The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Notorious Bettie Page

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article Knowing who the author of a work of art is can have some unfortunate consequences. Take Spike Lee for example. For the first ten or so years of his career he made films predominantly about the African-American population of Brooklyn which often explored different aspects of racism: personal, social, institutional. Summer of Sam in 1998 was the first film to break this pattern, focussing as it did mainly on members of the Italian American community in New York during the summer of 1977, when the 'Son of Sam' killer was terrorising the city.

When this film came out, many critics tried their hardest to make it into a film about race - or rather, even more specifically, into a film about racism against African-Americans. Speaking out against the fact that one reviewer had claimed Summer of Sam referenced the racially-motivated Howard Beach murder by showing Italian Americans wielding baseball bats, Lee once rightly asked, "Do you see that in Scorsese's films or in The Sopranos? Absolutely! They use baseball bats. But when I show it, I'm a race baiter." This, surely, happened not just because Lee's earlier films had addressed racism (was racial subtext read into every Richard Attenborough film just because he made Cry Freedom [1987]?), but because he himself is black. Similar expectations to those that dog Lee have also affected homosexual directors - take Gus Van Sant for example, who is regularly subjected to accusations of 'queering' his subject matter either too much or not enough.

Mary Harron
Mary Harron
Likewise, The Notorious Bettie Page has been criticised by some for not judging the world of pornography its central character inhabits more harshly. Why would people expect or hope for this? Essentially, because its director, Mary Harron, is a woman, and even happens to have previously made a film about the feminist Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol (1995). Apart from betraying far too narrow a view of what a feminist response to pornography 'should' be, such an understanding also betrays a troubling bias in criticism.

That bias suggests that if the author of a work of art is a 'minority' (a particularly ridiculous word if we're talking about a woman), the piece must be judged in relation to their race, gender or sexuality. Implicit in this suggestion is an assumption that says the only artist who can ever be free of such stigma is a white, heterosexual male. Did anyone ever look to Stanley Kubrick for enlightening commentary on what it meant to be a white American, with a wife and children, living in the United Kingdom? Seemingly the only 'pure' artist - the only artist who is unpoliticised by default - is someone who shares the same gender, race and sexuality as every president the United States has ever had.

I certainly can't claim to be above such prejudices myself. As I stated in my short review, it took me a while to get used to the idea that The Notorious Bettie Page was not going to give me a more politically-charged view of its subject. Early scenes - in which it is suggested the young Bettie was sexually abused by her father, and in which she is gang-raped by a group of strangers - fitted more easily into my preconceived notions of what the film 'should' be. This had me primed to expect something of a feminist slant on the world of porn the film was about to investigate. It was a slight surprise, then, to find that virtually the only place Bettie was safe was in front of the camera in a pornographer's studio; this all but scuppered my plans to see this as a straightforward tract of some kind.

Of course, I'm not at all suggesting that all, or any, critics or audience members who think in such predetermined ways are racist/sexist/homophobes - but why does it happen?

Obviously, part of the reason is that there are - unfortunately - so few black, female and openly gay filmmakers working in Hollywood that each time one of the talented exceptions brings out a film there is this desire for it to be 'significant' - to be an impassioned cry from the disenfranchised about their social marginalisation or mistreatment. Although at least somewhat understandable, this expectation is entirely unrealistic and unfair, essentially denying artists the right to be appreciated for being any thing other than a social/political marker. It also puts the focus squarely and solely on the content of any films such an artist might make and away from the style or technique - no matter how accomplished it might be. To take Lee as an example again: reams have been written about his significance as probably the most successful black filmmaker of all time, and about the racial and political themes of his work, but too seldom is any attention paid to his superb visual style - which happens to be immediately distinct, yet always evolving, and ultimately adds up to one of the most distinguished aesthetic visions in contemporary American cinema.

To return to Bettie Page then: it is certainly not impossible to tap the film for positive feminist messages in its content - indeed there are many interesting things we could say about its representation of women and pornography. However, this is certainly not the only way to view the film; so, instead, let us look for a change at its endlessly attractive surface.

The look of the film - although not flashy - is sumptuous. The black & white photography is sharp, crisp and refreshing, like that of the 50s Hollywood classics at the point when it felt as if monochrome celluloid photography had all but been perfected. It is too rare nowadays to get a black & white film at all, let alone one that uses its properties as well this one. Better than the decent-but-uninspired look of Goodnight and Good Luck (2005), this ranks up with The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) for exceptional recent examples of the style.

It is difficult to avoid mere functional pastiche when attempting to effectively ape a technique so associated with the past as this, but director of photography Mott Hupfel has managed it here. An image such as Bettie's tearful fleeing from the scene of her rape - with its oppressive shadows and darkened trees - manages to combine the expressive look and feel of classic melodramas with a more modern approach to framing and shooting your star that creates a fresh tone all its own.

The occasional portions in colour are even more impressive. Humming, bright and fleshy in the manner of the MGM Technicolour spectacle of the 50s, they shine in an uncommonly striking and beautiful way. Their sparing use within a predominantly black & white film has an effect that manages to be almost akin to revelatory, joyful juxtapositions of colour and monochrome in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), proving that the magic of this technique has still not lost it power 50 years after colour became largely the norm. Whereas the black & white sections are all sharp edges and clean flatness, the colour scenes explode in an orgy of bright, decadent glowing, communicating perfectly - in moments like the beach scene where Bettie is photographed for the first time - the sense of escapist fantasy offered by the camera. Again, these scenes manage to rise above being simply blank duplication of a previous style by virtue of the fact that they don't feel quite like anything (or ot least much) that has gone before. They reach a fresh sense of loving, generous camp - a camp that does not mock or judge in the slightest: a camp that simply rejoices.

Perhaps the most transcendent instance of this is when Bettie, wandering alone on the beach at night, first hears a choir then glimpses a church on an overlooking hill. This one shot, with Bettie in the foreground, looking towards a large, garish neon crucifix floating way in the background, is beautiful and filled with a joy and sadness that simply and succinctly reflects our heroine's situation. Having come out of the other side of the porn industry with a desire to find another life, this glowing, floating cross is offering her another kind of escape. It is a testament to the skill with which the shot is filmed (and particularly the use of colour) that in one sharp moment we see this illuminated cross simultaneously as reflecting some of the cheap, almost tacky, fantasy escape that Bettie achieved on her photo shoots, and also as a sign of genuine escape for her. It is a complex, satisfying moment and one that shows Harron as not merely an excellent female artist, but as the all-round excellent visual filmmaker she is.

This Alternate Take was published on August 22, 2006.

Post your views

Article comments powered by Disqus

Share this article

Special FX

- Jump to the comments
- Print friendly format
- Email article to a friend

More from this writer

- Before Sunrise after Before Midnight: genre and gender in the Before series
- Before Midnight
- Against 'Ambiguity': On the Ending of The Dark Knight Rises
- John Cazale: Stepped Over
- Moonrise Kingdom