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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Callie Khouri's cowgirl movie

by Philip Martin | August 3, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

"You be sweet to your wife. My husband wasn't sweet to me and look how I turned out."

-- Thelma (Geena Davis) in "Thelma & Louise"

In a world more to my liking, I'd be in Bentonville this week attending the Bentonville Film Festival in person. But I've got a job and responsibilities that keep me here. So I'm planning on dropping in virtually this week (if I can manage to negotiate the festival's website, which so far has proved to be challenging).

One event I have managed to sign up for is Wednesday morning's conversation on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the release of "Thelma & Louise," between Geena Davis, who starred in the movie, and Callie Khouri, who wrote it.

Davis was an established star when she made the movie; she'd won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in "The Accidental Tourist" three years before. Khouri was a rookie screenwriter; she had worked producing music videos and saw her screenplay as an act of atonement.

"In order to get my karma straight about women, I had to write this script," she told the Village Voice. "When you become known in the business for producing videos that more often than not have naked women writhing in front of the camera for no reason and to not such interesting music, you eventually have to look at what you're doing."

I've heard that "Thelma & Louise" was Khouri's first attempt at writing a screenplay which, if true, makes it even more remarkable. The story of two ill-treated Arkansas women (Davis and Susan Sarandon) who roar off in a jade green 1966 Thunderbird to become outlaws has acquired--if it didn't arrive with--the inchoate vitality of American myth.

I reviewed the film for the alternative Spectrum Weekly when it opened in 1991. It wasn't universally praised. U.S. News and World Report said it was a "paean to transformative violence . . . an explicit fascist theme wedded to the bleakest form of feminism." Rush Limbaugh called Khouri a "feminazi." Lots of men complained.

While it is dangerous to look back on work done on deadline, I'm not ashamed of how I treated "Thelma & Louise." I called it "a funky, powerful pop myth replete with gut-grinding gunplay, campy chase scenes and the found comedy of desperate souls.

"As a (high) concept, there's nothing tremendously original about 'Thelma & Louise.' It's a buddy film, a high-strung crime drama, a western--director Ridley Scott didn't shoot all that footage in Monument Valley for us not to notice.

"Though its much-discussed feminist spin is somewhat undercut by a Nathan Hale-ish (Give me liberty blah blah blah ...) final frame, Sarandon and Davis pack their utterly believable characters with frank detail and generosity."

I wish I had written that while "Thelma & Louise" raises issues about male privilege and is fairly viewed as a feminist movie, the main characters aren't feminists but friends who are forced by circumstances to live outside the boundaries of the social contract for as long as they can.

In my review I point out that when Louise kills the man who attempts to rape a sick-drunk Thelma in the parking lot of an enormous honky-tonk located somewhere in darkest Arkansas, it's arguable her actions aren't entirely justifiable. She's committing a crime. She's crossing a Rubicon, and it was disturbing to hear the theater audience cheer--the theater exploded with applause--her fatal mistake.

Similarly, when the women blow up a hapless trucker's rig near the end of the film, it's not really proportional to the offense the boorish pig has committed. It's Beavis & Butt-Head-style nihilism. But it happens.

The point isn't that women ought to have the same license as men to misbehave when their honor is affronted; it's that these specific women made these politically incorrect and impolite choices.

If someone had only been sweeter to them, they wouldn't have turned out this way. Pretty much the universal outlaw story.

I conclude my review this way:

"There is little about 'Thelma & Louise' that isn't stunning. From the crisp visuals to the spooky cool colors to the wonderfully interactive performances of its lead characters to its insinuating soundtrack (Marianne Faithfull, B.B. King, Tammy Wynette), Scott has composed a tight and humming road epic that evokes dozens of antecedents--from 'They Drive By Night' to 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' to 'Wild at Heart'--as it lights out for its own brave new territory and ends at the edge of the world."

What seems ironic now is that I attributed the movie to Scott while not mentioning the woman who created the characters. I should have given Callie Khouri credit. (In my defense, I wasn't working from press notes supplied by the studio publicists; we didn't have access to a press kit.)

The convenient, conventional fiction is that the director is the prime creative engine behind the movie; the truth is that filmmaking is a highly collaborative art and screenwriters are routinely overlooked.

"Thelma & Louise" began as Khouri was writing in her off-hours on a project that she imagined might become a low-budget independent movie directed by a friend of hers. In 2014, she told David Konow of Creative Screenwriting that she originally intended to direct it herself.

"At the time, I figured I could probably do it for $3 million," she said. "I didn't have any reason not to attempt it . . . I moved to L.A. in 1982 . . . and I had been here long enough to go, 'Boy, a lot of people with a lot less going on than me have gotten a lot more money to do nothing!' It happens. I was convinced I could rope some poor schmuck into forking over the money! And I also really believed in it. I really thought it was worth making."

Movies are alive; they evolve and take on new resonances over the years. Or else they die and are forgotten. "Thelma & Louise" lives, and retains its power to provoke. Callie Khouri tapped into something raw and American and problematic.

Now go out into the world and be sweet to everyone.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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