Saturday, November 20, 2010

HENRY & JUNE (1990): NC-17

Henry & June is the first movie that ever received the NC-17 rating.  This is a particularly dubious distinction because the movie is remembered for little else.  Henry & June is loosely based on the Anais Nin (Maria Medeiros) diaries concerning her sexual relationship with Henry Miller (Fred Ward), her alleged lesbian relationship with Henry Miller’s troubled wife, June (Uma Thurman), and her ultimate reconciliation with her husband.  Instead of receiving an X-rating, it received the NC-17 rating because the MPAA (“Motion Picture Association of America") felt it contained a sufficient amount of artistic merit to not be relegated to the status of pornography.  Like Carnal Knowledge, the hype created by individuals and groups not connected with the actual creation of the movie is what has kept the exposure of the movie alive.  The promoters of Carnal Knowledge made moviegoers aware that the United States Supreme Court had ruled that Carnal Knowledge was not obscene.  If not for that ruling, only followers of the careers of Ann Margret and Jack Nicholson would even know that Carnal Knowledge existed.  Likewise, Henry & June was watched in movie houses filled with assorted pointy-heads interested in viewing eroticism for the sake of its artistic merit because of an NC-17 rating.
Henry Miller wrote some outrageously funny novels back in the 1930s.  He’s a better writer than his imitators like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, but he is not of the same caliber as his contemporaries D.H. Lawrence or Louis Ferdinand Celine – two writers he confesses to admire.  Compared to Lawrence, Miller only touched the surface of sexuality.  Compared to Celine, he is oddly irrelevant.  Though Miller wrote during the Great Depression and between the two World Wars, he spends the majority of his jottings meditating on the meaning of life in a brothel.  (Celine once said that no one should be condemned for going into a brothel; the real sin is never coming back out.)  Miller never mentions war, fascism or real poverty in any of his best work, and he spent the last fifty years of his life living off of the novels he could no longer write.*  (Lawrence and Celine were still struggling to speak the truth right up to the last days that they were alive.)
Anais Nin also liked hanging out in bordellos, but she had less to say even than Miller.  There’s little humor in her work and almost no indication that she understood the problems of anyone outside of the bohemians that she associated with.  The men (and women) in her life must have paid a great deal to possess her for her to travel and live the lifestyle that she did.  Her self-revelations brought her celebrity status, but it did not make her a seer.  Contemporaries Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty had much more to say because these two writers appreciated the consequences of ones own actions.
Henry & June is at its best when it focuses on the roguish Miller.  Though the makers of the film fail to understand that the author Miller was not the actual protagonist of his two Tropic novels (Miller recreated himself for fictional purposes), they do manage to bring the irreverence and humor of the character that Miller created out.  The movie approaches honesty in showing Miller’s inability to deal with the psychosis and drug addiction of his wife June.  Because Miller tried to hide from his problems through his pursuance of conquests and playing the part of a buffoon, at least we can see a human side to his character.  Nin, on the other hand, seems to stumble through life unaffected as she messes with the minds of Henry, June and her husband.  We’re led to believe that she’s an exotic temptress rather than some kind of whore.  Nothing is simple or straightforward with her.  She feels the need to pursue all kinds of forbidden pleasure as a means of expanding her own consciousness.  Her problems of not being able to find an adequate lover are somehow elevated above the problems of all others.

The title Henry & June is also odd.  June plays only a small part in the movie and soon disappears from the lives of the other characters (her brief reappearance late in the movie does bring about a certain discomfort).  To focus too greatly on her would probably have been too much for the producer and director to have to deal with, though it would have given the movie its one opportunity to examine a real life travesty.  She was a desperately unhappy woman and having her as a central character would have made the movie too authentic.  It’s best to concentrate on characters that have nothing better to do than party and sleep around with everything that moves - without emotional consequences.  And with June out of the way, Anais and Henry have full play to indulge whatever erotic fantasies they may have.
Streetcar Named Desire, made almost forty years before this one, handles the same subject matter with honesty.  Tennessee Williams had a much firmer grasp on the consequences of a repressive society so consequently Streetcar ends in a much more brutal and tragic fashion.  And Midnight Cowboy, Sophie’s Choice and Body Heat, inferior to Streetcar, are still better than Henry & June.  At least these movies did not pass-off to the viewer the concept of unchecked hedonism as cultural enlightenment.
The NC-17 rating for Henry & June is spoken about as if it were a badge of respectability to receive that label.  It has been promoted as a means of giving the movie a relevance it does not have.  We throw in a carnival like atmosphere with Henry & June, toss around a few literary names and references, and spend a few million dollars to make the set design look like Paris during the early 1930s, and we then have a movie with enough artistic merit to avoid an X-rating.  That does not mean that we have a good movie.  With this movie we continue to see examples of Hollywood’s placement of style over substance.  To be able to create the perception of substance on the screen requires some actual storytelling talent.  That requires integrity.  That’s something that is either completely missing among today’s screenwriters, or is not valued by reviewers and critics who continue to be distracted by other things.  The movie that received the first NC-17 rating will become only a footnote in books on movie history within the next twenty years.  Unfortunately, other stylish movies like it will continue to be made.
* In his later essays, Miller attempts to give religious significance to his noninvolvement with the affairs of the world.  He frequently brings up the names of Lao Tzu, Krishnamurti and Mary Baker Eddy to justify his seeming inattention to wars, revolutions and holocausts.  It’s not surprising that the sense of humor, so prevalent in his novels from the 1930s, is missing in these essays in order that he can better rationalize to himself the message that he was delivering.
November 28, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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