Boxing Jennifer Lynch (or, Maybe We Should Amputate ‘Subjective Reader-Response Criticism’)

Jennifer Lynch’s directorial debut, Boxing Helena, is twisted and irredeemably misogynistic, we are told. So much so, apparently, that the director is probably unworthy of love (yes, apparently the National Organization of Women actually said that). We are never told why, exactly, this particular film, by this particular director, is any more visibly sexist than any other film – or even by what criterion they determined that it’s an exercise in misogyny rather than a feminist exploration of the depraved male psyche. We are only told, in no uncertain terms, that it is the former and not the latter, and that anyone who can’t see that is part of the problem, too. Get on the bus or in front of it, as they say.

It is curious, of course. Most films, regardless of genre, are driven at some level by violence against women – either physical or psychological. Even (or especially?) romantic comedies, ‘chick flicks’, as we call them. So much so that when Brian De Palma was challenged on his habit of depicting beautiful women, often in varying stages of undress, chased and mutilated by faceless (usually male) assailants, he replied “What else am I supposed to do? I’m making thrillers!” The question didn’t compute, because the ‘beautiful woman in trouble’ trope is so ubiquitous that its presence at the center of any given ‘thriller’ is practically a foregone conclusion, a trend that is often commented upon in vague terms that critique ‘the industry’, or ‘the culture’ – and rightly so. But when such a film was written and directed by Jennifer Lynch, a young, first-time director trying to find her voice in a male-dominated field, it was determined, presumably by some ethereal committee, that this particular piece of pop art and its director were worth burying.

Presumably the same committee that decided that Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, and Dark Places, and a host of other books about evil women, is a reprehensible tool of the patriarchy with no feminist bona fides. I guess, because women can’t be evil – I guess, because women aren’t real people. The irony, I hope, won’t be lost. Boxing Helena is immoral and chauvinistic because it’s yet another in a long line of thrillers in which some beautiful woman is victimized for our entertainment, and Gone Girl is immoral and chauvinistic because it’s one of those faux-transgressive thrillers in which a man is tortured by a monstrous woman.

Stories like Gone Girl, one critic wrote – somehow with a straight face – fail to do justice to the real-life power dynamics that render women powerless against the casual oppression that men inflict upon them. Boxing Helena is sexist because it isn’t Gone Girl, and Gone Girl is sexist because it isn’t Boxing Helena. There is no clear criteria by which the casual viewer might gauge whether a work is misogynistic or feminist, but there is a common denominator between them: Ken Russell is allowed to carry the feminist mantel for making Whore (which is a wonderful film), but Jennifer Lynch isn’t. George Miller is lauded as a feminist auteur for the Mad Max films, but Gillian Flynn is a chauvinist because her antagonists are women. Maybe we’re just not comfortable letting women make their own films and write their own novels and tell their own stories.

And this is one of the weaknesses of the reader-response models that her father, legendary filmmaker David Lynch, endorses. For one, because they permit us to malign the character of filmmakers simply because we didn’t connect with their work. David Lynch himself maintains, essentially, that art is entirely subjective. What Twin Peaks: The Return means to him needn’t influence what it means to me, or anyone, he says. The problem is, by the same token, what Boxing Helena meant to Jennifer needn’t determine what it means to the National Organization for Women – for whom the ‘purely subjective’ experience of viewing her film left the purely objective impression that she’s a misogynistic hack who deserves to be banished from the filmmaking community all together.

Of course, more than a few of those who denounce Ms. Lynch still welcome the arrival of each new Bernardo Bertolucci film – to name one example – even after learning that he conspired with Marlon Brando to carry out the actual rape of a vulnerable young Maria Schneider simply to get a better performance out of her.

It makes sense, though. He’s a critical darling. And a man. It hardly matters what kind of person he is because the cultured elites have deemed him canonical, and that means he’s bulletproof. Like Marlon Brando is bulletproof. Like Alfred Hitchcock is bulletproof.

And why should we nail them up for their transgressions when young, naive, and female newcomers like Jennifer Lynch are available to be crucified in their stead? It’s curious that Lynch came to bear the punishment for Hollywood’s misogyny problem, but it isn’t surprising.

*

Boxing Helena, which Jennifer Lynch wrote at nineteen years old, is only slightly less clumsy and awkward as the feature length screenplays that I wrote at the same age. The director has admitted to its shortcomings – the dialogue is the wrong kind of silly, its central conceit is hardly fleshed out to its full potential, and the final act hardly sticks the landing.

The final ten minutes, especially, feel like an unhappy concession to some angsty producer. That would make sense. Given the difficulty that she faced even getting the film made, it’s hard to imagine that she didn’t make at least a few sizable concessions on the final form. Whatever the case, the result is that, to quote film critic James Berardinelli, “Boxing Helena simply isn’t a particularly good motion picture.” But that hardly means it’s bad.

And why wouldn’t it be clumsy and awkward? Filmmakers aren’t born, they’re made. Self-made, perhaps. But they are made, and slowly – brick by brick, frame by frame. What’s remarkable about Helena’s fatal flaws is not that they’re fatal but that they’re so relatively few and so remarkably fun.

Which is to say, Lynch’s freshman foray into cinema is an admirable misfire – hardly a worthy recipient of the near universal scorn with which it was met. It should not have been a career-ender. It should have been the opposite. Although it’s finally finding some critical reevaluation, it nearly hit the breaks on her film career entirely.

After Helena proved to be a critical trainwreck, Lynch retreated into relative privacy for fifteen years. When she finally returned, it was with a vengeance. He sophomore effort, Surveillance, was a game-changer – the sort of film that ought to cement her as one of the more intriguing horror filmmakers currently working. And she followed that up with Chained, a modern serial-killer classic that, unfortunately, has yet to find its audience.

In order to see Boxing Helena, you have to purchase it. And it’s not easy to find a copy that works on U.S. DVD players (I have a Korean copy, and I don’t even know if it’s official). But it’s worth watching, not because it’s particularly good, but because it foreshadows the heights that Jennifer Lynch would ascend toward in her latter works (and her works that have yet to come). But more – it’s a film so ubiquitously maligned that it nearly ended her career, by which she was punished for the sins of other filmmakers, whose very behaviors she was, perhaps, skewering in her strange, gruesome fairy tale. For all that she went through to get her film made, and all that we put her through for having made it, I think we all owe her the courtesy of watching it.

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