Sunday, July 31, 2005

#2: On Mothering in Recent Movies 11/27/2003 The best teacher I ever had used to tell the story of coming to this country as a child during World War Two & haunting the movie theatres in New York City. This, he said, is where he learned how to be an American. It’s easy to imagine him peering intently through innumerable matinees, in search of what was expected here. This was more urgent than mere entertainment. And there are other rapt & secret students among us, of course—the children of alcoholics, for example, who will tell you about studying their schoolmates’ families, hoping for hints of what “normal” might look like. In that lovely & immensely moving film, THE HUMAN STAIN, understanding the bottomless loss his mother suffers when he leaves for the white world may be the last boundary that Coleman Silk faces. Whether he crosses it successfully is still a mystery when the film ends, but it certainly deepens his appreciation of what Faunia Fareley - his “last love” - endured in losing her own two children. What I’ve noticed lately is that mothers are everywhere in the movies, from the ridiculous (as in the unexpectedly witty FREAKY FRIDAY) to the sublime (the mothers of two artists whose lives end tragically have small but key parts in both SYLVIA & TUPAC: RESURRECTION). I wonder if any of us -- outsiders, newcomers or not—might have a harder time now figuring out the state of mothering in American life than my teacher did almost 60 years ago. Although it hasn’t gotten to Syracuse yet, even the quintessential socio-political director John Sayles’ new movie, LAS CASA DE LOS BABYS, is about motherhood. Here is the maker of such “larger context” films as MATEWAN (about an historic labor strike) & LONESTAR (about shifting race & class lines along the Texas/Mexican border), focusing on the so-called “small & personal” subject of women taking on motherhood through foreign adoptions. That gets my attention. So what is going on? First of all, movies reflect that the forms & rules & expectations of mothering are clearly in upheaval these days. A couple recent films on teen-agers demonstrate just how fuzzy some of the boundaries have gotten. THIRTEEN offers the story of a “good” 13-year-old, Tracy, who falls under the influence of a “bad” 13-year-old, Evie. Fairly late in the movie, after a min-marathon of sex, drugs & rock’n’roll, a guidance counselor warns Tracy that she’s in danger of having to repeat the 7th grade. It’s highly effective to offer this brief scene so late in the movie—by then this reminder that they are really little girls is jolting & distressing. Tracy was fairly troubled already - her stress relief consists of slicing her arms with a razor she keeps on hand in the bathroom—when she takes up with Evie, a master manipulator who quickly runs circles around Tracy’s well-intentioned, overwhelmed & newly sober mother, Melanie, (Holly Hunter). Director Catherine Hardwicke particularly uses physical contact in this film to convey both the problem & the solution. All sorts of physical boundaries are routinely, chaotically over-run in THIRTEEN—these people are all over each other. Yet Melanie’s transformation occurs via a physical interaction with her daughter too, where she re-establishes their roles & boundaries. This is an exhausting scene that’s almost too long to bear watching: you know it’s uncharted territory for them both & we’re not at all certain it will turn out well. PIECES OF APRIL occurs entirely on Thanksgiving Day, when April Burns’ mother Joy & the rest of the family travel south from Westchester County to the Lower East Side for Thanksgiving Dinner. This is set up initially to be a classic culture clash between a rebellious daughter & her proper family, none of whom really know what to do about Joy’s terminal cancer. For that matter, April hasn’t the remotest clue about how to fix such a dinner either. The second time I saw this I took a friend who watched the first 20 minutes with growing anxiety & said she didn’t know if she could watch the rest because it would be too sad & upsetting. I told her to be patient, that I had laughed more in this movie than in any other in a long time. It turns out that Joy & April are, of course, so very much alike. Mean to their loved ones in the same way, full of the same grit & determination (the saga of this poor turkey’s roasting might make you decide to turn vegetarian), & possessing the same zany sense of humor. It’s worth the price of admission to watch Joy grooving on Smack Daddy’s rap music after she lectures her son to roll his joints tighter the next time. And once Joy really gets that she has been less than loving to April, she too takes radical action to reach out to her daughter. So while social forms may be fluid on the surface, underneath motherhood remains fiercely protective. There’s mothering with a vengeance in today’s movies. The setting may be 1880’s New Mexico, as in Cate Blanchett’s just-opened THE MISSING—my personal Thanksgiving treat to myself last night - where she takes off after & kills a whole slew of bad men who kidnap her daughter (played by the way by the same actress, Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Tracy in THIRTEEN), or it may be Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL, VOL. ONE, where motherhood is central to the plot & motivation of more than one of the female assassins. One reviewer was correct to notice, I think, that Uma Thurman’s character in KILL BILL is a direct descendant of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the ALIEN series. Ripley was so ground-breaking precisely because of her full human range — not only an action hero but capable of mothering the orphaned girl, Newt, in the second film, which I think is the most pivotal of the four. Ripley understands that the monster is also a mother. And who can forget the moment introducing the showdown battle in ALIENS when Ripley appears clad in her giant forklift & shouts, “Get away from her, you bitch!” What a mother bear Ripley is! Films reassure us about what endures as well as teach us the new. I say that forms may shift, but motherhood is alive, essential & well in the movies.