The Mindful Bard
The Bad Sister in Three Recent Films
Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World
Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
“In front of you is an exciting, even dangerous life, but while watching it you feel safe. In this sense the film theatre is a harbour in which to enjoy the turmoil and the storm around you. You are living the storm, but you are in the harbour.”
Francesco Casetti in an interview with Wanda Waterman
Francesco Casetti claims that film is a means of negotiating reality—of coming to terms with the way things are and in the process making important statements about film per se. In King Kong, Casetti’s example, the giant ape represents primal, primitive nature raging against the industrial world that wishes to capture it, a theme often repeated in movies because it reveals the film industry's conflicted sense of self.
Since reading Casetti’s book Eye of the Century I’ve kept an eye open for clusters of salient motifs in current films in order to gauge the direction of cultural change. I couldn’t help noticing that the three films I’d seen in the last week all portrayed a particular sister-sister relationship. What could it mean?
In Melancholia, Claire is a wealthy wife and mother who lives with her husband and little boy in an English castle. The tenderly solicitous Claire represents all to which her sister Justine seems to aspire, at least until Justine becomes progressively crippled by depression. The opulence of Claire’s world is then nothing to her but dust and ashes, and she repeatedly and maliciously reminds her sister of the pointlessness of her life until Claire herself becomes disillusioned with it.
In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Martha, who’s just escaped from a truly twisted rural commune (think The Droogs meets The Family), is so unsure of who she is that she has no problem with others renaming her and dictating her identity. She gains a bit of a sense of self by distinguishing herself from her sister Lucy, who’s now trying to rescue her and whom she now accuses of being too interested in money. Lucy, like Claire in Melancholia, is wealthy and married to a stable man.
The lead actress in Certified Copy (tellingly, we never learn her name) is charming and successful. Her sister doesn’t actually appear in the film, but we hear all about her; this sister is in love with life itself and places no conditions on happiness. She insists that costume jewellery is just as lovely as the real thing and that her stammering husband is a romantic hero. In the meantime, the heroine of Certified Copy is at her wit’s end trying to get this woman to come to her senses.
In all three cases there is a good sister and a bad sister, and the good sister is the elder one. The good sister is also well-to-do, married, hard-working, pragmatic, compassionate, and mentally stable. She manifests all the qualities which society has lead us to believe are worth having and has all the things society teaches us are worth striving for. In fact, she represents all to which our society demands we aspire: beauty, a lovely home and possessions, an ordered life, children or at least the possibility of them, a good husband, and success in business. If you look closely, you see that the elder sister’s wealth has come somehow at the expense of the younger sister, or at least of those she represents. Big Sis feels entitled to it all simply because she has it, even though deep down she’s aware that her having more means someone else must have less. But she’s quite contented until her little sister comes along and spoils it all. Still, she tolerates the slings and arrows because she feels obliged to parent her little sister, to rescue her, to somehow compensate for the lackluster parents who messed the girl up in the first place.
The bad sister is very attractive. The good sister’s husband is clearly drawn to her (the attraction is pretty obvious in Martha Marcy May Marlene, where the husband seeks every opportunity to touch and ogle his sister-in-law while being revolted by her bizarre behaviour. This ambivalence from the male is a static part of the drama, at once an explanation for the problem and a symptom of it.
The bad sister also represents an outside-the-box way of thinking. She’s counterculture, a rebel, but she’s also shiftless, lazy, confused, helpless, and single. She mocks traditional values while being utterly dependent on those who uphold them.
She is the critical voice that questions the validity of the material goods our society lauds, that sees ambition as avarice, achievement as vain hubris, traditional family life as a prison, and high society as vapid and empty. Her arguments are credible, but it’s hard to take her seriously because she’s speaking from a world of hedonism, self-destruction, addiction, risk-taking, and amorality, all of which have taken their toll on her ability to stand firm against such a powerful opponent. The younger sister, knowing that she’s flunked out of the game of life, tries to end her cognitive dissonance by condemning the older sister for being repressed, shallow, acquisitive, hypocritical, and enslaved by her wealth, but she’s just too broken and confused to mount a convincing reproach.
The bad little sister (the one we don’t see) in Certified Copy is the healthiest of the bunch. She has a husband whose flaws are her delight. Her acceptance of him and the way in which it manifests itself becomes a symbol for the film’s theme—that we find our authenticity in abandoning judgment and drawing nearer to what we love.
In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the little sister has emerged from a cult that represents the extreme of a counterculture in which all moral standards have been razed. Her story demonstrates that the very legitimate allegations of the anti-establishment youth against those in power are easily delegitimized by moral relativism.
Do we have enough faith in the younger generation to mount an effective campaign against those members of the higher echelons who exploit and abuse us for their own gain? Rumours of drug abuse among the Occupy Wall Street movement would suggest that mainstream society has its doubts. Justified or not, this doubt greatly weakens the effectiveness of this kind of movement.
The challenge to overcome in our culture is to avoid taking sides in the debate between the good and bad sisters. Rather, we must become more like the sisters who love and accept each other without needing to fix each other, who refuse both compromise and mutual destruction.
Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.
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