Sunday, July 31, 2005

#7: On Patty Jenkins’ Film MONSTER & Why We Make Movies 2/19/04 The film MONSTER may be set in Daytona Beach, but none of the people in this movie are out boating. Twice characters mention that such activities occur in Florida & each time this only emphasizes how remote such pursuits are from their world. MONSTER is writer-director Patty Jenkins’ take on Aileen Wuornos, the highway prostitute executed in 2002 for killing 7 of her customers in the early 1990’s. MONSTER opens with Wuornos considering suicide under a bridge in the rain just before first meeting her lover Selby, covers their relationship & the murders, & ends with the sentencing after Selby testifies against her. Jenkins corresponded with Aileen Wuornos, had access to her letters & got her permission to make this movie. Charlize Theron just won the Golden Globe for her performance as Wuornos & should take the Oscar home next week too. But MONSTER is compelling as a director’s film. The first time I watched this movie I decided generating such a performance from the lead actress was really the director’s only viable strategy when the setting is so relentlessly shabby & the tale so grim. There have been other efforts. Jenkins’ triumph arises from daring to discard those safer, more gingerly approaches. Instead she drives right down the middle with her premise that you & I & Aileen Wuornos are more alike than different. Three other approaches turn Wuornos into a creature outside the fold. There’s the lurid, “true crime” approach. Right in Barnes & Noble, you can find Michael Reynolds’ 1992 book, DEAD ENDS: THE PURSUIT, CONVICTION & EXECUTION OF FEMALE SERIAL KILLER AILEEN WUORNOS, THE DAMSEL OF DEATH. Yes - you can judge this book by its cover. Second, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield made two films (in 1992 and again last year). Broomfield’s footage of Wuornos is largely the basis of opinions that Charlize Theron’s portrayal is “eerily accurate.” Last fall, A&E cable also broadcast a more high-brow documentary biography too. But even sympathetic documentaries can’t imagine & manifest the inside of private lives. Then there’s the third, clinical approach. New in 2004, there’s Shipley & Arrigo’s THE FEMALE HOMICIDE OFFENDER: SERIAL MURDER & THE CASE OF EILEEN WUORNOS. This $50 textbook explains personality disorders in terms of early childhood attachment problems. Clinicians who work with women who are traumatized & chemically dependent will recognize the veracity of Charlize Theron’s performance on that level. But that’s insider knowledge. And pathology can be too comforting as a way to separate Wuornos from the rest of us. Dramatizing that temptation, Jenkins supplies a voice of middle America in one character, Donna, who has little patience with people who act badly “just because their momma was mean to them.” Jenkins takes on this challenge as much by what she leaves out as by what’s included in her movie’s version of Wuornos. Much of Aileen’s childhood suffering & trauma either simply doesn’t enter this film or barely brushes us in passing. Instead Patty Jenkins uses several strategies to make Wuornos accessible to us. First, there is the physical vocabulary she creates for Charlize Theron. This goes far beyond her heralded make-up. Look closely at Wuornos - at the tucked-in jaw, the lips clamped over the buck teeth, the halting efforts at touching, the exaggerated hip-flinging when she’s challenged, her awkwardness trying to ride a bike, the way she flips her hair - & the eyes! Darting around as she enters Selby’s home - she hasn’t been inside a regular house in a long time - checking her reflection in the mirror, looking around to see if anyone noticed an embarrassing moment. What you will see is someone very young in a big, ungainly body - someone about 13, the age when Aileen began prostituting. This strategy has usually been used for comedy, as in BIG with Tom Hanks. Transplanted into a non-comedy, it generates astonishing vulnerability. Second, Jenkins illuminates the relationship that never has a chance. How would the relationship go between Aileen & Selby if they had gotten away? We know very soon that things were not going to work out for these two. This occurred for me in a single exchange with Selby’s utter lack of understanding about why Aileen wants to quit hooking. Annoyed, Selby suggests that they have no other real source of income. This momentarily stops Aileen’s rush of enthusiasm - for that instant she does not know where to start about the “why,” stammering about not liking it & finally giving in apologetically for her impracticality in thinking she could quit. There are actually many such brief & perfect exchanges in this film that quietly & powerfully accumulate. Third, Jenkins makes us worry about Wuornos’ own safety. We see the bloody rape scene in which she commits her first murder, of course. But more compelling is the scene leading up to her arrest. Again, a character in the film speaks for some of us - her sole friend in the world, a burned-out Vietnam Vet named Thomas (played by Bruce Dern), grows ever more anxious to get her safely out of this bar & away from two big bruisers after her. Really loaded, woozy & careening, she resists Thomas. At first we don’t know these guys are cops whose job is to get her outside for the arrest. Instead, we & Thomas worry that she couldn’t handle these guys if they get her alone. The proof is that I felt the same anxiety watching the film again. That’s very impressive work! Really this film addresses what art provides us with - why are we compelled to see some things twice, to wonder, “How did they DO THAT?” What makes me worry about this wounded, violent creature who wanted, it is plain, to somehow be a “good person”? I think this is why we make movies about some people & some stories. We have failed our characters as fellow humans somehow if we don’t find this dimension in them. I loved it that the end credits include one frame that simply says, “A Patty Jenkins Film” - as if there will be more than this one. I look forward to Patty Jenkins committing a whole series of movies. (1032)