Saturday, March 30, 2013

Monsters under the Bedroom

I watched Jurassic Park III last night.  My son had never seen it, and though it's the worst of the three, we happen to have the entire trilogy on blu-ray, so what the heck.  It's short, fast, and relatively convincing dinosaur-wise, so it wasn't a bad way to spend a Friday evening.

It's also, however, evidence of Hollywood's fascination with reasserting male power and prerogative, particularly in the family circle.  I commented on this in an earlier post on Oz, the Great and Powerful; I comment on the same phenomenon at length in my analysis of the first Jurassic Park in my book Framing Monsters.  It's one of the recurrent themes in Hollywood fantasy film (and, for all I know, in other genres; I don't watch much else).  As such, it's worth discussing.

On the surface, Jurassic Park III is about two things only: dinosaur attacks and cool special effects.  (That's really one thing, I know.)  But look a little closer, and you'll see it's also about a broken family that has fallen apart because, as the movie sees it, husband and wife have been playing the wrong roles.  She's the aggressor, the sexual predator; he's the wimp, the milquetoast.  They've been divorced for a year when the film's action starts, and we have every reason to believe she's the primary motivator of the marriage's breakup: her son is para-sailing with her new boyfriend when the two catastrophically crash on the island of the dinosaurs, an event that sets the whole rest of the plot in motion.  She's reckless, thoughtless, careless: according to her own report, she totaled three family vehicles during the time she was married.  In other words, she's a homewrecker--or, in the fantasy terms of the film, she's a monster.  Thus, though it makes no story sense that the female velociraptors would identify her as the one who's stolen their eggs--we the viewers see that she had nothing to do with the theft--it makes perfect thematic sense: this woman who has failed as a mother and nurturer, who has pursued sexual activity outside the sanctioned bounds of the family, must be humbled by the film's true monsters and, relinquishing the eggs that don't belong to her, return to her proper role within the family unit.

But monstrous women, the film also insists, only exist where weak men allow them to.  Thus the husband must be represented as his wife's polar opposite: prissily careful, incapable, anything but the strong, heroic male figure of Hollywood legend.  He owns a bathroom fixture store, which connects him to the home in a subordinate, "female" role: in Hollywood, it's women who make the toilets sparkle.  He gets his clock cleaned by paleontologist Alan Grant--no impressive male specimen himself, though in the first Jurassic Park he does claim the father's scepter by helping two abandoned children find their way across dinosaur-infested territory.  (Interestingly, in the end Dr. Grant chooses the study of raptors over the charms of his female companion, so that by the time we see him in JP III, he's a childless bachelor, "the last of his breed.")  It's only when the husband begins acting in a more appropriately macho way--lighting fires, operating heavy machinery, saving his wife and child from dinosaurs--that he recovers his lost family: in a completely nonsensical scene, the woman who divorced him a year previously screams hysterically, "You can't leave me!" when she believes he's died defending her from a dino attack.  Perhaps the most interesting moment in the film occurs when the father smiles in grim satisfaction at his son's rejection of his mother's coddling: in the film's terms, the son too has become a MAN, someone who keeps a firm hand over women rather than submitting to them.

I've wondered for many years why Hollywood seems so obsessed with telling such stories, but perhaps the answer is simple.  Along with the corporate boardroom and the political arena, Hollywood remains one of our culture's bastions of traditional male authority: it's a place where almost all the important decisions are made by men, while women meekly obey.  Yet that kind of power never comes without anxiety that someone--Barbra Streisand, the feminists, NOW--might strip it away.  So the film industry neurotically imagines the opposition in the form of female monsters, only to restore male power in the end.

It makes for some interesting analytical moments.  But it also makes for a lot of films that really bite.

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