Movies for the Resistance: Gaslight

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury and Dame May Whitty
Directed by: George Cukor
Running time: 114 minutes
Rating: NR
Year of release: 1944

Everyone’s heard the term “gaslighting” by now: the tactic of trying to convince someone that what they’ve seen with their own eyes isn’t actually happening. Like most narcissists, the current occupant of the White House is a master of gaslighting, and shows no compunctions about wielding it for the most trivial of reasons. Hence, the “biggest” inaugural crowds, a “historic” election landslide, and preposterous accusations about wiretapping (which his flying monkeys struggled to explain this week in terrifyingly farcical terms), among a lengthy list. Their crudeness and easily disproven nature seem not to phase him at all. Nor do they dissuade his followers, who prefer embracing his worldview to believing what they actually see. The examples thus far have been comparatively benign, but it’s only a matter of time before a crisis demands clear facts and transparent information. God help our nation when that occurs.

If you need to understand the impact of such a practice, look no further than the 1944 film Gaslight, based on the 1938 stage play that originated the term. It approaches Vertigo at times for sheer psychological intensity: a difficult movie to watch simply because of the agony it delivers unto its hapless protagonist. The precise circumstances of the plot prove just as chilling – and pertinent – as the title itself.

The premise is fairly simple. Sinister Victorian-era thief Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) marries aspiring opera singer Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), and attempts to drive her mad for Macguffin-heavy reasons. He deploys a brilliant series of mind games to do the job: isolating her from friends, planting stolen objects to prove her (nonexistent) kleptomania, and – most chillingly – causing the gas-fed lights in their home to flicker and dim, then denying that any such thing happened.

We endure this by her side for most of the film’s running time, watching Boyer tighten the screws bit by bit and hoping that Joseph Cotten’s heroic policeman can ultimately come to her rescue. Still, it’s less the outcome that hits us than the process: pushing Bergman’s vulnerable, isolated heroine right to the brink, with no sign of mercy or relief.

It becomes all the more powerful when you consider the stars involved. Boyer’s reputation as an onscreen lover defined his career (Pepe Le Pew, the cartoon skunk, is a direct parody of his persona), and he deploys that reputation to devastating effect here. He remains charming, seductive and seemingly sympathetic throughout: appearing for all the world like a caring human being dedicated to a very sick wife. Bergman, for her part, won the first of three Oscars as a woman slowly going mad beneath his tender brutality.

The film stays tight and focused, as befits its stage roots. We rely on the actors and the script to convey the mood, and director George Cukor matched no less a figure than Alfred Hitchcock with the results. (Gaslight remains a better film than Hitch’s Lifeboat released the same year… and Lifeboat ain’t exactly chopped liver.) He did so by sticking to the Master’s strategy of simplicity: set up the basics and let the audience’s imagination do the rest. Paula begins questioning every thought, and in the confusion, her supposedly loving husband cements his power over her. Orwell encapsulated the process perfectly with his “2+2 = 5” equation, but Gaslight brought it all to hideously plausible life.

And that immediacy becomes the film’s most potent weapon. Victorian England did not mark a high point for feminism, and sending women to mad houses or worse proved far easier than even Boyer’s methods could demonstrate. Paula’s dilemma has been shared by countless others throughout history. Even her eventual redemption – and a beautiful revenge – comes because a man rides to the rescue, a fact that highlights the terrors of her torment all the more. The hysterical woman. The crazy woman. The woman who couldn’t possibly be believed over her husband because… you know, WOMEN.

Cukor, a closeted homosexual, understood that better than most men I think, and endeavored to use it to accentuate his heroine’s plight. That it works so well is partially a testament to his acumen. Unfortunately, it also works because women still struggle beneath so many of the preconceptions that allowed such torture to flourish. Progress has been made, yes, but at ferocious cost and with the omnipresent threat of a return to form if too many people out there have their way. It grants Gaslight a timelessness that a more just world might have rendered passe: reminding us that the injustice on display persists to this day.

And we’ve all seen the impact of the term this movie helped coin in the last few months: the way supposedly good people can truly deny what’s in front of their noses. Social pressure becomes a ghoulish counterweight to objective evidence, and when wielded by the highest office in the land, it hits us with the power of a jackhammer. “You couldn’t have seen that,” it tells us. “You’re foolish to believe it. Someone else is conning you. Some other explanation is at work. Don’t trust your eyes, your mind, your heart. Trust only what I say, because I know best.” We’ve all felt that weight, and if we push back so fiercely it’s only because we’re not alone: an advantage Paula didn’t have, and which may yet prove to be our saving grace. If Gaslight does nothing else, it reminds us that we CAN trust what we see, and that reality will win out regardless of what those in power tell us. It shows us how their tactics work and tells us as many times as we need to what Paula knew in her heart. You’re not crazy. You saw exactly what you saw. And that smiling viper claiming to act in your interest is lying through his perfectly capped teeth.

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