Reflections on Cassavetes’ “A Women Under the Influence” (1974)

It’s 0:55, brain cell levels are reaching a critical low- but I have to talk about this film. There is so much in this that I don’t think I’m going to do it much justice this time round, but I’ll get my initial thoughts out and update this post with rewatch thoughts. Unfortunately, I will not be providing a synopsis and there may be ‘spoilers’ because honestly I’m using this blog post as if I had an actual human being to talk to about the film we just saw together. I’m fine honestly, not a ‘wacko’.

‘Wacko’ is bandied about throughout the film . It’s a colloquial phrase used to refer to Mable – the ‘woman’ in question in the title. The meaning of this phrase changes as the film goes on, first taking a lighthearted tone used jokingly by her husband, later becoming acetic associated with her ‘neurotic’ behavior.

The medical student in me wants to analyse this film with regards to the presentation of mental illness, and the pathologization of neurodiversity. The anarchist to explore the societal structures which ostracize people like Mable from society, dissecting the meaning of dissent and rebellion. The feminist wants to analyse the presentation of patriarchal control, womanhood and neurosis. The confused 18 year old wants to explore the meaning of love. Do the couple love each other and how and why are their emotions lost in translation, or do they get each other to such a degree, that it is not their characters rather the crowbar of societal influence, through stressful work environments and the characters of the mother and doctor, which pry open the cracks, natural which appear in all relationships, and fracture their home apart.

I’ve included this film in my ‘Personal Mythology’ list on Letterboxd. This list contains films in which I’ve found part of myself- they clarify and probe sections of my personality that I’m still trying to understand. Mable’s character, like Claudia (from L’Avventura 1960) and Wanda (from Wanda 1970 ) resonates deeply with me. She is a woman who is constantly changing, dynamic. She is also what people might term , eccentric, wacko, loony – note that the words are listed in an order of increasing social disapproval associated with them. Her behavioural traits are unconventional, she doesn’t have the traditional relationship with her children, yet she is lucidly aware of her impact on them and her husband- I personally don’t think she is crazy at all.

When her husband’s friends come around and he scolds her for asking one of them to dance, she frets, apologizes pleading to her husband that he knows she is ‘warm’ she wants her house to be full of life not just mean sitting bolt upright at the dinner table eating spaghetti. This was the moment when I knew her character was so bound up with mine.

Something I struggle with often is the idea of presenting myself in the right way. To make other people take me seriously, to be genuine, to not make a fool of myself. However I am ‘weird’. I’ve heard it from enough people ( in good and bad contexts) and it bothered me. In advertdly I’ve changed myself- it’s like the past few years have been that 6 month timeskip where Mable spent time in the hospital. She is admitted to the hospital by her husband. We don’t see her for a long time, we don’t know if he has visited her and I assume the kids haven’t seen her from there reaction when she comes home. When she comes home she tries to be normal, quiet reserved but her true inner ‘wacko’ comes out and her husband simultaneously tells her to be herself and also be ‘normal’. Eventually she says:

I’m just trying very hard to not get excited

This shook me to my core. How many times have I done this to myself; thrown myself in the ‘loony bin’ and tempered my eccentricities to appear palatable. A scene which follows shortly after this of Mabel dancing on the sofa. Dancing holds symbolic meaning in the film, but the stilted portrayal of her character as it rails ( almost as if it is resisting) against social etiquette and convention reminded me of the Maya Angelou poem: ‘ Caged Bird ‘ -ohh perhaps adding meaning to the ‘Swan Lake’ reference

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream   
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

9.9.20


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