By MEREDITH REDICK
January 30, 2012
A woman smacks her scarlet lips together. Protestors hold signs saying, “Take Back the Night.” A lead singer whips her hair around, yelling, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” These are the scenes that begin Cheryl Dunye’s newest film, The Owls, screened jointly by the Yale Art and WGSS departments last Monday and followed by a discussion panel led by co-producer Alexandra Juhasz. The title of the film is an abbreviation–an “OWL” is an “Older, Wiser Lesbian”. In this case, the OWLs are Iris, M.J., Carol, and Lily, lesbians who were once part of a vibrant generation flooded with rock n’ roll and political protests. Now affluent suburbanites, the women who spent their time striving to successfully “inhabit the darkness” of oppressive cultural norms have become the Oxford shirt-wearing opponents of their successors, a cadre of “young, obnoxious little bitches”. The generational conflict comes to a head at a party when, in a fit of jealousy, M.J. strangles and kills a young lesbian named Cricket. Dunye’s apparent motive as a writer and director is to “compassionately and truthfully address…the emotionally complex set of circumstances” that the OWLs face.
Despite her proposed plan to probe her characters’ emotional depths, Dunye relies entirely on stock characters to people the film. Iris, for example, is the self-involved “drunken slut”. M.J., her partner, is about as macho as you can get; she spends most of her time masturbating in front of the television. Both couples seem to live placid lives that conspicuously resemble two distinct, but mainstream heterosexual lifestyles—that of the rough-and-tumble man who wears wife beaters and his wife, who totters around in black fishnets and stilettos—and that of the suburban couple that wears khakis and plants tomatoes in the backyard. Cricket, the “baby-dyke”, is emblematic of the nose ring-wearing, angry lesbians that have become the new counterculture generation, and her lover, Skye, is the overbearing moral voice who eventually requites Cricket’s death through vengeful murder.
If the character profiles are disingenuous, however, the filming style is indubitably creative. The documentary style—what Dunye glibly calls a “dunyementary”—is labyrinthine but cohesive. In several scenes side-by-side frames make visible what a character is thinking as she interacts with others. At points, the actresses abruptly abandon their characters and comment on the filmmaking process. The film is also peppered with nuggets from Cricket, speaking from beyond the grave. The problem with such a complex, alternative storytelling technique is that it feels superfluous; there’s just not that much, plot-wise or character-wise, to fill the structure.
The characters are too flat—too obviously allegorical—to do justice to the elaborate storytelling techniques. Still, Dunye drives an important point through, although it’s a different point than the one she professes to make: she reminds us that we’re all capable of turning into the kind of people that once oppressed us. The two-dimensional characters, then, while lacking depth, are the simplest way to effectively illustrate the disturbing fluidity of the victim-oppressor relationship.
It’s a laudable and a necessary thought experiment, but the film is so deeply rooted in its esoteric framework that it neglects to flesh out the characters. Dunye goes so far as to turn the conclusion of the movie into a sort of disinterested riddle. Skye only manages to kill three of the four OWLs, but instead of revealing the identity of the survivor, the film poses a question that is decidedly out-of-place in a film that claims to champion compassion and truth. “Who do I think got away? I don’t know,” muses Cricket. The question highlights the conspicuous absence of compassion in Dunye’s approach. Instead of evoking sympathy by shedding light on the wounds of the women, Dunye presents us with women who have learned to inhabit the darkness so well that they have lost their humanity entirely.
Meredith Redick is a sophomore in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.