Apr 22, 2013

Alone Together

Apparently, at some point last year, I realized that thirty-one years is too long a time for a person to live without seeing the campy 1963 suspense film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I don’t remember when I came to this decision, or how or why, but I know that I must have because the DVD showed up in my mailbox recently, cocooned within a red Netflix envelope. I suspect alcohol, foul play, or some combination of the two.

It’s hard not to make Rear Window comparisons any time you see a wheelchair-bound protagonist, especially when things start getting murder-y. Certainly both films mine suspense from the hero’s isolation and immobility. They also, interestingly, give us antagonists who murder a pet, though Baby Jane goes the extra mile and serves it up as dinner, a trope that harkens back to "Titus Andronicus" and persists through movies like The War of the Roses and Fatal Attraction.

As villainous as she is, though, Bette Davis is also at times the character we’re rooting for, which makes watching her smuggle Elvira’s body out of the house a much different experience than watching Raymond Burr do the same thing. It also affects how we interpret her actions toward her sister; we may sympathize with poor Joan Crawford, but our desire to see her set free is offset by our desire to see what new torture she will endure next.

In this way, Baby Jane is perhaps a closer relative of the film adaptation of Misery, which similarly gives us a captive celebrity and an engrossingly insane nursemaid. Both movies comment on the toxicity of fame, though from decidedly different angles, and they share a series of similar scenes involving telephones, escape attempts, and oblivious interlopers. The action in also largely confined to a single bedroom in both films, though this creates tension in two different ways. In Baby Jane we are teased by the neighborly Mrs. Bates and the countless times she comes this close to catching on, while in Misery we feel the dreadful weight of mile after mile of impenatrable snow separating us from civilization.

There’s a second, less flattering parallel to be drawn as well: torture porn. Films like Hostel, Saw, and Human Centipede* present us with captive protagonists and inventive tormenters, and the suspense comes from our wanting to know not if things will get worse, but how. As I’ve already noted, I think this is part of the appeal of Baby Jane, but not all of the appeal. In movies like Hostel, we are given anonymous antagonists (or, in the case of Saw, an antagonist with a motivation so ridiculous it would be better if he were anonymous) because the who here doesn’t matter as much as much as the what

And it is entirely the who that matters in Misery, Baby Jane, and Rear Window; these are movies that are first and foremost about relationships. Rear Window is about the relationship between neighbors, and how urbanization separates people from each other even as it forces them closer together. Misery is about parasocial relationships as well as the relationship between artists and their work (and between Stephen King and cocaine). And What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is about the relationships we have with our past selves and the people who knew them. We may think of the settings of these films in terms of what has been removed – mobility, society, ankles – but this only allows the filmmakers more room to focus on the central relationship. Because these stories are not so much about being isolated as they are about being isolated together.

 *Some people group Michael Haneke’s Funny Games in here as well. Maybe it’s the artful cinematography or the presence of big-name actors, but I would disagree with the classification of that particular movie as anonymous torture porn, though it certainly follows the formula.

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