October 24, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsRemembrances

“Ultimate Male Nightmares”: on Boxing Helena and Election 2016 (Part 2)

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“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me—consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”

—Donald Trump

I refused to watch the debates this year; unfortunately, given the choices, there should be nothing to debate. I’m voting for Clinton in November. It’s not about liking her, or trying to argue away her mistakes, both political and otherwise; this is about saving the country from becoming an international pariah (see here, here and here, for starters) if Trump were to be elected. If you want to just talk numbers, fine; not voting for him will prevent a stock market crash and global financial ruin. It goes without saying men like Donald Trump already occupy vast public spaces of power and influence; for someone like him to run the country is unthinkable and yet, here we are.

And yet here I am, still thinking of that conversation I’d had about Boxing Helena with my colleague), the same man who also slapped his desk and proclaimed that he’d flee to Canada if Trump is elected. (By the way, my husband has Canadian citizenship, and gets a little tired of U.S. citizens “threatening” to move to Canada as a last resort if so-and-so wins a given election, but again, we have to move on.)

I’m thinking about the ways in which Boxing Helena was not, as my colleague claimed, a nightmare for men, but commentary on women’s struggle with different kinds of freedom and self-expression. I’m thinking about the replica of the Venus de Milo, whose armless, half-naked stone indifference is repeatedly seen throughout the film, like that moment before Helena’s tragic accident, in which Nick tries to keep her from leaving for a solo trip to Mexico, and how the statue seems to smirk at her, as if knowing what will happen, while Helena smiles back, not aware of her fate as she studies it carefully, touches it casually.

I’m thinking about all the different variations of containment and cages that appear in the film, from the floor-to-ceiling wood-paneled walls of Nick’s family mansion to how the heavy wood “frames” the opening scenes, from the mere glimpse of his work-obsessed father occupied at his desk, oblivious to both the party happening in his own house and his own wife Marion brazenly flirting with another man. Marion herself appears between open doors, the heavy wood both framing and boxing her in, while a very young Nick watches through the wooden slats of a staircase as though they were prison bars. She merely glowers at hers son silently, her dark gloves ending just above the elbow, all foreshadowing amputation, as we cut to the next scene to a casket sinking into the ground—his mother’s casket, his mother contained in a box, his mother forever out of his reach.

Yet Marion continues to haunt her son throughout the film. After her funeral, he comes home to the mansion he’s inherited, and it only takes a touch of the curve of the staircase before he has a flashback to his mother coming out rumpled and naked, her breasts exposed, after an afternoon indiscretion; she taunts him: “You were watching me, weren’t you?” What Julian Sands lacks in skill to elevate his character Nick Cavanaugh beyond a sniveling coward, he makes up for in his very hard, defined angles, his razor-sharp cheekbones, sharply parted-hair, lean form, and those slightly bulging, very hungry eyes. His character lacks any softness as he does a conscience, and although Nick Cavanaugh is a “star” surgeon, he becomes weak at the mere thought of his mother, and nearly collapses on the staircase.

Like Marion, Helena is the kind of woman who leaves her door unlocked, and kicks lovers out when she tires of them. Before the death of his mother, Helena had a one-night stand with Nick, which left her sexually unsatisfied, a fact she did not hide for his comfort. He becomes obsessed with her, and at first it seems the story of a woman who possess a great power over a man, but it is not her story, for she is merely a device, a demon to cast off, a hurdle to overcome. We don’t really ever arrive at Helena herself, no more than we did Marion, and Helena is never given her own space, even in her own home. Nick is constantly there, disrupting the frame, boxing her in through his very gaze.

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In another scene Nick climbs up a tree to spy on Helena as she undresses. Drink in hand, candelabra lit behind her, she stands before the window in her bra and gazes out, seemingly content. The windowpane breaks up our view of her, and frames her, in boxes. We cannot see her truly as she is; we can only see her through Nick’s gaze, as she then embraces another man. What is meant to be sexually liberating—she seizes the other man, curtains open, no inhibitions—becomes an unreality for the viewer—there is wind blowing from inside in the room through their hair—and a nightmare for Nick who runs away, weeping as he imagines she’s literally devouring the other man and he is devouring her, the scene growing more and more graphic.

Waiting at home—or rather, his parent’s home which he inherited—is his girlfriend Anne who also happens to be a doctor and the opposite of Helena in every way: all angles, blonde, modestly dressed, dutiful as she waits for him after he misses dinner. Anne is thoughtful, leaving him notes in the morning because she doesn’t want to wake him up, and confides in a friend that she hopes he’ll pop “the question” soon. Anne is a saint; Helena is not; while quite a few reviewers described Julian Sands’ Nick as a “sick-puppy” or “rich and unloved little boy,” Sherilyn Fenn’s Helena was “[b]itchy, condescending and cruel” or “a classic castrater, a bitch goddess who is as selfish as she is voluptuous” (in fact, the word “bitch” was used in almost all the reviews I read, but again—moving on). There is an undercurrent of power and responsibility here: Nick is seen as a foolish boy who just doesn’t know better, while Helena is seen as a reckless, wicked seductress. Meaning boys will be boys, meaning women are responsible for their actions, but not granted any power or a point of view. If they try to seize either for themselves anyway, as Helena does, it will be temporary; the goddess reigning on her own terms in an illusion.

When the film finally does switch to Helen’s POV, we see her tire of the other man, Ray (played by Bill Paxton who perhaps unintentionally hilarious in his shag haircut, tight t-shirt and leather pants, threatening to go to “The Club” in the strangest forced jargon I’ve heard). Ray, too, tries to control her, telling her what to do and how to dress, but Helena laughs at him, and tells him she’s going to a party and then to Mexico, alone: in the last scene they are together before her accident, she’s wearing the pants as she shows him the door.

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Later in the film, Nick has a party in his house, and prepares for it as if he’s preparing for surgery, meticulously scrubbing his hands. He not only invites Helena, but dotes on her right in front of Anne, who, along with the other guests, watches as Helena lets her hair down for Nick’s friend instead, and hands this other man her shawl and shoes and then her dress, slipping into a fountain only in her slip and underwear. As Helena dances and embraces the moment, for a moment I think I’m watching Showgirls as an Enya-type song begins and everything slides into slow motion. She’s clearly enjoying herself, but we can’t see her pleasure outside of Nick’s gaze, as he struggles to keep himself together in front of Anne and his friends. But he’s so overwhelmed with not having her, that he forgets them altogether, that he calls Anne “Helena” by accident, even after Helena takes off with his friend, disappearing into the darkness of the night, into nothingness, but no, the darkness does not belong to her. The nightmare she causes Nick is not nearly as bad as what’s to come.

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Helena is not going into the night and making this man—who is every man—anonymous.

There is a price she will pay for rejecting Nick; there is a price she will pay for her seizing of freedom. And there is yet another price she will pay for denouncing him as a lover who left her unsatisfied, a revenge to be exacted by wanting her own pleasure, her own path, her own choices.

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The next day, Helena finds that she’s accidentally left her purse at his house, and tells Nick to bring it to the airport as she’s flying to Mexico. He arrives late, and forgets her address book so they have to go back to his house; naturally, it’s all part of his plan to keep her there for as long as he can. He offers her drinks, lunch, anything she wants, when all she wants is her address book so she can leave. Just as she’s at her wit’s end, he takes off a cover off a silver platter to reveal her address book and she’s furious at him, fed-up with his games, and I’m fed up with him too, and angry, and actually quite frightened for her.

Nick Cavanaugh is not a caricature of a man with “mommy issues.” He is very real. He is the nightmare. He is so representative of a man running for President who thinks power will allow him to manipulate, seize, and retain any woman he wants. Perhaps this is why Boxing Helena has no quirkiness, no humor, why everything just falls flat, without range— because Nick is simply a sociopath, a misogynist, a one-note no-note reality so many women have faced to varying degrees of harassment and abuse. Nick Cavanaugh is a man who watches a hit-and-run of his professed love, and then amputates her legs to keep her from ever leaving him again. He dresses her up like a doll and resigns not only from his job but from the world, professing his sole devotion to her, even though she continues to hold onto her autonomy, saying to him: “You’re nothing to me. I’ll never let you care for me. No one ever has and no one ever will.”

We watch as Helena goes in and out of nearly catatonic states, reaching for her legs not there, as another fully-limbed, fully-naked Greek statue turns away from her, the smirk the most real thing in the room. We watch him disconnect the phones as concerned friends of his come and go, but no one ever seems to catch a glimpse of her defiant figure hidden away in a wheelchair, styled to look more like a throne-on-wheels. For she is Nick’s queen, but he is calling all the shots now; the goddess is nothing more than a caged bird he’s crippled further to contain. We watch him play games, wheeling her out onto the terrace and telling her to scream for help in the rain, knowing no one can hear her in such a secluded area. We watch him argue that “real women” lie about the sex, and reaching her breaking point, Helena tries to choke him.

Nick sees as long as Helena can fight back, he can’t really possess her in full. In the following scene, Nick watches her on camera: security footage of her dancing around in the fountain the night of the party. He seems to take great pleasure in watching her dance, as if perhaps regretting what choice he made in robbing her of her legs, but that’s not it. He’s watching her because she spited him that night, refused him and left with another man—and he knows he must render her helpless and completely dependent on him. We then see the terrace with its two giant columns, two Greek statues in the middle downstage, as opera resonates through the scene, and lights go out from within the house: something even more terrible has happened. Soon, daylight breaks, the camera returning to the armless statue, again obsessively foreshadowing what we will see.

Nick is jumping rope. And then he imagines his mother naked on the lounge telling him he’s done a very bad thing. And he has: Helena sits on her throne, only without wheels and perched high on a table surrounded by flowers. He’s taken her arms, leaving like a prop, an ugly joke, or rather, the ugliest truth in the world of what happens to women, time and again, who dare defy their stalkers, the men who profess their love over and over, unwilling to stop at anything to get what they want. And Helena, who’s been defiant throughout the film, who even without her legs still fought him, is clearly, unmistakably weakening.

And there Nick goes again, telling her how beautiful, how beautiful she really is.

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When my colleague earlier described the jogging scene in which Nick comes home and Helena says he should never leave her alone again, he neglected to remember just how the scene played out. While Helena does say this, she also tells Nick that one day his secret will be discovered and someone will kill him.

Nick: You need me.

Helena: I’ll never need you.

Nick: I love you, unlike all those other men.

Helena: You don’t love me. You think you can’t be a man without me.

Nick (smiling): But I have you.

The games begin again. One day while she’s sleeping, he reorders her prescription. She wakes up and calls to him. Suddenly the phone rings. She taunts him about answering the phone; it’s a friend of his from the hospital. Nick tells him Helena is here, and becomes very brazen about his little secret, even putting her on the phone, taking her up on the dare. She screams she’s a prisoner, only to realize no one is there; the phone is disconnected again. She wishes he was dead, and he tells her: “If I lose, you lose too.”

By the end of the film, mentally and physically drained, brain-washed and humiliated, Helena finally gives into Nick, and just when he’s about to take full advantage of her surrender, another man comes crashing into the mansion: it’s Ray, her former lover, who comes in guns a-blazing and knocks Nick to the floor, only to then gape in horror at her torso propped up on the table. With this sudden intrusion of her former life, Helena can’t look back at him. While Nick and Ray then have a rather comical argument about what else but her beauty, Helena tells Ray to go away, to forget what he’s seen, to leave them alone. And just as Ray leaves and Nick is about to arise from the floor, we see the Venus statue falling on him, crushing him, and leaving Helena abandoned….

So imagine my surprise when the scene cuts to Nick waking up in the hospital; it was all a dream, a fantasy. We learn that after the accident, an ambulance brought them both to the hospital, and Helena was in surgery for 6 hours. Anne drops by to check on Nick in her scrubs, and is distant, cold, direct.

Nick makes his way up to Helena’s room, and sees her sleeping; he takes her hand. Then he hears the haunting voices of his dreams, and backs away from her. We never learn if her legs are still attached, if they are still part of her body. We never see her wake up. Because despite the title of the movie, Helena herself has nothing to do with the film. Because it’s all about him. His fantasy. The very last shot of the film is him waking up in alone in his house, and embraces the Venus statue, meaning his mother, meaning Helena, meaning really the statue, the only thing he could really possess because “she” as “it” has no complaints, no rights, no feelings, no life of its own.

Tell me again how Boxing Helena could even possibly be the Ultimate Male Nightmare. Tell me again, when Nick’s so-called nightmare ends, but Helena is still hit by the car, because she was tricked into coming to his house, how she is still punished for saying NO to him. Tell me with a straight face that men like Nick are purely fictional, only caricatures of the patriarchal society in which women must negotiate their very flesh-and-blood presence. Tell me that a defiant, unapologetically sybaritic woman like Helena even had a chance—or story of her own—in this age of unapologetic misogyny. Tell me a time when misogyny did not exist.

I dare you.

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I feel at a loss to explain what Boxing Helena could have been. Yes, it is far from perfect, but I don’t think the film is anti-women. Whether or not it’s Jennifer Lynch’s intent, I see it as a film that condemns the male gaze and the traditional heteronormative power plays of desire and violence. It is a film that does not excuse male obsessive domination over the female subject. For all its flaws—and there are many—I’m reminded of the many times in which male assumption over female interest has such blind confidence in itself that it robs women of their own agency—or in Trump’s words, how female contestants on his television show attempted to seduce him “consciously or unconsciously,” as if we are not to be trusted in the choices we make, much less know what choices we are making.

That’s to be expected, Trump says. Boys will be boys, whether it’s beauty pagents or political talk infiltrating our living rooms, our workplaces, our very ways of thinking. It’s just locker room talk, after all, and it’s just words, and it’s just a dream, a really bad dream, just a game after all, and it’s nothing, right?

No.

It’s not.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Boxing Helena and Election 2016; read Part 1 here.