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Hipster Holy Grail: Hawks (1988)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Although the second half is kind of a letdown, there's at least 60 minutes' worth of good movie in Hawks, a comedic drama about terminal cancer patients.  It looks at death with honesty and frankness without ever becoming overly bleak or sappy.  If only it could apply that same balance to its female characters, it would be a true classic.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Anthony Edwards plays Deckermensky, a young professional football player who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and has been put up in a hospital in England.  There he shares a room with Bancroft (Timothy Dalton), a lawyer and fellow cancer patient.

The two form an uneasy truce after some initial strife and tension, but soon become good friends as they bond over their mutual condition.  Bancroft is quick to point out that they're both going to look ridiculous soon as their health deteriorates (a point he first makes as creepily as possible by putting on a red clown nose and staring at Deckermensky in the middle of the night), so they might as well take the opportunity now to be impulsive and do whatever it is they most want to do.  Deckermensky is too despondent to agree, but after another patient in their ward succumbs to his illness and dies, he's on board.

They hatch a plan to steal an ambulance and go on a cross-continental trip to Amsterdam, where Deckermensky can have a blast at a brothel he once visited on a previous football tour. Along the way, they make a few stops and learn a bit more about each other and themselves.

Also, they meet two ladies, Hazel (Janet McTeer) and Maureen (Camille Coduri), but if you pretend that part doesn't happen, then you end up with a punchy short film that's totally worth your while.

Now I'll Complain About the Ladies

I was convinced this was going to be one of the better movies I've ever reviewed for the HHG when I started watching.  It's a snappy and interesting movie well before the two protagonists steal the ambulance they use for their road trip, so I kept expecting it to get even better once the plot got underway.  The whole time I was thinking, "Why isn't this movie more popular?"

And then Maureen and Hazel show up.  Wow.  The movie goes right off a cliff and doesn't start to get any better until they leave the film again.

This film has some of the worst portrayals of and attitudes toward women I've ever seen.  Dalton and Edwards play their characters as sympathetic, if frustrated, men when they're by themselves.  But whenever they're around Maureen and Hazel, they become horribly sexist, cruel pigs who think about nothing but a) having sex with Maureen and/or Hazel, or b) how much they hate Maureen and/or Hazel.

In fact, the misogyny is so bad that Hazel may actually be the worst female character in film.  She literally exists for no other reason than to gawk at Bancroft and hope that he pays attention, but the only attention she ever gets is disdain, malice, and marginalization that no human being would (should?) ever want.  Every other scene has somebody - usually Bancroft - commenting about how freakishly tall (and therefore monstrously disgusting) she is, but there's never one moment - not even a single ten second bit - where Hazel either gets the upper hand or shows off a hidden skill or even gets in a good line.

It's one thing to poke fun at a character trait if you're going to actually turn that person into a character.  They certainly do that to Bancroft and Deckermensky.  But when a character is repeatedly bashed without any hope it just comes across as cruel.  And Hazel's reward for putting up with Bancroft's bullshit?  She gets to marry him.  Naturally.

Her character is so bad that even her arc - what little of it exists - is in service of making men happy while suffering herself.  She is pregnant from a one-time affair (which also happens to have been the only time she's ever had sex, because my God, how could a freak like her possibly get laid more than once?) and she's traveling across Europe to confront her baby daddy.  But when she finally gets to his house, she finds out that he's married and has a kid already.  So what does she do?

Well, she can't reveal her pregnancy, obviously - that would ruin the poor guy's life!  Clearly she just needs to keep this affair a secret and never ask him to take any responsibility.  And you know what?  She'll keep the kid, too.  Why not?  Because that's what women were made for, and even though she doesn't have a particularly good job or prospects or any hope of ever finding a man who would stoop so low as to date her and maybe possibly help with the burden of childcare, she's doing Women's Work by raising that bastard lovechild.

But good news!  She gets married!  Hooray!

Maureen is not much better a character - one could argue she's somehow got less depth, as she really doesn't do anything other than act as Hazel's horny sidekick.  She mostly exists just to be objectified.  Which, when it happens, is kind of an abrupt shift in tone.  Deckermensky alternates between morose and horny in the first half, so you kind of expect that he's going to be looking for something shallow and physical before he dies - but even so, he doesn't act like an asshole until he sees Maureen.  Then suddenly it's totally fair game for him to start talking about her like a piece of meat.  (In fact, I'm pretty sure he actually does refer to her as meat at some point - he definitely calls somebody a "steak.")

The film's misogyny apexes when Maureen and Hazel inadvertently stumble into a brothel and we're treated to some wacky hijinks where they stumble around and bump into a bunch of prostitutes in various states of undress.  It suddenly turns into a sex farce for about two minutes - the only thing missing was a bunch of "BOOOING!" sound effects.

(Brief side note: this sequence has one hilariously incongruous moment, which speaks volumes about the actresses involved.  At one point, Hazel approaches somebody from behind, thinking it's a man, and says, "Excuse me, sir."  The person turns around to reveal that he's actually a bare-chested butch woman with short-cropped hair and a Nazi uniform.  The Nazi woman then kisses Hazel and walks away.  This is supposed to be just a quick, dumb "goof" - though I'm not sure what the joke is?  "Ha! That lady kissed that other lady!  But ladies don't kiss ladies!  HI-larious!" - but the kiss is what really grabbed me.

See, in a bunch of shitty comedies from today, bad directors will cut to a scene of two women kissing all the time.  They always loom on the kiss with full, sleazy attention - it'll be deep and there might be some tongue, and the more passionate the actresses get about the kiss, the more you wonder how desperate they must be to find better work.  In Hawks, however, the kiss is brief.  Incredibly brief.  Like, not even a kiss - the Nazi kind of bumps her lips against Hazel's lower lip for half a second and walks away.  It just makes me think that both of the actresses turned to the director on set that day and said, "Fuck you, bud.  We'll kiss, but you aren't gonna like it.")

It's telling that the most well-realized female character in the film is a prostitute who appears for only one scene - and one of the better scenes at that.  She's an elderly woman who knows how to repair TVs and actually has enough of a spine to call out Deckermensky on his bullshit.  Those two traits alone give her miles of depth by comparison. Why couldn't we have seen more of her?  Why didn't she tag along for the road trip?  That would've been fun and memorable.  Two cancer patients and a sixty year-old hooker go to Amsterdam?  Sign me up.

The Bit Where I Praise the Portrayal of Death

After all that, you'd probably wonder why I'm still recommending this movie.  To be clear: I'm recommending the first half.  Right up until the characters meet Hazel, the movie gives us some pretty interesting insights into two different perspectives on death and dying.

Edwards's character is a guy who openly fears dying.  When he first enters the hospital, he's so deeply depressed by the realization of his mortality that he can't even allow himself to experience any joy, for he knows it is fleeting.  He is loudly despondent and wallows in misery.  He considers suicide and nearly attempts it a couple of times - but his fear of The End prevents him from actually going through with it.

Dalton, on the other hand, treats death with sarcasm.   He claims to accept it and views dying as something to be mocked.  He's supposed to be a counterbalance to Edwards; the Type A personality that strives to live life to its fullest before his time runs out.

But what I love about the movie is that Dalton is just as terrified of death as Edwards, if not moreso.  His jokes and boisterousness aren't a result of him accepting death - they're just his way of ignoring it.  He even literally hides his death by way of putting a cap over his gradually-balding head.  His character is full of what is quite clearly bullshit, but Edwards's character (whether he recognizes it or not) plays along, anyway.

I like the nuance and honesty of this.  It's something we need more of in our depictions of the dying.

People like to make movies about characters who "put up a courageous battle" with cancer.  Or we like to put them on talk shows and have them tell Oprah all about how "they're not giving up."  And while I don't want to discourage anybody out there with a terminal illness from getting in their fifteen minutes in the spotlight, I can't help but feel like it's a cynical cash-grab to glorify the Courageous Dying Person.

We want these people to be the brave men and women who stare death in the face and laugh so that we don't have to do it ourselves.  We want to feel comforted and secure in our own healthy lives that it'll be okay if something ever happens to us - after all, if Aunt Mary could make light of her pancreatic cancer, then surely I can get through whatever life throws at me.  But so much of this is just fantastical bullshit to allow us to avoid confronting the very real, very inescapable fact that people die of cancer and it suuuuuuuuuuucks.

For as much as we like to see CDPs telling us about how much they're "fighting" the inevitable, we don't like to see their colostomy bags get emptied or their toenails pop off.  If we really loved the "fight" against terminal illness, wouldn't we necessarily have to acknowledge the whole picture?  Isn't it insulting to put a dying person on TV and then turn them away when their death grosses us out?  You can't say you "like" a war and then pretend to be shocked when you find out that civilians got killed.

I like that Hawks doesn't do any of that cloying, rah-rah, "You go, Cancer Boy!" bullshit.  It just honestly shows two people who acknowledge that they're in a shitty situation and try to make the best of it.  They aren't "warriors in a battle against illness."  They're people.  Scared sometimes, happy sometimes, angry sometimes, warm sometimes.  Just people like the rest of us.

It's a far more comforting portrayal to me than the typical CDP.  Some people need to feel like there's hope and warmth and bravery in order to make sense out of what is just arbitrary pain and loss.  Me?  I don't buy into any of that.  I don't want the responsibility of being your hero if or when I'm ever diagnosed with something awful.  I'm comforted to know that I can still be me and feel whatever it is I feel, and I don't have to live up to your stupid standards.  I'd rather be one of the Hawks (without the sexism, of course).

I don't know what specifically I would do or feel if somebody told me I only had a few months to live.  I don't have enough context to say that.  But I sure hope I could go somewhere comfortable with my laptop and a "Do Not Disturb" sign so I could bang out another novel or two before I go.  That's the only part I really care about: making sure I can be proud of what I've left behind.

Where You Can Watch

If you'd like to contemplate your morality for awhile before you see a horrible caricature of a non-human, then definitely check this one out.  Hawks is streaming on, and if you have Prime, you can watch it for free.