Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Deliver: The All-Female Remake of Deliverance

Originally posted at SpoutBlog:

“Deliver”: The All-Female Remake of “Deliverance”

Hearing about Jennifer Montgomery’s “Deliver,” an all-female remake of John Boorman’s 1972 “Deliverance,” having its world premiere at BAMcinematek this evening, I got the same feeling I had when my friend Rose told me about her sister’s all-female, Motley Crue tribute band Girls Girls Girls. How exciting! Upending and giving the finger to notions of gender and sexuality always gets me all hot and bothered. As did watching Burt Reynolds strut his sexy stuff in Boorman’s original (with its screenplay and book by that ornery southern, man’s man James Dickey).

So who would take on the Burt Reynolds role of Lewis – the dude who stands apart from the rest of his male bonding, canoe trip comrades? Yes, Jon Voight as family man Ed, Ned Beatty as insurance salesman Bobby and Ronny Cox as the guitar-strumming Drew are all darn good, but it’s Reynolds’ bad boy Lewis who steals the show, nearly upstaging both the mighty river and the mesmerizing, menacing woods. Cocky and virile, looking like a Castro Street clone with his signature moustache, an open leather vest revealing his hirsute chest and beefy biceps – that phallic cigar tucked sensuously between his lips! – Lewis is the alpha antidote to the trio of nerdy, fisherman hat-wearing salesmen (bodies chastely clothed) who he’s talked into joining him on this ill-planned, back to nature retreat. Reynolds’ Lewis even looks like a Greek god as he wields his bow and arrow, spearing fish for his money shot.

And that sexual vibe is always lurking just beneath the surface, popping up every once in awhile like a hungry trout. As the men embark downstream with Lewis barking directions about avoiding rocks, he’s kidded with “Is this how you get your rocks off?” When Ned Beatty’s Bobby gets ready to bed down for the night he muses that he had his first wet dream in a sleeping bag. In the canoe Lewis even asks Voight’s Ed (who protests “I like my life” to the dismissive stud) with a wink, “Why do you come with me on these trips?” Lewis gets a rise out of the fact that Ed and the rest of his followers are attracted to the masculine, fearless, take-charge, Marlboro Man ideal he embodies. When Lewis proudly states that he’s never bought insurance in his life – “not enough risk” – it’s with equal bravado and sly taunt. As he comes to the rescue of his buddy like a knight in shining armor, coolly killing the hillbilly who’s about to sodomize pretty blonde Ed, droplets of water drip sexily down his skin as if even the river is magnetically drawn to him.

And speaking of the infamous rape scene, how on earth would Montgomery’s “Deliver” pull that off? I wondered. Physically, it couldn’t be much of a challenge (stick a dildo in the hands of a sadistic mountain woman and you’re all set), but metaphorically wasn’t that, well, pointless? The rape of Bobby in Boorman’s original is already both literal and metaphoric (payback for the “city boys’” raping of rural lands throughout history), so isn’t gender an irrelevant concept in a film about social class – The Man above manhood? These questions stayed in my head even as I tuned in to find out if “Deliver” would deliver.

Montgomery’s video remake is set in the Catskills (along a river really called, I kid you not, the Beaverkill), and that’s pretty much where the fun ends. Using uncharismatic, self-conscious, stilted, experimental filmmakers/academics in lieu of actual actors (Montgomery and her friends have all the sexual chemistry of Barney and Fred, not Voight and Reynolds), playing a combination of the original male characters and themselves, renders Montgomery’s take a sort of Brechtian exercise meets home movie. Bored halfway through, I thought, “Perhaps I need Cliffs Notes.” So I turned to all I had — the press notes:

This is the moment (the rape) when a seemingly simple exercise in gender inversion becomes complicated. In the original, the iconic male hillbillies’ hostility toward bourgeois men is based largely on land entitlement. Few women can claim that history of entitlement, and the Catskills are not hillbilly country. Most importantly, there is the false notion that women do not pose a sexual threat to one another. What, then, motivates this rape? At what point do we read it as an unconvincing imitation of a “real” rape? It is the aim of this film to pose critical questions about the gendering of nature, homosocial sexual violence, and the act of filmmaking itself.

Uh-huh. Leaving aside the “false notion that women do not pose a sexual threat to one another” (Who subscribes to this false notion? If Rosie O’Donnell were a drunk who didn’t take no for an answer, I’d sure run like hell!), I put Montgomery’s question back to her. What, then, motivates this rape? Nothing in “Deliver,” as far as I could tell, making what was originally a comment on the age-old hostility between the dirt poor and the comfortably condescending middle class, completely unbelievable (even as female-on-female sodomy is unquestionably plausible, just not in this context), rendering the hillbilly rapist as deep as a horror movie murderer (though at least Michael Myers had a back-story). What are mountain men with very specific axes to grind in “Deliverance” are merely women hillbillies gone wild in “Deliver.” I just couldn’t shake the sense that even as Montgomery boldly questions Boorman’s film, she neglects to question the validity of her remaking it. Indeed, if she truly was troubled by Boorman and Dickey’s “hegemonic structures of gender,” as she states in her press notes, wouldn’t it have made more sense for her female hillbillies to have taken revenge on patronizing men?

But perhaps I’m being too hard on an accomplished artist with a limited budget. In all honesty, I wanted to rave about “Deliver,” I really did. But stripping Boorman’s original of sex appeal, class conflict and its southern roots, and replacing it with, uh…nothing, leaves only half a movie. (And I’ll add that Peggy Ahwesh in the Burt Reynolds role just doesn’t do it for me.) That said, should Montgomery decide to remake “The Women” with Zizek in the Norma Shearer role, I’ll be the first in line at BAM.

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