Gender Bender Over Thelma & Louise

A white-hot debate rages over whether Thelma & Louise celebrates liberated females, male bashers -- or outlaws

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These are not the big-budget movies that solemnly announce the importance of their subject matter and often totter off into oblivion clutching a Best Picture Oscar -- emotional irrelevancy's consolation prize. The true genre- bending films are less pretentious, less carefully calculated entertainments that may have only a hazy idea of their objectives. And (best thing about them, really) they have a way of driving some people -- the ones who think movies ought to be a realistic medium or an ideologically correct one -- crazy.

Consciously or not, these films tend to serve as expressions of the values or confusions jangling around in their society, or occasionally as springboards for earnest discussions of them. At a time when moral discourse has been reduced to the size of a sound bite and rapid social change has everyone on edge, the messages conveyed in even the most frolicking of these movies stir peculiar passions. Such films often have an astonishing afterlife, not only in popular memory but as artifacts that vividly define their times.

These times, in movies as in American society, seem defined by perilous, off-balance relationships between men and women. The year's two top box-office winners, The Silence of the Lambs and Sleeping with the Enemy, dramatize the ( judicious revenge that a woman takes on a brutalizing man. In another new film, Alan Rudolph's dour and inept Mortal Thoughts, two women (Demi Moore and Glenne Headly) kill a hateful husband (Bruce Willis, who lately can't seem to get a break). The trend straddles oceans too: Luc Besson's stylish French thriller, La Femme Nikita, is about a woman (Anne Parillaud) whose romantic life conflicts with her career as an espionage hit person.

The movie summer promises more women who take their life -- and a gun -- in their own hands. Kathleen Turner will play a tough private eye in V.I. Warshawski. Even the budget-bustin' action-adventure Terminator 2 offers a strong female figure: Linda Hamilton is an embattled mother powerful enough to square off alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The success of these films as popular entertainment and as clues to the zeitgeist remains to be determined. But they will have to go far to match Thelma & Louise. "Ten years from now it will be seen as a turning point," says Peter Keough, film editor of the Boston Phoenix.

He is more than likely right. Movies achieve this kind of historic stature not because they offer a particularly acute portrayal of the way we live now or because they summarize with nuanced accuracy the opposing positions in an often flatulent quasi-political debate. They work because somehow they worm their way into our collective dreamscape, retrieve the anxious images they find there and then splash them across the big screen in dramatically heightened form.

That's why most of the questions raised about Thelma & Louise seem so weirdly inappropriate. Does it offer suitable "role models"? Is the "violence" its heroines mete out to their tormentors really "empowering" to women, or does it represent a feckless sacrifice of the high moral ground? Is its indiscriminate "male bashing" grossly unfair to an entire sex?

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