The bootleg version of Thelma & Louise I found online was glitchy. Every so often it would unexpectedly freeze, and a few moments later I would notice a character had been staring out of a window too long or that I was looking at the blurry back of someone’s head.
These uncanny moments got me thinking about Laura Mulvey. In her book Death 24x Second, the film theorist argues that the movement of cinematic images is only an illusion. Film consists of a succession of still frames – 24 a second – and narrative or ‘life’ is only created through the mobility of projection. For Mulvey, this points to something deathly inherent to cinema. Whilst digital media has moved beyond the celluloid strip, with all its possibilities for delay and malfunction, cinema’s status as a medium of motion is given even more pause for thought.
To some extent, Thelma & Louise, directed by Ridley Scott, is a movie about the freedom of the open road. The eponymous women escape their humdrum existence for a weekend, and when Louise kills a man who tries to rape Thelma, go on the run to Mexico. Yet, as the film’s iconic ending demonstrates – a still frame of Louise’s green 1966 T-Bird Convertible as it flies over the Grand Canyon in their final act of death-suicide – Thelma & Louise trades on a tension between movement and stillness, life and death. The opening shots, black and white photographs of the American landscape, slowly come into colour over Hans Zimmer’s score. In the following scenes, our heroines are shown as stuck, the motions of their lives circular, rather than linear: Thelma in her cramped, cluttered house, attending to her loveless husband; Louise serving tables like a goldfish in a bowl. “It kills your sex drive,” Louise says to some girls who are smoking, before lighting up herself. She is more concerned, as it will transpire, with death than with sex.
Before they escape for their weekend fishing break, the pair take a polaroid of themselves. This action could be interpreted in several ways: an assertion of friendship, of new found agency and self-determination, or a hit of instant gratification in contrast to their thankless day-to-day. I think it is all of these things, but the polaroid also demonstrates what cinema, as a succession of still frames, does over and over. As the pair shoot off down the highway, their red hair flickers formlessly in the sun and wind, death is only around the corner.
Before writing a book about the stillness intrinsic to cinema materially, Mulvey wrote about another kind of stiltedness. That traditionally possessed by women in cinema, who occupy a passive role in contrast to their active male counterparts, and, constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer even ‘freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.’ Thelma & Louise, penned by Callie Khouri, a debut screenwriter who wanted to show what exactly might happen to two working-class women on a road trip, dismantles the male gaze. The protagonists (both archetypally beautiful) generate their own narrative and meaning, turning from objects to subjects. This isn’t without the attempts of men to stop them. The siren-esque JD (played by a 20-something Brad Pitt) may be fetishised himself (“you could park a car in the shadow of his ass,” quips one of the girls) literally trips up Thelma when they first meet. Yet the betrayal and violence of men – the film is a double rape-revenge, in which Louise avenges her own unspecified rape some years ago in Texas – becomes a motivating, or moving, force.
In 1989 – two years before making Thelma & Louise, Scott directed ‘Grand Canyon’ an advert for Chanel N°5 featuring Carole Bouquet in the same Arizonan landscape, buying gas in red tweed and gold earrings. In Thelma & Louise, this cellophane-wrapped imagery of luxury is swapped for something less sublime – with the women pawning off jewellery and leaving a trail of mess, destruction and crime in their wake. Scott’s atmospheric tropes of mist, rain and haze amongst steam trains and machine-filled industrial yards, speak to a grittier capitalist world in which the threat of death and decay is everywhere. A recurring trope are the gaunt, cadaverous faces of elderly onlookers – a reminder that Thelma & Louise’s s good looks won’t always be such a constant.
Yet, it is when they are most done for that the girls feel most alive. In a wonderful, dream-like sequence they drive slowly through Arizona’s Painted Desert at night, Thelma getting increasingly drunk, both increasingly tired. They are being charged with murder, and need to decide whether they’ll come in “alive or dead”. As the morning comes, the light of day brings a new feeling. “I don’t remember feeling this awake, know what I mean? Everything looks different,” says Thelma. “You feel like that? Like you got something to look forward to.”
So limited are the options in the world available to them, ironically it is with no future that the pair feel they have one. Their decision to ‘not get caught’ and to ‘keep on driving’ over into the Canyon might be read as nihilistic, but in fact the freeze-frame allows them a continuation, leaving them forever air bound, perpetually moving. As they take off from the canyon ledge, keener eyes will spot the polaroid flinging off behind them. In their leap of faith, Thelma & Louise leave all stillness behind them.