Decades Blogathon – The Stepford Wives (1975)

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Welcome to day three of the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the incomparable Tom from Digital Shortbread. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and I are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Mark at the never-less-than-awesome Movie Man Jackson. Mark’s site really is worth a chunk of your time; it’s amusing and intelligent at the same time. Take a look.

“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe"

“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe”

What is the perfect woman like? And does she know she is ‘perfect’?

In the state of Connecticut, a quiet and secluded suburb known as Stepford exists. Stepford is a place that photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), her lawyer husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and their two kids will make life relocating from the bustling New York state. On the surface, it is everything one would think a family desires: a safe community, clean air, respectable neighbors and the like.

Things can sometimes be too perfect, though. For a free spirit and nonconformist like Joanna, an uneasy feeling manifests itself immediately and only grows larger as the days move on; and it is not like she can vent to anyone else.

Men are no help, and the other wives in town are the main reason for Joanna’s uneasiness. They want to be nothing more than perfect housewives. The only person she can trust is fellow newbie Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) and together, these two will have to try uncover the mystery of what exactly is going on.

The Stepford Wives 1

The decade of the 1970s is known for a lot of things, but perhaps the key thing it is known for is the women’s liberation movement. I am not a historian, but I’ll take an educated guess and say if the 1960s served as the world’s introduction to feminist ideals, the 1970s period served as the point in time where the movement really gained steam.

The Stepford Wives novel came along in 1972, and three years later spawned the film adaptation. While the film adaptation may not hold up completely today, mainly because of the different foci feminism fights today, the relevance hasn’t completely been lost either. And just on a more basic sense it is a watchable, oddly funny and entertaining little horror-thriller.

The Stepford Wives is very much a satire; a reflection of the world during its release. The core of the plot, and essentially the whole movie, is the clashing of the two differing beliefs of what women should be, and how they should behave.

All of the men serve as the establishment; the group in power that seeks to keep its dominance over the opposite sex, either due to fear of the unknown or some other, purely indulgent, reasons. Joanna and Bobbie are the resistance, representing the ideals of second wave feminism, the reluctance to accept what a male-driven society expects them to do in being docile, stay-at-home, and the quintessential 1950s housewife.

Over 40 years later, the discussion of gender roles in particular is still a fight being fought today by activists, but maybe not in the rudimentary way shown in this movie. Look at the recent controversy surrounding the madness of Gamergate and the uproar regarding the Black Widow character in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This keeps The Stepford Wives from being terribly dated, but there is a sense had by yours truly that this is sort of period piece not necessarily made to stand the test of time (do filmmakers always go into a production hoping to achieve that? Who knows).

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Simplistic as the struggle may be, seeing these two opposing viewpoints play out throughout the movie is very intriguing… at least for the first time it is viewed. It is hard and maybe a little bit wrong to bring this up, but on subsequent views the mystery, not impossible to figure out even if one has never read the book as ‘Stepford’ is pretty much part of the English lexicon, is less hooking than it is on the first watch. However, a scene that doesn’t lose its impact after endless watches is the final one, chilling all the way up through the final lingering image, and a nice bold decision taken by director Bryan Forbes to end on something uneasy.

Success also has to be given to Forbes for being able to create a level of tension primarily in the day. Unlike other thrillers where all of the juicy stuff happens in the dark, The Stepford Wives goes the other way and features all of its story bathed in sunlight. And it works, whether in a living room, parking lot, or daytime party. These are all settings that don’t scream creepiness, but work more than well conveying it within the confines of the story.

Still, some dirty spots on the linoleum exists. A wealth of hilarious quotables exist throughout, but at times, the rest of the dialogue feels like it is going nowhere, compounded by the film’s somewhat meandering first half. This is where the movie could use some better production values; the music and cinematography can be, to yours truly at least, kind of amateurish.

And even with the engaging plot, the leads in Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, and Peter Masterson are pretty one-note in their performances (aside from an excellent argument scene between Ross and Masterson later in the film). Honestly, the side characters end up making more of an imprint than the stars do, especially Patrick O’Neal as Dale Coba; a man who surely knows more than he lets on.

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Perfect for its time, but perhaps a little duller in impact now, The Stepford Wives can still be seen in many respects as a semi-blueprint for similar, later works such as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Faculty, and other like-minded films. If watching women doing little domestic chores is your hobby, you’ll find plenty of it in Stepford.

Grade: B

Photo credits: filmfanatic.org, IMDb.com and pinterest.com.

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Great Films You Need To See – Punishment Park (1971)

This is my second contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Peter Watkins’ controversial docudrama Punishment Park was written as part of The Big Picture’s self-explanatory Lost Classics section, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

The Boston Phoenix may have predicted Peter Watkins’ potent philippic on the frightening consequences of unchecked power was a “cult hit waiting to happen”, but 40 years after its controversial release it’s still twiddling its thumbs waiting for the world to catch on.

Peter Watkins' Punishment Park - "it's striking just how resonant the issues of the film still remain"

Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park – “it’s striking just how resonant the issues of the film still remain”

Watkins’ pioneering brand of radical pseudo-documentary filmmaking was always going to leave him shouting at the world from the sidelines.

His 1965 BBC nuclear war docudrama The War Game was judged “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” by Auntie and shelved for 20 years. Set in a dystopic America that Watkins could see on the horizon, Punishment Park never recovered from the hostile critical reaction it mostly received and sank without trace.

The 'prisoners' find the going tough in Punishment Park

The ‘prisoners’ find the going tough in Punishment Park

Dismissed at the time as nothing more than hyperbolic paranoia on the part of the director (The New York Times described it as “the wish-fulfilling dream of a masochist”), seen today it’s striking just how resonant the issues of the film still remain.

With the Vietnam War escalating, Nixon invokes legislation authorising a police state wherein those deemed “a risk to internal security” can be arrested and tried by a civilian tribunal. Presumed guilty, the hippies, draft dodgers and seditious types arrested for “hindering the war effort” are offered long jail time or three gruelling days in Punishment Park (or the option of signing a Hitler oath-style pledge of loyalty).

They fought the law, the law won in Punishment Park

They fought the law, the law won in Punishment Park

Promised liberty if they evade the police and National Guard and make it across scorching hot desert to capture the US flag 53 miles away, the ‘subversives’ who choose this option little realise their blood-thirsty pursuers have no intention of letting them gain their freedom (or, in some cases, letting them live).

The screw is turned as the film, comprised of faux BBC news footage narrated by an increasingly splenetic Watkins, cuts between the one-sided kangaroo court (its chairman, a politician, gags a prisoner for getting on his nerves bringing to mind Bobby Seale), the terrified rebels in Punishment Park and law enforcement officers hungry for action. In a cruel irony one runner tells the camera crew “I don’t think they’re trying to kill us”, before Watkins cuts to a sheriff describing how best to shoot someone.

The spectre of Bobby Seale looms large in Punishment Park

The spectre of Bobby Seale looms large in Punishment Park

Interestingly, the non-professional actors were cast based on their own political beliefs and were told by Watkins to let rip against each other as if the situation were real. As a result the scenes within the tribunal tent crackle with tension as the prisoners and tribunal members have what might be called “a failure to communicate” and end up screaming at each other.

Echoes of Punishment Park (and Watkins’ previous diatribe The Gladiators) can be seen in such variable fare as The Running Man, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.

Filmed in the aftermath of and coloured by the Kent State massacre when the US was ripping itself apart over Vietnam, Watkins’ hellish vision of an America consumed by war and whose citizens are judged by their loyalty to the state may have been branded paranoia, but 40 years on looks pretty prescient when taking into account the War on Terror, Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay and lends credence to that old proverb ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.