Before there was Jennifer Fox’s harrowing self-examination of her own rape in the acclaimed docudrama The Tale (a standout from this year’s Sundance now available on HBO), there was Martha Coolidge’s award-winning 1976 meta-narrative, Not a Pretty Picture. That film, which at the time sadly did not receive distribution outside of short runs in art-house theaters, is an intense and insightful story about Coolidge’s experience of sexual assault. (It screens in 16mm on consecutive Saturdays — June 9 and 16 — at Anthology Film Archives.) Coolidge enlists actors to re-create the scene and circumstance of her rape, and also interviews people she was close with at the time to get their perspective on how she acted. The testimonies and revelations delve into how girls cope in the aftermath of such an event. What’s most unnerving about this four-decade-old film is how little has changed in the time since. We are still learning the same lessons Coolidge was trying to impart so long ago — nothing is different.
Not a Pretty Picture wasn’t widely seen, but among the people who noticed it was Francis Ford Coppola. He was so impressed, in fact, that he struck up a partnership with Coolidge via his Zoetrope studio. Nothing concrete came of the pairing, although it did bring Coolidge to California and gave her the Coppola blessing that led to Coolidge directing her studio debut, Valley Girl (1983). As the director explained to me on an episode of my podcast Switchblade Sisters, Valley Girl contractually obligated Coolidge to prominently feature a woman’s breasts in at least four well-lit shots. The movie stands as a curious merging of Coolidge’s feminist p.o.v. with the studio’s teenage, T&A-focused, money-making formulas. Coolidge’s female characters are remarkably well developed, with articulated emotional lives. That men embraced the film was not a surprise to the studio, but Coolidge’s generosity also appealed to women viewers, resulting in a healthy box-office return and mainstream appeal.
Not a Pretty Picture, on the other hand, is as independent as it gets. No producers demanded boob shots; the only parameters were what the director herself was willing to divulge of her deepest personal revelations, and how far her actors would go in re-creating them. At the time of its release, critics called the film “Brechtian”: it’s as much about the actors’ processes as it is about the psychology of rape and Coolidge’s struggles to understand how and why the assault happened.
The first half of the movie is composed of one long reenactment of the night when Coolidge, then a high-school student, was raped by an acquaintance in an abandoned apartment. Actor Michele Manenti plays the teenage Martha, and we see her flirting and cruising with some boys in a car before she’s brought to the apartment. These scenes are improvised, with Coolidge having provided beforehand the beats for each actor to hit to drive the action. But there are striking moments when the director stops the scene — the camera still rolling — to question the actors about their approaches. We’re left to observe Coolidge sorting through her memories and initiating philosophical conversations with her collaborators about human nature.
In one pivotal, breathtaking scene, the character of Martha and her brash date/assailant, Curly (Jim Carrington), hang out in the ramshackle apartment building, mattresses lining the floor. Two of their friends are making out in one room; another is drunkenly bumbling around. Curly leads Martha through a hole in the wall to another space; there, we witness the dynamics of an assault unfold. As the action rises, we can see Coolidge on camera, watching intently, worried but with a closely engaged director’s air of confidence. Coolidge then abruptly cuts, and we return to the same scene — only now, the actors are speaking with Coolidge directly about the choices they made.
At this juncture, Coolidge and Manenti share their own rape stories while Carrington absorbs both the gravity of their narratives and the blasé nature of how they convey the information to him. Throughout the re-creation of this rape scene, Coolidge interrupts again and again to spur such conversations; every action and reaction is placed in context. Manenti is a fine actor here, but what’s most riveting is the real-time transformation Carrington goes through during these director-driven asides. He shares a story in shame about going to a local college and picking up “pigs,” the easy girls he could sleep with, and there’s something disturbing in his eyes as he realizes his participation not necessarily in a real-life rape, but in the overarching culture that contributes to them every day.
“I think we’re all uneducated” about sex and consent, Carrington says in one of the final interview segments. “To a certain extent, I think [Not a Pretty Picture] is an educational film,” he continues, as he describes how his character, the man who assaulted Coolidge, was operating under the assumption that getting sex from a girl was likely what Curly thought he had to do. In another section, Coolidge casts her real-life dorm mate at the time, Anne Mundstuk, as a younger version of Anne. After learning that Martha has been raped, Anne giggles with her late into the night, offering a salve for Martha’s trauma. Amid all the distress of this story is the authentic depiction of rape recovery — of girls and women looking to one another for a lighthearted laugh, celebrating with macabre delight over, say, not being pregnant.
In other movies from the Seventies and Eighties, women were employing similar hybrid forms as a means to share their marginalized experiences with a certain amount of distance for the sake of their psyches. Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite (1980), Kay Armatage’s Striptease (1980), and Marilú Mallet’s Unfinished Diary (1982) all fall into this category. As Thomas Waugh notes in his 2011 book The Right to Play Oneself, this meta-adjacent style was considered particularly feminist at the time — which makes it a glaring omission that many reviewers of Fox’s The Tale have fallen back on male comparisons in evaluating the movie. In Variety, Peter Debruge went so far as to say that “such an ambitiously structured examination almost certainly wouldn’t have occurred to Fox before Charlie Kaufman went there with Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York.” That’s a random claim to make about a director who’s never mentioned Kaufman in interviews, but it must be said that it’s a challenge to reference the proper canon when its most crucial entries — like Coolidge’s — have been generally buried and forgotten. Whether conscious or not, The Tale’s matriarchal lineage lay with Martha Coolidge and those brave women who revealed their inner lives for the camera. For this reason and more, Not a Pretty Picture’s revival is coming not a day too soon.
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