Only Angels Have Wings
As Laura Mulvey was well aware, the misogyny in Only Angels Have Wings is just as skillfully brought off as its rejuvenation of the aviation subgenre. The relations the film establishes between gender and spectatorship are essential, both to its thematic core and to how it manages audience pleasure. When Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee first enters the film-world of Barranca, Ecuador, she’s a challenge to the roving sexual interest of the two male pilots; the possibility that she might resist their advances (as evidenced by the ship purser’s scratched eye) is part of her attraction. The camera adopts their perspective as they follow her, until, mistaking them for scary brown locals due to their lecherous behavior, she brandishes a machete at them. After they properly introduce themselves: “Are you Americans? I thought you were a couple of– well gee winnikers, am I glad to see you!” From here on, the film will adopt Bonnie’s perspective.
We have crossed over into the first hermetic circle — that of whiteness. A white world that must isolate itself from its surroundings in order to exist. We were, in fact, already there, even if our two pilots had chosen to temporarily forget. The point of the machete, though played as a gag (a false hailing), is an unsubtle reminder of the responsibility that goes along with that status. Its true implications will be made all too clear when one of the pilots, Joe, dies in a crash while recklessly trying to reserve his dinner date with Bonnie — having won it in a coin toss, apparently in spite of a preexisting relationship with Lily, a ‘local’ (the only interracial liaison depicted in the film), and the only person besides Bonnie and Dutch who will openly mourn his death. Joe “didn’t have what it takes,” as Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter coldly announces after the fact; more importantly his loyalties were confused; he lacked the self-possession and refusal of all ‘non-professional’ attachments that constitute the ethical code of their boys’ club. She crosses the second circle — that of masculine ‘professionalism’ — by being a good performer, which means learning to submit to the unspoken laws of her audience.
Bonnie, in her series of transitions from potential object of desire, to audience stand-in/romantic foil, to (ambiguously) accepted love interest for Carter, learns in our place the proper attitude that her ‘natural’ fascination for these men implies. When Carter, the film’s libidinal and moral center (it’s relatively rare to see the two combined in one character outside of Howard Hawks movies. They’re usually offset dialectically: think Marvin vs. Borgnine in Dirty Dozen, Bond vs. M, or Danny Glover vs. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, or Ed Norton vs. Brad Pitt in Fight Club) affects disinterest toward Bonnie, he does the same to us. We came, did we not, to be entertained by a certain type of masculine action movie, starring Cary Grant; the film proceeds to demonstrate more emphatically than most what it takes to be the ethical implications of that choice. As Bonnie the performer wins her tiny, elite male audience by learning to obey its rules, we the mass audience learn to take moral and libidinal satisfaction in the film’s denouement, by learning to obey its rules. Which are the same: I will never ask you to do anything, therefore you must never ask me to do anything. You are, of course, free to leave at any time. And underlying those, the rule too obvious to be spoken: you are not welcome to participate, only to observe.
My viewing partner commented that Hawk’s much-lauded interest in ‘professionalism’ seemed nothing of the sort, in this film at least — too many pilots die, most of the shipments fail to reach their destinations, the airline fails to win the commission that would justify all those dangerous missions. Not to mention the owner, his company held hostage by the CEO, isn’t even that interested. Like the Wall Street traders who steered the global economy into the dumps, these are men addicted to the thrill of having nothing more to lose than other peoples’ property. They are fascinating for being a team of outlaws, men who submit to a moral code opposed to mainstream society, and in so doing push that society’s normative definition of masculinity to the point of entertaining distortion, that is to say its ‘pure form.’ Barranca provides the isolated (because nonwhite) space where this ideal can be privately enjoyed without contradiction. Every analysis I’ve read on masculine in-groups in film has to come up with some awkward way of reconciling the emphasis on teamwork with the equal and contradictory emphasis on individual badassery. It’s film theory’s version of the relation between sovereignty and the state.
Common sense might suggest that the “team of professionals” trope in cinema is a fantasy about living beyond the contradictory confines of an essentially half-assed, womanly society. But in fact, the paradoxes are only more extreme: group loyalty demands that they forget the dead to minimize dangerously distracting emotional trauma; the unconditional respect they have for each other can never be extended to non-pilots (viz. Kidd’s painful loss of status because of his bad eyesight); they’re supposed to be ‘professional,’ but live and die on luck; Carter’s authority is unchallenged despite the fact that his penchant for sending his men on suicide missions can’t (as mentioned above) even be blamed on shareholder pressures. What attracts is not any notion of perfection, but the intensity, the ‘beautiful’ because quixotic irrationality of this situation. These are also features of religious cults and radical conservative politics, both of which rely more on extravagance for their appeal than any promise of a better world to come. Viewing this film in the midst of a widely reported ‘crisis of masculinity,’ it seems more obvious than ever that insofar as there are ‘masculine values’ distinct from universal values, they are little more than alibis for power, privilege, and an arch refusal of responsibility. The last shot, of Carter laughing madly with his bro in the face of death while piloting a rickety special effect, should be read as an ironic commentary on the fragility of this fantasy’s material conditions.