Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Waiting for Kamala: the Journey of Thelma and Louise

Over the weekend, as our nation confronted the prospect of its first female vice-president, I went back to a movie that made a major splash almost 30 years ago, Thelma & Louise. This film directed by Ridley Scott from an Oscar-winning script by newcomer Callie Khouri, generated box-office bucks and critical acclaim for taking a mostly-male genre, the buddy road-trip flick, and turning it into a powerful exploration of a woman’s place in the American landscape.

 Thelma & Louise starts out, as so many road-trip movies do, with two very different characters getting ready to go on a journey. The mood is light-hearted, even comedic, as sassy Louise (Susan Sarandon), a waitress in an Arkansas cafĂ©, phones her ditsy friend Thelma to nudge her into action. Their destination is a fishing cabin, but Thelma (Geena Davis), the wife of a local car dealer, seems so daunted by the prospect of heading out of town that she can’t quite bring herself to alert her spouse that she’ll be gone for two nights. Thelma, it appears, is so much under the thumb of the domineering Darryl that she has a hard time thinking for herself. Which is why she packs pretty much everything she owns.

 Away from Darryl, Thelma gives herself over to impulse. She insists to Louise that they stop at a Texas-style honkytonk bar, where she drinks too much and then cozies up to a flirtatious local named Harlan. It’s all in good fun—until it isn’t. Out in the parking lot, Harlan is pawing at her clothing, bent on sexual satisfaction by any means necessary. That’s when Louise appears, brandishing the handgun that Thelma had casually brought along.

 What happens from that moment onward reflects the inevitable fate of two women caught in a man’s world. With the law on their trail, they run up against such antagonists as a sexy hitchhiker (Brad Pitt, in his first big role) who steals their money and a horny trucker who’s itching for trouble. Not to mention Thelma’s husband back home, who clearly regards her plight as a mere inconvenience. Though the film has been accused of having an anti-male bias, a few generous-spirited men do emerge, including Harvey Keitel’s sympathetic police detective and Louise’s supportive boyfriend. Still, the point is that the women in this world, lacking much in the way of education or earning power, exist to be victimized. It is only when an act of violence releases them from normal social expectations that Louise and Thelma feel free to blossom—for a while.

 Seeing the clingy, confused Thelma come into her own is, in its way, a beautiful thing. As for Louise, the natural-born leader of the pair, she’s fighting off something that is never clearly defined. We know only that she left her Texas hometown after a traumatic incident she will not discuss. Her role in perpetrating the violence that fuels the rest of the film seems to have evolved, we realize, out of a long-delayed reaction to a moment that has made her suspicious of men forever.

  Thelma & Louise owes something to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, the lovers-on-the-lam classic that made bank robbery seem exhilarating, while also exploring the implications of the socio-economic divide between rich and poor. It also, in its end-of-the-road climax, perhaps contains a tiny echo of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But most of all this is a film that focuses on the fraught power dynamic between men and women.

Kamala Harris—well-educated, well-placed, and capable—is a much more encouraging example of how women’s power can evolve.

 


 

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