Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Who Was That Masked Woman?

When I was a student living in Japan, I couldn’t help finding strange the willingness of my Tokyo contemporaries to slap on a surgical mask whenever they felt a sniffle. No, I personally didn’t want to walk around looking like Dr. Kildare. But now, thanks to the onset of COVID-19, mask-wearing in public has become a social necessity. It is also, at one and the same time, a protective measure, a form of political commentary, and (weirdly enough) a fashion statement.

All of which has made me look back on the history of movies to explore the many ways that masks have figured into our favorite films. First, I guess, came the westerns. We all tend to anticipate that a man wearing a bandana tied around his nose and mouth is up to no good: if his face is half-concealed by a piece of fabric, he’s probably planning to rob the stagecoach or commit some other dastardly crime. On the other hand, he might be the Lone Ranger, a long-popular Old West fighter for truth, justice, and the American Way. (For whatever reason, the Ranger concealed only the area surrounding his eyes with his domino mask, so he wouldn’t have had much protection from germs in a pandemic.)

Masks have also been favored to shield the faces of more modern cinematic bad guys, like cat burglars and thieves of all sorts. Sometimes their masks are simple and sometimes elaborate, like the whole-head rubber Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter masks worn by bank-robbing surfers in Point Break (2015). The frothy Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) contains a comic scene (see below) in which Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) and her beau (George Peppard), out on a lark, contemplate shoplifting in a five and dime store. They scurry out the door wearing cheap plastic cat and dog masks they haven’t bought.

Masks can be romantic, allowing for secret meeting and mingling: see all those masked balls in films like Romeo and Juliet. They can hide tragic secrets, concealing horrifying blemishes in various versions of The Phantom of the Opera as well as The Elephant Man. A mask and hood can conceal identity as well as striking terror into bystanders if a great many masked and hooded men gather together for a common purpose. This, of course, is the logic behind the garb of the Ku Klux Klan, who are painted as heroes in Birth of a Nation and as something far, far worse in a number of other films. (The fact that their regalia is so all-concealing is used to comic effect in the Coen brothers’ 2000 hit, O Brother, Where Are Thou?)

One Hollywood movie titled Mask (1985) does not in fact contain masks at all. It is the poignant semi-biographical story of a young man suffering from a rare disease called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia that distorts his face into a grotesque “mask.” No surprise that this film, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Eric Stoltz, won one of the first Oscars given for achievement in makeup. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s 1994’s The Mask, in which a nebbishy bank clerk played by Jim Carrey comes upon a magical mask that transforms him into a raucous gangster with massive superpowers.

One message of The Mask might be that we can do amazing things when our inner identity is safely concealed. All I want right now is a not-too-ugly, not-too-cumbersome facemask that will protect me (as well as those around me) from passing on a deadly disease. My inner identity will have to wait a while to be able to emerge unscathed. Alas.

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