Much of the scene that follows the couple leaving the parents’ house is taken up with recap of what happened, feelings about the recap and confusion on the young woman’s part about what happened. The first time watching the movie, it’s easy to get caught up in the “what is happening” aspect of the plot. But after you’ve been through it once, you recognize that these elements, while keeping the movie in forward motion, aren’t all that important.
There’s a deeper issue of relevance here and it begins with Jake’s comment that both parents found the young woman to be very smart. We know by now that the young woman, at least as initially conceived, is a product of Jake’s psyche. She is filling an unresolved need of his. I’m no expert on Jungian anima theory (Jake-like surface level knowledge alert) but from what I’ve read, the anima tends to fill up the space in a man that the mother left wanting. So if a mother tends to reinforce the notion with her son that he’s not physically attractive, that man’s anima will be highly attractive. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this unless the man tries to personify the anima — find a literal human being to take the role of this mythical female part of himself. That ends up enslaving a woman into his conception of need while basically casting her into a role, not allowing her to live her own life.
Jake has clearly done this with the young woman, and whether she “exists” or not ultimately does not matter because the actions he takes on a fantasy level are exactly the same he would take with living humans. She is the personification of his insecurities, and the greatest of those insecurities is intellectual. Jake wants to be seen as someone with great acumen, but he’s forever stuck being the eight year old with the diligence pin. To compensate for this, he’s created an anima who knows everything deeply that he can only grasp on a surface level. He feels incapable of arguing back with his father on these issues, even when his dad takes a completely moronic position, because his knowledge is shallow and derivative of whoever he’s read. The young woman, on the other hand, confidently grasps this information and embodies it. She can take on the role of the authors Jake has read and do battle as them, unafraid to confront parents who would not take him seriously as an intellect.
This leads us to a discussion of the movie “A Woman Under the Influence” and there are three levels to this movie-analysis going on simultaneously. First, there’s Jake embarrassment of trying to square his first-person experience of watching the movie and being moved by it with the devastating, impossible-to-debate review written by Pauline Kael. We’ve probably all been there — we experience a book, movie or album that impresses us, but then come face to face with an opinion from someone we respect that shows utter contempt for our view. It’s very hard to stand your ground in that situation, more so when the critic has great stature and to an even greater extent when that critic is passionate in the condemnation.
The second level consists of the words spoken by the young woman. They are biting, severe, and utterly dismissive of the film. Jake declares her the expert at the end of this rant. And, I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, I’m in total agreement with the Kael/young woman’s position on the film — I think “A Woman Under the Influence” is one of the most ambitious films ever made and it fails completely. The characters, action, dialogue all make no sense either put together or in their constituent pieces. But the movie is so sincere in its attempt at greatness that it feels almost cruel to attack it in this manner. To me, the movie would have been better off quietly forgotten, maybe never released. But then we would lose the greatest of all Gena Rowlands performances — and I disagree with Kael here, she’s brilliant throughout and the movie’s failures are entirely those of Casavettes, not her.
The third level of this scene, maybe the most fascinating, consists of what Kaufman left out from Pauline Kael’s review, because there’s more to her New Yorker piece than the blistering attack we hear in this movie. Kael opens her review musing about the theories of R.D. Laing who she describes as the “poet of schizophrenic despair.” Kael ties it to the movie this way:
The core of the film is a romanticized conception of insanity, allied with the ancient sentimental mythology of madness centering on the holy fool and with the mythology about why Christ was crucified. The picture is based on the idea that the crazy person is endowed with a clarity of vision that the warped society can’t tolerate, and so is persecuted. Laing’s approach is a natural for movies at this time, since the view that society is insane has so much to recommend it that people may easily fall for the next reversal that those whom this society judges insane are the truly sane. Possibly it can be a healing step for some people to let themselves go, but Laing—in some ways a super-smooth snake-oil salesman—toys with the rakish notion that going crazy is a sign of health.
The reader of the review doesn’t have to buy this — we are free to read Laing ourselves and come up with our own interpretation and decide whether or not to apply it to the Cassavettes film. Perhaps a good journalist would ask him if he’s read Laing and agrees with Kael that the work is influenced by him. And this part isn’t in the movie, so why am I mentioning it at all?
I’m mentioning it because, while I think it’s debatable whether Laing applies to Cassavettes, I believe he almost certainly applies to Kaufman and the examination of mental health being applied in this film. There are numerous discussions on the margins of scenes about how lucid characters are and about how personalities are blending into one another. Whether this is ultimately labeled as schizophrenia doesn’t matter as much as the frame that Kaufman is applying, and that quote above from Kael absolutely nails it. The janitor is the holy fool of the film, endowed with a clarity of vision that plays out through his two young people, one a highly flawed modern representation of himself, the other a highly idealized anima of that character who compensates for his flaws. But most brilliantly and in some ways like the Rowlands character in Influence, she is not content with her societal role and bravely attempts to break out of it.
Kaufman, I believe, is arguing that the janitor’s insanity is a sign of health and his ability to shift the narrative of his two imagined characters — even to the extent of toying with giving the anima complete autonomy and perhaps even freedom within the bounds of the story — makes him something more than a crazy man with a daydream. It makes him divine. He becomes a creator. He brings to life his own Eve.