Monday, July 25, 2011

Women in Revolt: A Review

In 1970, famed pop artist, dabbler, and amateur film producer Andy Warhol embarked upon his latest project. Entitled Women in Revolt, it was a deliberate counter-attack on radical feminist Valerie Solanas, Warhol’s would-be-assassin, whose assault with a handgun nearly killed its intended target. A parody of the hot button issue of its time, Women’s Liberation, the film gets in a few digs at its expense. Members of the movement endlessly rake men over the coals, advancing lesbianism as the only sensible alternative. Yet, they still backslide routinely, engaging in sexual relationships with men. Each abandons her career for the sake of the movement, but can’t seem to abandon old habits, either.

Women in Revolt, like most movies bankrolled by Warhol, is more interesting in concept than in reality. The primary players are painfully bad actors and actresses with not even an ounce of formal training. Its dialogue is campy at best and the plot is over-the-top. The sound quality and cinematography is typically abysmal. What is interesting, however, is that the film’s three starring roles are all played by transwomen: Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn. This would be novel casting even today. In so doing, Director Paul Morrissey sought to make a statement—this small, but motivated group of radical feminists had all been born biologically male. To Morrissey, their anger at men is grounded internally and has little to do with outward political ideology or stated purpose.

It is worth examining the strange bedfellows arrangement between producer and director. Warhol was nominally liberal, but largely apolitical. Morrissey, however, was a self-professed political conservative and right-wing activist. Uniting the two together was their shared Roman Catholicism, which both regularly observed. Director Morrissey may have intended to show Feminism as amoral and dangerous, while Warhol might simply have been bitter at the woman who nearly killed him. Regardless of motive, with time each major character will be shown as hypocritical, shrill, and self-destructive. Some will achieve greater success in their lives and some will not. None will escape unscathed.

To the women of PIG (Politically Involved Girls), an obvious reference to Solanas and her infamous SCUM Manifesto, men are to be treated with repugnance and hatred. Jackie Curtis sprays her clothesless male conquest with air freshener, seeking to counteract the filth, a look of repulsion on her face. Candy Darling has earlier engaged in an incestuous relationship with her brother, a negative experience that has led her towards female empowerment. Holly Woodlawn is nominally along for the ride, but her nymphomaniac tendencies are graphically and frequently on display during group meetings. One sees much furious condemnation at men and past abuse, but not much action. The only exception to this constant verbal hyperbole is when two group members attempt to perform an unwanted and rather invasive posterior cleansing procedure on a nearby workman.

Underneath the action on screen is a significant amount of subtext. The openly gay Warhol eroticses the male body in his choice of camera shots. A movie apparently intended to de-emphasize and even denigrate the male form instead is filmed to resemble lurid, sexualized voyeurism. Each protagonist by her very identity blurs the lines between male behavior and female behavior, male desires and female desires. Are we to believe that Women’s Liberation is penis envy writ large? If so, then the screenplay and the presence of its three main characters dump further irony on top of it. Women in Revolt becomes an unintentional study in queer identity and its confusing contrasts. Straightforward narrative and political viewpoint is neither simple, nor even possible here. Though it may always cater to a very specific audience, the film showcases the paradoxes and conundrums of its day and ours. We may all not be what we appear.

Article first published as Movie Review: Women in Revolt on Blogcritics.

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