June 27, 2011

Keeping the Bath Water

by Zach Clark

The Baby

[Editor's Note: In honor of THE BABY's release on DVD tomorrow, this appreciation could only come from Mr. Clark, a NYC-based filmmaker and a life-long fan of psychotronic cinema. His most recent feature films are MODERN LOVE IS AUTOMATIC and VACATION!.]

You can't un-see Ted Post's 1973 feature The Baby. What begins as a quasi soap opera for infantilists uses seemingly non-tongue-in-cheek camp and slasher tropes to mutate into an anti-morality play about families and normalcy. What's right is wrong. What's wrong is wrong, too. There are no answers, only questions. Hope is non-existent. You could call it misanthropic, or you could call it honest. Baby doesn't walk and Baby doesn't talk and there isn't really anything anyone can do about it.

The Baby The star of The Baby is Baby (played by David Manzy), a grown man who is also a baby. You have to see it to believe it. He wears infant clothes. He wants to play with toys and breast feed. His food is pureed and gets all over his face. But, he is not chasing the modern adult baby's dream of permanent regression. Baby has nothing to regress to. He's not pretending because he is a baby.

From this central contradiction springs the world of the film. Duality abounds. Everyone lies, deceives. Things are presented matter-of-factly most of the time, but every now and then, outright strangeness calls everything we've watched into question.

The Baby Baby's condition stems from his family keeping him that way. How? Mother's love and a cattle prod. Sometimes his sister fucks him, but Baby probably doesn't understand. After all, he's not an adult. Mrs. Wadsworth, Baby's mother, is shrewdly aware of this but she's fucked up—and so are her two daughters, Alba and Germaine. All three of Mrs. Wadsworth's children were fathered by different men. None of them are around anymore.

It's postulated that Mrs. Wadsworth is hurting Baby because of his gender, but she isn't. She loves him so much she doesn't want him to grow up just to be fucked up like everyone else. While she is protective of Baby, she does not shield him from the outside world. She goes to play bridge and comfortably leaves him with a babysitter (that is, until she finds him suckling at her literal teat). On Baby's birthday, Mrs. Wadsworth throws him a big party, a sequence that stylistically and thematically turns the whole world of the movie upside-down and contextualizes the Wadsworths as part of a society, not fringe dwellers.

The Baby Ann loves Baby, too. She's his social worker and has taken a special interest in his case. The Wadsworth women don't trust her. Her supervisors constantly question why she's so concerned. Why Ann's taken this interest, and the lengths to which she'll go to "save" Baby from his family are what drives the plot. Ann wants to help Baby but she's fucked up just like everyone else and so, in the end, everything goes sour. Isn't that how these things always go?

Maybe The Baby is about love, specifically between mothers and children, and "mothers" and "children." It's likely this uniquely maternal instinct was nothing more than a device for Post and screenwriter Abe Polsky to get from Sleaze A to Shock B, but historically, it's worth noting that the movie was released just a couple months after Roe V. Wade. A year or so later, the great Larry Cohen's It's Alive was released. That celluloid atrocity tells the story of a mutant infant who runs amok immediately after its birth. Considering the times and both directors' track records of crafting genre work with political subtexts, both may ultimately be pro-choice allegories, though their arguments seem to be inverted. It's Alive makes a case for abortion saving the life of the mother from damage caused by the child. Conversely, The Baby makes the case that abortion can save a child from its mother.

The Baby There is a strange, murky line between what is normal and abnormal in The Baby. The Wadsworth family is extreme, violent, camp. They are unapologetic and unashamed of their eccentricities. Their wardrobes match their personalities. They dress Baby in a caricatured fashion, Little Lord Fauntleroy chic. Performance is everything to them, and through which they show the world who they are.

Ann is normal. She is calm, rational, composed. She dresses conservatively. But it's all a front. There's some inexplicable situation going on with her husband, who we never see. She lives with an older woman named Judith whose relationship to Ann is never explained. She's not her relative or her lover; who is she? Secrets lie in Ann's house. Terrible, terrible secrets. In the end, we find out she might be worse than the Wadsworths but plays her life closer to the vest. Performance is everything to Ann, too, with which she hides her true self from the world.

The Baby When the end credits roll, it's unclear how to feel. Do we sympathize with the openly fucked-up Wadsworths or for the closeted deviant Ann? Whose crimes are worse? How far can too far go? And what was the point? The lack of a clear moral stance may be equal parts oversight and sign-of-the-Seventies, but intentionality be damned, The Baby's ambiguities are more subversive than its salacious subject matter.

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Posted by ahillis at June 27, 2011 1:55 PM