I recently sat down to watch the film festival favorite, “lesbian” “women’s” empowerment film The Guitar this weekend. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it since I saw the seemingly naked Saffron Burrows backed up against her guitar in huge relief at the local video store. Unlike those flocking to the image because of Saffie’s aristocratic beauty, I was instantly drawn to the juxtaposition of girl and guitar a trope of female empowerment that is often born out in night clubs, woman centered music festivals, coffee houses and lesbian bars across the world. And while “a girl with a guitar” often conjures up images of long-haired white women whining about their broken hearts to my college age male students, many a guitar playing female has captured the feminist angst of a generation, spoken to the rebellion, strength, needs and desires, and infinite whimsy of being women. Poets, philosophers, and activists come in all shapes and sizes, but for many young women they are born on the strings of a guitar.
Couple the way this stark image defines the film with a female director, a highly regarded avant garde No Wave male screen writer, selection at Sundance (and two other film festivals), and the heady choices Saffron Burrows has made in her own career and anyone could see why this film would intrigue. Add to that the very subtle media blitz coming from the queer dvd industry, tla and wolfe in particular, and The Guitar comes with a pedigree that should make any feminist, especially a queer one, and certainly any hipster film geek rush right on out to the video store with fist proudly in the air …
Why I call this film “mainstream” then is not its independent credentials or distributor, but rather its content. The plot is a typical mainstream mantra with a predictable ending. The fact that it is loosely based on a true story makes it no less trite.
The film opens with Saffron Burrow’s character Mel finding out that she has two months to live. Mel, a mousy working class woman with an obnoxiously self-centered boyfriend and a dead end job, has throat cancer that is literally stealing her voice from her. Her doctors tell her that she is going to slowly grow silent and then die, an all too obvious metaphor for the trajectory her life has already taken.
On that same day, Mel loses her job and gets dumped by her boyfriend.
Alone and dying, Mel takes her severance pay, her credit cards, and her disappointments and transforms them into a fantasy life where she can afford her every heart’s desire and act out on all of her repressed whims. For a generation raised on consumption as revolution (yes, I am talking to you organic coffee drinking, American Apparel wearing, green car driving, gentrified neighborhood living, hipster extraordinaire) her choices are empowering. After all, in just two short months Mel has gone from a dowdy, frowning, peon, who no doubt lived in a hovel, to a top floor condo with posh furniture, one of a kind designer clothes and jewelry, take out every night from the finest restaurants and people who seemingly adore her.
Scratch the surface of this story however, and underneath you will find nothing but suffocatingly stale air. Mel is just as locked away in her fancy condo as she was in her dead end job. She talks to no one, she goes nowhere. In fact, her supposed road to empowerment is even more small and isolated than her pre-cancer life. Her only connections are to material things and the people who deliver them. Everything she buys is essentially stolen, excused away like the bankers on Wall Street because she is dying. And while she revels in many fine pieces, none of it seems to have much real substance to her. In fact, as the boxes arrive, she is almost always busy ordering more.
What kind of empowerment is trading being ignored in the real world for being Rapunzel locked in her tower? Are we to believe that feminism lies in her fancy things and her ever brightening smile like a singing bird in a gilded cage? Certainly some forms of mainstream feminism have said as much with their emphasis on consumption and the power embedded in affording and pursuing one’s own materialist desires free of the income of a man. And while not being beholden to male power purse strings is empowering, shopping does not a revolution make. In fact, when one thinks about where most of the items she ordered were made and by whom, it can in fact unmake it as we have seen in the rifts between feminists far too often.
Perhaps, we are meant to see Mel’s empowerment in her new found sexual expression. As I said earlier, when we meet Mel, she is in a crumbling relationship with an inattentive self-absorbed man who takes her for granted and dumps her to focus more on himself. As the film progresses, Mel’s only contact to the human world, the delivery workers who bring her food and clothes, become her lovers. A married African immigrant named Rosco Wasz, played by award winning actor Isaach de Bankole, lugs all of her heavy boxes up to her home, often unpacking them while she is oblivious to his presence.
One day Rosco inquires about her life, critiquing her seeming theft and/or materialism, for which he later apologizes. Within moments of that apology, she flaunts her big baby blues at him, plants tentative kisses on his forehead, and all his moral authority melts in between her open thighs. Thus begins an extramarital affair in which film viewers are given no information about the delivery man or their relationship; now besides lugging her heavy boxes Rosco is regularly there for sex. This fantasy black man, moving from menial laborer doing drudge work she will not do herself to readily available sexual stud, flies under the radar of most viewers trained not to see the exploitation of black bodies or working class people in the interest of centering the em/power/ment of realizing ones own class and sexual desires.
Mel’s other delivery person is a working class woman of color named Cookie Clemente, played by Paz de la Huerta. I believe she is meant to be read as at least half Italian in this film, but that is played as ethnic Other just as much as racial Other. Like Rosco, she comes from immigrant roots, at once calling up the multiculturalism of NYC that is largely missing from the rest of this film and the specific domestic exploitation of immigrants of color that has become common place amongst the rich in the City. Notably, the only other people of color in the film are two Asian immigrant women who enter the elevator immediately after Mel finds out she has terminal cancer and an Indian cabby who yells at her near the end of the film. What these characters have in common is their foreign languages, something that will come up later to literally establish the objectification of poc in this film. The failure of the director to translate the dialogue highlights how little the dialogue of any of these poc characters matters to the trajectory of the film or its star.
In stereotypical gendered fashion, the film’s Asian women gossip to Mel’s chagrin, the black man lugs the heavy furniture & throws off his wife of 7 years and the brown woman offers up good home cooking to keep the misses well. Cookie delivers almost all of the food Mel eats. The more often she brings it, the more intrigued she is by the rich [white] lady locked in her posh tower.
Mel picks up on Cookie’s interests and propositions her one day over the newly delivered food. A scene that could have played like a seduction over wine, instead reinforces the sense of difference between Cookie and Mel. Cookie’s enthralled by all of her things, while Mel, who is equally working class, seems at ease and accustomed to those same things. Cookie’s sense of wonder leads Mel to tell her the meaning of her collection in what is perhaps the most transparently directed moment of the film:
They speak to me, the objects. They whisper in a strange language. The language of objects. They give me hope by whispering rumors of my redemption.
In one simple recitation of Smith’s actual words, Mel both seduces Cookie and lays bare the way she sees the two people of color in her life. They are objects in her collection leading the way to her self-absorbed redemption. Like Rosco’s name or the unnamed Asian women in the elevator, they speak “strange languages” and have no real place beyond the attempt to find herself. It is a sad misreading of Smith, flattened out by overtly racialized directing.
Both of these characters in one way or another represent colonial fantasies about people of color that continue to permeate the meaning of white female empowerment even on the left. They come and go on the whims of the main female character with little character development of their own. More than that, they exist simply to serve her; whether it is carrying her things, feeding her, or offering themselves sexually, it is always and forever about her. In fact, according to this plantation mistress fantasy, both people of color willingly throw off their other commitments and relationships at the promise of her touch. Rosco forgets his wife with one look and Cookie forgets her boyfriend Vitto with a simple smile. Both of them come to check on Mel long after their work is done, despite the way she has treated them b/c like Mammy they just naturally love her. And even tho they are all working class, having these two people of color serving her credentials Mel’s upper class passing as much as any of the things she buys.
(It should be noted that Mel also has a white male phone service worker who is equally stereotypical. He is overly chatty and speaks in a contrived vernacular seemingly mimicking the way Amos Poe imagines working class people speak. Not only is he another example of classism issues in the film but his sexuality is never exploited, illustrating the racialization of sexual awakening in this film.)
For many, the film seemingly redeems itself both in the subtle subversions the actors of color engage in and when both Rosco and Cookie ultimate leave Mel for their real lives. The former involves Mel acting in seemingly elitest or potentially racist ways and being called on it. When she meets Rosco for the first time, she makes fun of his name and he in turn makes fun of hers to expose the slight. But this soon turns to bonding when Mel explains her name has meaning, assuming that her name is special and his is not, and he tells her that his has meaning as well. For Cookie the slight is misunderstanding: when she delivers the first pizza to Mel’s condo she has no clothes and won’t let Cookie in and Cookie takes offense. She slams the door in Cookie’s face and then does not tip her, which Cookie calls her on. Again this moment of privilege is quickly excused away when Mel explains she has no cash, as if a tip cannot be put on credit with all of the other purchases she cannot afford. Later when she almost bludgeons Cookie with boxes she is discarding out the window, b/c apparently she is too delicate to walk to the garbage shoot or recycle bin, Cookie calls her a b—h, but then promptly helps her carry a heavy package into her house and get it situated. For me these moments serve to mask underlining issues of inequality just as clearly as the “finding oneself through sexual abandon with lesbians and poc” storyline precisely because the ability of the characters she offends to talk back allows the audience to consider the matter dealt with, without ever questioning how these scenes work to establish expected racial narratives that renders each character known without ever really giving the poc subjecthood in the film. Like the Indian cabbie who is just there to yell in a foreign language, these moments of disdain and judgment from Cookie and Rosco follow a particular racial script.
The departure of Cookie and Rosco are equally unsatisfying. Rosco’s wife of 7 years is pregnant and he stops by long enough to tell Mel he is going to be a daddy. While he can throw over his black wife of 7 years for Mel, Rosco’s patriarchal commitment to fatherhood is more important; with a whiff of stereotypical black masculinity and denigrated black femalehood, he is gone. Cookie arrives at Mel’s condo with a huge bruise on her cheek explaining that her boyfriend called her a “d–e” and stabbed her in the cheek with a fork. In an utterly unsatisfying scene, Cookie breaks up with Mel as much to protect them as she does because of the sexual slur that clearly rocks her self-definition. This woman, whose only real power in the film comes from her initiative in connecting to Mel is lost in a word that inspires more fear than a fork to the cheek.
The hate crime reinforces the image of poc and/or ethnic misogyny and homophobia while at the same time introducing a critique of class and classism. While Mel wants to call down to the restaurant, Cookie reminds her that if she gets fired she will lose her everything. While I don’t think it is the director or writer’s intention, this scene opens a comparison between the vicarious position of actual working class lesbian/bisexual of color Cookie and fantasy land Mel. When Mel was faced with losing everything, she walked away from her job, her boyfriend, and her working class trappings, and found empowerment through a credit card and poc servants. The film tells us, Cookie has no similar access to mobility, however fantastical that mobility may be.
With Cookie’s exit, so goes the “lesbian” storyline. A forgiving reading of this film would cast both women as bisexual and questioning. For Cookie this questioning, much like the rest of her identity, is missing from the film to highlight Mel’s sexual desires. For Mel being a bisexual with internalized homophobia that prevented her from acting on her same sex desires until she is diagnosed with cancer could fit a more well-executed film. However, partially because of the intersecting of race and sexuality in this film, and partially because of the overall execution, homosexuality in this film is always tangential to an overarching heterosexual narrative. The failure to flesh out the people with whom Mel is having sex in any real way makes these relationships smack of slumming or “out there” experimentation rather than anything real or meaningful that challenges a heterosexist reading of her sexual identity. Mel moves from her white boyfriend, to her black handyman, to her brown lesbian lover with little sign of attachment, discussion, or desire beyond the ever pressing collection of foreign objects. In a scene that defies reality, Rosco even walks in on the women and ultimately joins in. Thus any semblance of homosexuality is subsumed by male heterosexual fantasies of lesbians just waiting around for a man to really get it done. (There is some redemption in this three-way, in that it centers Mel as the object of desire rather than Rosco, ie both partners work for her pleasure rather than the porn fantasy where the “lesbians” take turns with their male third. At the same time, through the lens of whiteness, the centering of Mel’s sexual pleasure while she simply drifts of in sexual ecstasy without an ounce of reciprocity to her poc lovers is hardly revolutionary.) And while she shows some real affection for Cookie, the final scenes of the film imply a return to heterosexuality, that thoroughly marks Cookie as the anomaly.
At film’s end, Mel has stopped trying to find happiness in people and things and embraced her own happiness and creativity. And while this is a powerful anti-consumption message that runs counter to much of the action of the film, it is still mired by questionable racial and sexual narratives. After all, if the message of the film is that money and things are not the answer, we cannot forget that both people of color and her same sex activity in this film are counted among those “things.” This is hardly the revolutionary and open life that Patti Smith lived, one in which both sexuality and racial consciousness, as well as outspoken feminism, were definitive aspects of her personality. As much as it pains me to say this, much of the failing of this film is in the directing. Rather than trust her subject and her actors, all of whom have garnered critical praise, Amy Redford shoots people, at least people of color, like the objects that Mel is constantly ordering over the phone. Despite taking the time to shoot scenes where the characters are obviously talking to one another Redford consistently presents these scenes sans dialogue or stripped of any meaningful development. Where we could have seen three-dimensional characters getting to know each other and revealing critical ways that they impacted each others lives, these scenes play like credentialing music videos. Worse, ever single person of color in this film is an immigrant and most don’t speak English further otherizing poc in N. America as foreign specifically to capitalize on gross misreading of Smith’s poetic description of the meaning of passing moments in her life, a gross misreading that is wholly the director’s responsibility. Her handling of sexuality is equally non-commital failing to walk the thin line between sexuality normalized through lack of examination, ie centered and naturalized, and sexuality exploited. Mel comes across as a Freshman WS major experimenting before marriage rather than an adult woman opening herself to the possibilities. Ultimately Redford’s directorial decisions render her actors two-dimensional and the film’s cinematic gaze both sexually and racially questionable. It does a disservice not only to the actors of color but to the real life of the woman upon whom Mel is based. And as storytelling, it reduced a film that should have showed us an anti-racist, feminist, queer consciousness forming under the most adverse conditions to one of self-absorption and thinly veiled oppression. Even the film’s metaphors are overwrought from the throat cancer induced silence to the fact that Saffie is naked for the first 20 minutes in her new apartment symbolizing rejection of her old life and the rebirth of her new one.
Unlike Smith, Mel doesn’t build a multicultural, polymory, life at the end of this film, where she loves openly and embraces all of the pieces of her we have seen. Mel just becomes a supposedly more enlightened, seemingly straight, [white] woman who can now play the guitar.
So where is the girl with the guitar that so poignantly graces the movie poster and the film jacket? It seems, when Mel was a young girl, she stole a red electric guitar that her parents forced her to return, and she had wanted to learn to play ever since. Among the many purchases she makes on her two month spree is a similar guitar which she learns to play in the background of the action of the film. Thus many of the night time scenes of the film, when the poc have gone back to their real lives only to come a runnin’ in the morning, are punctuated by Mel rocking out on her guitar. As expected, her skill increases exponentially over time, so that by film’s end she can play with the best indie bands.
As shot, the guitar is totally sublimated in this film despite being the core part of the story. Had the director spent more time showing Mel learning to play and what that meant for her, and less time cataloging frivolities, we would have gotten some sense of the little girl who lost her way and found it again in the power of music. The message of the movie, stripped of all its race-class-sexuality madness, is the girl with guitar finding her voice and embracing her life. It was a powerful message that director and writer lost track of to the point of rendering her final on stage triumph cliche and uninspired.
For those who can tune out all of the questionable issues in this film and simply lose themselves in the hegemonic fantasy of individual female empowerment through riches gained and lost, sexual “freedom”, and finding oneself, you will still have to contend with the slow pacing of this film and the ultimate failure to tell the story of the girl and her guitar. Given who this film is really about, that is as much a travesty as the issues of oppression. For viewers like me, ultimately, The Guitar is just another “feminist film” that fails to be very feminist.
- all images are from Dir. Redford, Amy. The Guitar. Lightening Media, 2008. except photo of Paz de la Huerta/unattributed and Paz de la Huerta & Isaach De Bankole @ The Limits of Control Part/unattributed