music friday, first kiss edition
film fatales #44: faces places (agnès varda and jr, 2017)

ms .45 (abel ferrara, 1981)

Perhaps it shows a lack of imagination on my part, but when I tried to think of a movie that might reflect recent events, I came up with Ms .45, an example of what was called "Revenge Movie Feminism" on the Roger Ebert website. It's the story of a mute woman who is raped twice in one day, and how she reacts to this outrage.

I can't remember when I first saw Ms .45, which came out in 1981. Sometime in the 80s ... I don't remember seeing it in the theater, so it would have been a VHS copy from a video store, sometime later in the 80s. I know it wasn't until I was studying feminist theory in grad school that I realized how much Ms .45 was an excellent case for a feminist analysis. I had taken a lot of Women's Studies classes over my years in junior college, but they tended to focus on women's history. In fact, I had very little training in literary theory of any kind until graduate school, which I began in 1988. Once I dipped my toes into feminist theory, I immediately thought of Ms .45. The heroine fights against a male oppression made explicit by her rapes ... she is mute, and thus does not have the power of public speaking behind her ... her revenge is targeted only towards men ... she uses an iron as the weapon for her first kill ... in the film's climax, she wears a nun's outfit as she blows away one man after another.

The surprising thing is that all of this came in a low-budget exploitation movie directed by Abel Ferrara, who got some attention with the early-90s films King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, but who never seemed to escape his exploitation-film past. The cast was almost all unknowns. Jayne Kennedy is listed as a seamstress, but I can't find her, and don't know for sure if this was the famous Jayne Kennedy. Jack Thibeau ("Man in Bar") had a bit of a movie career. Then there was Ferrara himself, wearing a mask as "First Rapist", and a bum played by "The Kog".

None of this really matters, because Zoë Tamerlis dominates the movie as the title character. It's one of the great unnoticed acting jobs (unnoticed to the extent that Ms .45 remains unnoticed). Since her character is mute, she can't rely on dialogue to create her character. It's all in her remarkable face. Without Tamerlis, there is no movie, or rather, the movie would not be worth watching. Her portrayal of PTSD is sadly realistic. Her progression from terrified woman, to woman taking matters into her own hands, to a woman pushed over the edge, is heartbreaking. She goes from killing her attacker, to killing men who she sees as acting improperly towards women, to just killing every man who crosses her path.

Tamerlis was only 17 when the film was made, and was reportedly paid $1500. She had an interesting life, and was involved in some interesting movies, but she was also a proponent of heroin use, and she died of drug-related illness when she was only 37.

I was lucky to have Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chain Saws, on my dissertation committee, and I spoke with her more than once about slasher films. Her book examined the role of the "Final Girl" who ultimately triumphed in horror films, and how her triumphs allowed male viewers to root for her point of view. Of Ms .45, she wrote:

It goes without saying that the notion of women going around New York putting bullets through male chauvinists has everything to do with fantasy and little to do with reality. Just what the male spectator's stake is in that fantasy in not clear, but it must surely be the case that there is some ethical relief in the idea that if women would just toughen up and take karate or buy a gun, the issue of male-on-female violence would evaporate. It is a way of shifting responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim: if a woman fails to get tough, fails to buy a gun or take karate, she is, in an updated sense of the cliche, asking for it. 

In the previously mentioned piece on the Ebert site, Sheila O'Malley wrote:

The scene where she is play-acting with the gun before going to the Halloween party, in the nun's habit, is my favorite scene in the film. She is truly mad, in the classic sense. There's a moment where a little smile of almost humor flickers on her red lips, and it's the only moment she almost smiles in the film. It gave me the creeps, but in a really excellent way. She is lost in her fantasy of herself, and it reminded me of Deneuve peering at the distorted reflection of herself in the tea kettle in "Repulsion." ... I think that private moment she has with the gun in the nun's habit is so important and the film wouldn't be the same without it. It shows her fantasy world, straight up, without anything between us and it. It shows her little-girl playacting in a way that is blatant and quite mad. It doesn't shy away from the fact that this woman is "off" and has been so from the beginning. But including that moment of her whipping the gun around, pretending she's a Charlie's Angel, and sort of laughing at herself in the mirror, helps put the film and its psychology over the edge where it needs to be.

It is indeed a great scene ... unfortunately, the only copy I can find online has a different soundtrack. Nonetheless, here it is:

(Just a note for anyone who is confused if they are checking out this movie. It has an alternate title, Angel of Vengeance, and Tamerlis later married and went under the name Zoë Lund.)

The movie inspired a song by L7, "Ms. 45".

She's got a big gun
She's gonna make those assholes pay
You fuck with her
She'll blow your ass away