Rev. Apr 22, 2019.
It is possible that I have found a missing link between two issues of filmmaking in the 70s that have been of interest to me. One, I have long wondered how it was that mainstream movie making in the era developed such an obtuse, scrambled, lazy style, which you can see in so many movies of the time. Then, two, I have of late put my finger on a subgenre group of low-budget 70s and 80s horror movies where the scare source is kept off screen for the whole movie, resulting in an emptied out, cryptic visuality that communicates in every frame that what you are seeing is not what is happening, and I have found this to be related to the fact that the scares are sentient in nature, therefore, coming in from way outside, this in movies like disconnected (1984) but also The Cremators (1974). In The Stepford Wives (1975), it is possible that these two trends come together, to allow of an explanation of for why movies looked the way they looked back then.
The Stepford Wives (1975), indeed, is always communicating that there is something happening which you are not seeing on screen, and it does this by emptied out, oblique filming of scenes. The movie opens with a distant shot of Katharine Ross, who outshines everybody else in the movie by a lot, somewhat vacating by her glare the center too, sitting forlorn at the window of her city apartment, about to say goodbye for good, always a sad moment
she is still completely preoccupied in the car.
but, then, as they wait for the husband to come down, the movie resorts to symbolism, with a sense of foreshadow, and lookback too, it even speaks to the moment, for Ross. When the daughter tells the dad that she just saw a man carrying a naked woman, he quips, that’s why we are moving to stepford, ie we’re getting away from city crazies; then, there is irony in it, because, of course, that’s what they are driving precisely into, in Stepford, making women as mannequins; and, no doubt, Ross saw it, and saw in it, her, being dragged out of the city against her will, a woman succumbing to the will of the man and the running of the family. As such, then, this is a hecateaen, three-way image, placed at the edge of their city experience, it warns.
but it is also an emptied out image, and when Ross shows up at the new house, which is a nice one, it is also, to her, all empty, as this shot indicates the power of the imprisoning bannister, and the nature of a haunted house that she will never feel comfortable in.
the first bit of neighborliness comes by way of the wife across the street, she carries a casserole over, and then disappears in the woods, where she came from, here one minute, gone the next, like an unreal thing. This suggests that she lives in ambient space, that is, outside of social space, it even suggests her as a kind of nature nymph, a being expressing man’s needs, in a magical way, not an actual social human being
later, Ross tries to take back the casserole pot but is stopped, again at long range, from across the street, by seeing the husband come out to the gardening wife, and just grab her breasts from behind, she making no gesture of dispute, it’s part of the job of an acquiescing wife.
from afar, Ross is actually surprised, somewhat amused, maybe a little shocked, but in the sense that she is a college educated modern liberal 70s women’s lib woman and it shocks her that some women are still so trapped in the past, in a preliberated state, that they are free to fondle whensoever the husband wishes.
So, she is separated from whatever it is that is going on here, by an ambient distance, and the answer seems to lie even further out, away from her. In social scenes, this then sets up an open-ended kind of depiction of the world, with people walking through or around things in an ungainly almost unplanned way, as when husband and others come to see if the casserole wife is ok after getting her car rearended, I mean, can you imagine filming a scene like this? and telling the actors how it will go down, it is just really pulled apart.
but then this pulled apart quality is contrasted pretty quickly with a circle the wagon close the circle kind of exaggerated bowling pin shot of old, to show the closing of the ranks, the artificial social cohesion of the robots, the wives. Like this
if I can jump ahead this effect is even more attenuatively played out in another scene when the same casserole wife goes on the fritz, then has to be shushed out so no one knows, at O’Neal’s pool party. It seems to proceed like any party, but the men of the club are making a show of being there, but not talking to each other.
then, it is suggested by this shot, which is a classic lattice shot, everything, by the inference of the shot, part of her mind, that the wives of the club members are like potted plants or garden statuary at the event, and not really there to mingle with the real human beings. This odd space behind a building also has the nature of an ambient space that means nothing at other times, only activated by a party, so her life as party animal is even doubly doubtful, a third time that in this shot Ross and Prentiss (center) are coming through up to say something to her.
but elsewhere, at the party, it is as if no one pays them any attention, they are not there, in a real way
then she goes on the fritz, something about having to get that recipe, she begins to repeat it over and over again, she circles around about the outside of the party, down a terrain that would not normally be part of the party, to come in on it from as it were a back door, in a ritualized way. But the strange thing about this shot is that O’Neal is in it, and he has obviously seen her, and knows exactly what is coming, because he gets up, but as if entirely disguising the fact that it is due to or in response to her, he is just casually “there is no problem” mixing, but they now do a strange dance on the camera
the party is spread out enough that her repeating her chatty remark gets no attention, because its repetition is out of earshot of those who heard it previously.
but the husband quickly intervenes and she is shushed away,
in this case, as in the previous, it is exploitation of the spread out nature of social space today, in suburbia, that allows the deception to exist, and it is by filming the interaction of the robot and the space, the robot moving through the space in an ambient circle outside the norms of social interaction, that the shots convey the idea that, we see what we are seeing, but we are not being shown all that we need to see.
This continues in a more straightforward way when Ross and Prentiss barge into a house, to ask the wife to join their group, so another coming through the door shot
only then to be paused by hearing sex cheering from the wife during sex coming from the vacancy of the stairway, the nothingness on screen.
their lives in general are all spread out, if there is somewhere they need to go, they just call across to a helper, and off they go
they then see things in passing, from the road
But, now, having set up the wide ambient spin, which serves to obscure the truth of the scenes, suggesting that the truth lies still further out, in some sentient zone, it is also true that the negative space character of the movie infiltrates the very center of the movie, and even Ross herself, who is fighting hard, but, perhaps, already losing. I caught some micro-details in an apparently merely scenic sequence in the middle of the movie, which shows what a good mother she is. She is sitting in front of the fireplace, in her robe, likely after a bath or shower, because naked underneath, and she is going through some of her photos, and tearing a good number of them up, tossing them into the fire. That itself is a symbolic act, but she is watched over by a totem, it is a folk art doll, with an emptied out hoop skirt-accomodating structure below.
here is a better shot of it.
in the movie, this kind of serves as an effigy of her predicament, therefore, a predicament object, she likes it because it speaks to her, but what it speaks to her is not positive, but negative. So, here it is activated in this next scene. Because Ross hears her daughter call, so gets up, and as she gets up, her robe parts, she moves fast, almost running, for it to expose her whole right leg, right up to her crotch
then as the other foot comes in, it is pretty much full exposure, or as full exposure as a woman of her status will give, that is, she is a liberated woman who completely takes for granted her physical prowess and thus has no sense of the effect she has around her. But in the micro language of movies, this much exposure says that she is losing the war, she will die, alas, that’s what it means.
then even for something as intimate as calming her daughter, we have another odd doorway shot, just coming in, in the shadow, into an undefined, uncultured, unmoved into space
it is just as oblique when, after she hears hubby come in, she goes down, in a gown prowl, usually for a who’s there, or to see a ghost.
her predicament is made even worse when the husband invites the men’s club over for a drink and a meeting and she asks to sit in, they say sure. But, it is odd, though I wonder if in the mid70s it was even noticed that she is braless, and her left nipple is quite sharply pricking her dress (she earlier made a comment as a joke that she was not so radical as to be ready to burn her Maidenform, that is how the chatter of the time cheapens discourse, but by and large she is woman who follows contemporary fashion of the time, which featured most of the time no bras). But, in retrospect, this attractiveness in this setting, makes her a bit of a target for the men’s gazes.
then, the meeting starts, but from the start it almost sounds like it was staged as a pretext to provide a pencil artist to undertake a task of some undiscerned process which has something to do with changing her, or overtaking her, with gaze. Throughout the meeting, in a very casual, this is what I do, I am an artist, I can’t help it way, he draws her, as she models, sitting silent, uninvolved, unconsulted by any of the men, and she is subjected to his perfectionist gaze
the fact that the drawing montages by dissolve into or over her, to signify that it is the central object of the meeting, boring the truth of the meeting into her attempt to look like she is paying attention to the meeting, and not distracted by his doing a drawing of her, captures perfectly her conflicted situation. And we would have no idea thus far that there was any second or ulterior motive in this gathering, an event to get her to sit for him, without realizing that that is what she is doing.
his gaze, over that wire, again reinforces this event as the real reason for the meeting
then there is a bit of a montage as she is effaced to the cycloptic, the one-eyed monster, by drinking up to the ice in the bottom of her empty glass
and we see a study of her eye, over her, as if a premonition, again, we hardly know, of her real eye by an artificial one
and then it is as if she is processed through his drawing effort, and at last signified as the center of the event, the real reason for doing it, as she is now captured in her full gaze, the big beautiful eyes that Ross was known for, now foreshadowing her takeover
with a dissolve of those eyes over it all again making the point that they are talking about nothing, so that one of them can start the witchcraft by sitting there getting the base image of her best look to start the process of turning her into a robot, by their art
she later recognizes his art, and is charmed to receive the drawing, one presumes he has another, and knowing that he was primarily, the suggestion is, an artist like Vargas who did voluptuous creamy women in seductive poses in men’s magazines, she says, “you blighted my adolescence,” a joke, but she does not know that it has come back to get her again.
but she takes the picture in, and she likes it, who wouldn’t?
but soon after, taking off her makeup, her face also drops, as she complains what bores they were, what a terrible time that was, why are they ? this is awful, the drawing shunted to the side, she was just being sociable, as women sometimes have to do
later, when Tina Louise is turned we see where the drawings are, as part of the witchcraft. That is, she has been turned, she now lives her life in her house like a housewife of old, she therefore has to have a best image of her put up in a central place, like an eidol, but without the intercession, that is, it is an exploitational eidol, a rubber stamp imposed upon her by a greater power, molding her in their image, this is that evil eidolsploitation image
Just to indicate that Prentiss is in shock to be talking to a woman who was sassy and irreverent last week but now is turned into a housewife zombie, we have a bit of art byplay as this broken guitar speaks both to her suspicion that something is wrong, and to the idea that if at one point this picture served Louise as an image of defiance, that she was not one to play to anyone else’s tune, no one was going to play her like a guitar, now that independence is gone, she has been converted into the drawing, even as if doing her hair by it.
so a drawing becomes not only a foreshadow in a symbolic sense, or a prescriptive eidol exploited by power to force an image on an underling, it is actually, somehow, part of the process. My guess, given that O’Neal worked at Disney, that it is some sort of animatronic vision, the drawing is the model they start with, her at her best
then Prentiss, to Ross’s horror, gets the treatment too
funnily raising her head as a zombie from out of the refrigerator, Ross then, in a very slinky 70s dress, no bra, has no idea what is awaiting her
So, somehow, the drawing is part of the recipe. Another part of it was that the men had to come by the bedroom, to make a copy of the bedroom. This part, I do not quite understand. Why would they need a copy of the bedroom? Maybe to “train” the animatronic in its limited abilities, focused on the giving of sex whenever the man desires it. Then, almost in passing, there is a third thing, she has to record her voice saying a whole protocol of words; she does it, thinking it is for a hobbyhorse study by one of the guys, but it is to program her. Then, when in the finale she runs in the night to the clubhouse, she is lead to O Neal’s office by the attraction of the tape recorder, that is, it is indeed another step in the process, the robot or whatever now equipped both with her likeness from that drawing and her voice from that recording. Note the Franz Kline like painting, it seems to serve as a message that we are passing over, that the final transformation is being undertaken
here it is earlier
there seems to be other art
but she is now left to explore and discover her room, exact copy, why?
it is a copy, set into the bigger room
then, at last, she meets her copy. My guess is that, sitting at this boudoir, in her nightgown, in a three mirror mirror, a hecatean figure, she is in the process of being trained in some way to be a woman with a very limited repertore of interests and actions. Most of her actions would have to do with prettifying herself for his pleasure, so she is deep in it.
but when disturbed, she looks at Ross, but has black eyes. Black eyes. They are such a long-term trope, what they mean is soullessness, nothing there. She sees with them, but she sees in a limited way perhaps (maybe she sees in a black out only). She sees Ross
Ross sees her, her eyes all but falling off her face to the side
Then gaze that gazes back is not the black eyes but the one-eyed monster of horror, sex, it has been intentional, the show of Ross’s modest chest, in modern dress, a classic 70s natural look beauty, but now her form in a robot model will be slightly enhanced in a retrograde way so that she has more breast and can therefore be more physically pleasing to her husband. The fact that this is a bullet breast with the nipple all but searching for her, like a hunt dog, emphasizes this even more.
then the automaton stands up, and she is nude under a gown that shows everything, including below
this is some serious thigh gap, as it is called now
and her black eye is profiled and reinforced by echolation, like in a pornographic magazine, by the equal black spot of her pubic bush below, at that time emphasizing as a shot that she will die, Ross, that is.
then, in all but a nude shot, emphasizing that in her revised edited retrogressive self sex has been placed back in the number one position as the number one thing men want of women, but we see now that she is to use her stocking to strangle Ross. This too is witchcraft I do not quite understand. Having had the drawing made, as a blueprint, then reverse engineered for it a better, sexier body; then programmed into her a recording of her voice; then trained her in her limited scripts in life in a model of her bedroom; she is now to complete the process by strangling the subject, presumably by it to capture her soul into her, for her eyes to then suddenly turn into something that looks more like Ross.
except we see at the end, they are dead eyes.
For me, this is too little explication, there would be more, even if only a little bit more, if this was really a horror movie. As is, the movie left us hanging, without explanation. It also more or less left the solving of the problem to the very last of the last reel, like the sentient movies I have liked from the time. Throughout, its reference to the horror was oblique and ambient, at times, in terms of actually telling us what the men are up to, the reasoning was sentient, sometimes, as in the meeting scene, with him drawing her, directly misdirecting our attention; at other times, as in the men stopping by one night to look at her bedroom, leaving us entirely in the dark, thus projecting the blueprint plan into the sentient space outlying the movie. Overall, however, the gangly, hardly pulled together nature of the movie at least offers a preliminary explanation for what might be the origin or reason for the kind of movie that began to be made, even in the mainstream, at the time, and that is that by importing techniques from a subgenre, they were set on trying to tell a story, by leaving the great majority of the explanation off screen, throughout. Though, again, in review I felt that Stepford lost points in being so entirely oblique and nonexplanatory, which compromised to some degree the plausibility of the last step in the process.
One final point, in its use of realistic, exact, almost Central Park sidewalk artist drawing,
the movie is part of its time in casting suspicion on too good of a likeness, in too accurate a way, of a person. Even in art, of the time, this was suspect, and, to some degree, it remains so, though figuration has continued to thrive. But, in a movie, this is backed up by the traditional horror that singletons feel for a likeness so good that is amounts to a double. In this movie, the drawing is in fact in the service of making a double of the person, so it is an instrument of twinfire, of eventually making of her a double whose horror in twinfire she will know. This is an interesting and fun literalization, it accords with traditional belief that likenesses be covered in the room where a wake is being held so that there is no soul jumping going on between body and art. This approbation against likeness is even reinforced by the fact that the artist turns out to be a Vargas type pin-up artist who “decimated my adolescence,” Ross says, that means, art like this
I will have to further explore this, maybe even read the novel, to see if this was intended, but, clearly, aesthetically, this is another slap at figurative likeness accuracy, as a dangerous thing, tending toward kitsch, and, in horror, because it suggests control as in voodoo doll control by a foreign power, which, of course, is entirely operative as a principal here.