Wednesday, January 04, 2006

#28: Countering Cultures: On OFF THE MAP & THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE * 8/18/05 * Two films about counter-cultural living schemes & their aftermath have just landed on rental racks through DVD release in such quick succession that it’s pretty hard not to hold them side by side in the mind’s eye. Both originally released last March, Campbell Scott’s OFF THE MAP & Rebecca Miller’s THE BALLAD OF JACK & ROSE invite comparison in other ways too. Both are stories of daughters who look back on their childhood’s critical turn within families that attempted to leave the world during 1960’s-inspired back-to-the-land efforts. In both, the central image is explicitly a return to the Garden of Eden. This suggests an irony: the most resonant way to tell a story of rejecting one’s culture is through the images central to that culture. In both films the daughter must become her own person at a moment when her father is gravely ill. On a 1970’s New Mexico farm, 12-year-old Bo Grodin’s father Charley slid into deep depression. After some protest, he takes his medicine & makes a graceful return. Off the New England coast in the mid-80’s, 16-year-old Rose Slavin’s dreadfully gaunt father Jack is about to keel over from a failing heart. He keeps on smoking, keeps on raging. These films share major images, themes & junctures: the land & its stewardship, the idea of escape by sea, the relationship of money to morality, the inescapable rituals that surround death & sex, indeed death & sex themselves. The point at which patience parts company from obsession is where one film leaves the other. Here’s how. Each film features an intruder into the Garden , wanting to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Tax auditor Gibbs arrives because the Grodins are so poor they haven’t filed taxes for years. Converted by the sight of Arlene naked in the garden so fast it does make his head spin, Gibbs stays on, takes up painting, and delicately shifts the balance. On the Slavins’ island it’s hard to keep all the intruders straight, but chief among them for symbolic purposes is Marty the evil land developer. Unwittingly teaching Rose how to handle what she opposes, Jack shoots at Marty’s workers & later bulldozes the model house that Rose says she likes in a moment of disloyalty to Jack’s ideals. And one skirmish with the poisonous copperhead would’ve been enough for me. Never made until 2003, OFF THE MAP then sat undistributed until March of this year. It didn’t do well at the box-office. It offers complex, enormously patient performances from Sam Elliot as father Charley, new-comer Valentina de Angelis as Bo, Jim True-Frost as the innocent, William Gibbs. Bo’s mom Arlene might be Joan Allen’s best performance, one that finally lets her heat & grace loose on the screen. The WASHINGTON POST’s Desson Thomson calls it “a lowercase paradise.” OFF THE MAP’s steady unfolding explains its staying power. In a single understated moment, Bo squirms & looks away from her naked father in the kitchen. Arlene tells Gibbs, “We’re casual around here.” But it’s the last time Charley does it. I suspect Jack & Charley face similar anguish having to do with daughters growing up, but Jack Slavin steps on the brake so late in the trip that he’s already crashed. BALLAD gives us a whole movie-full of looks so smoldering, it’s no wonder Rose finally burns the house down. I’m not completely convinced this is to-notch directing or acting. Daniel Day-Lewis’ extraordinary Jack – the hippie who writes checks to get his way – suffers wrenching moments of self-recognition, yes, yet there are half a dozen times you want to ask, “What did you THINK would happen here?” Jack’s a run-away character inside a run-away film. Really a film about obsession, BALLAD’s confusion is that it tries to make the counter-culture take the rap. In the epilogue, a silent Rose tends flowers in another commune’s greenhouse two years later. Bo Grodin, we realize, has grown up to be her own story’s narrator. Nancy Keefe Rhodes (661)