Forgetting “A Fish Called Wanda”

Last night, I re-watched A Fish Called Wanda with my boyfriend, who’d seen it dozens of times and had even memorized the script. I’d seen it when it came out with my then-boyfriend (who would later become my ex-husband).

The thing is, I didn’t remember a single thing about it. In fact, whenever someone would mention the film, I’d feel an aching, nauseated hole in my memory. Not just a dislike, but a visceral unpleasantness. And I had no idea why.

Netflix said I’d give A Fish Called Wanda almost 5 stars. I mean, like, all the stars except the tiny corner of the last star. Holy sure thing, Batman! I’ve rated enough Netflix movies over the years that it’s pretty accurate. All those red stars combined with my beloved’s enthusiasm for the film made me decide to re-watch it.

And I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s brilliant — the twisting plot, the fantastic acting, the characters, all with Kevin Kline huffing a patent leather boot. But as I watched the movie, I realized exactly how I’d not only forgotten the film, but why I shoved it off into Vague Hateville.

I was an Evangelical Christian when I saw it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think Jesus approved of crime comedy. He seemed pretty okay with my infatuation with Inspector Clouseau and the Pink Panther movies, as well as my love for Get Smart and The Naked Gun. (If I had known about my future friend Alan Spencer’s Sledge Hammer, I’d have been totally smitten with that, too.)

No. It was because I was terrified of Jamie Lee Curtis’s incredible sexual power. Wielded by her sharp intelligence, her body was deadlier than any gun — or steamroller — brandished in the film. Between the extramarital affair and the multiple backstabbing affairs, I was terrified of her seductive powers. Not only were her actions “sinful,” she was unstoppable. And appealing…

Was Michael Palin fantastic as the stuttering, animal-loving bank robber? Yes. Was John Cleese completely endearing as the domestically challenged barrister? Yes. Was Kevin Kline hilarious every time he tried to “apologize”? Fuck yes. But all I had remembered was the vaguely sick, horrified feeling I’d had when I’d realized how powerful sex was: the “bad” thing I’d been fighting my whole life, whether it was the painful fallout of my father’s affairs or my own, more innocent quirks.

And Jamie Lee Curtis just proved it was all true. Sex outside of a proper Christian marriage was, without a doubt, bad bad bad.

I’ve changed my mind about a lot of films since I was “unsaved” in 1996. Like The Piano. Oh, god. When I’d first seen the film, I’d watched with satisfaction as Flora tattled on her ho mama, which led to the axe scene with George. I’d been so uncomfortable with the infidelity, I could barely stand watching the film. But as soon as I was “unsaved,” I watched the film again on a whim and OH MY GOD! I LOVED IT! I loved every moment, every detail, every gorgeous shot, Michael Nyman’s haunting music…just everything. And I cried during the axe scene. Oh, god! No! Ada! Poor Ada! I felt sorry for George, too, but not when he turned into the axe-wielding asshole.

Afterward, I thought, “Christ. Do I have to re-watch every goddamned movie I’ve ever disliked before now?”

I stuck to comedies mostly, like The Life of Brian. I could barely tolerate it before, but now I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVED IT with blasphemy sauce on top! I probably appreciated it more than most people.

Cinema opened up to me. Books. Music. I stood awash in the glorious downpour of human experience with new-found compassion for human frailty. It wasn’t that I suddenly had no moral guidelines. Far from it! I had strong feelings of right and wrong, but for once no one was dictating them to me and I could appreciate nuances of circumstance. I no longer obsessively checked everything I took in against some soupy salvation list that’s ingredients changed depending on the perspective of the pastor I consulted. And the maddening, deafening inner din of “Is this of the world? Or of Christ? Is this godly? Would Jesus approve?” had finally fucking stopped. That peace that Christians talk about? The one that “surpasses understanding”? Once Jesus had cleared the room, it arrived at last. I met art quietly by myself — just me with my intellect, my tastes, my sense of humor. I could still reject a story because of its violence against women, racism, or what have you, but my inner compass interfered far less with my ability to enjoy a story for what it was.

Best of all, I could tell my own stories without worrying about what Jesus or anyone else thought. I started writing and never stopped…

To be honest, I still don’t like Wanda. (I’m not sure we’re supposed to, anyway.) And I am certainly not thrilled with the message that the right man with enough money can tame a woman and make her behave, either. Still, I really enjoyed A Fish Called Wanda.

I give it four stars.

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