NOT A PRETTY PICTURE (1976): Martha Coolidge and one of the most courageous debuts by a filmmaker

Present Tense: Martha Coolidge
Photo courtesy of Film Comment

Martha Coolidge’s Not A Pretty Picture is maybe more shocking and effective today then it was more than 40 years ago when it was first released.  Sadly the film did not receive widespread attention or accolades when it was initially released but it did catch the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, which led to a huge break for Coolidge.  While Coolidge’s career blossomed after Not A Pretty Picture, one could argue that it is still her most important film.

          This film has a very abstract format, which has been called “Brechtian” because of its use of real time reflection by its cast and crew.  The first half of the film is mostly a narrative drama about a high school girl who is date raped by an older college boy.  While the film resembles an “after school PSA” in its style and acting performance, the subject matter is certainly shocking enough to overcome any average performance by the cast.  When the crew of teenagers arrives at the empty apartment where the film’s most dynamic scene takes place, we follow “Curly” the male lead played by Jim Carrington, and actress Michele Manenti, who plays the fictional version of a 16 year old Martha Coolidge, as they get closer.  Michele, who we see is already uncomfortable being alone at this party, follows Curly through a hole in the wall to a private bedroom.  What follows is a multiple take sequence of Curly forcing himself on Michele and assaulting her.

          The acting of this scene really shines due to its real life intensity from both Curly and Michele.  As each take progresses we can see a change in Curly’s aggressiveness in attacking Michele.  Michele does what is expected of her and although she valiantly resists in the beginning she sadly goes numb and succumbs to Curly’s attack.  Curly, played by Jim Carrington, is clearly more effected by this scene than his co-star Michele, who herself, like Coolidge was also a victim of sexual assault.  After each take Carrington apologizes to Michele and checks to make sure she is not injured as he can feel himself filling with rage and anger while portraying his character’s advances.  The scene is so effective that we even see the camera cut to Martha Coolidge as she watches the action from a distance, her hand over her mouth, and looking very concerned for both of her actor’s.  Coolidge, who between takes was coaching Carrington on how to portray the assault, seems almost shocked and regretful in this shot, thinking that she has produced a performance from her actors that almost matches her own memory of being assaulted.  Carrington is really the one who ends up being regretful as we see in the next segment where the narrative part of the film is interrupted by the documentary discussion between Coolidge and the actors.

          After several takes of the rape scene the actors take a break and have a discussion with Coolidge on the mattress where the rape scene just occurred.  The power and context of this scene was clearly wearing out the participants and that is why I believe it was a brilliant decision for Coolidge to break up the action and check in with her actors.  As we soon find out, Jim Carrington needed it.  As Carrington explains how his shock at the feeling of entitlement by his character Curly, he begins to reveal his own feelings and regrets.  Carrington states that the scene has caused him to look at his own actions and behavior towards women.  While he never assaulted a woman himself, he can see through the lens of this character that men in general need to readjust how they treat women.  It is a fascinating scene to watch Coolidge and Michele Manenti, two victims of sexual assault, having to counsel Jim Carrington and his reaction to portraying the attacker.

          I believe that Martha Coolidge’s style of mixing narrative and documentary for this film was most effective.  I was very impressed that she not only had the courage to tackle such a serious personal issue so early in her career but that she used her filmmaking skills so eloquently in the process.

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