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The Death of My Fallback Plan

July 8, 2014

When I was younger, I remember Jewel’s mother recommending that people not have a fallback plan, because if you have one, you will fall back.  My fallback plan was closely related to my main plan:  If I couldn’t become a filmmaker, I would become a film professor.  That option was killed for me, too, making the main plan seem more likely than the fallback plan, as difficult as that main plan is. Without 2-3 letters of recommendation from people who know my graduate work, there are no Ph.D. programs in film that will accept me.  Most of them are automated to the point that you can’t submit without attaching something, even if it’s an empty file.  Unless 2-3 film professors read this and wants to read more of my work, that seems an unlikely prospect.

This was one of the last papers I wrote in graduate school.  It pulled my GPA down to a 3.48.  The departmental requirement for staying on and writing a master’s thesis was 3.66, but my professors conspired and gave me all Bs in my last semester, as can be seen on my transcript:transcript censored.

I didn’t work less hard, so I don’t know any other way to explain the Bs.


What follows is my professor’s comments.  I will leave them unjudged.  It should suffice to say that I don’t agree with all of them, but I don’t want to go into further detail, lest such comment appear ignorant or whiny.






What’s the Matter With Being Looked At?:

Gender Representation in Curtis Harrington’s

What’s the Matter with Helen?



Scott Andrew Hutchins






CMC 746 9659

Dr. Cynthia Chris

17 May 2005



“What’s the matter with looking?” is not simply a cheesily clever title.  Looking is a fundamental element of the cinema, as well as everyday life.  As feminist critics have explored, in the cinema, looking is often a one-sided and subtly but directly hypersexualized, nearly always turning woman into a spectacle for man, particularly in relation to the concept of suture.  Not all films hegemonically do this, and even those that utilize this technique may do so with a self-reflexive and not necessarily sympathetic attitude.  In this paper, I will examine how Curtis Harrington’s What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) prefigures and analyzes in cinematic terms concepts elucidated by Laura Mulvey, Mary Ann Doane, and Judith Butler.

          Laura Mulvey named the concept “to-be-looked-at-ness” (19), and it was her criticism that mainstream narrative cinema made women spectacles that had to be conquered by narratives driven by men.  Most of the films she cited were by filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg, and Howard Hawks, who had recently been championed by the auteur movement, and that Pauline Kael, had derided as a boy’s club, privileging male-driven narratives[1].  While Mulvey herself was eventually able to find female-driven narratives, it seems she did not find a film that includes a similar critique within its own structure.  Not only does What’s the Matter With Helen?, released two years before Mulvey wrote her article, let alone published it, draw attention to looking and being looked at, the film presents femininity as a masquerade and a construction.

          Mary Ann Doane developed the concept of the masquerade in 1982.  It emphasized a hegemonic perception of female over-identification with the body as suggested by Christian Metz and Luce Irigaray, that touch, smell, and taste are feminine senses and part of the minor arts, while music and visual arts are privileged.  She also emphasizes the ease of female “transvestism” (234) as opposed to that of the male, the principal point is that femininity is “constructed as a mask” (ibid) that women wear more easily than men, flaunting femininity (235), in a sense disagreeing that a woman has to become a transvestite to be a spectator, since non-transvestism is the real masquerade.  Judith Butler tortuously shows this mask as being socially constructed, because, for her, there is only one gender–anything other than the masculine, which others have shown to be just as much a construction.  Finally, Doane deals with the censorship of the female gaze, first by her analysis of the use of women in glasses to represent unattractiveness and an unwillingness to show female points of view in the most literal sense.

          What’s the Matter with Helen? was the sixth feature film directed by avant garde filmmaker Curtis Harrington (a compatriot of Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markoupolos), if one counts his television film from the previous year, How Awful About Allan, which was also written by Henry Farrell, and the cobbled-from-import Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965).  The film was censored of much of its violence by the producer, Martin Ransohoff, in order to achieve a GP rating, who also, based on his own personal taste alone, arbitrarily demanded the removal of two carefully placed dissolves (inspired, ironically, by Josef von Sternberg[2], about whose works Harrington wrote the first book[3]).  Despite this, Harrington has stated that of all his features, it is the one that is “best realized.”  He also emphasizes that his films are highly visual, and that he works closely with his screenwriters on story and scene ideas but has little talent for dialogue (Kelley, 34-35), though he appreciated Time’s comment (presumably for Night Tide (1961)) that his dialogue was “serviceable” (Harrington, 11).

          As such, it is none too surprising that the film places so much emphasis on looking.  The beginning of the film gives us newsreel footage to look at.  The first portion deals with Franklin Roosevelt establishing new public programs.  The next story depicts Eleanor Roosevelt making a solo plane voyage to Haiti.  Finally, we are introduced to Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) via this visual medium–an artifact of their own diegesis for the visual consumption of others.  The announcer tells us that the mothers have received almost attention as the killers themselves, and upon transition to the film world indicated by a change from black and white to color, we learn that Helen has been cut by an unseen assailant.  She simply looked down and saw blood.  Adelle, who danced to support her son, is a teacher at a “New York School of Dance”, presumably a stylistic moniker for a main street store front in the town of Braddock, Iowa, where the trial took place, though it does have a New York, or at least sufficiently urban, look[4] (it was shot on a set).  As there are apartments for them to live at the school, they are there at night, and harassed by a man (Allen Pinson) who is spying on them, making harassing calls from a pay phone outside.

          They make the decision to move to California to train young girls to be in the movies, and the transition is shown visually through a costumed standee made of Adelle, existing, of course, only to be looked at, which is the goal of the school.  This aspect is emphasized by the divorced stage father Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), who wants his daughter, Winona, a Shirley Temple look-alike (Sammee Lee Jones), to stand out in special costumes that make her self-conscious, which is against Adelle’s policy.  Mrs. Barker (Yvette Vickers) insists that her daughter Charlene’s (Tammy Lee) poor eyesight should keep her closer than the back row, from where she has trouble seeing.  Finally, as the scene draws to a close, a woman tells her daughter not to stare at a woman Winona identifies as a “little lady” (Sadie Delfino).  The little girl looks anyway, and the woman stops and smiles at her before moving on.  Mr. Palmer does not, in fact, appear until later, but his attitude toward to his daughter as something to be looked at becomes clear even before the scene where he elucidates his opinion to Adelle.

          Mary Anne Doane’s concept of the masquerade can also be seen in a nascent form from early on in the film.  Upon deciding to move to California, the two change their names, but only their surnames, which are their married names, anyway.  Adelle chooses the name Stuart, and that this is a choice and not a reversion to a maiden name is emphasized by Helen’s brief struggling to come up with a new name, Martin, probably after Martin Luther, given her religious devotion.  She notes that the only movie she has seen in years was Sign of the Cross.  Helen, who is overweight and not conventionally attractive, has one major feminine element to her style–that of long hair.  In a scene further demonstrating the masquerade element.  Adelle says she dyed her hair to look more like Joan Crawford (presumably an inside joke, Farrell having written the basis for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)), while she identifies Helen as being a Marion Davies type, and insists upon cutting her hair to make her bear a closer resemblance to the actor.  This scene, and many others, emphasizes the presence of the multiple mirrors throughout the school and its apartments, further emphasizing to-be-looked-at-ness.

          When Adelle visits a luxury gambling boat with Lincoln, he is not inclined to dance with her, or anyone.  Adelle, while she feels her son is an ingrate for not appreciating the income she generates from dancing, still associates dancing as much with play as she does with work.  So, what would normally be unwelcome glances from a leering gigolo (Swen Swenson), are welcomed as an opportunity for her to dance, to the point that Lincoln is more than willing to pay for the gigolo’s services.  The multiple eyeline matches between Adelle and Lincoln during the dance make clear the relationship, even if the television viewer were to tune in at exactly this point.  The gigolo makes her feel uncomfortable, so Lincoln has to intervene.  Although Adelle insists that she was not scared by him, Lincoln likes the idea that she was–“I kinda liked you bein’ scared–made me feel protective” he says, his chauvinism tied to his Texas roots (in an earlier line from his housekeeper).

          Harrington seems to want us to sympathize with Helen.  Adelle tends to be too capricious and superficial to really make her a particularly sympathetic character.  While both women have a significant amount of screen time without the other, Helen’s scenes tend to be introspective, while Adelle’s scenes are usually as an object for Lincoln Palmer.  They are first acquainted based on a debate over being looked at:  Lincoln says “If you’ve got it, why don’t you let it stand out,” to which she responds, “If you’ve got it, you don’t have to point it out.”  He insists that they discuss her “philosophy” over dinner.  She is very easily won over by a rich man.  When Helen has a paranoid reaction to a knife belonging to the already eerie elocutionist Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir), the film takes on her point of view, in terms of the music and in terms of making Starr’s use of the knife look as threatening as possible, along with the use of an eyeline match that suggests what we see may not be objective reality.  While the image (in the same scene) has previously told us that she is disturbed by having her cut herself on the fan that resembles the combine with which her husband was killed, her fear is more sympathetic than Adelle’s shame, particularly when Adelle has the audacity to refer to the show as “our show”–which can be read in the context of her dialogue as that of her and Helen, but the latter has been replaced by an orchestra and is not allowed to perform.  A double meaning seems to exist which is more rightly that of Adelle and Lincoln’s show.  Helen’s primary role becomes fixing costumes, which she is not the only one doing.  Adelle really did not need to be in the show to begin with, since the point was ostensibly to showcase the girls whom she upstages.  She also keeps making obvious eye contact with Lincoln–stage conventions dictate either not making eye contact with the audience or, in some situations, attempting to make eye contact with everyone.

          Adelle’s performance is preceded by the very disturbing performance by Rosalie Greenbaum (Robbi Morgan) in imitation of Mae West, singing about “nasty man” who creates scandals.  This is juxtaposed with the fan’s reminder to Helen of her husband’s death.  [more Doane invocation, also Butler] Upon rewatching the film, it becomes embarrassingly easy to notice sexual connotations of lines like “when they’re inside me” in Winona Palmer’s performance of “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” as if Harrington was playing up on the accusations that Shirley Temple aroused dirty old men, although this was primarily for the way she often sat on men’s laps[5].  The only time we see Winona on a man’s lap (her father’s) is when her father is clearly lusting after Adelle to the point Winona looks at him and has trouble getting his attention.  Adelle’s dance at that point in the film seems done more to impress Linc than her ostensible intent of doing a demonstration for the students.  That the final number of the first act–the last that appears in the film, is backed by a banner endorsing the National Rifle Association draws attention to the masculinist domination of the spectacle.

          First wave feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage (232) noted that Sprenger’s The Witch Hammer claimed that the root of “feminine,” “femina” is a combination of “fe,” meaning “faith” and “minus” with a feminine ending.  That the less feminine of the two women is the religious one seems unsurprising in this respect.  She listens almost obsessively to a radio preacher named Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead).  By content, Sister Alma is not a preacher of the fire-and-brimstone mold, though her intonation of speaking is not all that different from one.  Even when she gives a sermon on love, it is definitely given with “preacher-style” elocution.  When Helen comes to see her in congregation, Helen has to be dragged away when she demands to confess to Sister Alma as if a priest, the latter insisting that God has forgiven her already.  Lincoln, whom Adelle is now calling “Linc,” responds to Adelle’s complaint that the show was “all bitched up” with “All that Bible punchin’, that’ll get you in the end.”

          Adelle’s switch to a nickname is soon accompanied by Helen spying on their kissing, and the first glimpse of the stalker since moving to L.A.  Behind the stalker is a storefront with an obvious sexual metaphor, “Palmer’s Fountain & Confectionary.”  As it is certainly not a chain store, Lincoln Palmer has nothing to do with it, and Harrington is too visual a director for this to be a coincidence.  Also across the street, next to the confectionary, are vertical signs declaring “modern” and “antique.”  After Helen has dispatched with the stalker, and the two women drag the corpse to the road construction pit nearby, Adelle is juxtaposed with the “modern” sign while Helen’s body is essentially parallel to the “antique” sign–each on significantly closer to the corresponding sign.  This seems to be a subtle reminder that Adelle is a woman of her time, while Helen is a woman of a time now past, far enough past to make her anomalous and thus transgressive, as Adelle fits neatly into the mainstream of expectation, while Helen’s status as a social outsider has been emphasized throughout the film.  The other verbiage on the facing façade is “Do not block entrance,” which could also be interpreted sexually in this context, though it never becomes as prominently focused on as the other two.  Given the timing of the scene, the Palmer sign is more of a psychological device than metonymy, as Linc does drop off Adelle.

          Soon after, in real time, we have an obscene phone call, almost certainly from the stalker.  Helen emphasizes visual metaphors such as “see” to establish the veracity of her claims.  Her murder of him involves a topple down the stairs akin to that of Arbogast in Psycho, but the body, and those looking over it, are now reflected and refracted with the mirrors of the dance studio, but only after they walk away from the body, which is in the foreground.  After the body has initially hit the landing, its eyes stare up at her, looking like her dead husband.

          One of Helen’s peculiarities is her raising of rabbits.  She has two at the beginning, but one of them is pregnant.  Adelle says “You know what they say about rabbits,” and Helen is unaware, not only to what is said about rabbits, but of their fecundity in general.  Chris Straayer’s reading of lesbian heroines could be read in the case of Helen, at least in latent form, particularly at the point when Sister Alma’s radio broadcast on love is going on in the background and Helen smells Adelle’s negligee while she is not home.  Adelle’s room is as feminine as they come–girlish–childish (puellile?–there seems to be no official feminine equivalent of “puerile”) even.  She has dolls that resemble herself and Helen, amongst others, though these two she keeps on her bed, which is pink, as are the walls of her bedroom.  Straayer’s concept is the idea of female bonding and gazing can be used as clues for reading characters as hypothetical lesbians.  Here, we might go so far as to say that Helen, who is not girlied up, is a latent homosexual.  This can be seen from the films earliest domestic scene when Adelle treats Helen’s wound.  Helen’s looks suggest desire, while Adelle’s looks do not.  Even so, there is plenty of female bonding going on here and throughout the film, Helen taking it much more seriously than Adelle, who takes it for granted.  There is much arm grabbing in the disposal scene, and at least one call of “Get him off of me!” when all his weight is dropped on one.  When they return, Helen says that they are in this together–“just together, friends”.  Staring back is a sign declaring the school’s policy–“All lessons paid in advance.”  As a middle-aged and religious woman, Helen would surely never admit to herself that such interest is of a sexual nature, but that is not necessarily the message that her actions suggest.  Ultimately, Helen kills her rabbits, believing that it is better for them to die if she cannot take care of them–so, too, she is ultimately drawn to murder Adelle, who, though accomplice to her crime, Helen assumes she cannot follow her where she is going, ultimately admitting that she did the same thing to her husband.  She believes it is better for them to die than live without her love.

          The stalker turns out to be the lover of the murder victim, whose name is Ellie Banner (Peggy Patten), a name signifying display.  When Detective Sergeant West (Logan Ramsey) of Braddock comes to reveal to Helen that her lover, seeking revenge, has been found in the nearby road construction trench, Helen is seen in glasses.  West arrives as she is cleaning the knife from murdering Adelle, his first appearance being from a high angle, indicating relative unimportance; narratively, he simply provides closure, but the visual imagery depicts a contest of looking power between the two.  It is, of course, significant, because Helen has everything to lose at this point if he realizes that Adelle’s corpse is upstairs.  Her wearing of glasses seems to affect the choice of close-up vs. medium shots in a room littered with artifacts more associated with Adelle.

          In this film, it is not the transgressive woman who is ultimately punished; it is the conforming one, and after she is killed, she is returned to her soldier masquerade costume.  Not only does the transgressive woman get the last laugh–literally, but also Linc’s final eyeline match is with the corpse of Adelle, not with Helen, whose looks seem to waver between looking at Linc and looking at Adelle.  She refers to this moment as “our recital,” with emphasis on “our.”  Adelle, though, is spectacle to the end.  The spotlight is on her–Helen the pianist has some residual light and nothing more; her performance is not spectacle.

          In What’s the Matter with Helen?, Curtis Harrington depicts a woman who, while still a performer, rejects the male gaze and creates one of her own.  While it is true that she is deranged, the audience sees from her point of view and is allowed to understand most fully how she got that way.  Her refusal to be object of the gaze can certainly part of her non-acceptance of contemporary norms in the way Adelle banally appropriates them with gender fixity.  Adelle, in spite of her words, is the object of the gaze, and far more objectified by her “appropriate” mate, Linc Palmer, than she is by her inappropriate one, the line between sisterly and romantic love being vague even for the character’s own sensibility.  While the film may not be particularly empowering on a narrative level, the choices being perhaps worse than those Mulvey identifies in Duel in the Sun, the approach to the gaze and the limitations of gender perception are at the heart of this film’s critique.  Having come before such criticisms, the film can be seen as astute indeed.  Harrington’s approach seems to be a corrective for the sorts of films Mulvey and others were critiquing, and a self-aware one at that.  Its narrative may not be particularly flattering to women, but for a filmmaker like Harrington, the narrative is more a means to an end in the overall artistry.  By giving Helen control of the gaze, and not to Adelle, we see that Adelle becomes the object society wants her to be from a perspective skewed enough to show Harrington aware, though perhaps not on a conscious level, of what much of the Hollywood cinema had been doing with an unconsciousness and perceived naturalness that need not be present.




Works Cited


Bissette, Stephen R.  “Harrington Ascending:  The Underground Roots.”  Video Watchdog 14 (Nov/Dec 1992), 22-26.


Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  New York:  Routledge, 1990.


Doane, Mary Anne.  “Film and the Masquerade:  Theorizing the Female Spectator.”  The Female Spectator.  227-243.


Gage, Matilda Joslyn.  Woman, Church and State. 1893.  Foreword Sally Roesch Wagner.  Amherst, New York:  Prometheus Books, 2002.


Harrington, Curtis.  The American Film Institute Seminar with Curtis Harrington Held January 19, 1972.  Conducted by Jim Silke, Sam Grossman, and Bob Mundy.  Microfiche.  Glen Rock, New Jersey:  Microfilming Corporation of America, 1977.  Beverly Hills:  Center for Advanced Film Studies, 1978.


Kelley, Bill, with Tim Lucas.  “Horror’s First Experimentalist:  Curtis Harrington.”  Video Watchdog 14 (Nov/Dec 1992), 28-46.


Mulvey, Laura.  Visual and Other Pleasures.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1989.


Straayer, Chris.  Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1996.


Stephens, Chuck.  “Brides and Monsters:  Curtis Harrington Revisits His Past.”  Filmmaker Magazine.  Fall 2000.  Accessed 20 May 2005.


Tonguette, Peter.  “You Look Pretty Splendid Yourself, Orson:  A Conversation with Curtis Harrington.”  Bright Lights Film Journal.  Accessed 20 May 2005.


What’s the Matter with Helen? (with Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) (1971).  Dir. Curtis Harrington.  Perf. Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Micheál MacLiammóir, and Agnes Moorehead.  DVD.  MGM Video, 2002.


[1] This is my own interpretation of her 1963 article, “Circles and Squares,” best encapsulated in her first paragraph–“it is amusing that a critic can both support these clichés of the male world and be so happy when they are violated”–the paragraph that ends her discussion of “The Outer Circle”–“In fact it seems to be precisely this category that the auteur critics are most interested in–the routine material that a good craftsman can make into a fast and enjoyable movie…(in this they follow the lead of children who also prefer simple action films and westerns and horror films to works that make demands on their understanding), but their truly astonishing their truly astonishing inability to exercise taste and judgment within their area of preference”–her fifth to the last paragraph–“What can auteur critics see in [Only Angels Have Wings] beyond the sex and glamour and fantasies of the high-school boys’ universe–exactly what the mass audience liked it for?”–and finally, “the kind of action movies the restless, rootless men…have always preferred just because they could respond to them without thought.” [my copy is an unattributed photocopy from Dr. Gerstner that appeared on pages 666-679 of the book where he obtained it]

[2] Harrington, 6-7; Kelley, 36

[3] The Films of Josef von Sternberg (1948)

[4] AFI’s film seminar on Harrington’s work in 1972 muddles this question via a footnote stating that the discussion is about What’s the Matter With Helen?, when key descriptions indicate the discussion is of first How Awful About Allan (1970), then Games (1967)–everyone except Harrington saw all of his films that day, and conversation tends to drift among them without clear transitions.

[5] See, for example, citations in Kathleen Rowe Karlyn.  “Too Close for Comfort:  American Beauty and the Incest Motif.”  Cinema Journal 44:1 (2004), 72.




I will email this general feedback, which summarizes comments written  
on the paper. I will leave the paper itself in an envelope in the main  
office next week. My comments pertain primarily to the writing of the  
paper, and to its theoretical framework. I hope you find them

The paper begins — and concludes — with an intriguing and confidently  
written claim about the film as counterargument or corrective to  
Mulvey’s apparently over-reaching claims about how the male gaze  
structures cinema. But after two prior drafts, I am still finding much  
of what is written between the introduction and conclusion confusing.  
Basic facts of the film (why did they move to California? Who kills  
who?) remain unclear. I had suggested to you that you summarize the  
plot very briefly near the start of the paper, then allow yourself to  
use theoretical resources to analyze particular scenes for the bulk of  
the paper, but I don’t see that you’ve reorganized. Much of the  
confusion stems from patterns in the writing:

•    use of pronouns with unclear referents;
•    overuse of passive voice (which leaves the agent of said action  
•    inconsistent mixing of past & present tense;
•    and the order in which you present some of the factual material (how  
the characters are introduced, for example), that sometimes requires  
you to backtrack.

These habits make the writing hard to follow; you are going to need to  
achieve greater clarity if you are going to pursue further scholarly  
work or write for publication. I hope that identifying these patterns  
will help you check your future work before turning it in.

The theoretical framework remains underdeveloped. I am especially  
concerned that your revision of the brief passage on Butler is no more  
accurate than in draft form (on a related note, there are other  
passages, marked on the hard copy of the paper, in which I asked for  
clarifications that went unrevised).
    One way to focus the framework would be to jettison those that seem to  
constitute tangents to your primary argument (perhaps Butler; Kael on  
auteurism; maybe Doane’s comments on the feminization of nonvisual  
arts). Wouldn’t it have been better to have worked in more detail with  
her work on the thwarting and mediating of female gazes (as through  
eyeglasses), and to have related the many relevant scenes from the film  
to these ideas?

I urge you to channel some of your obvious love for film and breadth of  
familiarity with the medium into research of greater focus, and depth,  
and precision.

God luck on the exam and in future endeavors. B on paper, B plus in the  

Prof. Chris

  1. So now it’s the professor’s fault? FFS, is there ANYONE, besides you, that is not to blame for you being a feckless loser? KINCANNON ’16

    • How is Kincannon NOT a Feckless loser? He’s a guy who got FIRED by the Republican Party. Why would someone’s grades plummet in their last semester if their efforts stayed the same? Did you even read the article?

  2. I need to make clear that the professor for whose class I wrote this paper is not one of the three from whom I was trying to get letters of recommendation and got either no reply or got hung up on. This professor initially refused because this was my only class with her, then did so after some cajoling when I told her than other professors in the department were not responding. That letter of recommendation went straight to NYU, where I was not accepted, so I am still effectively at zero letters of recommendation. According to my grad school colleague, Seth A. Friedman, there are only 12 Ph.D. film programs in the U.S. I looked up all of them ten years ago, and they all required at least two, sometimes three, letters of recommendation from someone familiar with your graduate work.

    The point of posting this was not to complain that the professor of this class would not write me a letter of recommendation. The point of this post is that my GPA was lowered toward the end, and it was suggested to me at my exit interview that the lower grades I received towards the end of graduate school were based on what came up about me in faculty meetings. At that time, the department chair mentioned letters of recommendation, but not in a way that made clear that they would not be writing them for me.

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