

It’s very easy to imagine a reality where Shadow of a Doubt had Uncle Charlie and young Charlie not be relatives but rather estranged lovers, as that was wont for the genre to include two star-crossed lovers. It’s even easier to imagine because Irrational Man did just that without making any interesting observations about the relationship, other than continuing this gross trope that has plagued Hollywood films for years. If this is supposed to be satirical, it doesn’t work because Jill doesn’t have a sense of agency outside of her ridiculous obsession with Abe. And the plot itself doesn’t kick off until the 3rd act which makes it a poor murder-mystery, if we can even call it that.

The thing is, young Charlie is not a complicated character and she is not in a complicated movie. But the consideration of the movie that lets us get to know her, her siblings, her parents, her environment, and her relationship with Uncle Charlie allows it to permeate in your mind by the time the film comes to a close. It is so easy to shoe-horn female characters into a script and give them nothing to work with but disguise it with the presence of a genuinely talented actress, of which Emma Stone is. That’s so ungenerous to her as an actress.

As writers, we must consider each of our characters. Why are they here? What are they doing? How do they think and talk? What would they be doing if they weren’t in this scene?

I shouldn’t be having to ask these questions when the writer in question is someone who’s been in the business as long as Woody Allen. I know, I know, Hannah and Her Sisters. Again, this is a comparison in writing than it is a critique of the directors. Hitchcock was a shit to women too, but you know, at least his personal life didn’t bleed into his work.