Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Produced by Boxspring Entertainment 
Written and directed by Angela Robinson 
Distributed by Annapurna Pictures 

Blade Runner 2049
Produced by Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers 
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green 
Distributed by Warner Brothers 

Watching director Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s comment concerning sexual tact.  “I have no objection to anyone’s sex life,” he once revealed, “as long as they don’t practice it in the street and frighten the horses.”  Robinson has wantonly ignored Wilde’s stricture.  Her film takes polyamory well into the street to frighten the horsey among us.  Well, perhaps not frighten.  Let’s say mildly startle.  We’ve been too well trained in what passes for contemporary sexual ethics to fear displays of carnal intimacy of any sort, however irregular.

I first learned of Prof. William Marston and his, shall we say, peculiarities while researching his role in the making of the Wonder Woman comic-book franchise.  Marston dreamt up the comic book in 1940 to further his feminist intentions.  He wanted to inspire girls so they’d become self-confident, unintimidated beings.  His research led him to believe that women were not merely equal to men but, by reason of their compassionate, nurturing natures, quite superior.  He went about predicting that they would one day rule the world, establishing a government run on the model of the legendary Amazons.  Marston’s feminism was complicated, however.  It stipulated that to become fully independent a woman must first submit herself to male authority.  In Marston’s household this meant his wife had to agree to taking in one of his students as his “second” wife.  “Submission” meant that they were expected to raise his children—two apiece—and financially support their ménage à trois household.  Marston, you see, couldn’t hold a job.  He had energy and ideas, but they rarely took hold for long, nor did his various academic appointments at Harvard, Tufts, American University, et al.  It seems his oddity made him virtually unemployable for the long term.  His invention of the lie detector was promising, but it was quickly superseded by another tinkerer who sold it to the Army.  His one big success was Wonder Woman, which in a way, I suppose, clinched his argument about women’s superiority.

I mentioned this in my review of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman film in our February issue.  I enjoyed that movie very much, not for its feminist theme but rather for its lovely star, Gal Gadot.  I may not be much of a feminist, but I do like women.

At the time I remarked to friends what I had discovered of Marston and his women, adding facetiously that the story of this odd trio would certainly serve as the basis for a wondrous biopic.  Well, my joking speculation has come true.  Robinson, who is not so incidentally a lesbian, has not merely told the story but has also used it to mock the conventional decency of anyone this side of the Mormon persuasion.  Her purpose is to shame heterosexuals for their sexual bigotry while comforting those who can’t wait for America to embrace the coming age of polyamory.

The actors seem to enjoy their mission, quite energetically so in their three-way sex scenes staged and shot, I must report, so as to be as reassuring as possible.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to notice that the performers were doing much more than cuddling as advertising models might in a mattress commercial.

The story begins when Rebecca Hall, playing Marston’s legal wife, Elizabeth Holloway, notices her husband’s interest in the 22-year-old Olive Byrne, winsomely played by Bella Heathcote.  In reaction, Holloway drawls she’s not troubled by sexual jealousy.  A scene later she meets Olive in a deserted laboratory and doesn’t hesitate to issue her a peremptory order: “Don’t f–k my husband,” she fairly growls.  When Marston confronts her for behaving so contradictorily, she airily invokes that old and unanswerable retort, “It’s a woman’s privilege.”  She later discovers that she wants to do to Olive what she warned Olive not to do to her husband.  Her explanation for this is that she wants to be close to the woman her husband is bedding.  Makes sense.  Keep it in the family.  She tells the young lady that she desires her because her husband does.  Not very flattering, this.

As for Olive herself, she’s the daughter of the birth-control activist Ethel Byrne and niece of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.  Her heritage explains a lot.  Ethel was so busy proselytizing the faith that she didn’t have time to rear Olive herself.  So she put her in foster care at first, and then into a convent, surely stressful for the child of such heritage.

Although the film doesn’t examine this angle at all, it seems to me that Olive responded to the Marstons’ invitation to join their household because of her longing for the family her mother and aunt had denied her.  Her only connection to Ethel was when Margaret fetched her from the convent and brought her to New York City to serve as a sentimental prop during Ethel’s trial on charges of obscenity for spreading the gospel of birth control.  Margaret reasoned, correctly, that the judge hearing Ethel’s case would have sympathy for a mother.  In fairness, I should mention that the sisters’ own mother, Anne Purcell, had had 11 children and 7 miscarriages before dying at 50, and further that Ethel’s no-account husband had thrown the newborn Olive out of the house into a snowy night so he could go on drinking, uninterrupted by rude wailing.  This must have aroused a good deal of lingering bitterness in the sisters and no doubt constitutes the ground of their activism.  In the past, I’ve expressed repugnance for the feminist slogan that the personal is political, but it seems all too apt in this instance.

Opponents of same-sex marriage—if any are left—have argued that it opens the door to polyamory.  On what grounds can the courts proscribe it while allowing men to marry men, and women, women?  Aren’t adults to be allowed to make their own private arrangements in this sphere provided they don’t harm anyone else?  Tellingly, the Marston example suggests that harm can indeed be done.  The general run of film reviewers have ignored the evidence that the impressionable Olive was likely lured into the Marston household.  How could she not have been flattered by the older couple’s interest in her?  Add to this that the Marstons had the professional standing to advance her career, and you have the definition of the abuse of power to gain sex.  They even talked her out of her engagement to an earnest young man named Brant Gregory.  When Gregory realizes what the Marstons are doing, he calls them perverts to their faces.  Harsh?  I don’t think so.  What else were they?  The many images of Wonder Woman bound with rope and chains in the comic books came from Marston’s taste for such practices.  And, as the film all too delicately portrays, he acted upon them with his two women and a third who had an occasional role in his house.  Pervert is the right word.  Etymologically, it means to turn away from the normal.  Of course, normal has for many decades been judged a loaded term.  Our courts decided it cannot be invoked in legal arguments because there’s no longer any binding consensus of what it means.  This seems to me to defy the evolutionary history of our species.  Across the millennia, we’ve strenuously learned that heterosexual couples joined in more or less permanent unions are best suited to the task of bearing and nurturing children.  This is not a matter of morality and law, but rather of biology and psychology.  In Robinson’s film, however, this understanding is repeatedly mocked.  And so are institutions that strive to support such thinking, especially the Catholic Church.  When Marston is told of the movement to abolish comic books, which incited the less levelheaded to arrange mass burnings of them, he decries the bonfire enthusiasts as fascist.  His publisher says no, they’re Catholics, darkly adding that it’s the same thing.  The basis for this: a single incident that took place at a Catholic school in Binghamton, New York, in 1948.  Catholic fervency should be made of sterner stuff.

Since Blade Runner 2049 seems to advocate procreation, maybe we can count it in the Catholic camp.  The original Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, came out in 1982.  It did poorly at the box office at first, but then in subsequent years gained some popularity in its re-edited and extended versions, courtesy of television and DVDs.  With its nightmare vision of what Los Angeles might look like in 2019, including a greatly expanded Asian population and a severely diminished black and Mexican presence, it’s certainly provocative.  For me, however, its muddled storyline and weird electronic music made it a slightly nauseating experience.  Now we have Denis Villeneuve’s sequel.  It’s as boring as I imagine hell must be, and at 244 minutes seems almost as eternal.

What’s the film about?  It seems the replicants in the first version, those extravagantly humanoid robots that had been rebelling to gain themselves longer life spans, now want to procreate.  The fascist state, however, won’t tolerate this.  As in the previous film, the replicants are being hunted and killed by a more recent iteration of robots.  Could this be a parable about the threat of population control pitted against those who desire greater procreative freedom?

Ryan Gosling shows up as the successor to Harrison Ford.  We know this because he wears the same trench coat and permanent scowl.  His assignment is to kill older replicants.  During his search, he comes upon evidence that suggests he’s the son of Ford and his replicant inamorata, Sean Young.  How can robots have children?  There’s some malarkey meant to make this plausible, but I still have grave doubts on the matter.

From what I’ve read about robots, scientists aren’t designing them to look at all human.  Why would they?  I don’t want to take the fun out of things, but given what would be expected of them, robots would be far more at ease going about on wheels and dexterously wielding three or four arms.  And they wouldn’t sport reproductive organs at all.

Further, there’d be no tears.  Everyone in this film, humans and replicants alike, sheds tears nearly continuously, including the ever-stoic Gosling.  They glisten in almost every scene.  And no one’s slicing onions, at least not on-screen.  The future sure looks glumly lachrymose.  Who would want to stick around for it?