Picks: Recommended Films
North Country. Dir. Niki Caro. Charlize Theron is the new Jane Fonda. As I watched this film, I felt transported back to the 1970s. I was watching a woman who played down her good looks and tried to convey a steely-gazed determination to overcome oppression and one-dimensional portrayals of women in cinema. Charlize Theron could play the marathon dancer betrayed in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), the prostitute in Klute (1971) or the wife of the career military officer who falls in love with a returning disabled Vietnam vet in Coming Home (1978). She parlays her beauty into meaningful roles. She reminds us that misogyny and equal rights are not idle constructs. In North Country she makes us see what is still wrong with our society—a latent predilection for keeping the old boy’s network cooking and for keeping women the objects of the male gaze. The hardest thing about watching this film was watching the scenes of harassment. They hurt in the solar plexus. They made me turn to my wife sitting next to me and wonder what was going on in her mind as she watched them. They were repulsive. They happened because men thought they had the power to let them happen. The director also made this work by creating powerful uninflected shots of the open-pit mine and the machinery of the mine—big male machinery, gigantic toys for little boys to play with. And when the women invaded the boy’s fort, the little hellions resisted cruelly so that they could protect their territory. But something undermined this film as well—and that, I think, was the tendency toward melodrama and the stacking of the deck in characterizations (the brutish father, the brutish former boyfriend, and the sidekick with a heart of gold and the perfect sensitive loving husband of that character. I think if the director had made the film smaller and perhaps even meaner, then it would have been even more powerful. The Woody Harrelson character was effective in many respects, and I enjoyed the way he underplayed his role. But the climactic courtroom scene, where he pins down the brutish former high school boyfriend, just did not work for me. And then the climax of the courtroom scene was derivative of other climatic endings I have seen in other films—where the individual is made heroic because of the collective will of those who are inspired by her. Still, the film was worth watching, and it told a story that needs telling. As I walked out of the theater, I had a flashback to the films of the 1960s and 1970s, films like Midnight Cowboy, Lonely Are the Brave, The Last Picture Show, and Serpico. Those were the days, my friend. And this film was like an homage to those days.
Rumor Has It. Dir. Rob Reiner. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. The premise of the film is that Jennifer Anniston’s character discovers that her family is the real-life family from The Graduate. Her mother was Elaine (the Katherine Ross character), and her grandmother was Mrs. Robinson (the Anne Bancroft character. The Graduate ends with Elaine running off with Ben. I think the success of the film was that it allowed us to experience the story of the female version of Ben, updated from 1968 to 1997 (in the film). That is, the main character, played by Jennifer Anniston, was as confused as Ben was at the beginning of this film. The story begins on a plane—just as The Graduate began on the plane. But this time her confusion plays itself out in a crazy scene in the cramped confines of one of the restrooms on the plane. Why is she acting so crazy? After all, she is flying with her fiancé to be one of several maids of honor at her younger sister’s wedding. What’s the big deal? She has always felt an outsider in this family—and she is terrified of making the kind of commitment her sister seems comfortable making. To me one of the key ingredients of this film is thinking about how Benjamin Braddock’s adventures in The Graduate) were affected by his being a man; in this film Jennifer Anniston’s character’s adventures are determined by her being a woman. Here’s the nitty-gritty to make my point. You know that she sleeps with the Kevin Costner character (the inspiration for the Ben character in The Graduate). If you can read the sexual relationship in The Graduate as a form of sexual abuse (the older woman has the power to seduce the younger man, then you can read Rumor Has It as an example of sexual harassment (the powerful male figure, Ben, seduces the younger woman). That concept worked for me in the film.
By no means was this a great film—as The Graduate is. It was serviceable, amiable, and easy to tolerate. But the basic question remains for me: in the film version Ben and Elaine run off to an uncertain fate. But in this film the writer dodges that ending and makes up another ending—with Elaine showing up in
Winter Solstice. Dir. Josh Sternfeld. (2004). Here is typical independent film about real people and real problems. The film’s emotional arc is measured by restraint. The story is straightforward and simple. A widower still grieves for his dead wife. He buries his grieving in his work—a means of keeping himself busy so that he does not have to move on with his grief. His two sons, one an adolescent and the other older, and ready to move on, are emotionally close to each other—but feeling stifled by Dad’s emotional torpor. A woman moves into the neighborhood—house sitting for the summer. Dad meets woman. They have dinner together. And that’s about it. The emotional weight of the film is in our response to the emotional dead weight on the shoulders of these three characters. The youngest brother was in the car accident where the mother died. So he holds a special category of guilt because he survived the crash and his mother did not. In one scene, his brand of post-traumatic stress syndrome comes out when he beats up another guy—really for no good reason—and we understand that his action is manifestation of his directing an inner rage outwardly. The older brother is ready to leave the small town and start his life anew. Dad is stuck with the idea of holding the family together. That’s what he has been doing for several years now. Of course, he cannot see that what he was doing the first two or three years—in keeping the family together—is changing right in front of him. So. This family is dead in the water. And that means that most of the film has an emotional quality of restraint, sadness, and lethargy. And that means that communication among these three family members is constrained, awkward, painful, and sometimes forced. The filmmaker creates montages that show the characters “working on” their pain, acting out a kind of therapy that is meant to move their emotional deadness off-center so that they can make some progress. After the father has his “date” with the new neighbor, he returns home, and for the first time in the film acts out of anger (a good sign) rather than holding all of his emotions in. Angry that the two brothers did not join him—as promised to the neighbor—he tosses their bedding (including mattresses) on the front lawn, and the younger brother ends up sleeping under the stars. The scenes flow by as if in slow motion, because these folks lead their lives at a restrained speed. The brothers begin to open toward each other, and in a lovely scene they spend the day together being brothers like they were before Mom died. Finally Dad and the two boys have heart-to-heart talks (or angry talks—at least clear communication flowing between them), and at the end of the film Dad sees the neighbor again and makes it clear he would like another date. In one scene, Dad spots the neighbor at a local Dairy Queen, a local hangout for most people in town, and she sits in his truck and they talk and he tells her finally what happened. And there is a lovely movement where she reaches toward him and two nuzzle together and he gets some emotional support from a good listener. Simple things like that, you know. Small things. That’s how people progress emotionally. After all the fireworks, if one can call it that, there is another gentle montage showing the family progressing, and the big scene at the end of the film is a family dinner (just the three of them) and the next morning the younger brother and Dad watching the older brother drive away as he pursues his dream of adult independence. (May)