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Wednesday, June 15, 2005
The choice is yours
Directors have different takes on hottest of hot-button issues
Is the "issue movie" dead? You could certainly make a case that it is. Just look at Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which took on the Bush administration's dodgy rationale for invading Iraq. It went on to become the highest-grossing documentary ever, but, when you think about it, it seems to have changed few minds. I mean, who won the election?
Movies no longer have the aura of revealed truth that they once had. Gone are the days when a "The China Syndrome" or a "Hearts & Minds," or even a "JFK" could cause mass sways in public opinion. These days, all media -- the movies included -- are too suspect, with too much "man behind the curtain" commentary on the suspected agendas of those making the movies. This has become so bad that even "Million Dollar Baby" -- a nonissue film by a staunch Republican like Clint Eastwood -- was faced with rightwing ranters telling people not to see this Oscar-winner due to supposed "liberal" bias in its treatment of euthanasia.
Abortion is perhaps the hottest of all hot-button issues in the United States today, and by extension, much of the world, since every administration since Reagan has used its aid dollars to try and force conservative Christian values on countries around the world engaged in population control. This month, surprisingly, sees not one but two movies grappling with the issue, and their widely divergent approaches are illustrative of the problems and possibilities facing the issue film today.
British director Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake," which won the Golden Lion at Venice and picked up several Oscar nominations, is a direct descendant of classic 1970s issue-filmmaking. That is, it believes that you can simply dramatize the issue at hand, and through the use of a charismatic cast and all the manipulations available to cinema, make people understand the issue better . . . or, less charitably, be swept up by the power of the emotions. Meanwhile, Todd Solondz, the eminence grise of U.S. indie film, takes a more postmodern approach with "Palindromes," which seeks to confound those who want easy answers. The difference between Leigh and Solondz is, on the one hand, a generational one, but even more so, it's a difference of intent: Should a film impart a viewpoint upon its viewers, or should it offer a less clear-cut, more challenging multiplicity of views?
Leigh's "Vera Drake" goes with the former, examining the life of a woman who helps those in need of covert abortions in 1950s London. It's a film that's solidly liberal and pro-choice in its views, but also one that scrupulously avoids engaging the other side's views.
Leigh, best known for his mid-'90s works like "Naked" and "Secrets and Lies," is an accomplished filmmaker, with a keen sense of bringing social realism to the screen. "Vera Drake," on one level, is a great portrait of postwar, working-class Britain -- from the drab green curtains and walls of Vera's flat to the buttoned-up emotional restraint on display. Vera, played by Imelda Staunton, lives with her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), and two grown-up children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly). By day, Vera works as a maid for wealthy families; illustrating that the class divide is very much on Leigh's mind. Vera also moonlights as an abortionist who assists young women in difficult straits to induce miscarriage.
Leigh has a case to make: the social stigma placed on single mothers, or the plight of a woman with six children she can barely feed and a husband who's never heard of contraception -- these are the harsh realities one can cite in making the case for terminating pregnancies. The danger of the procedure is also noted; one girl nearly dies during after Vera's ministrations. All this is meant as a reminder to modern audiences of the bad old days, especially given the current climate of religious conservatives who want to turn back the clock.
More problematic is the nature of Vera's character, with Staunton playing her as the Mother Theresa of Brixton, tirelessly helping out her less fortunate neighbors. "She's got a heart of gold" is how others describe her, and Leigh includes Stan's brother's wife as a materialistic, bottle-blonde harpy, to drive home the contrast. Indeed, Vera never even receives any compensation for the abortions she performs. The need to make Vera such a selfless, perfect saint, however, only serves to accentuate how blatantly one-sided this film is in presenting its position. This is particularly strange coming from Leigh, who created such morally conflicted characters in "Naked," a film where you could agree with the protagonist without necessarily liking him.
Even if you agree with Leigh's views -- he accentuates how working-class Vera is pursued by the state, while her upper-class employers discreetly have access to clinics that provide the same service -- it's clear that the heavy-handed, manipulative way in which he presents them will change no minds. The film's final 30 minutes, which rely on endless closeups of Vera weeping as she's tried in court, are simply shameless.
Todd Solondz, in contrast, seeks to undermine and challenge all convictions with his latest cinematic hand grenade, "Palindromes." After "Happiness," Solondz became known as an outrageous taboo-breaker, but as displayed in "Storytelling" -- and here as well -- Solondz never employs shock for shock's sake; rather, he is applying laser-guided irony to the beliefs of both the right and the left.
"Palindromes" follows the tale of Aviva, a rather blank 13-year-old girl in an affluent New Jersey suburb who wants to have a baby. After getting herself pregnant in a 10-second sex session with a boy she knows, her liberal mother (played by Ellen Barkin) freaks out and pressures her into getting an abortion. As she puts it, in a line that would make Vera Drake wince, "It's not a baby, not yet! Really, it's like . . . a tumor!"
Here, the pressure not to have a baby can be as great as the former pressure to have one. In a line typical of Solondz's black strain of humor, Aviva's mother patiently explains to her how "N-Sync tickets, Ben & Jerry's, your GAP account -- we couldn't have afforded it if we'd had another child!"
Aviva runs away from home, eventually ending up at a white farmhouse surrounded by yellow daisies. This is the Sunshine Home, a home for disabled and abandoned kids, run by a proselytizing Christian called Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk). While warm and welcoming, the place is smothered in Bibles and flags, the kids do scary MTV-style dance routines about Jesus, and the Sunshine family plot to assassinate doctors performing abortions. The man chosen to do so, a truck driver named Earl (Stephen Adly Guirgis), is -- ironically enough -- a pedophile who slept with Aviva as she was hitching a ride away from home.
Solondz further messes with the viewer by having eight different people playing the role of Aviva, ranging from a few chubby 13-year-old white girls to a similarly-aged boy, a mammoth middle-aged black woman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The effect is initially off-putting, but the point soon becomes clear, challenging us to examine how we react to a person based on looks, sex, age and race.
This move is typical of Solondz: Rather than tell us what we should think, he needles us to examine our own certainties. In an age of intense polarization on so many issues, this may be a more effective response than Mike Leigh's preaching to the choir.