12 July 2010

Cellblock Sisters

United States – 1995
Director – Henri Charr
PM Entertainment Group, 1995, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 35 minutes

Instead of simply placing an innocent girl in corrupting circumstances to see what happens, Cellblock Sisters takes two effectively identical girls, and proposes an answer to the age old question of nature vs. nurture. By taking two sisters separated by a year or so in age, and subjecting them to different upbringings this mocie asserts that it is strictly environ mental factors that turn a woman into a beast. In posing this question however, there is an unspoken assumption of what a woman should be.

While still infants, sisters April and May are sold off by their mother’s drunken biker boyfriend Sam. Their mother, a hillbilly junkie with a terrible fake southern accent agrees at first, thinking the girls are only going to a home until she can clean herself up. Well after the girls are gone, she realizes what has happened and attacks Sam who “accidentally” kills her. Over the next sixteen years, each girl is raised in a completely different environment by their foster parents. May has been living in England, a place normatively associated with propriety and a particularly ordered domesticity. As such, she is quickly identified as the protagonist because she has idealized feminine qualities: the innocence, virginity and most importantly the potential. She is as yet unspoiled and thus her future unwritten.

Her sister April on the other hand has spent the intervening years in Los Angeles, the iconic lawless border town in the tradition of the U.S. western. It is the quintessential metropolitan metaphor for vice and corruption. During her upbringing it is insinuated that her foster father sexually abused her. Eventually, years later after killing him, she continued a life of violent crime and now pushing a whopping 18 or19 years old, is the leader of a gang of cheap biker thugs. Because she was irredeemably “tainted” as a child, we know that she can have no future to speak of. We rejoin the sisters just as May, wearing a white skirt and jacket, arrives in Los Angeles to see her long lost sister for the first time.

It is here that May finds herself spiraling into corruption almost as soon as she meets her sister. One of their fist moments together is at the gang’s party shack where April presents May with a black leather jacket, “my leather jacket, now it’s yours.” Thus May’s innocence is symbolically tarnished by association with her sister’s tough and dark character. The corruption continues when April takes May to murder Sam, the father who sold them in the film’s opening minutes. April flees the scene of the crime, but May, tormented by the need to know where Sam buried their mother, stays behind with him as he dies and is subsequently sent to prison for his murder.

Although coercive sex is notably absent from the film, May nevertheless meets the typical disinterested and cruel state functionaries in the form of Warden and guards. Upon witnessing one inmate, Manny (a woman) murder another, May becomes the target of Manny’s intimidation. As it turns out, Manny is April’s former rival from a previous stint in prison together. Caught in their world of self-serving violence and greed, May begins to adjust, her personality just beginning to harden when she is mercifully “saved” by two people. Hearing of her little sisters plight, April allows herself to be arrested for another petty crime, and upon arrival in prison becomes May’s sacrificial foil. The second is the detective who has been hounding May during her brief stay in prison. He’s known all along that she is innocent and only wanted her to tell him who it was. During one of their interrogation sessions, the two find themselves mutually attracted and have sex on the desk (remember, she’s 17,) and she confesses all to her protector and now, lover, thus purging herself of her sisters corruption. Following the riot and gun battle with Manny that leads to April’s death, May is released from the clutches of prison and vows to remain in the U.S. with her masculine savior.

Most WIP films emphasize lesbianism or male sexual violence against the leading women, allowing the male viewer to enjoy the visuals but deplore the violators (becoming a sympathetic voyeur and validating redemptive violence.) But in the end,  the story always centers around the salvation of the lead by secondary characters. Either a righteous male hero with whom the viewer can identify because he is sympathetic to the women and sexually attractive to them without requiring coercion, or in some cases, by another less pure inmate(s) who sacrifice themselves effectively "erasing" the lead's corruption thus making possible her redemption. Iranian-American writer/director Charr does both in Cellblock Sisters.

By placing April in stark opposition to May, we understand the necessity of her sacrifice for her sister's salvation. Furthermore by allowing May to be taken sexually and yet saved from total defilement by the sympathetic male detective, Cellblock Sisters claims that the proper woman remains pure when under the protective dominance of men (who in this case as a cop, also represents the patriarchal benevolence of the State!) Hence we justify both the normative virginal, and subordinate roles of the woman and male sexual and social jurisdiction over her.
And all of this was wrapped in the most boring WIP package I’ve had the pleasure to watch.

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