Sunday, August 07, 2005

#25: “Rough Trips: On THE WOODSMAN & CRASH” 5/19/05 A new exhibition opened today in Harlem about Malcolm X at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, on what would have been his 80th birthday. Framed as a journey, it includes his pilgrimage to Mecca, which accelerated Malcolm’s rethinking of his views toward a more international concept of race, beyond black & white. Not all travel leads quickly to understanding. Two recent films by first-time directors use travel to examine difference in US culture. Nicole Kassell’s THE WOODSMAN opened last December. Releasing this film at peak Oscar-nomination time may have back-fired, since the subject matter clashes so harshly with the holiday season. This story of child molester (played by Kevin Bacon) returning after 12 years in prison never screened locally, but it’s been out a few weeks on DVD. The other is Paul Haggis’ ensemble tale of coincidence, road rage & racial pile-ups on or near Los Angeles freeways. CRASH opened nationally last week & is already playing at several malls here. I find both films largely successful projects about hugely difficult subjects. Both have uniformly memorable performances – some from our best actors & some from those you didn’t know beforehand belonged in that category. The deleted & extended scenes on THE WOODSMAN DVD suggest what a good director Nicole Kassell already is. But there’s a curious thing about these films. Other movie reviewers either love or hate them. Each film presents extremely gruelling material in blunt, unvarnished fashion. Some of the most devastating moments involve the brand of intimate violence – both verbal & physical - born of sudden self-loathing, that occurs when no other target is close enough. Because they deal confrontationally with harshly uncomfortable topics, both THE WOODSMAN & CRASH are labeled “naturalistic” & then criticized for plots that don’t match that approach. One example - A.O.Scott of the NEW YORK TIMES writes off the coincidences that drive CRASH’s narrative as logically “preposterous.” There’s plenty in THE WOODSMAN that’s unrealistic – on supervised parole, Walter’s allowed to live in an apartment overlooking a school playground & go the bars, & though he has a full-time job he’s constantly watching the schoolyard during weekdays. I think such grumbling misses the intent of both films & sidesteps the unsettling, often contradictory responses each evokes in its audience. Instead, consider whether both films are closer to a kind of magical realism, allowing us to suspend disbelief & thereby bear to watch, integrate & emerge from such difficult subject matter. THE WOODSMAN overtly uses Little Red Riding Hood as a major image. Sgt. Lucas talks to Walter about the fairy tale. Walter & his girlfriend Vickie (played by Kyra Sedhewick, Bacon’s wife) go into the woods. The 12-year-old girl Robin wears a red jacket & she recasts Walter’s life into fairy-tale language, remarking that he was “banished.” And Walter sees things that haunt him. Another fairy tale occurred to me during the park scene with Robin. Walter’s prison years have left him fairly wooden. Although one reviewer says it’s “creepy” that Walter becomes the most “functional” when he’s with this child, I couldn’t help thinking that here in where this Pinnochio becomes a real live boy, & out of that manages to decide to act differently. CRASH frankly uses coincidence, other plot contrivances & devices to lift the story into magic. The musical score constantly works in this way. The linked tale of the Mexican locksmith Daniel’s daughter & the Iranian storekeeper is entirely cast in magical terms as we see it happen. Daniel has reassured his little girl with his story of the invisible protective cloak. That she survives the storekeeper’s point-blank gunshot seems miraculous. To me this hopeful, elegant vignette is the movie’s heart & women its saviors. Mirror-like, both Daniel & the storekeeper moved to protect their daughters & both daughters act protectively in return. Even the so-called logical explanation is prophetic - it turns out the storekeeper’s daughter (a physician & healer) secretly loaded the pistol with blanks, her version of a magic cloak. And the Iranian says the little girls’ survival makes her his angel, redeeming him from his anger. Now, what’s the use of these contrivances in the midst of gritty realism? Walter’s apartment above the schoolyard – however unnerving it may be for us - allows dramatically for him to watch & sort out possible versions of himself, like the man he calls Candy who’s after young boys. As Walter works out in his mind his own mixed feelings, he & we are getting ready for his scene in the park with Robin. Likewise, the ever-tightening loops of coincidence in CRASH come to embody dramatically the emotional truth of the phrase, “We are all connected.” It’s too pallid to say this in the face of grown men struggling not to weep, as happens not once but several times in CRASH. Oddly I’ve heard no criticism – or even mention -of the plot device that makes Walter less an anomaly by having almost every female character in the film emerge as the victim of previous or potential sexual abuse, especially his girlfriend Vickie (all three of her brothers) & of course Robin herself. Neither preposterous nor overwrought, this facet of the film provides a complex portrait of how re-victimization occurs, of how we unwittingly choose our fellow travellers. Travel, after all, is the plot contrivance in our own lives as well, the thing that takes us where we wouldn’t be. I’m Nancy Keefe Rhodes for Focus on Film. (903)