Suturing Film Noir and Henry James
I want to introduce you to the most talented contemporary American filmmakers you’ve never heard of: David Siegel and Scott McGehee. The filmmaking team has only made five films in the past twenty years, in a seeming attempt to match the glacial career of Stanley Kubrick. A graduate of Columbia University’s film school, McGehee studied film and rhetoric in the University of California at Berkeley’s graduate program. His films demonstrate the significance of hybridizing filmmaking talent with theoretical acumen.
The partners’ first film, Suture (1994) was a stunning debut, using the clichés and conventions of American film noir to interrogate the politics of race in the United States. As whiteness studies scholar Eric Lott argues, 1940s American film noir is surprisingly engaged with questions of race, an oft-ignored aspect despite the French term for the style literally translating to “black film.” One clear example of this in the classical Hollywood cinema is Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (1949), in which an Irish gangster (played by James Mason) blackmails a middle-class housewife with the threat of exposing the sexual exploits of her teenage daughter. The family’s black maid, Sybil (played by Frances E. Williams, who, despite having a prominent speaking role, thanks to the racist studio system, goes un-credited) takes on the role of what the other great melodramatist of the classical Hollywood cinema, Douglas Sirk calls “the secret owner” of the film, guiding the overwrought matriarch (played by Joan Bennett) through the plot, consoling her and giving her sensible advice. It is of no small importance that McGehee and Siegel’s sophomore outing, The Deep End (2001) is an earnest remake of The Reckless Moment.
Subsequently, McGehee and Siegel have made a series of startlingly clever films. 2005’s Bee Season hybridizes a story about mysticism and spelling bees with the psychological disorder of hoarding, years before the A&E cable network turned that socio-psychological tragedy into fodder for shameful gawking. In their latest film, What Maisie Knew (2012), McGehee and Siegel call our attention to the heretofore cinematically neglected 1897 Henry James novella about the brutal horrors of divorce, told from the point of view of the young daughter caught between the bickering parents.
It is McGehee and Siegel’s first film, however, which most deserves your attention. Suture concerns two brothers, Clay and Vincent, whose father has just died. Dennis Haysbert (the African-American actor best known as the Allstate pitchman and President David Palmer on the television series, 24) plays Clay, while white actor Michael Harris plays his brother, Vincent. At the beginning of the film, Vincent remarks to Clay how uncannily they look like each other, while we in the audience stare at a two-shot of men who could not look more different.
The brotherly devotion is a ruse, however. To extract himself from debt, Vincent has arranged for Clay to drive his car from the airport. Unbeknownst to his brother, Vincent has rigged the car to explode; the plan is to assume his dead brother’s identity and live off of their father’s inheritance. The bombing goes off without a hitch; however, Clay miraculously survives the explosion and is nursed back to health by his doctors, one of whom is named Renee Descartes, of cogito ergo sum fame.
Here, the film takes a stunning theoretical turn. Because the doctors think the unrecognizably charred survivor is the white Vincent, they reconstruct him under the veneer of white identity. Falling in love with her patient, Descartes comments on Clay’s thin Greek nose, while we stare at Haysbert’s wide proboscis. As Clay comes to understand what’s happened to him, he plays along, inheriting the life of privilege that Vincent had planned for himself. Suture is a great theoretical film about the construction of social identity. Its very title invokes a 1970s psychoanalytic concept about how we take what is fragmented about the world and stitch it together into a flimsy whole that constantly needs to be disciplined lest it lose its coherence.
Whiteness studies scholar Richard Dyer suggests that what we need to unpack privilege is to stop burdening only people of color with attributions of race. By normalizing white identity—Spike Lee films are seen as special because they represent the “black” experience, but no one bothers to label Citizen Kane as a white people’s movie—Hollywood cinema has for well over a century implicitly defined the normative American experience as the white one. In Suture, a black actor portrays a character unequivocally seen by everyone else but us in the audience as white. In so doing, the film makes normally invisible white identity perfectly clear.
The film ends with resplendent irony. In voice-over narration, Clay’s psychiatrist, who figures out what has happened, reflects upon the meaning of Clay’s story. While we watch still photographs of Clay’s life of leisure—on golf courses and at swimming pools, having married Renee Descartes, and thus by thinking fast, coming “to be” in the most luxurious sense (“I thought…well, therefore I am…privileged”)—the psychiatrist argues against Clay’s actions for having committed a crime against the truth: “[Clay] can never be Vincent Towers, simply because he is not… He has buried the wrong life, the wrong past, the wrong soul…. Of this, we can be completely certain.”
The psychiatry notwithstanding, the visual evidence indicates that a sociologically happy ending has been achieved for Clay, and for us. What racial inequity has produced in the past—the evil Vincent getting the rewards while Clay suffered discrimination merely because of the color of his skin—the future has rectified. With its beautiful black and white cinematography, McGehee and Siegel have constructed one of contemporary cinema’s most precise and moving attempts to do what Richard Dyer desperately argues we need: to not only make black identity visible (as argued by Ralph Ellison in his great novel, Invisible Man), but also to starkly expose the even more disturbingly invisible white privilege.
– Walter Metz