Reflections in a Golden Eye is a tale of repression and desire. Set in the South, at a US Army training facility about a decade after the end of World War Two, it’s a conventional domestic drama with some unusual stylistic choices.
The entire film is cast in a heavy ‘golden’ filter, which adds nothing to the story and feels overbearing. Most of the film is shot conventionally, apart from a couple of key scenes that seem bizarrely jarring. One key scene is reflected in the eye of a voyeur; hammering home the story’s title, but without serving any other purpose. And, in a final act of pretension, the film ends with a ridiculous back-and-forth panning shot.
The film wants to be taken seriously as ‘art’, instead it seems artificial and silly. There’s an uncomfortable interplay between the conventional storytelling (the cinematography, and the music score) and its artifice. It feels both conventionally mainstream as well as being an oddity. The problem is that the viewer remains unsure what to make of it or where our sympathy should be.
It’s trying to pull off the difficult trick that Nabokov used in Lolita: maintaining audience interest while refraining from moral judgement. Lolita features the monstrous Humbert Humbert who is repulsive and yet compelling enough to retain our attention. Reflections in a Golden Eye lacks such a character, or hero, to anchor us in the story. Instead, it offers an assortment of melodramatic characters who are prisoners of their anger or inner-torment. They feel like characters in separate short story vignettes that fail to mesh as one. Because the storyteller refrains from judgement, it’s up to the viewer to decide the rights and wrongs — but the lack of a proper context to draw on makes that impossible. To exacerbate this, the characters are neither likeable nor bad enough to be monstrous, making it difficult to care either way.
There are no conventional heroes to celebrate here. The risky and rule breaking multiple story route offers the characters a level playing field — where they can outdo one another through overly-dramatic scenes — but it lacks a compelling central character to unify the story. These deeply flawed characters never psychologically develop or ‘go anywhere’. They are miserable and angry at the world but unable to evolve. They do not learn, they discover nothing — and there’s no redemption. It’s a kind of storytelling purgatory. The pace fails to create tension and consequentially the bursts of drama lack a contextual build-up. The drama incongruously happens from nowhere, like an unexpected sneeze: comically out of place. What should have been poignant scenes are so overblown they’re ridiculous.
What the film does convey is a series of characters who are unable to be true to themselves. They are locked in a repressive, socially conventional world. Major Penderton is torn by his inadequacy and self-loathing, which originates from his repressed sexual urges for Private Williams. Williams, on the other hand, is portrayed as virile — riding a horse bareback — and paradoxically obsessed with the Major’s wife who he creepily watches at night, even breaking in and sniffing her underwear: his apparent virility disguising his own dysfunctional impotence. And although Williams plays a prominent role in the story he has almost no dialogue.
Private Williams has some similarities to the voyeuristic teenager in American Beauty. There are other similarities to American Beauty: the multiple stories, and characters who are in search of themselves. Like Lolita, American Beauty has a strong central character, Lester Burnham, who binds the story together — his role as the narrator emphasises this. American Beauty has its own Major Pemberton who identifies with his macho military background and is conflicted by his sexual attraction to Lester Burnham. Importantly, American Beauty enriches a story about dysfunctional people with humour and sensitivity. Reflections in a Golden Eye is humourless, and characters who show sensitivity are portrayed as flawed — effeminate. This deeply conservative view of male identity makes Reflections in a Golden Eye unsettling to watch. In tackling, what at the time must have been, a socially risky subject it defaults to negative stereotypes of gay people and the apparent fear of male identity being corrupted by feminine qualities, which are all portrayed as weakness. This makes it feel dated.
Major Pemberton is ineffective and weak because he lacks ‘male’ virility. His male qualities have been corrupted by feminine traits that equate with his gay urges. For a story about repressive conventional society that boxes people in, this narrow viewpoint feels just as repressive. To hammer the theme home to the audience, Major Pemberton’s inability to display any sexual interest in his wife condemns him to being humiliated by her. She is the most aggressive and ‘male’ character in the story. She goads and berates him, unable to disguise her disgust, and takes solace in her affair with Lieutenant Colonel Langdon.
When Major Penderton takes his wife’s favourite horse out, it runs wild and throws him. The scene turns into a metaphor for his sexuality: along the way he even spots Private Williams sunbathing naked. Thrown from his horse, literally on his knees, Major Penderton beats the horse with a whip. The naked Private Williams appears and leads it away.
Reflections in a Golden Eye is a product of its time, released when homosexuality was a difficult subject for a mainstream audience. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like a personal tragedy; it’s scornful of Major Penderton. We first see him working-out with weights, lacking the strength to complete his routine: not man enough. Later, we see him talking to himself in the mirror, using a skin care product — ‘rejuvenating cream’ — which casts him as vain and obsessive about his looks (another negatively ‘feminine’ quality). In his classes, even the students sense his inadequacy: he talks about leadership and command, but exudes none himself.
Mrs Langdon’s outlandish carer/domestic help, Anacleto, is another effeminate male character. He’s presented as a kind of camp medieval court jester. Anacleto is responsible for painting a peacock with the golden eye that, as he says, reflects ‘something tiny…’ and Mrs Langdon adds ‘…grotesque’. That ‘tiny’ and ‘grotesque’ thing is humanity. Conceptually, the audience is watching a ‘gold’ tinted film, looking through that same eye, out into this fictional world; and like the characters in the story we are voyeurs, unable to change anything.
Captain Weincheck — a minor character who is thoroughly decent and displays sensitivity — is being coerced to leave the army, because he’s not the ‘right material’. The story doesn’t give the audience any clue what we should think about this. Is he being treated unfairly, bullied? Is he not cut out for a future in the military and they’re doing him a favour? Because we don’t know much about him there’s little for us to base our decision on. The Southern location, the military training centre, and the macho culture — none of this is explored in any depth. There’s so much ground to cover without sufficient time to explore the characters.
Reflections in a Golden Eye was released one year after the acclaimed film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. They both explore the same theme: characters within the establishment who are enduring a dysfunctional marriage. But Reflections in a Golden Eye feels wooden, lacks energy, and the closely observed humour. Instead, it seems clunky, unable to provide enough depth, and attempts to compensate by hammering home its point. It has its moments though: when, for example, Major Pemberton opens what we assume is his secret box and lovingly casts his eye over a classical statue of a male figure, and when he picks up a paper that Private Williams has cryptically dropped in the street, thinking it could be a secret love message, but it turns out to be a casually discarded Baby Ruth wrapper. But none of this matches The Graduate, also released in 1967, with its brilliantly watchable anti-hero, Benjamin Braddock, who is fighting a stale and hypocritical system, as well as searching for himself.
What is Reflections in a Golden Eye about? Is it a story about repressed gay yearning, or a post Second World War drama about failed male characters in a forgotten backwater, unable to match the macho legitimacy and glory of the wartime generation? Why is any semblance to artistic sensibility or human sensitivity portrayed so negatively? And why does a story about repressed gay urges have such a profoundly conservative and limited view of male identity?