Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ang Lee vs. Cheri Caffaro

As I watched Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, my mind turned to the 1972 exploitation film The Abductors, starring Cheri Caffaro as private investigator Ginger McAllister. Like the other films in the Ginger series, The Abductors uses the detective genre as an excuse for writer-director Don Schain (Caffaro's husband at the time) to combine sex and bondage in equal parts.

The Abductors, not a good film, features a ring of sex slavers who kidnap cheerleaders. Ginger and her cohorts enlist one of Ginger's young female friends to go undercover and get kidnapped by the slavery ring. After she is raped by the gang leader, however, the undercover agent gives information against the good guys. No torture is required for this purpose, just slow, persuasive sex.

Somehow Ginger's crew, which includes both men and women, wins anyway. At the end, the undercover agent apologizes for having betrayed her own team. Don't worry about it, say the magnanimous victors. And there are no hard feelings.

I was struck by two aspects of this dramaturgy. First, and most obviously, the sexual politics that underlie this plot are unusually retrograde, and would have seemed so even before the women's movement gathered steam. Schain assumes, probably without intending controversy, that a woman will naturally be unable to withhold information from a man who makes love to her effectively. No one in the film questions this.

Second, having established these caveman ground rules, the film uses them generously. It would have been easy, even normal, for the film to cast away the sex-addled undercover agent after her capitulation. But Schain never considers this option: the agent continues to fight on the side of justice, and does not lose her status as one of the good guys. Good nature is not the province of any one ideology.

Lust, Caution uses almost the same plot. Here too, the undercover heroine's betrayal (much more costly than in The Abductors) does not alienate the filmmakers' sympathies, and the woman's betrayed comrade smiles his understanding at her. However, Lust, Caution announces itself as a tragic love story, whereas The Abductors is pretending to be an ensemble adventure film. By the rules of his chosen form, Schain is working against genre expectations; Lee and his writers are merely in compliance with their genre.

Otherwise, I can't see that Lust, Caution mined much more complexity from this concept than The Abductors did.


Anonymous said...

Interesting...I've always wondered at the reverse, too...why men uniformly engage in compromising pillow talk with the women whose job it is to get information from them. It might be a gender-neutral trope.

Dan Sallitt said...

I guess I could imagine a movie that sex-reverses the Lust, Caution story. Most likely, though, it wouldn't sex-reverse the power imbalance in the relationship - if it did, it would become more of an oddball movie.

I actually think that Lust, Caution would have been better off if it had embraced and elaborated its political incorrectness. Catherine Breillat would have eaten this project for lunch - except that she wouldn't have wanted to end the sex battle with a capitulation.

Pillow talk strikes me as a slightly different movie convention. The woman wins by stealth, not by domination.