ART AND POLITICS, POLITICS AND ART (And Then There Was Hollywood: Twelfth Rumination)

The Brave One (2007)
D. Neil Jordan

I’ve been to two political rallies in my life. One was for the Kent State Four (the issue–successfully mediated–was whether the parking spaces where they fell would be closed and monuments placed). The other, a year or so later, was a pro-Second Amendment rally held on the steps of the Florida capital building and sponsored by an organization a Libertarian friend helped found (she and her husband asked me to help haul amps and chairs).

I have vivid memories of both. My most vivid memory of the second was a woman I’ll call L. I won’t give her name for reasons that will become obvious.

The stage was big, the rally was small. Probably between fifty and a hundred. There were four or five featured speakers. L was dark-haired, thirty-something, attractive, articulate, rather athletic looking (accentuated by a baseball cap which went with her casual attire).

For reasons that will also become obvious, she went last.

Her story, boiled to the essence retained by my memory, was this:

She was a panhandle native, lived in an isolated, rural area, alone with her children. One night while her children were away, her home was invaded and she was beaten and gang-raped by five men.

She did all the right things afterward.

She went to the police and the hospital (I don’t recall which order), got treatment and a rape kit. She was able to identify one of her attackers. Through him, the police were able to find and arrest all five men.

She testified against each of them at separate trials. They each received jail time. She attended each sentencing.

The last man convicted, who had been the nominal “leader,” received a ten-year sentence. On his way out of the courtroom, he passed near her and said the following:

“When I get out, I’m coming back to finish the job.”

After which, being unable to sleep nights, she did all the right things.

She met with the local country sheriff and asked him what his office could to to protect her and her children.

His answer: Not much.

She should install an alarm system.

Already done.

Beyond that, they could keep her posted on the man’s whereabouts (and those of his partners). They could let her know if he or the others made parole and, assuming they checked in with their parole officers, where they were living.

They could let her know at once if any of them escaped.

If some credible threat developed, they could send a man by the house now and then, but, due to manpower limits, it was unlikely they could ever post anyone there for more than a day or two.

He asked if she had considered moving.

She had, but what good would it do? Couldn’t they still find her? She wasn’t really witness protection material.

Besides, she didn’t want to move. And she didn’t think she should have to. Even if, for her children’s sake, she was forced to, it felt like no more than an expensive and, at best, temporary solution.

It wasn’t going to help her sleep nights.

And if she couldn’t sleep now, when she knew the men were safely in jail, what would it be like when they got out?

She was left to ponder her fate. After another sleepless week or so, she went to the house of a friend who served as a local deputy.

Is there really nothing I can do? Nothing?

He gave his advice off the record.

Buy a gun and learn how to use it.

In her speech, L, still waiting, on that day near the end of the last century, for her attackers to get out of prison, went on to describe the rest of her experience (purchasing a gun, going to firing range, the scores she racked up, getting involved in the pro-Second Amendment movement, etc.) in some detail.

I’ve forgotten most of that. I may be fuzzy on some of the details I just provided as well.

I never forgot her conclusion:

“All I wanted was to know I had a chance and to sleep nights. I bought a gun. I learned how to use it. I gave myself a chance. I sleep nights.”

The Brave One is as close as Hollywood has ever come to making L’s story–and that of what are no doubt thousands of other women.

Given where the world has gone in the decade since, I don’t see them coming any closer.

It’s hardly a perfect movie. That word “Hollywood” comes with some baggage and only some of it is discarded here.

And, of course, there are real differences between L and the victim portrayed in The Brave One.

Jodie Foster’s  Erica Bain is urban to the core, host of an NPR-like local radio show, has no children, glides through the lightly swinging, modestly upscale, lifestyle of a local celebrity, has a de rigueur modern boyfriend (handsome, exotic, sensitive, arty, head-over-heels in love with her, wants to get married right now).

That said, when her boyfriend is killed and she is savagely beaten and (presumably–it’s not made entirely clear) raped by Central Park thugs whose animal nature and darkness of hue is, like Erica Bain’s whiteness and civility (she is a Good Liberal played by Jodie Foster, after all) cranked to the max, she does try to do the right things.

The problem is she can’t get her story out.

Beyond her own burgeoning, hardly unjustified, paranoia, there’s a massive big city bureaucracy to deal with. While not exactly hostile, it is almost inherently indifferent. Her life’s been ruined, her psyche shattered. They see stuff like this every day. The cost of any given civil servant taking a personal interest would probably put them in therapy.

And there it might have lain, except that there’s a movie on and Erica doesn’t just feel scared and alone, but threatened. (They’re going to kill me! she says at one point, and her fear and disorientation are palpable, though it isn’t clear, despite her small celebrity as a radio host, how they would even find her).

The bureaucracy won’t let her buy a gun either….but the street will.

Soon enough, she’s carrying.

A heartbeat after that (the biggest leap of logic in the narrative–what are the odds?) she’s the lone night shopper in a store near her apartment when the clerk’s crazed ex-boyfriend storms in, gun blasting. Erica tries to hide but makes a noise. He comes looking for her. After a tense game of cat and mouse (well directed, as is the rest of the movie), she manages to shoot him in the face.

Her recent experiences with law enforcement have not given her the sort of confidence in the system required to hang around and plead self-defense.

From that moment on, she’s living two lives: Her day job as a talk radio host–where opening up about the part of her personal experience she can share makes her a bigger celebrity. And a night stalker, now actively seeking circumstances (lonely subway cars for instance) where the creatures of the night will come to her–and be mowed down in turn.

At this point, Terrence Howard’s Mercer, the one cop who took an interest in her case (though he wasn’t assigned to it), becomes the lead detective on the search for the vigilante killer now stalking the city’s streets.

Complications–some predictable, some not–ensue.

The plot works because the two lead actors are most of the show and both are, as usual, excellent. They glide past the standard Hollywood holes into something that feels almost real.

But the movie works at a deeper, more troubling, level because the fine actress playing the lead isn’t just any Oscar winner.

She’s Jodie Foster, here given the chance of a career to bring all the associations that are hers alone together.

I’m not sure a good-not-great movie–especially one that pulls its punches here and there–can bear the entire weight of all that. Given the subject, and the knowledge of all those L’s out there, needing to be heard–there’s no way I can watch it without wishing it were just a little bit better. That it got all the way to real.

I keep coming back to it, though.

A movie called A History of Violence came out two years earlier (2005). I haven’t seen it, but it’s hard to believe any movie would have earned that title better than this one.

So far as we know, Jodie Foster is the only woman in the modern world who has ever inspired a major political assassination attempt, and that was in part because she had, in her fist iconic role*, played a teenage hooker being stalked/avenged by an earlier era’s idea of a vigilante.

Us being us, of course she was/is also a major movie star, and, her being her, of course she would win her first Oscar playing a victim of a gang rape** and her second playing a detective who must understand the mind of one horrific serial killer*** to capture another.

There are other actresses (not many, but some) who could have played Erica Bain as well in any technical or “artistic” sense.

None could have brought those associations–or anything like them. The movie has a kind of mythic power going in, and it comes tantalizingly near to merging that power with art.

Which is maybe as much as we could expect. We’re having our strings pulled and our buttons pushed by a top-flight director and two standout actors giving their best, providing entertainment value aplenty along the way, if entertainment is the right word. That’s a long way better than nothing.

And it does achieve one thing more, one thing that takes hold early and plays out to the climax, where, gun in hand, her attacker begging for mercy, Foster’s primal Yes I do! connects to moments as otherwise disparate as Rosanna Arquette’s explosion at the climax of 1982’s Baby It’s You or Illeana Douglas’s in Grace of My Heart and gets at the heart of civilization’s modern dilemma…the fine lines that must be constantly negotiated between freedom and security at the most basic, private level.

And right there the movie scores.

Because grudgingly, messily, it accepts there are no answers.

That’s a little too real for comfort.

Interviewed for the DVD extras, Foster declares My character is wrong!

But the movie works–and troubles–because, when you’re watching it, it doesn’t feel like she’s wrong.

And when you’re thinking about it?

Well, like I said, there are no answers.

Guns are a problem without a solution (and there’s nothing that bothers a Good American like a problem without a solution). Back in the real world, where L and thousands of others live, there are those who, despite being staunchly anti-gun, will say But of course we would never DREAM of robbing L of her right to defend herself!

They’ll be the very ones who, if one of her sons–having been raised around guns and maybe, just maybe, developed a psychological problem or two–decides to steal one and shoot up a school or a mall on his seventeenth birthday, will demand the government do something.

And they are the very ones who, when the government, being made up of human beings after all, can offer no solution beyond promising better application of the thousands of laws already on the books which have already failed to deal with human nature’s endless capacity for evil, plus the usual hapless moralizing on both sides as they debate whether we should have a few more such laws, will take their first opportunity in front of a television camera to scream in L’s face that she is no better than a child murderer.

And they’re the very ones who will assure us, yet again, that one is too many, never mind how often one of her (L, Erica–the lines are always blurring) has already been discarded when hers is not the problem of the moment.

And so we circle. The issue and the drain.

Endlessly.

If you really want an answer to the question of whether or not the right to defend yourself is individual and absolute, don’t ask me. Despite my fierce commitment to every single one of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to our government’s founding document, I’ve never owned a gun.

And don’t ask her…

She can afford all the bodyguards she needs.

Ask her.

Because she’s the only public face L is ever going to have.

*Taxi Driver (1976)
**The Accused (1988)
***The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Audrey Hepburn’s Lesson in “Authenticity”)

(NOTE: Possible spoilers for Wait Until Dark and Panic Room contained herein.)

The times they do keep changing. Frequently not for the better.

This week’s cheery news (news to me at least) was that my area’s last good video store–which happened to be the first store I ever rented a video from back in the early eighties and has for years been the only vid-store in town that wasn’t fronting a porn-shop–went out of business.

So no more cheap fixes on movie night.

No more browsing long shelves for interesting things I missed and probably never would have known about otherwise.

Oh well.

For now, at least, there’s one chain record store left (I notice everyone still calls them record stores even though they’ve now sold mostly sell CDs and DVDs for nearly as long as real record stores actually existed).

This record store is in the mall, right next to the biggest movie theater.

Between ten bucks and a quarter for Liam Neeson’s latest and a run through the used DVD rack where I could pick up three movies for seven bucks (at least as cheap as the rental option, actually, just nowhere near the selection), I decided on the latter.

The best of the three movies I bought was Panic Room, David Fincher’s auteur-ish 2002 take on the vulnerable-actress-trapped-in-her-home-by-psychopaths genre which reaches back at least as far as noir-ish items like The Spiral Staircase (1946, where the actress was the estimable Dorothy McGuire and the director was the minor auteur Robert Siodmak) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1949, where the actress was the more-than-estimable Barbara Stanwyck and the director the minor auteur Anatole Litvak) and which remains defined by 1968’s Wait Until Dark, which was directed by Terence Young (reliable but nobody’s idea of an auteur) and starred Audrey Hepburn.

I haven’t seen The Spiral Staircase and it’s really been too long since I’ve seen Sorry, Wrong Number for me to make a fair comparison. However, as I, like all people of quality, am a huge fan of Stanwyck, I’m guessing there’s a reason I haven’t revisited it even once. Something to do with an excess of artificiality if memory serves. And believe me, as a fan of artificiality in the old Hollywood manner, it had to be pretty excessive to leave me cold.

There’s a lot of artificiality in Wait Until Dark as well. But I watch it on a regular basis, including this week….right after I watched Panic Room.

It’s well made, of course. No movie is worth re-watching if it doesn’t meet that test. But Sorry, Wrong Number was well made, too (I do remember that much). For that matter, so is Panic Room, although, even as a fan of its two stars, Jodie Foster and Forrest Whitaker–two actors who I really wish worked more–I doubt I’ll bother seeing it again.

Actually, I should qualify that “well made” slightly for Panic Room.

It’s well made by modern standards and, seeing it side by side with one of Old Hollywood’s last gasps in nailing-down-the-basics, it certainly suffers by comparison.

Wait Until Dark keeps its physical and psychological spaces firmly fixed. It’s easy to know where everyone is–in body and mind–at all times, a quality I actually find pretty handy in a thriller. Panic Room’s spaces are, like those of nearly all modern thrillers, hopelessly confused. A standard walk-through of the space that’s about to be invaded at the very beginning–in this case a four-story Manhattan apartment–feels like a tacked on device where Dark’s similar meet-and-greet is integrated and organic. Worse, Fincher’s “device” does nothing to help the viewer stay oriented as to what’s going on later when the action starts–that is, the opening scene fails to serve its only good reason for existing.

Doubtless the subsequent confusion is meant to make some sort of statement (I mean, I’d hate to think it was merely incompetence, what with all that showy camera work going on) but it’s the sort of statement a director typically makes when he doesn’t have faith in his ability to disorient us any other way.

You know, by doing something like actually scaring us.

And that’s the trick with these things.

How exactly do you scare an audience which knows good and well that no actress big enough to play these parts in a big-budgeted script that elicits our sympathy–not Jodie Foster, certainly not Audrey Hepburn (Stanwyck died, but, assuming memory serves at least a little, with her character it came more as a relief than a tragedy)–is ever going to be killed on-screen by murderous psychopaths.

Especially not if one of the criminals (Richard Crenna in Dark, Forrest Whitaker in Panic Room) turns out to have a conscience that can be appealed to (and here, Panic Room burns the narrative basics again by having the man with the conscience play the bigger role and by playing out the final confrontation that is built into the structure–the vulnerable actress/star finally pitted, one-on-one, against the real murdering psychopath, as something other than the climax). Not that Dwight Yoakum, good as he is here, was ever going to match Alan Arkin, but there’s no way for the air not to go out of the thing just when the tension should be mounting if you play that crucial element off to the side.

So, if Panic Room–which, all complaints about the modern-ista technique of trashing basic narrative in order to be-different-for-the-sake-of-being-different aside, really is well-acted and directed–didn’t hold my interest all the way through the first time, why does Wait Until Dark hold my interest every single time?

Arkin’s certainly part of the reason. The lessons he gave in quiet menace–lessons which, he reveals in the DVD’s making-of documentary, made the producers very nervous during the first weeks of shooting because they had no idea what he was up to–have never really taken hold in modern Hollywood. I mean Yoakum’s character, by no means the worst example of overkill even in my relatively limited experience, comes into the invasion-space wearing a ski-mask while his two partners (thinking the place empty) are showing their faces.

Sinister!

No really.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with marking the real baddie in this situation. Heck, Arkin’s character enters wearing a leather coat and dark glasses.

But, going back to narrative basics again, the subsequent “reveals” should amount to something–something which deepens the terror rather than disperses it.

Something more disturbing, perhaps, than finding out Dwight’s not wearing a hair-piece for this role.

Yeah, something more than that.

If you want me to stay interested all the way through, anyway.

So there’s that for a reason to watch–Arkin becoming more terrifying as the movie goes along. And more terrifying still (as opposed to more pathetic) when his own moment of vulnerability finally does arrive.

Plus all that about using the narrative basics because the basics really do work.

Pretty good reasons on their own.

But the real reason I watch Wait Until Dark regularly is because it has a moment at the end which I haven’t seen in any other movie of this type or, come to think of it, in any other movie at all.

It has a moment–a moment that lasts exactly as long as it takes to shout “Oh God!” and resonates far, far beyond the echo–in which Hepburn conveys real physical terror.

In that single moment, she achieves a feat I haven’t seen (or, more particularly, heard) in any other movie.

She sounds like someone who genuinely fears for her life.

She sounds that way every single time.

She sounds terrified in a way that actresses as great as Barbara Stanwyck and Jodie Foster (fair claims for the very best of the respective generations just before and just after Hepburn’s own, in which exactly no one thought she was the very best) could not approach–could not approach, in Stanwyck’s case, in a movie where her character actually was going to die.

And Hepburn sounds that way–a way Barbara-freaking-Stanwyck and Jodie-freaking-Foster couldn’t sound–even though she’s Audrey Hepburn being stalked by a psychopath in a set of movie-land circumstances where there’s no possible way her character is going to die.

So I guess the main reason I watch Wait Until Dark once a year or so is the same reason that makes any art worth revisiting as something more than comfort food.

Every now and then, I want to stand in awe.

(Now, such a scene as I’ve described can’t arrive in a vacuum…so here’s the “reveal” scene–one of many memorable moments that precede the finale (which I’m not linking on the chance somebody might want to watch the movie). It’s highly theatrical and, I think, all the more effective for being so.

Incidentally, this is the second time in the last few weeks I had to upload my own video to YouTube so I would have something to show. Not sure yet whether this will develop into a habit.

Anyway, this mostly quiet scene is about a thousand times as effective as Dwight Yoakum getting his hand caught in a “panic room” door that isn’t supposed to let such things happen and screaming his head off–the equivalent confrontation moment in Panic Room.)