|Still from Indecent Proposal, 1993 (source)
||Still from Zoolander, 2001 (source)
From industrialization onwards, hysteria has been cast as a mostly middle-class condition severely affecting a category of individuals (ie. women) who otherwise lacked agency within society. Wives in whale-bone corsets were as given to fainting as fashionable ladies faking dizziness to avoid polite scandal, while pre-pubescent ‘fasting girls’ surrendered to fits and cloudy visions in their night-dresses, drawing a public audience into bedside intimacy before there was such a thing as reality TV. Hysteria, thus, might be considered an ambiguously intentional loss of composure under extreme social duress.
Woody Harrelson’s character in the 1993 flick Indecent Proposal undergoes a surprising male experience of this neurosis—significantly, he is an architect amidst a financial climate of recession. A rare creature, he wears gold wire-rimmed glasses and bears a mortgage in foreclosure, yet is strangely satisfied with life. That is, until he and muse/wife Demi Moore travel to Las Vegas, where they learn a sentimental equation along the lines of $1 million does not equal love does not necessarily equal happiness. The film’s prize sequence is the montage of Harrelson’s activity as the gleeful capitalist Robert Redford beds semi-keen Demi. Fleeing a mai-tai toast in a kitsch Rainforest Cafe-like restaurant, Woody escapes through carpeted hotel corridors, washes up in a sea of comatose horse-racing betters, gets swarmed by Japanese businessmen in an elevator, argues with a Latina housekeeper and spends the remaining hours of darkness testing the remote control which draws the curtains of the hotel room window back and forth automatically.
This downward spiral of the plot deposits Harrelson into the pit of despair, from which no amount of self-pity might rescue him. The real estate magnate, Redford, has won: within a few cinematic moments he tours the girl through his already-built palazzo in the Pacific Palisades as Harrelson passes out on a lonely futon after sadly fingering a (pretty conventional) foam-core model. Fleeting love and crummy ideas; or sex and cash? It’s an ethical question, for which the right answer provides ultimate alpha-male empowerment, and the wrong one social and creative death.
In professional life as in the movies, idealism without financial backing risks the danger of dissipating hysterically, if not spectacularly.
A higher up marches in and examines a project. Fueled by cynicism, they appear to completely miss the intention of the work. Losing their composure, in a fit of mad panic, they destroy what has been produced. This eruption is followed by a sarcastic question, which they themselves answer with a rhetorical question. A secondary loss of composure results in a furious aftershock which is accompanied by an unreasonable statement about what adjustments need to be made. The superior then turns to their underlings who respond to their feedback with verbal agreement in spite of engaging one another with eyes that say ‘hell no’.
While a hysterical outburst may inspire a motivating kind of fear, do the accompanying comedic undertones make it difficult to take such a tirade seriously?
Erandi de Silva
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