Aug 5, 2007

The Troubling Bettie Page

I'm having trouble with the film THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE. I watched it last night and just can't get it out of my head. It seems so haphazard and even hypocritical that it's an itch at the base of my brain.

The troubling thing about bio-pics is that the audience must always wonder, "Did that really happen or was it just a dramatic device?" And then we see when dramatic devices in a bio-pic just don't work at all. In this case it's the majority of the movie being framed by Bettie waiting to testify before a Senate subcommittee meeting about the ill effects of pornography. Rather than giving heart-stirring testimony in a moment of triumph, Bettie's simply told that she isn't needed and not to bother coming back.

Co-written by Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron (who also directed), the film is reminiscent of the "girls in trouble" exploitation movies of the past, albeit in reverse. The film begins with a teenage Bettie (Molly Moore) as a victim of sexual abuse by her father. However, she seems incredibly well-adjusted despite this. Likewise, an older Bettie (Gretchen Moll) is (easily) duped and raped by a gang of men but this doesn't seem to phase the plucky go-getter either. These scenes of brutality appear to justify Bettie's later lot in life as a fetish model and pin-up girl.

Had not Bettie been victimized, would she have not "suffered at the hands of pornographers"?

Meanwhile, fetishism and bondage are treated strangely. Despite the film being made in 2005, the attitudes toward the men interested in seeing pictures of pretty girls trussed up or spanking one another feels positively stuck in the '50s. We're told by photographer Paula Klaw (Lily Taylor) that the men interested in too-high heels are lawyers, doctors, and judges -- important men who need to blow off steam in their own way. Yet, the only men we see buying/looking at Paula and Irving Klaw's products are creepy -- sometimes to the extreme (Jared Harris). When Bettie's boyfriend, Scotty (Dallas Roberts) sees some of the pictures that Bettie's been in, he describes them as "disgusting." Apparently, Bettie must agree with him as this doesn't end their relationship.

In short, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE feels decidedly both anti-fetish and anti-woman. Quite a strange combination for a celebration of a fetish model.

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