Rape Is about Sex

I remember first becoming informed that rape was not about sex around 1970. This was back in the days when the typical bookstore would carry numerous books written by Freud, of which I had read about a dozen.  As we all know, Freud argued that owing to the role of the unconscious in determining behavior, our motives are often hidden from us.  We think we know why we did something, but it turns out the real reason was something else, something we never suspected.  And, owing to the large role that sex played in Freud’s theories, the motive hidden in the unconscious often turned out to be a repressed sexual desire.  The theory that rape is not about sex certainly followed Freud, in that an unconscious motive is attributed to the rapist.  But it was a complete reversal of the usual Freudian formula:  instead of sex being the unconscious motive for something else, something else was asserted to be the unconscious motive for sex.

In general, I was a little skeptical of all the claims being bandied about in those days regarding the unconscious, whether by Freud or any other psychoanalyst, and so I merely noted this peculiar notion that rape was not about sex with indifference.  A couple of years later, I saw Frenzy (1972), a film by Alfred Hitchcock.  It is about a “necktie strangler” who rapes and murders women.  At some point during the movie, the detective tells a sergeant that most men like him are impotent.  The sergeant expresses surprise at this remark, and rightly so, I thought to myself.  That was carrying the rape-is-not-about-sex theory to an extreme.  After all, impotence is the failure to be able to perform sexually, owing to the inability to get an erection. In any event, the detective goes on to say that it is not the sex that gratifies the rapist.

The detective speaks with an authoritative voice in the movie, and so we know we are supposed to believe him.  But aside from squaring impotence with rape, there is the incongruity between his words and the rape that took place in the movie thirty minutes before.  In the history of mainstream cinema, no movie, made before or since, has depicted sex, consensual or coerced, in which anyone, male or female, experiences greater heights of sexual ecstasy than the necktie strangler in Frenzy.

What is remarkable about this movie is that, in discussing it with others, I have noticed that most people accept the pronouncements of the detective, notwithstanding their apparent inconsistency with the rape scene.  This is in part due to the authoritative voice of the detective, and in part due to the widespread acceptance of the rape-is-not-about-sex theory at that time.  I have seen people twist themselves into a pretzel trying to argue that the rapist never really got it up, let alone gratified himself sexually.  I suspect that this was Hitchcock’s idea of a joke.  He purposely put this contradiction into the movie between the words of the pompous detective and the scene of sexual passion, as his way of making fun of that theory.

This movie aside, I have heard this rape-is-not-about-sex theory discussed many times.  I have never known one woman to disagree with it.  And while a lot of men will also agree with it, I have noticed that a lot of men grow silent, particularly in mixed company.  Though a man may disagree with this theory, yet he will quickly realize how inadvisable it would be for him to say so. Imagine a man, upon hearing it declared that rape is not about sex, saying, “Oh no!  Rape is all about sex.  I mean, sometimes you want it so bad, you feel like holding them down to get what you want.” Any man that would say something like that, especially with women present, would be a fool. By the time that story got around, no woman would ever go out with him again.  And so, the theory largely goes unchallenged.

People often use force to get what they want.  Wars are fought for territory or natural resources, revolutions are fought to wrest power away from others, and criminals rob and steal to get money.  Given how much men want sex, why they should not use force to get that too is a mystery.  Alternatively, if we are willing to say rape is not about sex, why not say that robbery is not about money? Granted, there are cases where robbery does have an additional motive.  A gangster may be angry at society, or maybe he enjoys dominating his victims. But mostly, robbery is about money; and mostly, rape is about sex.

I have heard it said that there are two primary types of rapists, anger rapists and power rapists.  The former are motivated by “resentment and a general hostility towards women.”  But how do we make sense of this resentment and hostility unless it has a sexual origin?  It has only been recently that women have had anything other than sex about which men would be resentful. For millennia women have been denied status, property, power, rights, or anything else that might inspire resentment, and yet rape has been going on since caveman days.  Is it not more likely that the hostility toward women arises out of sexual frustration or rejection?

The power rapist, it is said, is motivated by his need to control and dominate his victim, and inversely, to avoid being controlled by her.  But if a man had no sexual desire for women, he would not likely bother with them at all.  How do we make sense out of this threat of being controlled by her, unless that threat be sexual?  In any event, the main reason a man would want to control and dominate a woman is for sexual purposes.  Sex is the end; dominance and control are but the means.  Without the former, there is no point to the latter.

The intensity with which some people defend this theory that rape is not about sex naturally makes one suspicious.  One cannot help but wonder if the purpose of the theory is to demean the rapist. We deny him the sexual motive, which he may regard as manly, something he can be proud of, and assert that he has anger issues and a need to dominate.  In other words, this thesis is an act of revenge against the rapist, undermining his masculinity by insisting that he acts out of insecurity and weakness.

In the end, the claim that rape is not about sex is speculative, almost metaphysical.  It is not the sort of thing that one can verify simply through observation.  Even if we could observe rapes, as we do in movies like Frenzy, all we would see is the use of force and violence in combination with sex.  We cannot observe the motive.  The best that can be done is to interview the rapist. But the whole rape-is-not-about-sex theory is premised on the idea that things are not what they seem, not even to the rapist himself; so his own assessment of his motives is not to be trusted, even granted that he is being sincere, which is a big assumption right there.  Such interviews may reveal the anger and power motives referred to above, but that gets us right back to the whole question of which is cause and which is effect.  The prima facie case is that sex is the cause of rape.  The theory that it is just the effect, an insignificant epiphenomenon of anger and power, is counterintuitive and unverifiable.

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Consensual Sex and the Double Standard

In 2014, California enacted a law requiring college students to get consent before they have sex.  The language is couched in gender-neutral terms, so that technically the law applies to men and women, either gay or straight.  But the primary intent of the law is directed toward heterosexual couples, and it is only the consent of the woman that is of concern.  In other words, the law is written in such a way that it appears to grant equal protection under the law to both sexes, even though we all know that a double standard will and ought to be applied in its implementation.

It is women that need protection against rape, even in the case where force is not used.  This is for several reasons:  First, men are bigger and stronger than women.  Not only is this true on average, but men and women tend to select each other on the basis of size as well.  Although the law is not intended to cover cases where force is used, for that is already illegal and does not need additional legislation, the size and strength of a man compared to a woman can be a factor in cases where consent is ambiguous. That is, a man can simply wear a woman out physically, until she becomes too tired to resist.

Second, it is the woman that can become pregnant.  This puts her at a severe disadvantage compared to the man.  Though birth control may make pregnancy unlikely, and abortion may be available to terminate it, yet it is a big problem for women nevertheless.  And while the man may find himself forced to pay child support if she has the baby, she will still have the greater burden in caring for it and raising it.

Third, a woman is more likely to feel violated by a man than a man would feel violated by a woman.  A major reason for this difference is penetration.  Though a woman may be disgusted by the unwanted kisses of a man, or by his groping her, nothing can compare to being penetrated.  Furthermore, an erection is prima facie evidence of consent regarding the man, thereby undermining his ability to claim that he was similarly violated.  Apart from this, there may be psychological differences as well. Some men think of sex as a matter of conquest.  And it is part of nature of sexual conquest to have a “love ’em and leave ’em” attitude, resulting in one night stands, which can make a woman who surrenders to such a man feel betrayed, especially if he whispered words of love as part of the seduction.  In fact, whether a rape has occurred may depend in part on the subsequent behavior of the man.  If a man refuses to have anything to do with a woman after they have sex, and possibly even insults her, she may feel violated; if he calls her up the next day and asks to see her again, thereby beginning a long-term relationship, that is another thing altogether. In other words, whether a rape has occurred may have as much to do with the subsequent behavior of the man as it does with what happened just before and during sex.

Fourth, alcohol has one legal implication for women and a different implication for men.  People drink, in part, simply because it feels good.  But they also drink in order to get carried away.  I once had a girlfriend who, by her own admission, had been quite promiscuous in college.  During some pillow talk one night, she told me about all the one night stands she had when she was young, and I expressed amazement.  “I don’t think I could have a one night stand,” I said.  “In fact, I don’t think I would want to.  I would have to get to know a woman first before I would feel comfortable having sex.” Without the slightest hesitation, and through half-closed eyelids, she said, “That’s because you don’t drink, John.  Standing there cold sober, no one could do it.  But when you drink, you feel like you’re in love.  And it’s easy to have sex with someone you love.”

Alcohol not only lowers our inhibitions, it also gives us cover for inappropriate behavior. Drinking gives us a license for license.  We are more likely to misbehave if we know that others will excuse this misbehavior as being the result of intoxication. Therefore, a lot of people drink knowing it will not only make it easier to have sex, but also will be a prophylactic against shame the next morning.

The problem lies in judging when someone has consumed enough alcohol to get carried away, but not so much as to no longer be able to consent to sex.  And here the double standard may strike some people as unfair.  If the woman is drunk, her saying “yes” to sex does not constitute consent, but if the man has sex with her, he cannot use the fact that he was drunk as a legal justification against a charge of rape.   So we end up with the situation in which if a man and woman who are equally drunk have sex, she can claim to have been raped, because the legal implications of being drunk are different for men and women.

But even if the woman is sober and only the man is drunk, their having sex will not be construed as her raping him.  No one has ever watched The Way We Were (1973), and thought that Katie (Barbara Streisand) deserved to go to prison for raping Hubbell (Robert Redford), even though she had sex with him while he was too passed-out drunk to know what he was doing.

The double standard here regarding alcohol, not holding a drunk woman responsible for saying “yes,” while holding a drunk man responsible not realizing that she was too drunk to consent, is justified on account of the reasons given previously:  the size and strength of the man, the possibility of pregnancy, and the difference in the male and female psyches.

It is peculiar that the law seems to apply only to college students.  Although I support a double standard for men and women when it comes to sex, I hope we do not have a double standard for college students and all other adults. Presumably, women who are not in college are not fair game, and the “yes means yes” standard applies to them too.  It is only on account of the unique circumstance of young women living away from home and under the protection of a university that special legislation for coeds has been enacted.

Unfortunately, a double standard is a two-edged sword.  In affirming a double standard for sexual activity, we run the risk of having that double standard leach out into areas where it is inappropriate, such as in the workplace.  By saying men are more responsible for their drunken behavior than women, by saying women are psychologically more likely to feel violated and be traumatized by sex than men are, we run the risk of suggesting that women cannot be trusted with responsibility in the workplace, and that they are psychologically weaker than men.  It is partly for this reason that the law is stated in gender-neutral terms.  Although gender-neutral language allows the law to apply to gay couples too, I suspect that this gender-neutral language would still be there anyway, as if to suggest that a man has the same protection against being violated by a woman, and could thus bring charges of rape against her.  So, to keep from having a double standard for men and women in the workplace and in other contexts where sex should not matter, we pretend not to have a double standard for men and women in the matter of sexual activity.  I don’t doubt that someday a man will bring rape charges against a woman, saying he was too drunk to consent.  In anticipation of this event, allow me to smirk preemptively at such a claim.

This is our dilemma:  either we deny the existence of a double standard in matters of sex as being repugnant to egalitarian principles, and end up being forced to accept conclusions that are absurd or paradoxical; or we admit to the need to have a double standard in matters of sex, which leaves an opening for those who want a reason to discriminate against women elsewhere.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

There are not many movies about Heaven, thank God, but of those that exist, one often senses a feeling of diffidence on the part of those who produced them.  The reason for this, I suspect, is twofold.  First, it is difficult to present Heaven in a way that makes it as appealing as the Eternal Abode is supposed to be.  Second, religion is a sensitive subject, and they don’t want to offend anyone.  To this end, those that produce such movies may attempt to disarm their audiences in a variety of ways.

One such way is to present the story as a dream or hallucination.  For example, in The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Heaven is merely dreamt by someone, and in Stairway to Heaven (1946), there is the suggestion that the story we see is the hallucination of a British pilot.  A second way of disarming the audience is through an exculpatory prologue, a disclaimer to the effect that the movie is not being presented as something factual, as if that were not obvious, but as merely a figment.  This device was also used in Stairway to Heaven.  Finally, the movies tend to be frivolous comedies, so silly that no one is likely to take them seriously.  Here Comes Mr. Jordan utilizes the last two of these techniques.  It is indeed a frivolous comedy, and it starts with a prologue, beginning with “We heard a story…,” where the “we” has no antecedent, but presumably refers to those who made this movie, asserting that the story is just a yarn that someone told them, and they thought it was so interesting that they just had to turn it into a movie.

The main character is Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), a heavyweight prize fighter who plays the saxophone as a hobby.  I have never played a wind instrument, but somehow I just don’t think being smashed in the mouth on a regular basis would be good for one’s embouchure.    Anyway, his manager is Max Corkle (James Gleason), the one who the prologue says told this story.  Max tells Joe not to fly his plane to New York, because it is too dangerous, but Joe pooh-poohs his concerns and decides to fly his plane anyway.  I don’t suppose I have to tell you that the plane crashes.

Joe finds himself in Heaven, where the souls of the departed, who are walking on clouds, are boarding a plane that will take them to their final destination.  One would think that no technology at all would be necessary in Heaven, but somehow the technology so envisioned in Heaven is often that presently available on Earth.  We are not too surprised when we find in Revelations that Jesus is going to use a sword with which to smite whole nations, but it is downright ludicrous when Satan uses cannons to fight the good angels in Paradise Lost.  Anyway, the airplane was still a pretty impressive piece of technology in 1941, when this movie was made, so naturally there are airplanes in this movie’s Heaven.

But only a handful of people seem to be boarding that plane.  Now, based on the population of the Earth in 1941, I estimate that about fifty thousand people died every day at that time, so one would have expected teeming masses instead.  Of course, there are those who believe that only a handful will make it into Heaven, the rest being condemned to the fires of Hell, so perhaps that would explain why there are so few people boarding the plane.  On the other hand, Joe is just an average Joe, so to speak, no better or worse than most people, so why he would qualify for Heaven in that case would not make sense.

About this time you are probably thinking that I am taking this movie way too seriously.  But I did this to illustrate my earlier point, that these movies are given a frivolous tone so that either people like me will not bother to analyze them, or that others will dismiss us as being pedantic if we do.  However, I will try not to nitpick.  I will not, for example, ask why people in Heaven wear clothes, and not just any clothes, but those that were in fashion in America circa 1941.  Nor will I question why the soul in charge of things in Heaven is called “Mr. Jordan” (Claude Rains).  Presumably he has been admitting souls into Heaven for centuries, long before the title “Mister” was used.  So, let us leave these questions aside and move along to some of the more serious absurdities.

Perhaps the most absurd aspect of this movie is Joe’s mentality.  That Joe is incredulous when he is told by Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) that he has died and is in Heaven is understandable.  But when he is finally convinced that he has gone to Heaven, his reaction is incredible.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I would be awed by my encounter with Eternity.  “So this stuff about God and Heaven is true after all,” I would be saying to myself in amazement.  As an atheist, I suppose it is only to be expected that I would be stunned, but I dare say that even the most devout would be almost in disbelief to find out that their hopes for an afterlife had actually been realized.

Joe does not care about any of this, however.  His only concern is that he was supposed to fight for the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World.  And now that he is dead, his chance at the title bout is over.  Or is it?  No, it seems that Messenger 7013 messed up and removed Joe’s soul from his body before he crashed, thereby not allowing Joe to pull the plan out of its dive.  In fact, Mr. Jordan discovers that Joe was not supposed to die for another fifty years.  Joe is delighted to find that he will be returned to Earth.  Does this attitude not slight Heaven?  It is as if Joe said, “Thank God I won’t have to go to Heaven for another fifty years!”  But that is a common attitude in movies about Heaven, to wit, that notwithstanding the fact that being in Heaven is supposed to be the most perfect form of existence a soul can aspire to, life on Earth is always thought to be preferable, much more preferable.

Because Joe’s body was cremated, a substitute will have to be found.  Joe wants a body that will allow him to become Heavyweight Champion of the World, but they need one that is fresh.  And of those that have recently died or are about to, a Mr. Farnsworth seems to be a good choice.  Mr. Farnsworth is a wealthy man who is in the process of being held under the water in his bathtub by his wife Julia and his secretary, Tony Abbot.  Joe doesn’t much care for the Farnsworth body, however, until he gets an eyeful of Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man who unfairly ended up going to prison on account of Farnsworth’s illegal financial activity.

Joe is torn.  What is more important to him, getting to be Heavyweight Champion of the World, or marrying this woman he has just fallen in love with?  Having just discovered the secret of Eternity, all Joe cares about is love and fame.  Now, you might say that Heaven can wait.  After all, Joe will get there eventually, so he might as well have some fun first.  Or will he?  If I had just found out that there really is a God and a Heaven, I would, as I have already said, be stunned.  But once I recovered from the shock and found out that I was going to have to go back to Earth, my question to Mr. Jordan, asked with much fear and trembling, would be whether there was a Hell, and if so, what I would need to do to stay out of it.  Nothing could be more important than that, certainly not boxing fame or the love of a woman.  In fact, even Heaven would not be all that important, for being the risk-averse guy that I am, I would gladly forgo all chance of Heaven if I could be assured that I would be spared of the fires of Hell.  In any event, I would certainly want to know what the rules are for staying out of Hell.  Do I need to turn the other cheek?  That might be something of a disadvantage in the boxing ring.  Am I already in trouble for looking at Bette with lust in my heart?

But as I said, Joe’s simplistic mentality does not think about such things.  Instead, he decides he can have both love and fame by being Farnsworth, saving Bette’s father from prison, courting her, and at the same time, building up his body to get in shape to enter the ring.  To this end, he gets in touch with Max.  At first, Max does not believe him, but the saxophone convinces him.  In other words, the real function of the saxophone in this movie is to act as an attribute, which is a feature used in art to identify someone.  For example, no one knows what Hercules looked like, even assuming there was such a person, so when we see a painting of a muscular man, how do we know it is Hercules?  We know by his attributes, which in his case are a lion skin and a gnarled club.  Since Joe keeps changing bodies, the only way Max can identify him is through Joe’s attribute, his saxophone.

Unfortunately for Joe, there is another thing he can’t seem to get through his thick head, which is that there is no such thing as free will, for all has been ordained by God in advance.  Actually, that is not quite right.  One of the interesting things about a lot of Heaven movies is the way they never talk about God.  Mr. Jordan and the Messenger keep using the passive voice, saying that this or that was “meant to be” rather than saying, “God meant things to be that way.”  This is another dodge used by those who produce movies about Heaven.  It is so God cannot be blamed.  Or rather, it is so that the producers of this movie cannot be blamed for making God responsible for evil.

The particular evil in question is the murder of Farnsworth.  The first attempt at murder by his wife and secretary failed, but on the second attempt, they succeed.  It is not clear whether Mr. Jordan deliberately misled Joe into thinking he could be Farnsworth for fifty years, or whether Mr. Jordan subsequently found out that Farnsworth would soon be murdered.  Mr. Jordan is always going around with a superior, smug look on his face, as if he knows everything, so one suspects he was being cute about letting Joe think he could be Farnsworth long enough to win the title and marry the girl.

Just before Joe as Farnsworth is to be murdered, Joe is told that remaining in Farnsworth’s body was not meant to be, as if there were some impersonal destiny that ruled the world.  But suppose instead that Mr. Jordan told Joe that he would not be able to continue using Farnsworth’s body because God wants Farnsworth to be murdered. The audience would be appalled.  And yet, that is the implication.  However, what is implied by a movie and what is explicitly stated are two different things.  Therefore, the issue is completely skirted by not referring to God at all.

Fortunately for Joe, a prize fighter named Murdock, whom Joe was supposed to fight, gets shot dead by gangsters right there in the ring during a title bout because he refused to throw that fight.  That way the other guy will win the fight, and the gangsters will get to collect on their bets.  Those gangsters!  They are so clever.  But it’s a break for Joe.  He gets to enter Murdock’s body, come alive at the count of nine, get up and win the fight.  But Joe figures there’s no glory in occupying Murdock’s body for a few seconds, just long enough to win a fight, so he wants another body that he can really call his own.

Mr. Jordan, however, washes away all memory of his being Joe or Farnsworth.  He now occupies Murdock’s body as if he really were Murdock.  He runs into Bette and they recognize each other, not physically, but spiritually as it were.  The only one left with any memory of all this is Max, who tells the police where the murdered body of Farnsworth can be found, and who is the one who was referred to in the prologue as the source for this story.

And so it is that Joe and Bette can live happily ever after, or at least until they die, when they have to go to that boring old Heaven.

Children of Men (2006)

Children of Men begins in the year 2027.   The United Kingdom is one of the few places left that has a functioning government.  Refugees pour in, fleeing war and starvation, even though it looks like the kind of country that under normal circumstances you would want to get out of.  The government has become a police state, while terrorist groups, like the one known as “The Fishes,” wreak havoc throughout the city.  And why, you ask, is the world in chaos?  It’s all because women stopped having babies 18 years earlier.

Come again?  Why would infertility cause a breakdown in society?  I could imagine people walking around, looking a little despondent at the thought that mankind would be extinct in less than a century, but why that would cause a dystopian world is a mystery.  The movie just plops that explanation before us as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  If anything, worldwide infertility would ease population pressures.  We already know that people who are single have a much easier time making a living than people who have children, so there is no reason to think there would be so much starvation.  It would be like the Malthusian principle in reverse.  Granted, things may get a little difficult in about 40 years, when everyone will be a senior citizen, but that would not explain the present situation.

Anyway, in the midst of all this, a woman named Kee turns up pregnant.  She becomes a pawn in the struggle between the state and the terrorists.  As a result, there is all this running about trying to get possession of the baby, while Theo (Clive Owen) tries to get Kee to this place in the Azores where a group known as the Human Project has scientists who are trying to find a cure for this pandemic of infertility.  Before he can get her onto a ship named Tomorrow, she has the baby.  She had joked earlier that she was a virgin, but that was more than a joke.  We are supposed to regard her pregnancy as having religious significance.  We know this because when she gives birth, and at other times when there is a lot of emphasis on the baby, we hear heavenly background music.

I know that for some people, life is precious, but given the world this movie presents to us, it is hard to regard Kee’s pregnancy as a good thing.  Why would anyone want to perpetuate such misery?  A midwife named Miriam, who was taking care of Kee for a while, says that everything happens for a reason.  Well, looking at the misery and suffering that mankind has been reduced to, perhaps she is right.  The reason for the infertility is to put an end to the evil known as Homo sapiens.

Unfortunately, Kee makes it onto the ship that will take her to the Human Project, and as the credits roll, we hear the laughter of children in the background, suggesting that the cure for infertility will be found, thanks in part to women like Kee.  Of course, we have to ask ourselves, “Won’t these children grow up to be just like all those adults we have been watching kill each other for almost two hours?”  This little baby will grow up to be a terrorist; that little baby will grow up and become a member of the police force; and that other little baby over there will end up in a concentration camp.

Now, aren’t we glad the Human Project is going to succeed?

Damn Yankees (1958)

Damn Yankees is a musical about a man who sells his soul to the Devil for the sake of baseball.  It is the dumbest version of the Faust legend I have ever seen.

All right, I admit it, I am an atheist.  And since I don’t believe in God, and since I definitely don’t believe in the Devil or Hell, you might think that any movie presupposing the existence of such would not find favor with me.  But I can enjoy a movie about the supernatural, provided it makes a modicum of sense.  And there’s the rub.  It’s not that the Devil does not exist that bothers me; it is the intrinsic absurdity of the Faust legend.  The general idea is that Faust, or some character based on him, literally sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly goods, such as knowledge or pleasure.  Who in his right mind would make such a deal?  To put it differently, anyone who sold his soul to the Devil would for that reason have to be mentally impaired, and thus would deserve to be forgiven.

If the Devil manifested himself one day in my living room, promising me whatever I wanted, pleasure, power, wealth, fame, or knowledge, if only I would sell him my soul, which would then mean suffering eternal damnation once I died, there is no way I would agree to such an offer.  First, I would send him packing.  Then I would probably spend the rest of the day saying to myself, “Wow!  All that stuff about God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, is true.”  And then I would completely change my life.  From then on, I would turn the other cheek, give all my worldly goods to the poor, and never again look at a woman with lust in my heart.

I think that would be a perfectly rational choice on my part, for what could be more important in this world or the next than avoiding the fires of Hell?  But is this the reaction that these Faustian characters have when they encounter the Devil?  No, never, not once do they react that way.  Instead, with only a hint of hesitation, they condemn themselves to eternal torment for a mess of pottage.  In Goethe’s Faust, the title character sells his soul, apparently in order to get laid.  In The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), a farmer gives it up for seven years of prosperity.  And so it goes.  Still, Angel Heart (1987) is one of my favorite movies, perhaps because the Faustian character in this story figured he had a way of weaseling out of the deal.

But as I said, Damn Yankees is the worst of the lot.  I tried to suspend disbelief, accepting for the sake of the movie that there is such a thing as the Devil and Hell, and I even tried to make allowances for Faustian imprudence on the grand scale.  But even so, the thing just didn’t make sense.  It all begins in the living room of Joe Boyd, who is yelling at the television because his favorite baseball team, the Washington Senators, is losing.  In his exasperation, he says he would sell his soul if the Senators had a slugger who could put the ball over the fence, beating the Yankees.  Suddenly, the Devil appears, going by the name Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), ready to make a deal.

As an aside, have you ever noticed how often stories about the supernatural involve sports?  Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), boxing; Heaven Can Wait (1978), football; Angels in the Outfield (1951), baseball; Field of Dreams (1989), baseball; The Natural (1984), baseball; just to name a few.  Setting aside the Faustian story, with all the people on this planet suffering from the ravages of war, disease, starvation, and tyranny, the supernatural intervenes in something that exists merely for the entertainment of those fortunate enough to have a comfortable life.  As far as the Faustian story is concerned, wouldn’t it be nice if someone was willing to sell his soul to the Devil, if it gave him the power to end wars, cure disease, feed the hungry, and end tyranny, willing to go to Hell out of his love for mankind?

Anyway, Applegate says that in exchange for Joe’s soul, he will make Joe the greatest baseball player ever, who will help the Senators win the pennant.  He will make him Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), and he will be twenty-two years old.  Joe has misgivings, thinking for a moment about his job and his wife, but Applegate says this is too big a deal to worry about them.

In the end, Joe deserts his wife.  From the song she was singing earlier, lamenting how during baseball season, which is six months of the year, she is neglected, we gather that she and Joe are now in their forties.  She appears to be a housewife, a common role for women in the 1950s.  And so, after Joe leaves her, she continues in her role as a housewife without the slightest concern that there is no longer any income with which to pay the bills.  In other words, it is not just the supernatural part of this movie that makes no sense.

In making the deal, Joe insisted on an escape clause.  If he changes his mind by midnight of September 24, the deal is off.  So, we figure that is how he will get out of the deal.  He will play baseball until then, and then back out at the last minute.  But that is not what happens.  Owing to complications we need not enter into here, Joe does not back out at the last minute.  He stays with the Senators.  And so, we figure Joe will continue helping the Senators win the pennant and then be dragged down to Hell.

And then, from out of left field, Applegate decides he is going to make the Senators lose the pennant.  But that would mean he would not be living up to his end of the bargain.  So, we now figure that when, against all reason, Applegate makes the Senators lose the pennant, Joe will not have to go to Hell, because Applegate failed to fulfil the contract.  No, that’s not it either, because in his effort to make the Senators lose the pennant, he turns Joe Hardy back to Joe Boyd, thinking he will not catch the fly ball.  But Joe does catch the fly ball, and so the Senators do win the pennant.  So, that means Joe is going to Hell after all, right?

No, Joe goes back home.  For some reason, his wife takes him back, as if being abandoned didn’t bother her in the slightest.  Applegate shows up, we think to collect Joe’s soul, but instead he acts as though Joe is in the clear.  He offers Joe the chance to help the Senators win the World Series in exchange for his soul.  I suppose if Joe had made that deal, then at the last minute, Applegate would have tried to make the Senators lose the World Series, but when he failed and the Senators won the Series anyway, Joe would go back home then too, and once again be in the clear, for reasons that don’t make sense, either in this world or the next.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the small western town of Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).  A local reporter and the owner and editor of the local newspaper want to know why an important politician like Senator Stoddard would come to the funeral of someone they had never even heard of.  Stoddard decides to tell them who Doniphon was.

Most of the story the reporters already know.  Stoddard came out West with nothing but his law books, and he was immediately made aware that the law counts for nothing in the territory when his stage is held up and he is beaten with a silver-handled whip by a vicious bandit named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).  He would have beaten Stoddard to death had Reese (Lee Van Cleef) not stopped him.  Later in the movie, Valance does the same thing to a newspaper man, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brian), and again Reese has to stop him before he kills him.  Now, when a bandit played by Lee Van Cleef is the one who has to restrain the leader of a gang from being excessively brutal, you know that gang leader must really be evil.

The town marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is afraid Valance, so he is worthless.  Doniphon is a match for Valance, but he basically just minds his own business.  All he cares about is Hallie, whom he hopes to marry.  The tension between Valance and Stoddard finally reaches the breaking point, and Stoddard picks up a gun he barely knows how to shoot and decides to meet Valance out on the street.  Things look pretty one-sided, but amazingly enough, Stoddard shoots Valance and kills him.  As a result, he becomes known as the man who shot Liberty Valance, propelling him into his political career.  He ends up marrying Hallie to boot.  Doniphon angrily goes home and burns up the house he was building for him and Hallie.

But then Stoddard tells the reporters something they did not know.  It turns out that it was Doniphon who killed Valance with a rifle from the other side of the street.  In fact, we see that when Stoddard fired his pistol, he shot way too high.  The thing that made Stoddard famous, then, is basically a fraud.  (We even have to wonder if Hallie would have married Stoddard had she known the truth.)  The owner of the newspaper wads up his notes and throws them in the furnace.  “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.”

This ending is reminiscent of Fort Apache (1948).  However, in this earlier film, we get the sense the people, especially children, need heroes, and so that is why the legend is made to prevail over the truth.  In this movie, however, we get the sense that the legend simply makes better copy.  But if that were true, we would not care for the movie.  That is, if Stoddard had been the one who killed Liberty Valance, the movie would have been just one more Western in which good triumphs over evil, and the hero gets the girl.  But just as this movie is far more interesting for having a twist ending, so too would the readers of the newspaper have found the truth to be more fascinating than the story they had previously been led to believe.  The local paper would have become nationally known as the one that broke the story about what really happened.

In many cases, the legend is more interesting than the facts.  Anyone who has ever read a paragraph or two about the real King Arthur knows that.  It is the story of the Round Table, of Excalibur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the Holy Grail that matters to us.  Not so in this movie, however.  Here, the truth is more interesting than the legend.  That’s why it’s a good movie.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

The Horn Blows at Midnight has four things working against it.  First, it is an explicit dream movie.  By “explicit,” I mean we know from the onset that it is a dream.  Athanael (Jack Benny) plays third trumpet in a band.  Just before the beginning of a live broadcast, he falls asleep and starts dreaming, and he does not wake up until the last few minutes of the movie.  In general, audiences do not like dream movies, presumably because it means that what they are watching is not really happening.  This is something of a paradox, because that is true of most movies, even those without dreams in them.  After all, Hollywood has sometimes been referred to as the “dream factory.”  Nevertheless, the audience can get into a movie they know to be fiction and experience it as something real, but when they know the movie is about someone’s dream, their ability to suspend disbelief is greatly strained.

Brief dreams are not a problem, of course, and they may even enhance our enjoyment of the movie, as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  It is the longer dreams that test the audience’s patience.  That is why most dream movies do not let the audience know until the end that what they are watching is a dream, as in The Woman in the Window (1944).  Even so, we feel somewhat cheated at the end.  Laura (1944) was originally intended to be a dream movie, and director Otto Preminger even filmed an ending making the dream explicit, but he wisely left it out of the movie.  In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), we are never really certain whether the ghost is real or dreamt, and this allows us to tentatively accept what we are watching.

When a dream movie is explicit, the characters in real life usually show up in the dream, as in The Wizard of Oz (1939), where it is fun to see the parallels between the real characters and the ones in the dream.  And this leads us to the second thing that The Horn Blows at Midnight has going against it.  While a lot of characters that Athanael knows do show up in his dream, they do not do so in any interesting way.  The first and second trumpeter, who made sarcastic remarks about Athanael’s trumpet playing, are made to be bad guys in the dream, but that is about the extent of it.  Everyone else is just playing two parts.

A link between reality and the dream comes in some remarks Athanael makes in the beginning.  He tells the other two trumpet players that they will be punished someday for snitching on him.  When Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) tries to console him for having to be just the third trumpeter, saying that at least he is making money and eating, he replies, “I wish I’d never heard of food or money.”  He continues:  “It’s an ungrateful world, Elizabeth.  If I had my way, things would be different.  There’d be a lot of changes made.”

And that leads to the third weakness of this film:  it is a Heaven movie.  Apart from the movies, Heaven is a problem all in itself.  No conception of Heaven ever really sounds all that appealing.  Because it is hard to take Heaven seriously, movies about Heaven tend to be comedies, such as Stairway to Heaven (1947), though I have yet to find any of them very funny.  Even when they are dramas, they have a light touch, as in The Green Pastures (1936).  In Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake, Heaven Can Wait (1978), as little time as possible is spent in Heaven, because Heaven is boring.  In fact, in the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943), not to be confused with the previously mentioned movie by that name, we never even get to Heaven.  The protagonist spends most of his time in Hell recounting his sins.  Because this is a comedy, we are not supposed to take Hell any more seriously than Heaven, and thus the man who runs the place is not referred to as Satan, but only as “His Excellency.”  In general, Heaven movies suffer the same problem as dream movies, which is that audiences know that what they are watching isn’t real.  So, when the movie is a dream about Heaven, our credulity is really strained.

Anyway, Athanael dreams that he is an angel who plays the trumpet in the heavenly orchestra.  The dream is a wish-fulfilling fantasy, in which the “ungrateful world” he referred to earlier is selected for destruction, owing to its unworthy inhabitants, and he is to destroy it by blowing his horn exactly at midnight.  So, he is sent to Earth, in accordance with the general principle that it is better to move the story out of Heaven as quickly as possible.  As an angel, he knows nothing about food or money, as per his wish while he was still awake.  Actually, he knows nothing about sex either, which does provide for a few of the handful of laughs that this movie has to offer.

The bulk of the movie consists of the two trumpet players, now fallen angels, trying to keep Athanael from blowing his horn.  I suppose it is the height of absurdity to take this dream-Heaven movie seriously in any aspect, but this leads to the fourth thing working against this movie.  We are expected to pull for Athanael, even though he wants to destroy the world, while pulling against the two fallen angels, who are trying to save it, though for selfish reasons, of course.  If a man commits a murder, he is evil.  If he goes on a rampage and kills a dozen or so, he is a horrible mass-murderer.  And if he is like Hitler or Stalin, who were responsible for the killing of millions, he is a monster.  Athanael is trying to kill every last person on this planet, but since his orders come from Heaven, that is supposed to make it all right.  (It is to be noted, however, that the orders do not come from God, as if to hold him innocent, notwithstanding the fact that the Bible tells us that this is precisely the sort of thing God did in the past with the Flood and will do again on Judgment Day.)

I suppose Athanael is redeemed by the fact that in his wish-fulfilling dream, he falls to his death before he can blow his trumpet and end the world, after which he wakes up and starts playing his trumpet in real life.  But for the reasons given above, this movie cannot be redeemed by the few laughs that it affords us.