When Paramount Pictures released its “controversial classic” Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) for the last time in 1997, it promised viewers, “nothing can prepare you for this film's shocking ending.” That shocking ending turned out to be obscurity: the final VHS copies of Richard Brooks's once controversial film will become unplayable around 2027, but the movie has already been marginalized by film-historical economy of value dependent on commercial distribution. This article thinks through the ways that digital video platforms and economies structure scholars and viewers’ relation to film history. Artificial economies of scarcity are indispensible components of the classic film market, but the critic often feels an urge to save a beloved text, to somehow prevent its loss. That fear of loss engenders an affective response that I call the savior complex, which gives rise to two critical imperatives: an interrogative quest to uncover the truth about the text and compassionate redescription, which sustains viewers’ hope through the embrace of filmic pleasures. Working through both responses in relationship to Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I argue that the film forces a figural and material encounter with loss that pushes its viewer to sit with and accept rather than resist mortality and material transience. In so doing, she gains greater awareness of her own critical motivations and can figure out what it is she truly wants to know about film.
Richard Brooks's Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) ends with an image of extreme horror, a sickening and masterful blend of cinema and nightmare. It is New Year's morning, 1977, and Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton) has brought home a stranger (Tom Berenger) for casual sex. But when her would-be lover is unable to achieve an erection, he becomes violent, first punching and strangling Theresa, then raping and stabbing her simultaneously. A strobe light renders this terrible conflation of penetrations as brief tableaux of obscene violence. After the assault ends, the camera gradually zooms out from Theresa's lifeless face. The light blinks ever more slowly; with each flash, her countenance recedes until it finally fades out entirely (fig. 1).
Viewers disposed against the film find that this last fractured shot confronts them with the impotence of their look, which is powerless to save Theresa. It epitomizes for them the feminist pessimism running through the entire film, one that many critics misread as fatalist misogyny. These viewers understand the film's concluding image of total destruction as a tragic confirmation that young women seeking sexual pleasure and independence always arrive at violent ends. According to such defensive logic, the movie's final still image might also be said to reflect film's inherent stillness and inherently predetermined narratives. Both philosophically and metacinematically fatalist resigned, it suggests that there is only one way for this story to end because it was prerecorded by a culture incapable of imagining or sustaining lives for sexually independent women.
As I rehearse this exposition, however, I quickly become frustrated with its limitations; for instance, it cannot account for my visual pleasure in this stunning image. With each flash, the shrinking, overexposed shot becomes more powerfully iconic, as loss of detail stands in for loss of life. It is fascinating and haunting, as befits its subject matter. The elegiac rhythm with which the film alternates between image and blackness gives the spectator time to experience the loss of this young woman. It invites less defensive, more open-minded viewers to reconsider Theresa's narrative and imagine other ways it might have ended. Such viewers might fill in the darkness by envisioning other futures for Brooks's heroine—or simply refuse to revile the film that tells this tragic story. They might choose to embrace the film instead, to love the bittersweetness of this catalyzing art experience. Through its beauty, Brooks's final shot can provoke viewers to see more than violence in Theresa's death, to dream of change rather than accepting the status quo. Such ideations amount to a viewerly gesture of hope, which is no less painful than wallowing in fatalism, but it does offer the viewer an alternative way to sustain herself in the face of trauma and loss.
These two readings—one suspicious, the other recuperative—encapsulate film scholars’ competing urges to investigate and celebrate film history. Film history includes the material loss of specific films, of course, and moving through these readings as reactions to loss reveals what is at stake in both gestures: namely the critic's ego. This article contemplates the inevitability of loss and critics’ relation to it, using Brooks's Looking for Mr. Goodbar as its case study because this film forces figural and emotional encounters with loss and because the movie is about to be lost.1,Looking for Mr. Goodbar has been out of circulation since 1997, and one by one, surviving videotape, LaserDisc, and 16mm prints of the film are succumbing to the ravages of time. Just as Theresa's face disappears at the end of Brooks's movie, so the movie itself is disappearing as its material substrate disintegrates. Paramount Pictures holds the rights to Looking for Mr. Goodbar but has no plans to reissue the film. All licensed copies of the movie will probably be unwatchable around 2027, after which Brooks's intervention into U.S. cinematic representations of women's sexuality and the sexual revolution will be the stuff of legend rather than canon.2 As a film historian and a fan of the film, that future fills me with dread, not to mention a professional quandary: What can a critic do when confronted with the disappearance of a beloved text? The urge to do something often arises from a wish to save the text, to somehow prevent its disappearance. This fear of loss engenders a critical response that I call the savior complex. The savior complex motivates both of the critical positions I rehearsed at the start of this essay: the interrogative quest to uncover the truth about the text and the hopeful celebration of the text itself. Looking for Mr. Goodbar creates a figural encounter with loss that pushes its viewer to sit with said loss, and in so doing it creates an occasion to examine the savior complex, as does the film's own imminent disappearance. In what follows, I reread Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theory of paranoid and reparative reading as modes of historiography and critical responses to loss;3 I then run through paranoid and reparative readings of Looking for Mr. Goodbar and its disappearance in order to consider sitting with as an alternative critical position. Sitting is the most common position for motion picture spectatorship; it can and should provoke active attention to the material condition of spectatorship and criticism. In this case—the case of a movie never released on DVD and thus disappearing from the film-historical record—sitting with focuses my attention on how attributions of film-historical value can depend on commercial distribution, specifically on digital reissues of back-catalogue films. Digital video platforms and economies too often determine the subject and approach of our scholarship, but by sitting with a film, we become attendant to our mutual materiality and mortality, our mutual worldly transience. When a movie shows artifacts of its substrate's material deterioration, that transience provides an opportunity for me to face my fear of loss, of death. It leaves me vulnerable and open to learning from a film rather than learning about it (fig. 2).
Scholars do sit with deteriorating films and videos in archives and museums, but this article is not about archival research or preservation practices. It is about personal and scholarly encounters with film history via commercial video distribution and about scholars’ tendency to treat commercial distribution like an archival practice. It is a call for us to become more self-aware as historians about our participation in economies of film-historical value, to address the role that loss—or, rather, the fear of loss—plays in historicist scholarship, and to consider the way that material history affects our critical politics. As feminist film scholars, our drive to interrogate and interrupt and to recuperate and restore comes from feelings of loss and injustice over the treatment of women's film and women in film. Similar feelings motivate Sedgwick's inquiry into the attitudes of poststructural critics toward their texts, attitudes equally present in media historiography.4 Writing in the wake of the AIDS crisis and her own cancer diagnosis, Sedgwick suggests that literary and cultural critics tend to adopt a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in relationship to their textual objects, a paranoid reading position she counters with reparative reading, which is a critical position committed to hermeneutics of love, intimacy, and hope.5 The paranoid position puts its faith in exposure; it seeks to reveal the structures of repression and oppression just below the surface of a piece of literature (or film or cultural text). Paranoid arguments affirm what the critic already suspects about the work or the world—hence their paranoia. At its most generous, this position maintains that if people just knew the truth, they would resist. At its worst, it posits pessimistic genealogies of oppression and inequality wherein tomorrow can only be worse than today. The paranoid position staves off surprise and humiliation (the humiliation of naïveté) at the expense of hope. Reparative reading, on the other hand, looks for hope and sustenance in beauty and pleasure. Rather than seeking to expose hidden truths, a reparative critic opens up new frameworks of visibility to explore her object's potential to create and support better futures. Often the reparative position restores value to overlooked or disparaged objects, but ultimately its goal is to discover how subjects can draw energy and inspiration from cultural productions. Whereas paranoid reading shores up the critic's ego—her sense of importance and self-worth—through negative affects and narratives of inevitability, reparative reading cultivates new ways of loving to inspire new visions for the future.6
Paranoid and reparative readings also meaningfully characterize many critics’ responses to disintegrating and disappearing film titles. For every movie reissued on video, there are thousands that are either lost forever or out of distribution and drifting into obscurity.7,Looking for Mr. Goodbar is one of the latter, and its imminent passing inspired both paranoid and reparative responses in me as I tried to come to terms with my desire to somehow save this movie. In this essay, I occupy each reading position in turn in order to move past them both. First, as a paranoid reader, I investigate why Paramount hasn't reissued Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which was nominated for three Oscars and a Golden Globe award and featured Diane Keaton in the same year as her Oscar-winning turn in Annie Hall (fig. 3). Culling through government files and industry reports—like a good paranoiac—I reveal what the reader probably already suspects: that Hollywood distributors are heartless corporate machines that shape film history according to profit margins. I show that U.S. film culture colludes in this commercial revisionism through review cycles that privilege commercial reissues and ignore the “abject archive” of inaccessible, no longer distributed films that provide distributors with the economy of scarcity that undergirds the reissue market.8
But what does such knowledge accomplish, as Sedgwick asks, “the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows?”9 Very little, as it turns out, which leads me back to the pleasures of the text. As a reparative reader, I explore how the film's formal play harnesses narrative incoherence to launch a feminist critique of the sexual revolution. The prominent use of fantasy in Brooks's notoriously dour film helps me cultivate hope for future gender equality. Such hope does nothing for the disappearing image itself. As I argue in my final section, this hope does not remove static from a videotape, fix scratches on a laser disc, or motivate Paramount to reissue the movie. A reparative reader can love her movie to death, but she cannot love it back to life. Sitting with the decaying video provides an alternative to paranoid and reparative readings through its focus on the video's material reality. Acknowledging the tape's inevitable dissolution, I can learn to recognize my own savior complex. The material realities of distribution change how we do criticism, so we must let them change our critical politics. As much as I love Looking for Mr. Goodbar, as important as I think it is, all I can do in the end is accept that I am watching the movie for me rather than for it, then learn from it and let it go. It is in this manner, by sitting with the final image of Theresa Dunn and focusing on its materiality, that I do justice to the disappearing film.
* * *
Even before it premiered, Looking for Mr. Goodbar was already subject to controversy and paranoid readings. One of a number of mid-1970s films made in response to the Women's Movement, the film was based on a 1975 New York Times best-selling novel by Judith Rossner, which was itself based on the sensational murder of a New York City schoolteacher (fig. 4).10 Producer Freddie Fields and distributor Paramount Pictures kept careful files on Rossner's novel, its public reception, and its financial success. Paramount regarded Looking for Mr. Goodbar as a potential gold mine: Rossner's lurid vision of urban singles bars offered “excitement aplenty” while the lead role would be “good enough … to quiet some of those actresses around town who complain that no good roles for women are being written.”11 The role did earn Diane Keaton almost universal praise, but critics otherwise excoriated the film. Even Robin Wood, one of its few champions, regarded it as incoherent and uncertain of its message or political commitments.12 Its graphic depiction of sex, violence, and urban alienation fueled contemporaneous debates about representations of violence against women and women's marginal position in U.S. film culture. A lightning rod for debate about women's sexual freedom and vulnerability, it was, as Molly Haskell argues, an important film, even if it was not easy to like.13
One reason that Looking for Mr. Goodbar generated so much controversy was that it reflected its culture's worst fears about singles bars, then a recent urban phenomenon. Between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, U.S. bar culture changed dramatically. As late as 1965, women were unwelcome in many U.S. bars and taverns without a male escort.14 Bars did not become places for women and men to meet and maybe go home together until singles bars developed at the end of the decade. TGI Fridays in New York and Mother's in Chicago both lay claim to being the country's first singles bar, and both succeeded as a result of the same two powerful social forces: the Women's Movement and the sexual revolution.15 The Women's Movement brought an influx of financially independent young women to major metropolitan areas, some of whom pressed for equal access to men's power, privilege, and social spaces. In August 1970, New York Mayor John Lindsay “signed a bill prohibiting discrimination against women by public establishments” in response to women's groups who picketed for entry into the famous McSorley's Old Ale House.16 That same year, Chicago overturned its law prohibiting women from tending bar, a feminist victory that directly benefited singles bars, as female bartenders made these spaces more comfortable for female patrons.17 Finally, singles bars answered a need for social spaces where people of different genders and backgrounds could mingle comfortably while searching for casual sex.
Such encounters could end well or poorly, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar depicts both outcomes in the life of Theresa Dunn, an inner-city schoolteacher who cruises downtown singles bars at night. These bars are critical to Brooks's interpretation of Dunn as a woman caught up in a great yet problematic sociological shift. His film begins with a montage of black-and-white photographs of bar patrons flirting and dancing (figs. 5–6). Some of these patrons turn out to be characters in the movie, but most remain anonymous—protagonists in other dramas, perhaps. Male and female, straight and gay, African American and Caucasian, these heterogeneous bar patrons represent the social experiment of the singles bar and the sexual revolution. Crucially, their images historicize rather than localize Theresa's story. Every major metropolis had singles bars, so Theresa's story could have unfolded in any of them. Her story was the product of an epoch rather than a particular city, an interpretation that unnerved many viewers.
Brooks's film begins approximately one year before Theresa starts frequenting singles bars, on the day she loses her virginity to her married college professor, Martin (Alan Feinstein; fig. 7). Martin treats Theresa terribly—subjecting her to aspersions such as “I just can't stand a woman's company right after I've fucked her”—but she is deeply enamored of him. Theresa fantasizes that he will leave his wife for her; instead he leaves her for another student. Although upset, Theresa is galvanized by their breakup, and, using income from her new job as a teacher of deaf children, she moves out of her father's house and rents an apartment downtown. Leaving behind the repressive Catholic ideology she grew up with, Theresa embraces her new autonomy: a montage shows her exploring her neighborhood, furnishing her apartment, and discovering her sexual appetite (and masturbation). She starts frequenting neighborhood bars and spots a young hustler, Tony (Richard Gere; fig. 8), who becomes her first conquest. About this time, she also meets James (William Atherton; fig. 9), the social worker assigned to one of her students, who pursues her relentlessly. Theresa resents James but dates him casually (and chastely) while continuing to sleep with Tony and pick up other men. Come Christmas, James gives Theresa a strobe light, which he says reminds him of her: “Light and dark. On and off. Now I see you, now I don't.”18 But when he tries to give her a ring, Theresa balks. Marriage promises all the stability and entrapment she so recently escaped. She dumps James but he cannot accept her rejection and becomes violent, just as Tony does after Theresa refuses to let him stay in her apartment.19 She insists on having a room of her own, physically and ideologically, which is ultimately what gets her killed.
As mentioned, Theresa's story ends on New Year's Eve 1976. She goes to a neighborhood bar to get away from James, who won't stop following her, and meets Gary (the aforementioned stranger played by Tom Berenger; fig. 10). Although they do not know it, Theresa and Gary were at the same drag parade earlier that evening, where Gary was celebrating the New Year with his gay lover. Homophobes attacked the parade, triggering Gary's internalized homophobia. Now he responds to Theresa's come-on as an opportunity to prove his heterosexuality, but drugs and alcohol render him impotent. Theresa is understanding but politely asks him to leave, whereupon Gary explodes, knocking her into a wall and knocking over the strobe light James gave her. Its intermittent flashes provide the only illumination as Gary rapes and murders Theresa. She resists his assault physically, but her final line, “Do it,” has confused viewers; some hear it as a plea for death, others as a victim embracing her rape. Either way, the film ends with Theresa's face, its features evacuated of the energy and charisma that makes Keaton's performance—and the film—so compelling.
Despite or perhaps because of its violent conclusion, audiences flocked to Brooks's Looking to Mr. Goodbar, which made over $14 million in its first eight weeks and over $22 million before it left theaters.20 Its popularity defied a swath of negative reviews; in tones ranging from dismissive to outraged, critics rejected the film as dour and moralizing. Several excoriated Brooks (fig. 11) for being too old-fashioned, too Old Hollywood to handle such timely subject matter. In a late review for New West, Stephen Farber writes that “Brooks's blatant, literal-minded view of human motivation is sadly inappropriate to a contemporary story like Looking for Mr. Goodbar.”21 Vincent Canby disliked the movie so much that he organized his New York Times review around enumerating each “major mistake” Brooks made with the source material.22 He criticizes Brooks's casting of Keaton even while praising her performance, as does Pauline Kael.23 Kael rejects Brooks's “moralizing psychology” and editing that, in her eyes, reduces the film to “an illustrated lecture on how nice girls go wrong.”24
Looking for Mr. Goodbar divided feminist critics. Many considered it symptomatic of a growing backlash against the movement, while others saw it as an indictment of sexual double standards. Reviewers for Off Our Backs find Brooks's filmic adaptation lacking the distinctly feminine sensibility that they love in Rossner's novel.25,Cineaste's Betsy Erkkila reads it as “just another sexploitation film that masquerades (rather dangerously) as a women's film.”26 Erkkila sets out to expose the film's misogyny, yet her outrage gets the better of her. Invoking the discourse of the 1970s feminist pornography wars, she accuses Brooks of adopting the mantle of sex positivity to capture Keaton “as she submits, adoringly, to the power of the phallus” and reminds readers that “just because a movie is about a woman, it is not necessarily either a ‘woman's picture’ or a feminist tract.”27 Molly Haskell counters such classically paranoid readings by lauding Brooks's movie as “the best possible film such depressing material could yield.”28 While she finds Looking for Mr. Goodbar “harrowing, powerful, appalling,” Haskell argues that “it would be a mistake to read the movie as a simple anti-feminist parable of woman as perpetual victim, engaged in a drama of retribution for her sexual transgression.”29 Theresa knowingly makes “a pact with the devil”—i.e., puts her own safety at risk—“in the name of sexual freedom.”30 Depicting that double bind makes Looking for Mr. Goodbar “an important film, particularly for the media gurus who propound the glories of swinging singlehood and sex-on-demand … and who remain comfortably immune from the demons that the rhetoric of liberation has unleashed.”31 Thus, she argues, the film offers a timely feminist intervention in Hollywood's representation of female sexuality.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar also fed ongoing popular and scholarly debate about the late-century “women's picture” and the status of women in New Hollywood. As Washington Post critic Gary Arnold observed in August 1977, “Over the past decade leading roles for movie actresses have diminished to such an extent that women stars have come to be regarded as an endangered species.”32 Since the late 1960s, he finds women have had fewer opportunities to carry a film, narratively or commercially. That pattern changed somewhat in the 1970s with filmic responses to the Women's Movement such as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), The Turning Point (1977), and An Unmarried Woman (1978). This emerging cycle inspired New York Times film writers to publish series of think pieces on women in New Hollywood, all of which cite Looking for Mr. Goodbar as an example of “credible female life” returning to mainstream U.S. cinema.33 Viewers responded to Looking for Mr. Goodbar's startling representation of 1970s women in a different way. Letters to the editors of Ms. magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and other magazines and newspapers indicate that audiences felt deeply disturbed, even “violated” by the movie.34 Writers worried about “Who Else Is Looking for Mr. Goodbar?,” the title of a February 1978 Ms. article. Theresa's story became a benchmark against which real women measured their sexual risks and behavior. In the years to come, feminist scholars also turned to Looking for Mr. Goodbar for evidence of a culture of violence against women.35 In sum, paranoid readings made Looking for Mr. Goodbar emblematic of all the ways that U.S. culture in general and U.S. film culture in particular were failing to sustain women. It would remain a lightning rod for such debates throughout the 1980s.
* * *
Part of the reason that Looking for Mr. Goodbar stayed in the public eye was its ancillary distribution—that is, its success on video and television. It was one of the twenty top-grossing films for 1977, a financial success that, together with the film's cultural notoriety, made Looking for Mr. Goodbar an ideal candidate for home video distribution. Home video was still a new technology in the late 1970s, with multiple corporate video systems competing to dominate the market. Paramount released Looking for Mr. Goodbar on at least five home-video formats between 1978 and 1980, demonstrating stronger faith in its product than in any particular video platform.36 In 1978, the movie appeared on MCA/Philips's DiscoVision (figs. 12–13) and Magnavox's experimental Magnavision systems, and within a year, it was also available on RCA's SelectaVision and MCA's revamped LaserVision.37 Paramount released Looking for Mr. Goodbar on VHS soon thereafter, and on May 16, 1980, ABC screened it as a Sunday Night Movie of the Week.38 Viewers no doubt took the opportunity to record Looking for Mr. Goodbar on Betamax and VHS for time shifting and reviewing.
Paramount kept reissuing Looking for Mr. Goodbar on VHS until 1997; the last authorized edition of its “Controversial Classic” came out on June 5 of that year (fig. 14). Its cover promises that “nothing can prepare you for this film's shocking ending”—an odd formulation, given the heroine's notorious death. Yet it is a fitting epigraph for my paranoid reading of the film and its distribution, especially if one reads it as a warning of Paramount's waning support for the film and, a suggestion that its notoriety was outlasting cultural memory. This video edition itself became Looking for Mr. Goodbar's “shocking ending,” at least in as much as the film has not been reissued since. Brooks's movie has never been released on DVD, Blu-ray, or any digital video platform. It has never been licensed to a streaming media service such as Netflix or Google Play, nor can one legally download it from any video-on-demand service.39 Used VHS and LaserDisc copies are still for sale on sites such as eBay and Bonanza, but they are all at least seventeen years old and deteriorating rapidly. Even under the best storage conditions, magnetic videocassettes rarely last more than thirty years, and most become unwatchable long before then.40 LaserDiscs can remain functional for twenty-five to fifty years, but again, improper storage (such as laying the discs flat on a shelf) dramatically decreases their lifespan. All remaining video copies of Looking for Mr. Goodbar will probably become unwatchable between 2027 and 2033 (if one even has the technology to watch them).41 Already archival prints of the film are all but unwatchable. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive and the UCLA Film and Television Archive own 35mm and 16mm prints of Looking for Mr. Goodbar respectively, but they are almost entirely faded. In August 2014, a UCLA archivist warned me that it “might not be worth [my] effort” to try to see this film on film.42 In a very real and material sense, it seems, Looking for Mr. Goodbar is not long for this world.43
It is impossible to say with certainty why Paramount Home Media is not reissuing Looking for Mr. Goodbar. A trip to the U.S. Copyright Office or a search through its Catalog of Copyright Entries reveals that Paramount still holds the copyright it registered for the film on October 11, 1977.44 However, its corporate communications office refuses to address the issue of reissue; Senior Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs Richard Redlich would only state, “It is our policy not to comment on business decisions of the nature of your inquiry.”45 Redlich refuses to explain why Paramount hasn't reissued Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but at least he confirms that reissues are a “business decision” and thus financially motivated. Other acts of forgetting this film are more mysterious. For instance, Diane Keaton barely mentions it in her memoir Then Again, even though it secured her reputation as a serious dramatic actress and garnered her her first Golden Globe nomination:
[After Annie Hall,] I was suddenly getting more opportunities. I met with Warren Beatty for his movie Heaven Can Wait and turned him down to hit the bars as Theresa Dunn in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. After Goodbar finished shooting, I went back to New York. When Warren called me on Christmas Eve, it wasn't about a job.46
From there, Keaton launches into a lengthy excursus on her love affair with Beatty, leading me to wonder why she glosses over Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Did the characteristically modest actress change her mind about all the on-screen nudity and simulated sex? There is no way of knowing. Brooks's papers at the Margaret Herrick Library offer no information on why star and studio have forsaken the film. So please forgive my paranoia when I conclude that Looking for Mr. Goodbar's distribution history rather resembles the plot of a 1970s conspiracy thriller: dark forces are erasing all traces of Theresa Dunn, and no one—not even the woman who played her—will explain why.
As long as Paramount keeps Looking for Mr. Goodbar out of legitimate circulation, its presence in U.S. film culture will continue to fade and its chances for future reissue to diminish. University libraries cannot buy unlicensed DVDs, so faculty no longer teach the film. Without a Blu-ray release or usable 16mm prints, it cannot screen at repertory theaters or film festivals. Decreased exposure leads to a decrease in demand, which makes Paramount's business decision even easier. Here it might also be worth noting that Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a “feel-bad” movie. While its fans and I revel in the power of its conclusion, the film also appalls many viewers. Its grim ending also differentiates it from other 1970s women's films, the vast majority of which end without clear narrative or emotional resolution. In fact, the only other Women's Movement film as depressing as Looking for Mr. Goodbar—Frank Perry's Play It as It Lays (1972), based on Joan Didion's novel of same name—has also never been released on DVD.
Perhaps some combination of tone and politics makes Looking for Mr. Goodbar seem unmarketable to Paramount Home Media; for some reason, it thinks the audience isn't there, and, as Bradley Schauer has discovered, back-catalogue films need “projected sales of fifteen to twenty thousand copies” to justify a traditional DVD release.47 Since 2006, distributors have also been able to sell DVDs through manufacture-on-demand (MOD) systems, but a MOD release will not be enough to restore the film's reputation. MOD programs lower the break-even point for DVD printing to a mere seventy discs by charging more per disc and changing what consumers expect from a DVD. Part of the way that DVD distributors distinguished their format from VHS and LaserDisc was through bonus features, or what Paul Benzon calls a “paratextual aesthetics of surplus.” Paratextual surplus continues to distinguish DVDs from MOD discs, which obey “an aesthetics of less … marked by distortion, deletion, and faulty reproduction” (fig. 15).48 MOD discs typically employ older, lower-resolution transfers and almost never include bonus features. Yet MOD saves many back-catalogue titles from total obscurity. It is the last, best hope for films trapped in what restoration scholar Nathan Carroll calls the “abject archive.” These films, excluded from the business of film history, provide the “shadow support structure enabling the visible everyday operation of archival power.”49 By being excluded, they bestow value on the included, those movies that are reissued by archival distributors such as the Criterion Collection. MOD programs use this archival logic of scarcity to charge more for their relatively low-quality discs. As Schauer demonstrates in his industrial analysis of the Warner Archive MOD program, fans and collectors are willing to pay higher prices to have any access to abject archive titles.50 Consequently, MOD programs are “presently the primary method of retail for older (pre-1990) films that have not seen a home video release.”51 Paramount and Warner Brothers were the first studios to back MOD distribution, signing with MOD Systems in 2006. Warner Home Entertainment has since established an extremely successful in-house MOD program, the aforementioned Warner Archive, while Paramount licenses titles to MOD distributors, including the Warner Archive and Olive Films.52 Looking for Mr. Goodbar is not currently part of either deal, but given that most MOD movies are not remastered, Paramount could reissue its video transfer of Looking for Mr. Goodbar as an MOD any time it wanted to.
Unfortunately, only traditional DVD and Blu-ray releases occasion the critical reevaluations that garner public and academic interest. Within two years of the format's launch, DVD reissues of classic titles had inspired a reparative review genre dedicated to celebrating new access to old favorites. For instance, when Peter J. Nichols reviewed Artisan Entertainment's DVD release of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) for the New York Times in 1999, he discovered that DVD allowed him viewing pleasures unavailable on prior formats. DVD's high-resolution image and freeze-frame feature enabled him to appreciate Gary Cooper's economy of expression in relation to Zinnemann's economical editing and production design.53 Nichols's extended reconsideration appeared in the Times's “Home Video” column, which also used capsule reviews of “New Video Releases” to promote other reissues. In 2003, “Home Video” became “New DVDs” so that Nichols could comment on both contemporary titles and reissued classics.54 Of late, J. Hoberman has taken over the championing of new Blu-ray reissues in the Times's “On Video” column. While Hoberman can persuade readers to reinvest in old gems such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and Disney's The Jungle Book (1966), he cannot push them toward discs that don't exist.55 Thus do studio business decisions dictate whether a film will receive the kinds of reparative attentions that render it a living element of film history.
Film scholars also often unwittingly perpetuate distributors’ economies of film-historical value. For instance, some DVD reissues occasion reparative reviews that use critical redress to make canonical previously overlooked and undervalued titles. When D. A. Miller began his DVD column for Film Quarterly, “Second Time Around,” with a queer recovery of William Friedkin's Cruising (1980), his article almost singlehandedly revitalized critical interest in the film.56 It did so as a result of Warner Home Video's decision to reissue the film, but it does not interrogate the commercial motives behind its release. Cruising stars Al Pacino as Steve Burns, a cop tasked with going undercover in New York City's gay leather scene to find a serial killer preying on gay men (fig. 16). Queer activists famously objected to the film's imbrication of homosexuality, sadomasochism, and murder, arguing that its homophobia would inspire more homophobic violence. Critics scorned the film for different reasons. Roger Ebert dismisses its “plot structure [as] basically a mess” that “leaves us feeling merely confused and annoyed.”57,Variety's reviewer complains that Cruising has “no story” and reduces Steve's growing interest in men and violence to the maxim “he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas.”58 Vincent Canby excoriates the film, especially the “ending that is not a resolution of anything but a copout.”59 Miller begins his now famous rereading of Cruising with these poor reviews in order to refute them. Through close readings of Cruising's 2007 DVD reissue, he unpacks the logic behind Friedkin's alleged inconsistencies. It's a masterful example of reparative reading's power to redeem the bad object, but it relies on the material object and industrial conventions of DVD for its most important insights.
Miller finds in Friedkin's incoherence a thesis about incoherence: Cruising depicts a culture so paranoid in its homophobia that any defense against queer desire “can no longer be imagined with a successful outcome.”60 The film takes up the homophobic logic of contagion—namely, that exposure to gay sex unleashes queer desire in otherwise straight viewers—and takes it seriously; once its protagonist, Steve, starts going to gay clubs and seeing gay sex, he also starts to experience homoerotic attractions. Using information from the short documentaries included on the “Deluxe Edition” DVD, Miller explains how contagion operates as a figural and narrative trope within the film and thereby resolves several issues that frustrated the film's early reviewers, such as the serial killer's ambiguous identity. As the documentaries explain, four different actors took turns playing the killer and his victims, which confused critics and spoiled their experience of Cruising's ostensible mystery. It's hard to focus on whodunit when you cannot tell who's who—which is precisely the point, according to Miller. There is no one killer of gay men in Cruising but rather a “symbolic circuit whereby every gay man, at varying degrees of separation, becomes his own assassin. But—here's the rub—the circuit is never quite closed; the overwhelmingly visible spectacle of gay male sex may simply be irresistible to any man who beholds it, and remain so even after its violent recloseting.”61 If watching gay sex makes you gay, moreover, then the film viewer must now be gay, too, and equally vulnerable to the cycle of violent internalized homophobia that drives the serial-killer plot. Homosexuality is both contagious and irresistible, but its very irresistibility makes it dangerous given a straight world bent on disparaging and destroying queer communities. Looking for Mr. Goodbar makes a similar point about the sexual revolution—both its heroine and her queer killer are destroyed by the effects of internalized homophobia—but it is about isolation, whereas Cruising is about a community. Regardless (or not), Looking for Mr. Goodbar wasn't available for reparative review in 2007, nor is it now. Its contagion has been contained.
Meanwhile, Cruising has been redeemed through the power and pleasure of reparative criticism and has become an important artifact for contemporary queer studies and film history. There were only two articles written on Cruising between its theatrical release and its 2007 DVD release,62 but in the years since, it has garnered hundred of pages of analysis and reflection.63 Thus it is that through video culture film-historical value is reassigned and film history rewritten. In this case, reparative reviews are correcting prior claims about masculinity, class, and narrative incoherence in 1970s cinema.64 Such reassessments still depend on the abject archive, however. Value is relative, so some films must be forgotten for others to be remembered, some disregarded so others can be venerated. It is not that these excluded films are bad, unworthy, or commercially unviable; rather, exclusion is necessary to sustain the system. This is not to say that Cruising and Looking for Mr. Goodbar are mutually exclusive—let's not get that paranoid—but one film's recovery depends on another's loss. At least on video, film history is a zero-sum game.
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But what if film history were not a zero-sum game? What if we—critics, fans, theorists, historians—accepted loss instead of regarding it as a defeat? Such an approach would provide an alternative to paranoid readings of abject archive films, which can amass plenty of evidence for their claims without generating much utility. At the beginning of her essay on paranoid and reparative reading, Sedgwick asks, “What does knowledge do?”65 Knowing why Looking for Mr. Goodbar is headed for obscurity does not open up any new ways to think about the film or film historiography; it does not change anything. Nor does it make the loss less painful. As Miller demonstrates, reparative readings try to ameliorate pain with pleasure. Pleasure provides energy to imagine new futures, better alternatives, and different perspectives on the past. Reparative readers do not seek to know why; instead they explore what else an object can provide to sustain the subject. Loving a film, embracing it as a part-object in the Kleinian sense (i.e., as an object defined by its function for the subject), allows a critic to ask what else it can offer us, what insights and information it can give the viewer. Not all films qualify for reparative review, of course; Looking for Mr. Goodbar has not had the necessary reissue, so any recuperation-via-video that I attempt requires a different methodology and will generate a different relation to the film. Reparative reading requires a methodology akin to close reading—new historicism's favorite technique for excising hidden truths from recalcitrant texts—but without close reading's investment in exposure and revelation. Robyn Wiegman calls such analysis “compassionate redescription … a practice of interpretation that privileges what the object of study needs or knows.”66 Compassionate redescription emerges from the same savior complex as paranoid reading, however, at least inasmuch as it emerges from the same fear of loss. Qua reparation, its main concern is still “What can this film do for me?,” not “What can I learn from this film?”
Thus my compassionate redescription of Looking for Mr. Goodbar's unique feminist pessimism focuses on the movie's formal composition to illustrate a vitalizing political energy beneath its dour tone. Through small scenes and gestures, I argue that Looking for Mr. Goodbar acknowledges that the world is set against its heroine's pleasure, even against her survival, but that this acknowledgment can empower feminist viewers looking for a critique of the sexual revolution. Take, for instance, the short scene in which Theresa watches a New Year's Eve report called “The Decade of the Dames.” Up until now, Theresa has conflated sex and romance in the traditional manner, even though doing so brings her nothing but disappointment. She starts to separate these terms after watching this news report. Critics have scoffed at this so-called passing reference to the Women's Movement, suggesting that Theresa shows little interest in the program. In fact, Keaton's physical performance in this short scene encapsulates Theresa's feminist awakening and even models media-inspired feminist awakening for the viewer. Through framing and editing, the scene marks a turning point, after which Theresa starts to claim sexual pleasure and personal autonomy and the film launches its critique of “sexual liberation” under heteropatriarchy.
The scene takes place on New Year's Eve 1975, while Theresa is home babysitting. After turning on the living room television set, she moves to the living room mirror to watch herself working out with a bust developer, a midcentury spring-action contraptions that (falsely) promised to help women enlarge their breasts (fig. 17). Although initially preoccupied with this vain and fruitless exercise, Theresa turns her attention to the TV when an announcer proclaims, “It was only five years ago that ten thousand women marched for liberation.” An eyeline match shows hundreds of women protesting for abortion rights, equal access to education, “and sexual freedom.” With this shot, the Women's Movement eclipses Theresa's lonely capitulation to Western beauty standards both figuratively and ideologically. As the broadcast continues, Theresa keeps her eyes on the screen and relocates the bust developer to her hip. She continues to pump away absentmindedly, but now her movements remind the viewer how silly the device is. Misusing the bust developer is a small gesture, one easy to ignore or dismiss—just another ditzy dame who doesn't know how to operate her ridiculous gadget—but the comedy of Keaton's performance bespeaks the film's feminist principles. Her actions wordlessly capture Theresa's changing relationship to female sexuality, from trying to please to realizing she can demand to be pleased (fig. 18).
Following this quiet revelation, Theresa starts to claim sex when she wants it. In the next scene, she shuts down her married lover's tirade by standing over him and wordlessly lifting her skirt (fig. 19). Sexual emancipation helps Theresa to pursue personal emancipation as well: it inspires her to leave her father's house and reject men's future claims to possess her. Joyful montages depict Theresa walking the streets of her city, laughing with strangers in bars, and joking about her sexual conquests and misadventures. Unfortunately, a person cannot simply will herself free in a society bent on her subjugation—or so Looking for Mr. Goodbar suggests. The film's pessimism is inchoate in its New Year's Eve documentary, which concludes that “this was to be the decade of the dames.” The past-tense deontic construction implies that the 1970s have already turned out not to be “the decade of the dames.” As Theresa will soon discover, sexual freedom may include the freedom to have sex out of wedlock but not freedom from the virgin/whore dichotomy. She has the means and the autonomy to have sex with multiple men, yet she is still vulnerable to recrimination and violence. Tony, James, and her father all verbally and physically assault Theresa for her sexual choices; at various points, each implies that he might kill her. Like Cruising, Looking for Mr. Goodbar sees violence as a symptom of heteropatriarchal ideology rather than a personal failing. It traps Theresa and the women of her generation between the Charybdis of sublimating their desire into futile attempts to elicit desire in men and the Scylla of accepting punishment from men for recognizing and acting on their desire. Female sexuality is a game that there's no way to win, and the New Year's Eve scene captures this paradox in all its terrible power. Theresa (and the spectator) assumes that in turning from bust enhancement to the Women's Movement, she is making a choice that will serve her interests. By the end of film—New Year's Day 1977—we realize that there was no real choice: Theresa's interests were never going to be served.
That's a grim message, but it makes an important intervention in Hollywood representations of the sexual revolution, which otherwise veer between rose-tinted affirmations of and dark apologies for the status quo.67 To offer an alternative, Brooks embraces the narrative incoherence characteristic of 1970s U.S. cinema and explores the gulf between Theresa's desires and her world. The film shifts repeatedly, sometimes almost imperceptibly, between reality and fantasy. For instance, on the night that Theresa first spots Tony, the young hustler who will become her second lover, the film depicts her fantasy that he comes on to her. Fantasy, we discover, is the only form of cruising, the only means for expressing desire, that Theresa feels capable of at this point. The scene begins with Theresa sitting at a neighborhood bar, enjoying a glass of wine as the Undisputed Truth's “Smiling Faces Sometimes” plays in the background. She sees Tony dancing and watches as he rifles through a lady's handbag. When he catches Theresa looking at him and smiles, the film cuts to her reaction, and the music changes to Boz Skaggs's “Low Down.” Tony then appears at Theresa's elbow and offers her “the best fuck of [her] life.” “Well, in that case …,” she laughs, and reaches for her purse. But when she looks up, Tony is gone, and the music has changed back to the Undisputed Truth. Theresa glances across the bar and then lifts her eyebrows in wry amusement. An eyeline match reveals Tony in the arms of another woman. Their whole exchange happened only in Theresa's head (fig. 20).
This scene represents one of the subtlest fantasy sequences in the film, but Brooks takes the viewer into many such excursions from reality in order to dramatize desires Theresa cannot express or does not fully understand. Fantasy allows Brooks to explore the incoherence of desire, including Theresa's ambivalent attraction to a petty thief like Tony. For after each fantasy sequence, the viewer must revise her impression of what was real and what was merely desired, a cognitive process that asks her to understand Theresa rather than just focalizing through her. More to the point, these fantasies open up a critique of Theresa's reality as they force the viewer to distinguish between what Theresa wants and what she gets. This technique can confuse viewers, but it also teaches them that Theresa's world is incoherent.
Many reviewers failed to recognize Brooks's subtler fantasy sequences as fantasies, though, which led them to reject the film's narrative as confusing and Theresa's character as inconsistent.68 Neither of these claims is true, but maybe it takes multiple viewings—or a rewind button—to understand how the film constructs its fantasy sequences as explorations of the incoherence of desire. Take, for instance, the scene in which Theresa appears to jump in front of an oncoming car after Martin dumps her. Walking home from their break-up, Theresa pauses at a street corner, looks behind herself, and then deliberately steps forward into oncoming traffic. A rapid succession of shots depicts Martin behind the wheel of a car, Theresa's exultant expression, a woman screaming, and then an ambulance rushing to a hospital. Next Theresa is being wheeled down a hospital corridor as her parents and doctors worry over her. If a skeptical viewer scoffs at the coincidence of Martin being the driver to hit Theresa, her credulity will be strained further when Martin shows up at the hospital to declare, “I love her…. It's my fault.” It may break entirely when the doctor lifts Theresa's blanket and tells her father, “Congratulations, your daughter has a beautiful body,” then kisses her left breast. Yet the scene is not revealed as fantasy until the doctor announces that Theresa is two months pregnant. Then she sits up and screams, “No!” and the film immediately cuts back to our heroine standing on the sidewalk, smiling to herself (figs. 21–22).
The spectator's temporary incredulity is now resolved. What felt like an implausible narrative was in fact a fantasy. Its incompatible elements expressed Theresa's desire to be glorified as a martyr and reunited with her lover as well as her fear of pregnancy and her frustration with being an object of male exchange. In sequences such as this one, Looking for Mr. Goodbar's critically denigrated incoherence reflects the same “generalized crisis in ideological confidence” that Robin Wood finds disturbing many 1970s films. During this decade, Wood argues, “society appeared to be in a state of advanced disintegration, yet there was no serious possibility of the emergence of a coherent and comprehensive alternative,” so films such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar thematized anxiety and nihilism through the breakdown of narrative order.69 Hence the fantasy sequence departs dramatically from continuity-editing conventions that the film employs elsewhere; it violates the 180-degree rule and uses no matches on action and few sound bridges. (Those that do exist employ unrealistic sound perspectives.) Brooks presents Theresa's fantasy chaotically, and that chaos reflects the incompatible ideological structures that created it. Theresa's married lover has left her, but the very masochistic self-sacrifice that she imagines will return him to her also reinscribes her in the patriarchal logic that she escaped through their affair. She cannot imagine an erotic life outside the system, and the film represents this problem through the breakdown of its narrative idiom. Incoherence becomes not just a narrative device but a political tactic—a tactic that may have failed for some viewers but is still available on video (for now).
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Seeing the text differently allows us to imagine the future differently; this is the promise, the hope, of reparative reading. It seeks “to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have the resources to offer an inchoate self.”70 Thus reparative readings do not deny horror or bad news—e.g., the sexual revolution was unfair to women—but create more sustaining ways to live with them—e.g., that through narrative incoherence, we can recognize and manage the incoherence of the sexual revolution for women. Yet as Robyn Wiegman discovers by delving deeper into the Kleinian theory on which Sedgwick's reparative reading is based, this affirmative approach to criticism still comes from a desire for mastery: “‘Love’ is never innocently given but is instead part of a defensive maneuver against the infant's own murderous impulses towards the projections and part-objects that make up its world.”71 In other words, the reparative critic's love resembles an attempt to save the object but is at root an attempt to save herself. Both the paranoid and the reparative reader are sustained through their critical acts, including narratives of loss that allow them to redeem the object, the film. They both fight loss, which is a losing battle.
By writing about the films of the abject archive and allowing them to remain abject, however, by acknowledging their abjectness without seeking to resolve it, critics can write about loss without denying it. This is an opportunity to learn from movies without using them to prove anything, rescue anyone, or shore up any egos. Embracing Brooks's film as a partially present object, I want to know what else its blurred and faded images and compressed soundtrack can tell us about film history on video. This is the material and psychic practice I call sitting with. Sitting with forgoes reparation for either the text or the critic and accepts contingency. It accepts, for instance, that the color and brightness of Brooks's film have been severely compromised by VHS and LaserDisc and must be encountered as they are. Analog video has only a fraction of film's luminance ratio (40:1 versus 130:1). The early analog video transfer of Looking for Mr. Goodbar thus changed the movie as a text and an experience, especially its conclusion, which represents death almost entirely in terms of luma. Thus its video conclusion should remind us that film is light, that light is an impermanent medium, and that all lights go out. To forget that is the critic's folly, the hubris of the savior.
To recap: Looking for Mr. Goodbar ends with a strobe light illuminating Theresa's face as Gary kills her. Overexposure from the strobe light all but eliminates color from this attack, reducing it to black or white, life or death (fig. 23). When death comes, it comes as a twenty-second reverse zoom from Theresa's face, which the strobe intermittently reveals until its light finally dies. Analog video muddies this final shot so that Theresa's death mask appears to be sinking into a viscous void. Regardless of what the image may have looked like on film, there is now no sharp contrast between the blue-white of Keaton's skin and the inky blackness that envelops it. The limited resolution of VHS and LaserDisc further blurs her features, as the brightest parts of Keaton's overlit face flare out into the shadows that surround them.72 The shot dramatizes the technical struggles between Brooks's film and the limits of its new platforms. Lost information becomes visible on screen in the ambiguous borders between light and dark.
Faced with such an ambiguous image, one might fixate on how this scene would look with a fresh digital transfer, since digital video samples luminance differently than film or analog video do. To preserve bandwidth, digital video records luminance at every pixel and color only for every other pixel. Software filters then create averages between adjacent pixels to form the gradations of light and color according to the resolution specificed for the final image.73 Digital video thus privileges modulations of brightness and shade over modulations of hue, unlike analog video, which samples both simultaneously. For that reason, a film-to-digital video transfer of Looking for Mr. Goodbar might preserve image resolution in Keaton's face during the final seconds of the film. The shadows of her eye sockets and cleft of her lips might not be reduced to dark smears—assuming they were not dark smears to begin with. Her features might retain their distinctness and thereby grant her death its specificity—if indeed specificity was Brooks's goal (fig. 24). It might turn out that Looking for Mr. Goodbar ends by emphasizing the tragic death of one woman killed by one man, who was also battling the incoherence of a heteropatriarchal sexual revolution that told him to embrace different strokes for different folks but also to be ashamed of his homosexual desires. In other words, sharper resolution and individuation in Theresa's death mask might connote accusation rather than oblivion, reminding the viewer that people die because of the conflicting messages our culture gives them about sex.74 It might inspire the viewer to imagine other ways that Theresa's story could have ended or to defend and affirm lives like hers.
It might—but then again it might not. Our videos cannot tell us, but they are telling us to think differently about textual analysis and historical recuperation. These have been the primary methodologies of feminist film historiography, but they both rely on commercial economies of film-historical value that determine what and how we get to research. I will probably never get to see the final image of Looking for Mr. Goodbar as Brooks intended it, but I can put aside my fear of not knowing, my fear of surprise and humiliation, and even my need for hope. By accepting and acknowledging the loss of visual information in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I recover a pleasure in ambiguity that comes in the wake of the desire to save and is also an acceptance of materiality and mortality.75 In its degraded video form, the movie challenges me to admit that I need it more than it needs me. It is, after all, an inanimate object, innocent to its decay and imminent obsolescence. Moreover, my desire to know exceeds the film itself and makes the film symptomatic of a critical impulse. Narratives of loss sustain the critic whose scholarly identity depends on them even as her scholarly practice denies or disavows them. Such neurotic relationships to our objects inhibit our learning from them. After six months of research, there is still a lot I won't and can't know about Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But as I watched Keaton's face, and tried to capture it with my pause button to create the frame grabs that illustrate this article, I started to experience her loss not as a wrong that has been done to me, but as a chance to see differently. I now see that the image is not there for me, that it exists materially independently from me, and that it is whole unto itself and without me.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar is beautiful and brilliant. It was underappreciated in its day and remains so today. Exploring its devaluation, I might shore up my own value as a critic. Arguing for its feminist politics, I might affirm a future for feminist criticism. I might generate a kind of feminist hope for a more equitable future. But neither gesture is innocent; neither is free from my savior complex or the physical evanescence of the film that it would seek to deny. By letting this movie go, I can acknowledge our shared materiality and mortality. Obsolescence, disintegration, and obscurity await the critic, too. The critic cannot save Theresa Dunn, but at least she can learn to stop trying.