The Rain People

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In the late sixties and early seventies “road movies” became a popular narrative form with the success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). On an international scale, filmmakers embraced the pseudo genre as a way to manufacture not only intimate character portraits, but as a vehicle for showcasing and criticizing American national identity. In the works of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac (On The Road and The Dharma Bums) it became evident to a generation of American filmmakers that such stories were capable of presenting believable and psychologically complex portraits the likes of which may have been too difficult to tell otherwise on the budget afforded them.

Typically these films tell the stories of men, with Hopper’s Easy Rider and Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop being the best of them. In Germany, Wim Wenders produced two road films (and would name a production company after the genre) Alice In The Cities and Wrong Move. Unlike Hopper and Hellman, Wenders uses a female character in a strong supporting role to help probe the psychology of the genre and the lead male character.

The antithesis of the “male” road movie is Barbara Loden’s single directorial effort Wanda. In this film, Loden plays the lead, Wanda, who leaves her life of domestic suppression for a Bonnie & Clyde style existence on the open road. Loden’s script flaunts the conventions of Arthur Penn’s film, and allows the film to develop slowly and organically, prioritizing character and space over action and spectacle.

Now enter Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Rain People; made before his big break with The Godfather. Coppola cast Shirley Knight as a woman on the run (from her husband, suburbia and an unwanted pregnancy) who happens upon a brain damaged ex-football star played by James Caan. From the characters alone it becomes clear that Coppola intends to, like Hopper and Hellman, pull the rug out from under the American dream. His lead can’t stand the domestic life of middle class America and the male supporting lead is a football star deprived of any mental capacity beyond that of a nine year old.

On their journey, the pair encounters all sorts of antagonists from an animal abusing farmer to a rapist cop (played memorably by Robert Duvall). Every time the antagonist is a male, he’s abusive. Yet, Knight is never responsible for resolving or negating these conflicts, instead it is the slow-witted Caan who is willing to stand up for higher values (Coppola suggests that he does this primarily because he is “slow”, so why else would he naively believe the American dream?). These plot points in themselves seem to bypass the feminist message Coppola ostensibly promised in the films opening, instead favoring the constructs we attribute to the “damsel in distress” pictures of Douglas Fairbanks or Burt Lancaster’s swashbuckling antics of the old Hollywood.

Consider for yourself the feminism of a narrative that constantly places its female protagonist in the role of helpless victim? So it becomes clear that the before mentioned feminism of the film, and others like it, which simply transposes a solitary female into one of the typically male roles does not necessitate feminism. Instead it bypasses feminism all together and reinforces the machismo of the road movie genre.

Only Loden’s film Wanda seems to achieve anything genuinely feminist within the genre, which it barely adheres to anyway. We can therefore conclude that to effectively change the social and political mechanics of a genre, one must also change the narrative mechanics in equal measure (a good example of this would be John Cassavetes’ work in the “hitman” genre, Gloria). Using the example provided by Wanda, such changes in mechanics do not necessarily allow the film in question to remain in the genre that it is manipulating. Instead, a new genre, or sub-genre, is born out of the venture and constitutes a step forward in narrative filmmaking. So much for man made feminism.