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The Crying Game

Alan A. Stone

The Crying Game
directed by Neil Jordan

8Many good films are doomed at the box office. Ignoring the prevailing wisdom, the filmmaker aims too high for an American audience. Even if the critics love it, the result is commercial disaster. That sad but predictable fate is much easier to explain than the extraordinary success of The Crying Game. Written and directed by Ireland's Neil Jordan and shot on a shoestring budget, the movie (like his critically acclaimed Mona Lisa) was created without any apparent artistic compromises for the American mass market. If Jordan had an audience in mind (and what artist does not?), it was probably sophisticates, particularly Anglo-Irish types: people who know the film's political context and London's interracial night scene. If that was his idea, then the American reception is doubly perplexing. For The Crying Game was not well-received when it opened in London. Time Out, London's compendious weekly guide to entertainment, gave it only a lukewarm review, and fewer than 12 people were in the audience when I saw it there during the first week of its run.

Why, then, did The Crying Game take off like a rocket in the United States? Any plausible answer must implicate the film's "secret." So if you still plan to see it and do not want the experience ruined, stop reading now. People who are told about or somehow catch on before the revelation miss a startling human experience. That experience, with all its implications, has to be an important reason for the film's popular success here. We are allowed, perhaps compelled, to reconsider the categories we conventionally use to make sense of our experience. Those who are already initiated, or too sophisticated, or repelled by Jordan's revelation, or simply unable to assimilate it as an aesthetic device, are less likely to have this rare opportunity for self-reflection. To achieve its full aesthetic/emotional impact, the film requires both that one be taken in by the device and then stirred to afterthought and self-reflection.

The beginning of the movie must be bewildering to many Americans. It is set in Northern Ireland, at a South Armagh Fairground. We see an interracial couple: a large black man in a British military uniform and a moderately attractive white woman. The relationship is explicitly, even crudely sexual, and the woman (Miranda Richardson) seems willing to take on the raunchy and drunken black soldier (Forest Whittaker). They find an isolated spot, she pulls him on top of her, and as we prepare to witness interracial sex, three angry white men break in and assault the black man. One might think this was sex and racism Irish style. But, like everything else in the film, it is something other than we think.

The apparent sexual escapade was a carefully planned IRA operation. The woman, an IRA operative, intended to trap Jody, the soldier, who is to be their hostage. She in fact finds him repulsive. The IRA wants a British soldier as a hostage because the British have one of theirs. Jody's blackness is apparently irrelevant to them. He is a fungible British soldier.

While the blackness of this soldier is a matter of indifference to the IRA, it is absolutely essential to Neil Jordan's movie. A famous essay by Roland Barthes analyzes a postage stamp portraying a proud black African in a French uniform saluting the Tricolor. The bloody history of French Imperialism in colonized Africa is transformed by that representation into the myth of interracial liberty, equality, and fraternity. Jordan's black is the British equivalent; his uniform and his love of cricket cannot conceal the history of racist oppression that he represents. The IRA blindly refuses to recognize that its British prisoner is black. He is a member of a race whose history of oppression seems to trivialize the intransigent and bloody religious/political struggle in Northern Ireland. The IRA may insist that they also are an oppressed minority, but if they can kill a black man in the name of their own liberation, then the category of the oppressed is no longer meaningful. Fergus, who is asked to guard the blindfolded hostage, will begin to have second thoughts.

Whittaker is big, burly, and fleshy. His character is a man of extraordinary human appeal; he cajoles, he confides, he chats up, and he breaks down his guard's wall of willed emotional distance. He befriends his captor, Fergus, the hero of the film, played by the nondescript Stephen Rea. Both of them realize that Fergus may be asked to kill him. But the victim never loses the emotional upper-hand.

Jody's psychological strategy is to involve Fergus on human terms. He wants Fergus to question the difference between them: British and Irish, black and white, prisoner and guard. Jody has his own binary scheme of classification. He divides the human race into frogs and scorpions -- the exploited and their exploiters. He insists that Fergus is a frog. The relationship is brilliantly directed and acted. It is entirely believable, establishing a solid foundation for what will follow. The prisoner confides in Fergus that the IRA woman was not really his type. Fergus is inveigled into removing Jody's wallet and examining the photographs it contains. We see Dil, who is the soldier's type. He describes Dil, a light-skinned black, as unlike any other woman.

In these scenes the actors negotiate a series of treacherous emotional interchanges. The black actor must play a role in which by every connivance in his repertoire he engages the white man's sympathy. He walks an emotional tightrope, never begging, never menacing, and knowing that his guard knows exactly what he is trying to accomplish. If the black soldier had begged, he would have lost his dignity and his guard's respect; if he had menaced, the poignancy of the scene would have been shattered. His performance is a kind of psychological hustling, a seduction to which his captor must in some sense succumb without losing his own dignity. There is a moment when Jody needs to urinate, but with his hands tied behind him the guard has to help. Has to only because this captor is a decent human being. Early in the movie, while still being lured on by the IRA woman, the black soldier had asked her, with lascivious overtones, to perform the same function. One realizes that she and the other IRA operatives would surely have let their hostage suffer or humiliate himself. Fergus is the one discomforted as he performs this intimate and demeaning task.

By now it is clear that Fergus is himself a captive of the situation and has begun to question the political extremism of his IRA group. His growing human connection to the black prisoner has led him to doubt the logic of their eye-for-an-eye tactics. When the order comes for him to kill his prisoner he hesitates and Jody seizes the opportunity to run for his life, only to be crushed under one of the British armored cars that have come in search of him.

Fergus's identity as a member of the IRA and his commitment to the politics of terrorism are shaken by the black soldier's death. The further psychological transformations of Fergus's identity will be the real plot line of the film, but that line has been woven into an IRA action/thriller. The latter plot requires Fergus to assume a different identity and go undercover in London where he will be called on for further IRA terrorism. But Fergus now has his own mission. He feels tied to the dead black soldier and obliged to find Dil, the girlfriend in the photograph. Fergus is being pulled out of the iron cage of his old identity by a new kind of friendship.

Fergus tracks Dil down in a night-life world beyond his ken. Played by Jaye Davidson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the part, Dil is a hairdresser, a would-be club singer, and a battered woman. She, like the soldier, is a victim, and Fergus is soon fighting to protect her from her abusive white boyfriend, who comes on like a tough and sadistic pimp. The relationship between Fergus and Dil quickly becomes intimate and erotic and in the first episode of lovemaking, when things start to get intense, she pushes his hands away and her head goes down. Fergus presumably is being given the type of special treatment that Jody relished.

It is crucial to The Crying Game that every human interchange the audience has seen up to this point has been believable, if somewhat lurid, and fits within the categories of the viewer's experience. The black soldier killed because of the IRA, his special girlfriend beaten by an English pimp-- these people can be seen as victims of a racist world. Our understanding also tells us that such people are capable, perhaps because of their victimization, of feelings and erotic extravagances for which the white race envies them. Fergus, a good guy, had been befriended by his hostage, and now he has been initiated into the extra pleasures of the flesh by the special girlfriend. This possibility of interracial friendship and erotic connection is plausible, and one can think one understands what has been transpiring on the screen.

Jordan's revelation occurs in their next love scene. Like all earnest lovers, Fergus wants to give as good as he has gotten and Dil seems to think he is ready. Dil dons beautiful lingerie, and there is an erotic unveiling as Jordan's camera pans down what we now see is a breastless body to the black penis -- the woman is a man. Fergus vomits in revulsion. He has been passionately embracing a man; this transvestite performed oral sex on him. Fergus has crossed the racial and, unwittingly, the gender boundary.

This black penis is Jordan's cinematic device, his instrument of psychological and moral instruction. All that has gone before in the film takes on a new and different significance. Everything one remembers and thought one understood requires fresh memory and understanding: the black soldier's statement that the IRA woman was not his type, his claim that his own woman was unlike any other, his practiced ingratiation of Fergus, the urination scene, the head that went down in the first love scene, even the gender ambiguous names Jody and Dil. Almost every line of dialogue one can remember from the early part of the film becomes a double entendre, but only in retrospect and upon reflection.

Jordan's device also challenges men in the audience to deal with their own sexual attraction to this man/woman. The less they suspected the transvestite imposture the more likely they are to have difficulty in denying that they felt sexual desire for the provocative Dil. This difficulty is the very thing that thrills many transvestites; their ability to excite even the homophobic man who does not know the secret concealed between their legs. Fergus vomits when that secret is revealed. But what about the men in the audience who, like Fergus, did not know what was coming? Many experience discomfort and women tend to enjoy this male discomfiture. The male's sexual turn on is a form of masculine empowerment. Every man who whistles or leers at a woman is like a gorilla beating his chest. How humiliating then to catch yourself leering at another man. You put your masculinity and your aggressiveness in question at the same time. Women, who intuitively recognize what is going on, are understandably amused by such masculine foibles unmasked by the film.

The erotic complication is psychologically instructive. By forcing us to reconsider impressions that we had already formed into memories, Jordan demonstrates how much the categories of human experience are dominated by gender differences and reveals the ways that the interpersonal politics of gender identity shapes our knowledge of reality.

But The Crying Game is not just about psychology or even epistemology. It is also about love. Love is the only "game" certain to make people weep. Fergus and Dil are both unexpectedly transformed by the feelings that subsequently develop between them. Neither had recognized that the other was in disguise. Fergus learns that Dil is a man. Then Dil learns that Fergus is the undercover IRA operative who was involved in the killing of Jody, the man who was capable of loving him. Their feelings for each other manage to overcome their deep instinctive revulsion for each other.

Each risks his life for the other without thinking, and each thus transcends his identity and discovers his humanity. Love triumphs over every important traditional difference: politics, religion, race, and gender. That is why the film is romantic. When Fergus overcomes his homophobic disgust and kisses Dil on the lips, he redeems the alienated other. The kiss is also an act of courage -- Fergus's moment of heroism.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that this film, like The Kiss of the Spider Woman and Jordan's own Mona Lisa, involves its audiences in the enterprise of understanding gay and lesbian sensibilities. The man whose manner is avowedly effeminate, the homophobe's hated drag queen, is embraced and redeemed by a hero of the straight world. It is also a story of love in the time of AIDS with no reference to that terrifying subject. Despite its gritty details, the film is not a complete departure from movie escapism. This is therefore a film with a politically correct message, the acceptance of gay love and openly gay identity.

The Crying Game is less successful in its treatment of racial sensibilities. Homosexuality is still a highly controversial subject in the African-American community, and some of its conservative leaders reject the idea that gay rights should be part of the civil rights agenda. Beyond that, watching the black prisoner cajole his white master, or the black "whore" going down on him, are not the kind of cinematic images calculated to please proud African-American sensibilities. Jordan uses the stereotype of blackness as a basis for disrupting other conventional categories, and so leaves himself open to the charge of at least unconscious racism. If one is certain this interpretation is completely wrong or the critical reaction is unjustified, try a thought experiment: Imagine white Americans viewing an identical film set in Africa where straight black men will do the capturing and gay white men will do the cajoling and the fellatio.

This racial interpretation might also support the assertion that Jordan had a particular audience of sophisticates in mind that did not include African-Americans -- who make up an increasingly significant proportion of America's mass market for movies. Had he been concerned about the sensibilities of African-Americans and recognized how few young Americans understand the politics of Northern Ireland he would have made a different film. But The Crying Game has succeeded with an audience for which, according to this reasoning, it was not intended. If this is correct, then Neil Jordan's film making success in America is largely a matter of serendipity.

Here is the idea. Sophisticates would recognize that Fergus is becoming involved with a transvestite before he does. Familiar with the interracial London night scene and with Neil Jordan's quirks, they might see through the impersonation. Such an audience would not be taken in by the device. Their sophistication would allow them to see through the disguise and they would have less direct emotional involvement in the film. A less sophisticated American audience, on the other hand, would be caught up in what seemed to them an action movie with a believable interracial relationship. Thus involved, they would be more shocked by the revelation and more deeply moved by the film. Whether English audiences are, in the relevant ways, more sophisticated than American audiences, it seems clear that the film "works" better if you do not anticipate the revelation.

There are of course many other possible interpretations of the film's success here. Even if some African-Americans do not like it (IRA sympathizers would like it even less), the film's message is politically correct for most American audiences. It touches a raw nerve, but it does not deeply offend. The black penis is revealed in a frame that makes it into a sign rather than the connected part of a human being. And the hero, Fergus, finds the American dream; the love relationship that provides a personal salvation one cannot expect to find in politics, religion, patriotism, or vocation.

It has been reported that in an earlier version of the screenplay, Dil or Fergus was killed at the end. Jordan is said to have changed the ending because he did not want to destroy the romantic message of the film. Instead, the film's ending is now fascinatingly ambiguous; it is another psychological masterstroke.

If one of them had been killed off it would have been clear that although falling in love can conquer differences, the miracle cannot last. The Kiss of the Spider Woman, which had a similar message, ended with both men dying. Although Jordan's ending does allow the lovers to survive, it by no means insists that their romantic love survives. After all, he could have shown us Fergus and Dil enjoying a conjugal visit in the prison where Fergus is confined. At least he could have shown them embracing warmly. This would have forced his audience to contemplate a continuing homosexual union; not a platonic resolution, but a continuing sexual passion. Instead, Fergus remains seated in a chair, a guard is present, and Dil behaves as if she is impersonating some prisoner's "old lady." The scene perhaps recenters the categories that stabilize difference; Fergus and Dil have both fallen back into their old identities. Maybe Fergus never fully accepted Dil.

Perhaps, on the other hand, the ending is telling us something about the difficulties of maintaining the intimacy of transforming love that have always been the despair of the romantic imagination. Jordan's ambiguous concluding scene is not, however, an unhappy ending. The upbeat finish allows us to leave the theater believing in the triumph of love and reflecting on the ways we categorize and thus experience the world. Few successful films provide audiences as much food for thought; fewer still teach us about our thoughts. Such teaching is necessary if we are to learn tolerance, and one should never underestimate the American appetite for the kind of lesson in tolerance that The Crying Game provides.

To be sure, no psychological interpretation of The Crying Game can provide the whole story about the film's box office success. America is a land of crazes and what makes any craze work is the fear of being left out of it -- whatever "it" is. Crying Game's secret helped make the film an American craze because people had to see the movie so they would not feel left out of all the conversations about "it." The advertisements for the film were calculated to this end: "The movie everyone is talking about. But no one is giving away its secrets." The film's theatrical plot has many twists and turns but its only "secret" -- the black penis -- made it an American craze.

Jordan has been quoted as saying that his film's Oscar nominations and commercial success prove there is a market for good films. Don't bet the house on it. If the account given here is correct, it would be a mistake to expect his next good film to find the same market. Good films do fail at the box office. And it is difficult for serendipity to strike twice in succession.

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