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Other Dashiell Writings:

Romance, Autumn Tale

Angels and Ennui
The Dreamlife of Angels

Leila / The Terrorist

 

BOYS DON'T CRY dramatizes a real-life story, that of Teena Brandon, who changed her name to Brandon Teena and passed for a young man in a small Nebraska town. The challenge was to go beyond the documentary approach and convey something important and universal in this story. Director Kimberly Peirce has done that. This film is beautifully crafted, with intensely vulnerable acting, and pervaded with feelings of longing and sadness. Over it all hangs a disturbing sense of menace, forebodings of the bad things that can happen when someone steps over the lines of gender. Peirce's visual sense is dark and moody. From time to time the drama is punctuated with shots of clouds over the night prairie, flashes of electrical storms, set to the sounds of a mournful guitar. She evokes the cramped and isolated feelings of a small town - in this case it's the midwest, but with a few changes I recognize the town where I grew up in the east. I emphasize Peirce's creation of mood, because I think she finds an excellent balance between the heightened drama of a young person's inner life, and the everyday boredom of the small town environment.

The movie is put together with great care and feeling, and its biggest success lies in the performances Peirce gets from her actors. Hilary Swank is a remarkable Brandon - very good at showing the desperate need to belong and be liked, and as a man - with all the high risk-taking and on-the-edge quality that implies for someone who is biologically a woman. Swank captures this lonely character, profoundly unaware of herself, without a long-range plan, just living for the next moment. It is not a gimmicky performance. This is a complex young individual brought to life. Even so, I think the film might not have worked without the right actress to play Lana, the woman Brandon falls in love with. Chloe Sevigny is devastating in this part - in fact, when I think of the film I first remember her. Lana gradually falls for this young man, so different than the men she hangs out with, and Sevigny shows us her heart-wrenching transformation as the truth about Brandon comes out. It's a deepening of character, so moving and so right that I marvel that Sevigny pulls it off. In a way she represents a possible response to the challenge posed by Brandon, a response of love that stays true to itself against all external odds, and I find that stirring and tragic and truthful.

I say that Brandon poses a challenge. I mean that also in a wider sense, in the way I first indicated by saying that Peirce needed to bring out the universal nature of this story. Brandon's journey is meaningful, and painful, because it calls into question the whole cultural edifice of gender. The roles that we play in society, the qualities we exhibit and those we hide, the feelings we have about ourselves, are powerfully influenced by transmitted ideas about what it means to be male or female. In a patriarchy (for lack of a better term) the wide spectrum of human attributes has been reified into opposites. It is believed, implicitly if not overtly, that women, by virtue of their biology, own the qualities associated with relational skills, nurturing, intuition and emotion. The qualities of assertive action, public power and voice, intellect and mastery, and physical strength and enjoyment are considered outside of the female province and therefore unnatural for a woman. On the other hand, the male identity is considered to be exclusive of these relational skills, of nurturing and connection and feeling and so forth. Once again, biology is used as a rationale.

The experience of Brandon, and people in general who are having (in his words) a "sexual identity crisis," is that the human spectrum is by necessity much wider than this narrow band which is imposed not by nature, but by culture. That in order to act a "woman" or a "man" they must repress important aspects of themselves, with dire consequences for their mental well-being. And I would add that I believe that this experience is true for society as a whole, and that the Brandons are just the ones who experience this most acutely and can't learn to "get by" with it.

The film shows this effectively in the characters of the two young men, John and Tom, expertly played by Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III. They are hard-drinking and rebellious, ex-convicts and proud of it, full of swagger and violence. It is tempting to distance ourselves and look at them as mere movie villains. Peirce undermines that temptation in subtle ways. There is a scene where Tom deliberately puts his hand in a fire, and shows Brandon the marks where he has cut himself. This is a perfect symbol for the way a man has had to deny and suppress his feelings, his capacity to be hurt or afraid or to grieve, in order to survive as a man. Tom then challenges Brandon to do the same, but Brandon says that he guesses he's a "pussy" after all. Brandon shrinks from the ultimate demands made on the male role just as he couldn't abide those made on the female. He is in a no-man's/no-woman's land, an undefined place where these demands can't tyrannize over him, where he can be himself. Of course, the sad truth is that he can't hide.

Another subtle aspect of the men's story is the very fact that they take up Brandon as a friend in the first place. With John especially, a very dominating and abusive character (Sarsgaard is great in the part), I sensed an ambiguity in his relationship with Brandon. He is amused, but also in some way touched, by this slim young man with his childlike smile, and he also admires his recklessness, as in their first meeting when Brandon picks a fight in a bar. I believe that at some level, unknown to himself, John recognizes denied aspects of himself in Brandon. That elusive sense persists throughout, and becomes even more compelling when it manifests itself in feelings of rage and betrayal.

Peirce's treatment of Brandon's ultimate fate is unflinching. We are made to endure, just as Brandon did, the violence of retaliation. We are made to look squarely at the nakedness and vulnerability of the body, the stripping away of a person's identity to the mere fact of their genitals. We are led all the way to the terrible end. I have heard people dismiss the film as too painful. It can be a shattering experience to watch, but I think there was no other way for Peirce to honestly present the full force and meaning of this story. I was hit hard by this film, but it has produced deep feeling and much fruitful thought. To be honest, I am far more disturbed by films that treat violence with cartoon-like unreality, more disturbed by the average action film, than I am by Boys Don't Cry. Because I believe that a true work of art dedicates itself to the truth, and is committed to revealing the meanings in human life, and not to distract us or give us happy endings where there are none. I write this only because I've heard many people say they won't go to the film because the story is painful, and I think, isn't this really the story of our denial in miniature? The story of Boys Don't Cry?

*

Jane Campion is another fearless explorer. You can be sure a Campion film won't be a tame one. Her latest is called HOLY SMOKE (the exclamation point seems to only be in the ads, not the movie), and it is something of a return to a smaller pallette after two big-budget productions. Ruth (Kate Winslet), a young Australian woman, goes to India and becomes a devoted member of an ashram centered around a charismatic guru. News of this reaches her concerned family, who lure her back home with the false news that her father is at death's door. She is confined in a little trailer in the outback, with an American cult deprogrammer named P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) whose mission is to bring back the girl they all knew. The film is basically a comic dance, a power struggle between these two characters, and a showcase for the considerable talents of Winslet and Keitel.

The script, by Campion and her sister Anna, takes the expectations associated with a story like this, and puts them through one upset after another. Suffice it to say that Ruth is not the naive follower that she seems, and P.J. 's confidence and expertise rest on shaky emotional ground. What started out as a struggle over faith and belief turns out to be more about sex and power, with Keitel's heedless chauvinist getting the tables turned on him in increasingly amusing ways.

Although I had fun watching these two pros go at it, I have to say that this is a decidedly minor work by Campion. One has to suspend a lot of disbelief here, because both characters act in ways that don't quite fit what someone like that would do in real life. For instance, would someone who falls for a male guru in India have as much feminist savvy as Ruth does? Would a top-notch deprogrammer really make the huge ethical and tactical mistakes that P.J. does? Well, I make more allowances for this sort of thing in a comedy, but it still detracts from the picture somewhat. The movie wants to take me from A to Z, but the letters it skips along the way make it not quite a convincing or satisfying experience. One golden moment: P.J.'s deranged vision in the desert of Ruth as a multi-armed goddess, to the tune of the Shirelles' "Baby It's You." Yes!

A word about Winslet. Here's someone who hit stardom with the biggest grossing blockbuster ever, and what does she do? She focuses on developing her talent in a couple of quirky smaller budget films. And she is proving to be an actress with range. I'm starting to really like her. Holy Smoke is not a great film, but it's fun and it provides some food for thought. I'm still a Campion champion - may she continue to follow her personal vision and make unique, provocative movies.

*

It is interesting at times to study why a film doesn't work. Two examples:

THE HURRICANE.
I think a brave, powerful, moving film could have been made out of the true story of Hurricane Carter. But director Norman Jewison, and screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, are from the old school that believes you need to smooth out all complexities and ambivalent elements, presenting a simple tale of good triumphing over bad, where the audience can cheer and feel good at the end. The role of the Canadians has been exaggerated. More damaging is the way Carter's woes are traced to the actions of one bad cop who apparently has had it in for Carter since he was a kid. I understand the idea - Jewison et. al. must think that it's too hard for an audience to grasp institutional racism, and that therefore you have to personalize it. I disagree. I think personalizing it dodges the issue and makes it seem as if the only problem is that certain people are mean and prejudiced. (Notice that the prison guard is a really nice guy.) In other words, the film equivocates because it doesn't want to imply a more disturbing social indictment which would possibly alienate a white audience. The result is a film that is simplistic, shallow in much of its emotion, timid in its expression. Its one saving grace is Denzel Washington, one of the few actors today who has that old-fashioned "star" quality that can raise medium material beyond itself. He has a strong, quiet authority in this rather thinly written role. The film's one great scene has him in solitary confinement, playing three parts of himself - the whole man, the angry defiant part, and the scared child.

THE END OF THE AFFAIR.

Neil Jordan always brings a special style to each film, varying with the material. Here he plays with dark browns and shadows and rain, beautifully evoking London during the war. It's a Graham Greene story based on an interesting little twist which I won't reveal except to say that it opens into a religious dimension. Julianne Moore is fine as the unhappy wife who is having an affair. A big problem, though, is Ralph Fiennes. Perhaps I am in the minority on this, but I think he is unsuited for the kind of morose angry lover role he has been cast in here, similar to his role in The English Patient. I think his talent lies in more oddball, flamboyant directions, not as a romantic lead. There is no chemistry here with Moore. (Shari Rosenblum was quite right in remarking that Moore's character would have to be a saint to put up with either of the men in this movie.) A bigger problem is Greene's spiritual message. I suppose if you can accept the central conception of the story, then it might be a very moving experience. I'm afraid I can't. I don't believe in the idea of God bargaining with people over the decisions they make in their lives, or in the transcendence that results from people not being able to keep the bargain. Even so, I think Jordan might have made something moving and convincing out of the story's odd sense of Catholic redemption, but in the end everything gets chalked up to cheap miracle and grandiloquent pseudo-defiance. Well, it wasn't enough for me. If you're going to explore this territory, the hard road is the only way to go, and The End of the Affair takes the far too easy way. Nevertheless, I have to admire Neil Jordan's willingness to try different things - he's tended towards the anticlerical view before, so this adaptation shows some open-mindedness. It's well-made and watchable, as his films tend to be - it's just not believable.

*

Can you judge a film by its trailer? It's a thorny question sometimes. Case in point, Erin Brockovich. Ugh, I hated the preview for this movie, Julia Roberts flashing her smile and her boobs and going out to win the big case, with her funny (not) wisecracks etc. etc. It just looks so formula. Then at the end I see the directing credit - Steven Soderbergh. Yikes, I tend to like his work. So I think maybe I should see it after all.

Another word about the trailer for that Bruckheimer movie about car thieves with Nic Cage and Angelina Jolie (still can't remember the title - is it Gone in Sixty Seconds?). It's a pretty good preview as such things go with all the bangs and booms. But did you notice - the voice of the trailer, the announcer, is female. Once in a blue moon it happens, I guess.

The other day I finally realized that I have lived a long, long time. I saw Madonna. On the cover of Good Housekeeping.

Chris Dashiell
CineScene, 2001