Sunday, July 31, 2005

#6: Exiles, Immigrants & Outsiders in THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG & IN AMERICA 1/22/04 One definition of privilege is that you don’t have to remember to think about certain things. Decades ago, Langston Hughes brilliantly portrayed what it looks like when the powerful forget that anyone is watching. His short story collection, THE WAYS OF WHITE FOLKS, is an intimate education in the human consequences of the taken-for-granted. Exiles, immigrants & outsiders of all kinds, who cannot afford to be careless – those who juggling more than one world -- often stand in the most telling positions of all. Two locally playing movies examine such experience. HOUSE OF SAND & FOG, adapted from Andre Dubos II’s novel, is playing at Carousel Mall. Jim Sheridan’s IN AMERICA, written with his two daughters Naomi & Kristen, has left the Westcott but opened at Manlius Cinema & is also still at Carousel. HOUSE OF SAND & FOG tells the story of Kathy Niccola, a recovering alcoholic who loses her California coastal house by mistake at a tax auction to the Behrani family. An Iranian military officer before the Shah’s over-throw, Behrani is desperately trying to keep up appearances for his children. Turning a profit on this property is his last gamble. Like classic tragedy, the story begins with the ending, where a police officer asks Kathy, “Is this your house?” In the flashback narrative before she finally answers this not-so-simple question, Kathy is evicted, has a devastating relapse, takes up with a clueless cop named Lester who causes more havoc, & is first man-handled & then rescued by Behrani & his wife Nadi. Just as the title’s sand & fog are shifting & vague, there are very few specific time markers in this movie – we can figure out it must be the middle or late 1980’s by working a decade or so backward from Behrani’s skate-boarding son to his memory of the boy at 4 or 5, running on the shore of the Caspian Sea before the Shah’s regime was toppled in 1978. By contrast, IN AMERICA is full of cultural specifics. This is the semi-autobiographical story of a young Irish couple & their two daughters, who cross the border from Canada – the actual speeding ticket just south of Syracuse didn’t make it into the movie – to start over in New York City after the death of their youngest child Frankie. The family emerges from the Holland Tunnel into Manhatten to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s exuberant “Do You Believe in Magic?” Magical wishes & intentions very much inform this story, bring the Sullivans luck & save them, may even breathe a new daughter back to life through the invocations of their HIV positive friend, the African artist Mateo. Other pop music & references throughout to the 1982 movie ET, the story of another alien, locate the story in a very concrete time & place. The tone of the two movies couldn’t be more different. HOUSE OF SAND & FOG is full of real danger & daily menace. Barefoot Kathy steps on nails – I cringed just as much when I watched this scene a second time - Behrani’s son bloodies his knees skateboarding. Behrani fights with his wife & they fall down. Kathy both tries to shoot herself & poison herself in one night. Well, it goes on & on. Nothing is settled & sure anymore for these characters – not the ground underneath them & especially not family relations, which can dissolve or erupt any instant. Undelayed by disbelief & denial, the outsider Behrani is observant enough to see what is in front of him quickly – he knows Lester is acting illegitimately to frighten him off, & Behrani & his wife Nadi take Kathy’s mental state seriously enough to save her life. Their shift to the requirements of civility & compassion is graceful, immediate & authentic, explaining the bond each has with their son & the moving gentleness that each, though Nadi especially, has with Kathy’s brokenness. At one point Kathy wishes for her father - the Behranis may be the most loving parental figures she’ll ever have. Again in contrast, the tenement world of IN AMERICA looks rough, poor & threatening but is essentially safe. Sarah knows the girls will be safe with Mateo from just a glance where he nods to acknowledge her; they run worry-free through crowds, & on Halloween even the thundering, fearsome Mateo turns into a lamb with the trick-or-treating sisters. Even a neighborhood junkie who threatens Dad with a razor winds up pleading, “Can we still be friends?” This magical sense of protection has been framed as the ghost of brother Frankie, who has granted older sister Christy three wishes that save the family at critical junctures, & the dying Mateo, who literally invokes life into the new baby. So what is this American Dream, this success? In HOUSE OF SAND & FOG, the elusive dream of owning property – of “investment” – stands in tension with notions of real home & family. Kathy complains that after one night in her house, the Behranis – seen eating a picnic supper on the living room floor – are more at home there than she ever was. The Sullivan family stakes their future on “acting” – both as Johnny’s new profession & as what Sarah says they both must do to spare the kids from their own adult grief. In HOUSE OF SAND & FOG, there’s acting too – both Kathy & Behrani have scenes of bathing in public restrooms to keep up appearances when they have nowhere else to go. An immaculate Behrani assures Kathy’s lawyer, “All is not as it appears.” In each film the children of course have the task of translating this new culture. The Sullivan sisters explain Halloween trick or treating this way: “In America you don’t ask, you threaten.” But what is hopeful particularly for us is that daughters inherit the true fruits of this American dream in both movies. Behrani has a married daughter, Soraya (after the Shah's queen, no doubt) & she – after Kathy sees that her life is more important than this house – will inherit this property. Again referencing classical tragedy’s structure, she has been off-stage, apart from the carnage, so she can begin anew, with her pony-tailed Americanized husband. Similarly, the Sullivans have a third child, a baby girl whose birth allows them to say good-bye to Frankie & truly start over. (1050)