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)

AND THEN THE EIGHTIES HAPPENED….(Jonathan Demme, R.I.P.)

…To all of us, alas.

Though he was most famous for his Oscar bait from the early nineties (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), Jonathan Demme did his best work in the eighties. He made two of that dreary, trend-setting decade’s best films (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild), both notable for their fluid, easy use of popular music. He had a knack for scoring small visual moments that worked to enlarge both the song and the scene, none more so than this one…

…though his use of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in the much more pedestrian (fi still frightening) The Silence of the Lambs was just as revelatory. The music Demme’s characters listened to in his films was the music his characters actually would have listened to if they’d been real people. That’s been such a rare gift in American cinema, that his losing it was as much a tragedy as us losing him.

Of course, in that same decade, he also made Stop Making Sense, one of the most acclaimed rock and roll concert films. Not being much of a Talking Heads’ fan, I’ve never seen the whole thing, but the clips I’ve caught over the years look astounding, so that’s an oversight I’ll have to rectify someday.

Something seemed to go out of him when he tried to remake Charade (as The Trouble With Charlie) and produced both a bloody mess and one of the worst films ever made. Coming on the heels of the eighties, the nineties were like that. They sucked the life out of everybody.

There was a key hiding in a line of a music video Demme directed. It’s of the only good record ever made by one of the ad hoc charity organizations that sprang up as we went about the world with our “terrible notions of duty.”** Turns out “Why are we always on the wrong side?” had an easy answer. In South Africa as elsewhere (where we’ve “helped” them into increasing their murder rate by a factor of a thousand, the victims being no longer worthy of any “charity” recordings by hot shot western superstars….or reporting by western media), there was no “right” side. Now there’s a tragedy for you.

But the power of seduction–of Pornographic Idealism–remains. We will insist on doing good until it hurts. And we will keep on insisting, no matter who it hurts. The Christian conscience nags, it seems, even when the Christ part is discarded.

And, therefore, “Sun City” is as good an epitaph for the unfulfilled promise of that very representative modern American, Jonathan Demme, as any.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlMdYpnVOGQ

**“We’re so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty.” (A.H. Clough)…from the famous epigram that begins Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, from which we could have learned a thing or two, had we been less inclined to gag on our own hype.)