The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


New York Top Ten Art Shows

1. What is Painting? (MoMA). Curator Anne Umland’s feminist-inflected exhibit provides an alternate reading of the challenges to painting’s authority over the past forty years. It begins with an assassination attempt, Vija Celmin’s “Gun With a Hand” (1964), and takes us step by step into the present, as represented Wade Guyton’s Warhol-inspired “Untitled” (2006) and the hard-edge geometric abstraction of Sarah Morris. Along the way, the show deliberately avoids the usual suspects. It’s amazing to see how rediscovered artists such as Lee Lozano and Lee Bontecou seamlessly fit into the context of the show, or how various others, like Jackie Winsor or Dorothea Rockburne, expand our notions of painting. There’s one Warhol. The terrific eight-panel portrait of Lita Hornick paid for Lonesome Cowboys (1968).

2. Raymond Pettibon (David Zwirner). I thought Pettibon’s graffiti installation was one of the big flops at the Venice Biennale this summer, but his new show at David Zwirner, entitled “Here’s Your Irony Back (The Big Picture),” is a hard-hitting political attack on the US involvement in Iraq. Pettibon’s comic book-inspired drawings and collages contain incredibly rich graphics – the show’s a virtual textual and visual overload – that combine political agitprop with caustic wit, while refusing to pull any punches. It may be the best single one-person show of Pettibon I’ve seen. The last time I looked, all 97 pieces were available for viewing online.

3. Neo Rauch (The Met). The twelve newly commissioned paintings by Neo Rauch at the Met entitled “para” succeed despite the cramped quarters of the show. And the two additional works in the larger room next door made a total of fourteen. Neo Rauch’s best work employs elements of narrative, while defying easy reading. “Waiting for the Barbarians” creates a frightening sense of expectation, in which the flatness of the turquoise sky and the red and green texture of the house roof play off other elements that suggest a small town just after a carnival. A strange pall hangs over its inhabitants. Two women reach for a rifle, while a funeral pyre contains a human figure wearing an animal head. In this work and the others, Neo Rauch manages to turn the trappings of socialist realism into something more akin to magic realism.

4. Rembrandt (The Met). How can Rembrandt possibly be rated behind these other shows? Two reasons. The organization by patron reminds me of the nutty treasure hunt concocted by the two curators at Documenta 12 this summer. At this point in history, when Artforum is the size of a telephone book as a result of gallery ads (which dwarf the art criticism inside), we don’t need to be reminded of the connection between art and money. It’s great on one level that The Met carted out their entire collection of Dutch paintings for the show. While it serves to place Rembrandt within a historic context, it unfortunately also lessens the impact. The incandescent Rembrandt portraits are, well, Rembrandts, but those five Vermeers secretly stole my eyes.

5. Sol LeWitt (Paula Cooper). Even in passing on, Sol Lewitt hasn’t lost a step. He’s only getting better, which turns out to be – who would have guessed? – one of the hidden benefits of his conceptual strategy. This monumental sculpture entitled “A Cube with Scribble Bands in Four Directions, One Direction on Each Face” (2007) was one of the unexpected surprises, proving that, as much as you might think you know the guy’s work, Sol LeWitt is never quite as predictable as he ought to be. This piece of intense graphite scribbles changes depending on your perspective and just might be the most auratic Lewitt in recent memory.

6. Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (IFC Center). How I managed to get the last two tickets for the 8:40 PM Saturday screening a half-hour before makes me wish I had also bought a ticket for Powerball that day. The new version of My Brother’s Wedding (1983) has been re-edited from 115 down to 81 minutes. No, it’s not as strong a film as either Burnett’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep or his later To Sleep With Anger, but it’s nevertheless an important transitional work which provides important thematic connections. The film captures a sense of what it’s like to live in South Central, Los Angeles as much as Killer of Sheep. When someone knocks at the door or a couple shady-looking dudes turn up at the local dry cleaners run by Pierce’s family, the sense of danger is palpable. This is balanced by comedic moments I hadn’t associated with Burnett previously. In the question and answer session afterwards, Burnett turned out to be as sensitive in person as his films. How many times have you seen a guy change a baby’s diapers in a movie? It was about as shocking as when Paul America turns around and takes a pee in Warhol’s My Hustler. My Brother’s Wedding, along with Killer of Sheep, is scheduled for DVD release on November 13. Mark your calendars.

7. Jules de Balincourt (Zach Feuer Gallery). I’ve been a fan of Jules de Balincourt’s work from his very first New York show in 2003 at LFL. He mixes the Mission-school aesthetic of Chris Johanson with the primitiveness of Tal R to create a style very much his own. The range of his talent is on view in his latest solo show “Unknowing Man’s Nature,” which juxtaposes geometric abstraction, outsider-like representation, digital-inspired imagery, maps, and large squiggly expressionist patterns with a palette that runs the gamut – from pink and baby blue to bright acidic orange and green. A large painting like “Think Globally, Act Locally” proves how good de Balincourt really is as a painter. Some of my other favorites in the show are the wide shots of moody landscapes, such as “I’m Just a Fire in the Night,” the small cluttered painting of a room filled with safari trophies called “Global Hunter, or the small “Untitled” painting of people awkwardly sitting around a fire that suggests we’re in Kay Donachie territory.

8. Mark Bradford (Whitney Museum). While critics continue to rave about Rudolf Stingel, I’ve seen his work at Venice four years ago, a whole solo show at the MCA in Chicago, and now this entire floor of the Whitney. Mirror floors, Styrofoam, carpet, decorative wallpaper, photorealism, interactive silver walls in which viewers draw their own graffiti – okay I get how he questions what constitutes painting, but the show at MoMA said the same thing only much better. And if the bad art in the “Summer of Love” exhibit made me temporarily regret ever having been a hippie, it was redeemed only by the small section of psychedelic posters of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the Warhol-related photos. Mark Bradford’s three large canvasses on the first floor turned out to be the real highlight. The surfaces of the silver canvasses were composed of elements of collage – fragments of decayed posters – other than paint, resulting in imagery that suggests urban topography.

9. Collier Schorr (303 Gallery). The fact that this gutsy show consists of drawings and some photographs rather than her usual obsessively staged photographs of young men gives it an unpredictable element. This exhibit turns out to be a variation of the same theme, but filtered this time through the prism of her photographer father, who documented a young man with a fixation on a 1967 Corvette about to go off to war. Though Schorr claims not to be able to draw, these are pretty good renditions of a young man who never made it back. What is most interesting about her drawings are the representative elements she chooses not to depict – her use of negative space – that makes them an elusive attempt to recapture childhood memory.

10. Abel Auer and Dorota Jurczak (PS 1). I was grateful for an opportunity to see the work of these two Hamburg-based artists in a show organized by Alanna Heiss. Auer’s landscapes have an element of kitsch or bad Teutonic folk paintings done with an over-the-top color palette that bears affinity to other Modern Gothic work. His drawings in this particular show are much stronger and weirder than the paintings. They are nicely complemented by Polish-born Dorota Jurczak’s careful but macabre etchings and paintings rooted in Eastern European symbolism. All of her pieces remain remarkably self-contained in contrast to the more effusive style of Auer. 

Other noteworthy shows include: Ryan Trecartin (Elizabeth Dee), Eva Struble (Lombard-Fried), Matt Keegan (D’Amelio Terras), Henning Bohl (Casey Kaplan), Ingrid Calame (James Cohan), Jonathan Pylypchuck (Friedrich Petzel), Huma Bhabha (ATM Gallery), Jim Drain (Greene Naftali), Laura Letinsky (Yancey Richardson) and Ugo Rondinone (Matthew Marks).

Posted 24 September, 2007

River’s Edge

River’s Edge (1987) was produced on a budget of $1.8 million by the independent producing team of Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, who were also responsible for John Sayles’s Eight Men Out (1988) and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Based on a true incident in California in which a group of teenagers covered up a classmate’s murder, River’s Edge caused considerable controversy at the time of its release. Rather than presenting the typical Hollywood tale of juvenile waywardness and redemption, River’s Edge situates the incident within its wider social context of dysfunctional suburban families, drugs and alcohol, and depersonalized, mediated experience. The film brought critical success to both its director, Tim Hunter, and screenwriter, Neal Jimenez, including Indie Spirit Awards for best feature and best screenplay, but the film’s bleak view did little to enhance either of their careers within the industry.

Neal Jimenez’s screenplay is in many ways even darker than Tim Hunter’s actual film, probably because Crispin Glover’s over-the-top performance adds an additional comedic element. Otherwise Hunter’s film remains remarkably faithful to Jimenez’s script. It is not surprising that every major studio initially passed on such depressing material. Once Sanford and Pillsbury optioned the script, they resubmitted it again to the studios with virtually the same response until Hemdale finally agreed to finance the project. Distribution of River’s Edge proved another formidable obstacle. Island Pictures bought the theatrical rights only after the film played successfully at festivals. Surprisingly strong box-office results in New York and Los Angles led to expanded theatrical distribution in thirty cities, proving that industry experts had been wrong. There turned out to be a market for such a picture after all, mostly among college students and a younger audience. The film has become something of a teen classic subsequently. Roger Ebert has called it “the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood.”

River’s Edge weaves the interlocking stories of three different murderers – Tim, Samson (John), and Feck – which span different generations. The main plotline focuses on Samson’s murder of Jamie, as well as Layne’s (Crispin Glover) bravado attempt to cover it up, but the film has two other subplots involving Tim and Feck. Feck (Dennis Hopper) represents the older ’60s generation. His murder of a woman stemmed from love, and his elimination of Samson results from a kind of moral necessity. Samson kills for the sense of power and aliveness it gives him, while Tim is perhaps the most frightening of all because his acts are seemingly without motivation. He represents the new breed of killer. In that sense, River’s Edge is a highly prophetic film. Two decades later, when teens and sub-teens routinely use their classmates for mass target practice, we are now probably a bit surprised that Samson didn’t take out the rest of his friends as well.

River’s Edge mixes both conventional and unconventional elements. The film uses a three-act dramatic structure, but its most significant events – turning points – actually happen off-screen. The first turning point would be when Matt (Keanu Reeves) squeals to the police, but we never see him make the phone call. While Layne and the others view the body at the river, the camera fixes on a reflective Matt fidgeting in class, and later at home he sits holding the phone. Both instances suggest that Matt is contemplating calling the authorities, but at this point neither is conclusive enough to serve as a turning point. We only know that someone has called the police when Layne and Samson see the squad cars in front of Samson’s house. This does not happen until 36 minutes into the film. Right after that, Matt leads the police to the crime scene. During Officer Bennett’s interrogation, Matt alludes to the fact that he was the one who reported the crime. This clearly reveals a change in the protagonist’s motivation. Matt, however, is too much of a pothead to function as your typical goal-driven protagonist. This is probably why he has little to do with the second reversal.

The second turning point occurs when Feck shoots Samson at 75 minutes. This important event is again not played for its full dramatic effect, but happens off-screen. Feck picks up the gun and Matt hears a shot in the night. The information is conveyed associatively. We do not know for sure that Samson is dead until Layne finds his body, an event which functions as the film’s climax. Another way to view this would be to see Feck’s shooting of Samson as the climax of this subplot, just as the family subplot involving Tim and Matt peaks toward the film’s end when Tim nearly shoots his older brother. Either way, excluding credits, the first act would be 36 minutes long, the second act 39 minutes, and the third is the shortest at 21 minutes.

There are other unconventional aspects, which have to do with character. Matt is the protagonist, Layne functions as his antagonist or opposition (with Tim playing that role in the family subplot), and Clarissa serves as the romance figure in the story. Typically, the protagonist and romance character would be at cross purposes, especially during Act Two. In terms of motivation, Matt’s romance with Clarissa would serve to alter his goals – his love for her would be the factor that causes him to change – but that is clearly not the case here. Matt decides on his own to report Samson– his decision has nothing to do with Clarissa.

In conventional dramatic terms, Layne would pose more of a threat to Matt, but Matt actually defies Layne without the risk of any consequence. Layne turns out to be more posture than substance. Once Matt finks on Samson, there is not much else at stake for him, other than stealing Layne’s girlfriend, Clarissa. This turns out to be rather easy to do once Layne dumps her out of his car, especially because Layne more or less also invites Matt to go with her. On some level, it is not actually Layne who serves as Matt’s antagonist. Layne simply personifies the mores of the teenage group, in which friendship matters above all else, including human decency and the law. By snitching on Samson, Matt risks ostracism from his friends. As with most teenagers, this is what he fears the most. Clarissa underscores this point by asking Matt, “Weren’t you scared of people finding out?”

River’s Edge has a complicated plot structure as well as richly-drawn characters. Matt may be a complete stoner, but he is a sensitive one. The design on the back of his jacket – a peace symbol combined with a skull – is wonderfully emblematic of his ambivalence, and it is part of his youthful naiveté that he thinks he can balance such contradictions. Jamie’s murder changes all that because the ensuing situation forces Matt to choose between Eros and Thanatos. Not only does Matt rebel against Layne’s attempt at control – which mirrors Samson’s murderous impulses – but he’s the only one who seems to be able to feel anything for Jamie. This is evident when Matt confesses to Clarissa that the reason he informed on Samson is because the look on her face continues to haunt him. Matt is also kind to his little sister and protective of her when Tim drowns her doll, Missy, and desecrates Missy’s grave. He is also repulsed by Tim and Moko’s target practice on defenseless crawfish in a water bucket. Matt also complains to his mother about letting Tim hang out with Moko. Although Matt throttles Tim, he is actually the only one who cares enough about Tim to discipline him. His mother’s boyfriend, Jim, is hardly a role model. Jim talks about discipline, but he lacks the moral authority to impose it.

All of the kids in River’s Edge have a mediated view of the world, a point that is underscored by the television-like image of the river that opens the film. When the teenagers hang outside school and fantasize about splitting for Portland, Tony’s reference is to Easy Rider. Layne, in particular, seizes upon Samson’s murder of Jamie as if it is a movie or television plot. As Samson and Matt and Layne drive back from viewing Jamie’s body for the first time, Layne turns it into a Hollywood pitch: “It’s like some fucking movie, you know? Friends since the second grade, fuckin’ like this – (he proudly raises crossed fingers to demonstrate the unity of their friendship) – and one of us gets himself in potentially big trouble, and now we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to test our loyalty, against all odds. It’s kind of exciting. I feel like Chuck Norris, you know?” As Layne and Matt drive around later and discuss who might have finked on Samson, Layne tells him they are a team and compares them to Starsky and Hutch. And when Clarissa argues with Layne for calling her a bitch, he tells her that “in a time like this, where every fucking second counts, a man can’t waste his time choosing words.” Clarissa responds, “What is this, Mission Impossible?” as Matt hums the theme song from the back seat. Clarissa also complains to Matt that she feels terrible for not crying over Jamie like she did for the guy in Brian’s Song, the TV movie about the star football player who died of cancer.

The characters in River’s Edge have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what isn’t. Feck, for instance, treats his rubber sex doll, Ellie, as a substitute person. This parallels Kim’s doll, Missy, whose drowning represents a certain emotional reality for the child. But Feck is an adult, not a child – he’s expected to be able to negotiate the difference. And, in fact, he does when he’s interrogated by Samson as to whether he’s a psycho. Feck responds defensively, “No. I’m normal. She’s a doll. I know that.” On the other hand, Samson’s aunt has gone completely over the edge and lives in the world of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat and the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.

The teenagers have similar problems with determining what’s real. Layne’s response to Jamie’s naked corpse is to poke her body with a stick. Dumbfounded, he says, “This is unreal. Completely unreal.” Samson also struggles for control over reality, which is why he murders Jamie. He tells Feck: “I had total control of her. It all felt so real, so . . . real. She was dead there in front of me, and I felt so fucking alive.” And the crisis involving Jamie and Samson provokes Layne to fabricate his bond of friendship with Samson, but Samson later tells Feck: “Layne was never a friend anyway. He doesn’t know me.” At the end of the film, Matt levels with Layne about Samson: “I fucking know you, Layne. You get these ideas in your head, and you don’t think, and this idea – helping Samson out – it’s not a good idea.” But it is also interesting that Layne, who has trouble distinguishing between reality and illusion, justifies his concern for Samson over Jamie to Clarissa by an argument based on the distinction between the animate and inanimate. This occurs when Layne throws Clarissa out of his car for suggesting she ought to inform the cops about Samson’s whereabouts. She pokes a hole in Layne’s specious reasoning by responding: “And who’s next on his list.”

Of course, there’s also an element of misogyny in Layne. Not only does he call Clarissa a stupid bitch, but earlier at Feck’s door, when Feck warns Layne and Matt that the reason he killed a woman was that she had it coming, Layne humors him: “Right Feck. Women are evil. You had to kill her.” Yet Layne, despite his flaws, is a wonderfully wacky antagonist who, in many ways, overshadows Matt in terms of character interest. Perpetually decked out in death-rocker black leather, he is the kind of obsessional loser who will find a place for himself eventually in the ultraconservative right wing. At one point, as Layne and Samson are driving around, he attempts to give Samson an inspirational lift: “It’s people like you that are sending this country down the tubes, you know? No sense of pride, no sense of loyalty, no sense of nothing. Why do you think there are so many fucking welfare cases in this country? Why do you think Russia’s gearing up to kick our ass?” Layne attempts to turn friendship into his ultimate value. For him, it takes precedence over the law. But, like his political analysis, it is not based on honest feeling, but rather something that he has picked up from the media.

Clarissa probably has the best insight into his character. When she gets together with Matt, she quickly deflates Layne’s bravado image by suggesting he has problems with alcohol abuse and that “They could make a movie out of him.” This is the same guy who, early in the film, makes a display of pinching Clarissa’s ass in front of his friends. When Layne discovers Samson’s body, he lets out a pathetic moan, and assumes a foetal position in front of the body. His line – “They fucking killed him”– reeks of a right-wing paranoid conspiracy. He’s becomes completely deflated and pathetic at the end. In our last image of him, he sprawls face down on a large rock. He is also conspicuously absent at the funeral. Although we don’t see him being arrested, we can assume he’s been being held as an accessory to Samson’s crime.

The other major characters, Samson and Feck, present a striking contrast, and part of the script’s brilliance is to put these two psychos together and allow them to interact. We know only the basics about Samson. His has no parents. His mother’s death is an apparent sore point – he found her dead in the shower – which suggests that she probably committed suicide. In any event, he lives with his crazy aunt to whom he reads children’s books by Dr. Seuss. The original explanation of why he kills Jamie is that she said something about his dead mother, but Samson later reveals his motive to Feck. He kills because it gives him a sense of power and makes him feel real. One other aspect of his character is only hinted at, and that has to do with the sexual component to his killing, since Jamie is fully clothed in Samson’s murder flashback, but naked when we first see her. When Clarissa suggests this to Layne when they’re driving around, Layne denies Samson’s a “sex maniac,” but then kicks her out of his car shortly afterward.

Samson does little to help himself throughout the film. He cannot even spare the energy to help Layne dispose of the body. There is also a suggestion that Samson was drunk when he killed her. Samson, as his name implies, is a lumbering giant, who uses drugs and alcohol in an attempt to numb his repressed rage. Whereas Feck only wastes dudes in self-defense, Samson has a different mode of operation. He tells Feck: “Me, I get in a fight, I go crazy. Everything goes black, and I fuckin’ explode, you know? Like it’s the end of the world, and who cares if the guy fucking wastes me, I’m gonna waste him. The world’s gonna blow up anyway, so I better at least keep my pride.”

Samson becomes very aggressive when he’s around Feck. Numerous times he seems to challenge the older biker. He needles him about the doll and brings in the cat against Feck’s wishes. Later he pretends to force Ellie to perform oral sex, another parallel in terms of his character. Samson also tries to badger Feck into shooting off his gun, while Feck insists he doesn’t believe in shooting a gun without a reason. Feck has managed to evade the law for twenty years, but Samson hasn’t the will or desire to keep going; only Layne has delusions of saving him. Samson already recognizes he’s a dead man and that they are going to fry him for committing such a brutal murder.

None of the adults in River’s Edge turn out to be terribly good role models. Madeleine (Matt and Tim’s mother) is a pothead living with her boyfriend. The kids’ real father has split and Madeleine at one point cries that “they’re all accidents, anyway.” Clarissa’s parents are portrayed as disembodied voices. We never see Layne’s parents at all. Tony’s father appears to be a psycho when he fires a shotgun at Layne and Matt when they show up at this house. Samson’s mother probably committed suicide, while Aunto seems certifiably mad. After Clarissa leaves Matt to go to class and he kids her about having the hots for Burkewaite, she tells him that she “respects” him. Matt answers in mock disbelief, “You respect an adult? I really do need to get stoned.” Clarissa’s respect is especially misguided because Burkewaite turns out to be another demagogue like Layne. He waxes nostalgic about knocking pigs on their asses, and later espouses vigilantism as the proper response to Samson.

Feck, for all his craziness, is the only sympathetic adult character. He provides the moral center to the film. A pot-smoking rebel rouser, who brags he “ate so much pussy back then my beard looked like a glazed donut,” Feck is also the only one who seems to feel real compassion for Samson and his fate. When Samson insists that “they’re gonna fry me for sure,” Feck reminds him that Layne is trying to help out. But Samson has a forceful comeback: “What’s he gonna do? Send me off to Portland? Hide me out in some dark room for twenty years so I can end up like you, Feck? You think I want that?” Feck answers: “No. You don’t.” Feck may be slightly crazy and pot may help to numb his pain, but Feck knows full well the price of murder. He articulates this to Samson early on: “You kill a person and they stick after you like ghosts. They can’t let you forget. They won’t believe you when you say you’re sorry. They want you to pay somehow.”

Feck is a murderer, but he claims to have at least loved his victim. Later at the riverbank, he not only refuses to fire his gun without reason, but for sentimental reasons as well. The gun with which he kills Samson is the same gun he used in the murder. Feck’s shooting of Samson is double-edged. On one level, he does it because Samson is a psychotic murderer – as Samson puts it, “what other excuse do I have” – who kills for the power and sense of aliveness it gives him. Feck explains his own motivation: “. . . because there was no hope for him, no hope at all. He didn’t love her. He never felt a thing. At least I loved her. At least I cared.” But Feck’s murder of Samson is also an act of compassion.

Throughout River’s Edge, the teenagers express a fatalistic awareness of death and/or annihilation, which justifies their party-while-you-can, nihilistic behavior. Yet Feck clearly has the greatest sense of life’s absurdity. This is manifest in the scene where Feck and Samson discuss how he lost his leg:

SAMSON: That when you lost your leg?
FECK: Yeah. Motorcycle accident.
FECK: The rest of the gang ditched me, kept on riding. My leg was in the street. I remember lying there in the gutter, all bleeding and shaking, staring at my leg, next to the beer can, and I remember thinking: that’s my leg. I wonder if there’s any beer in that can?
FECK: I also thought: Maybe they can sew it back on, but then the ambulance came, ran right over it.
SAMSON: Wasted that leg.
FECK: But who needed it. I got another one, right?

Jimenez has a tremendous facility with language as well as an ability to write both realistic and visually-rich dialogue. As has already been pointed out, Jimenez deliberately chooses not to show certain important dramatic moments and situations, such as Matt’s phone call or Feck’s killing of Samson. He also creates an anti-dramatic climax to the family subplot between Matt and Tim. Logically, Tim ought to pull the trigger, especially considering how he encourages Moko to beat Feck over the head with the numbchucks. But Jimenez’s decision to withhold certain dramatic elements is actually a deliberate stylistic device in River’s Edge.

Jimenez is perfectly capable of creating drama, as is evident in certain highly dramatic individual scenes in River’s Edge that bristle with tension. A great example of Jimenez’s ability to create such scenes is Officer Bennett’s interrogation of Matt. The scene is emotionally charged for a simple reason. To Bennett, Matt is the prime suspect. But when Bennett attempts to treat him like a suspect, Matt reacts with the righteous indignation of the wrongly accused. In informing the police about Jamie’s body, Matt has placed himself in a vulnerable situation vis-à-vis his teenage school friends. Bennett uses his veiled accusations as a way of pricking Matt’s most vulnerable sore spots. Like any interrogator, Bennett keeps pushing Matt’s buttons until Matt explodes finally at the attempt to turn him into the reprehensible figure of a murderer or accomplice.

Virtually every scene involving Matt and his mother’s boyfriend, Jim, also escalates quickly into dramatic conflict. After Madeleine and Matt get back from the police station, Jim is there to greet them. It doesn’t take much to set off their Oedipally-charged rivalry, but Jim relishes the notion that Matt may have played a part in Jamie’s murder. And Matt once again gets blame rather than credit for his actions, which reinforces his indignation and fuels his anger. But Jim also hits Matt at another point of vulnerability, since Matt actually does know where Samson is hiding out. As Matt stalks off, Matt yells after Jim: “Mother-fucker! Food-eater!” The literalness of the lines add a comic touch to the confrontation. Earlier when Matt takes his BB gun back from Tim for shooting crawfish, Tim screams after him: “Pothead fuckbrain.” This line is also funny, mostly for the unintended self-hatred it implies.

Jiminez and Hunter show a firm grasp of dramatic conventions throughout River’s Edge, but the drama, as I have argued, is subverted or down played at key moments, including at the film’s understated ending. After Clarissa and Matt view the body, they file into the first-row pew. Matt takes Clarissa’s hand – that’s the extent of it. The camera winds up framing Jamie in her casket. Matt has been spared death from Tim, the brothers have settled temporarily, and Matt and Clarissa attend the funeral together, with Layne no longer in the way. But the ending refuses to provide us with the false security that everything will be okay now for these disaffected young people. In fact, there is an earlier scene, that deliberately parodies such Hollywood clichés. After Matt and Clarissa have made love for the first time, Matt says, “So now we get married, right?” Clarissa answers, “No. Let’s get stoned instead.” The integrity of River’s Edge is precisely its grim realistic picture of suburban teenage life, as well as Jimenez and Hunter’s steadfast refusal to sugarcoat it for greater mass consumption.

Posted 17 September, 2007

Boys Don’t Cry

When Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her extraordinary performance in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), it guaranteed that the film would reach a much wider and more mainstream audience despite its controversial subject matter. The film’s commercial success accomplished Peirce’s goal of raising consciousness about hate-crimes in this country by dramatizing the story of Teena Brandon, a twenty-one-year-old biological woman who passed herself off as a man (Brandon Teena) until she was raped and murdered by two ex-cons in rural Nebraska in 1993 after they discovered the subterfuge. A Romeo and Juliet tragedy with a gender-bender twist, Boys Don’t Cry’s greatest strength as a film has to do with its quick dramatic setup and its ability to make us side emotionally with Brandon, who, despite his reckless naiveté, manages to win our hearts through his energetic attempts to reinvent himself and his steadfast refusal to be bound by the restrictions of biological gender.

Boys Don’t Cry presents the love story between Brandon and Lana as an ecstatic, other-worldly quest. The opening montage, which consists of proleptic images from the drag-racing scene later in the film, serves as a metaphor for Brandon’s burning desire for freedom from the constraints of the world. We see a time-lapse of a rural landscape with cars speeded up so that they appear as streams of light. This is followed by shots of the highway, out-of-focus circles of light, two cars racing down the road, Brandon’s eyes in the rearview mirror, the game of “chicken” as one car pulls ahead, Brandon smiling, shots of the moving road, Brandon’s eyes darting around, more lights, then swirling dust with a police car in soft focus, and moving night clouds. Rock music blares on the soundtrack, while credits have been interspersed throughout.

The camera tilts down from the clouds to a trailer park. We hear someone insisting “shorter,” then we see Teena, an androgynous young person with chiseled features, getting a haircut. Teena slicks down her hair and smiles happily at her new image in the mirror. The short haircut has transformed Teena from a woman into a man: “Brandon.” Lonny, his gay cousin, comments on the huge bulge in Brandon’s pants. Brandon removes a rolled-up pair of socks from his crotch to adjust the proportions. Lonny comments, “If you was a guy, I might even wanna fuck you.” Brandon corrects him, “You mean if you was a guy you’d wanna fuck me.” Lonny responds with a dialogue hook, “So you’re a boy, now what?”

The scene cuts to the parking lot of a roller skating rink. Lonny tries to dissuade Brandon from going inside, but Brandon is far too psyched to listen. Lonny grabs the cowboy hat off Brandon’s head and comments that it makes him look like an idiot. Insisting he has a date inside, Brandon goes in and meets Nicole, who seems to accept the fact that he’s a boy. Afterwards, Brandon escorts Nicole home and kisses her in front of her house, which leaves him in ecstasy. We go back to the opening image of the time-lapse landscape. The camera tilts up to the swirling night clouds, then black. The sound of thunder. We hear angry men’s voices, as rain pours down on the trailer park. A title announces: “Lincoln Nebraska 1993.” Brandon races into the trailer park with several guys chasing after him. One of them yells: “You fucking dyke.” Once inside the trailer, Brandon locks the door, as the guys pound on the door and call him a “fucking faggot.” This upsets Lonny, who tries to reason with Brandon: “You’re not a boy.” Brandon responds, “Tell them that. I’m the best boyfriend they ever had.” Brandon vacillates between exuberance and fear. Lonny asks: “Then why don’t you just admit you’re a dyke?” Taken aback, Brandon answers, “Because I’m not a dyke.” Glass breaks. Lonny takes the money Brandon owes him out of his wallet and kicks him out.

Boys Don’t Cry needs only a mere six minutes to set up its dramatic premise, which centers on Brandon’s risky attempts to pass himself off as a man. After Lonny throws him out, Brandon stumbles into the white-trash world of the Falls City crowd. Brandon’s instant infatuation with Lana when she sings karaoke at the bar provides the motivation for the first turning point. This involves his impulsive decision to stay in Falls City and to become “one of the guys” rather than return to Lincoln as he had planned. Whereas the karaoke scene suggests an internal change in terms of Brandon’s character, the first turning point represents a conscious decision on Brandon’s part to pursue his romantic quest, which occurs about 17 minutes into the film. Although this is unusually early for a first turning point to occur, the event actually happens on page 26 of the shooting script, which provides a lot more background detail about Brandon’s past life.

Peirce and Andy Bienen’s shooting script shows him working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. It also includes information about Brandon’s mother and her boyfriend, his older sister, and five-year-old nephew. The scene where Brandon meets Nicole (who’s called Heather in this version) at Skate World is also elaborated on, including Brandon’s reluctance to have actual sex. In a shopping mall in Lincoln, Brandon’s family discovers him walking arm in arm with Heather, which blows his cover. The scene ends with Brandon getting caught by a security guard after he steals a ring from a jewelry store. When Brandon calls Heather and her mother threatens to call the cops, family pictures are visible, including one of Brandon’s father as a young man on a motorcycle. After the scene where men chase Brandon into Lonny’s trailer for stealing a woman’s credit card, Brandon receives sex-change information at a post office box. He then steals a car, goes for a joy ride with a fifteen-year-old girl, and ends up getting caught by the cops, setting up the later court date. The film thus condenses a great deal of exposition found in the original shooting script, which accounts for the discrepancy of where the first turning point occurs.

In an interview with Sight and Sound, Kimberly Peirce discusses the decision to excise the backstory and not to explain Brandon’s transgenderism as an attempt to go against the conventions of the biopic:

“To me movies are about great main characters and one event. I welcome anybody changing the form, but for me anything that gets in the way of the story shouldn’t be there. And knowing Brandon was destroyed for not being understood, I needed to bring him to life in a way that was universally understandable. How could I do that? Not through a biopic. You do that by creating a unified event, by having him stand in front of the mirror getting ready to go out. Gay or straight, male or female, you understand that.”

There were other practical considerations as well, which Peirce delineates in the same interview:

“There were a million different openings – the first cut was three hours long and started with Teena in her trailer, Teena at her dishwashing job, Teena at the skating rink. And people were fascinated, but two feelings emerged: ‘Can we know more about Teena?’, which sent me backwards when I needed to go forwards, and ‘I didn’t realise until half way this was a love story.'”

The love story between Brandon and Lana develops in gradual stages during the middle act, culminating in their intense and extended lovemaking in the field after he visits her at the spinach factory. The scene lasts nearly five minutes. We see them start to make love and then return to it again as Lana describes it to Candace and Kate.

Brandon’s fatal mistake proves to be his attempt to pay the speeding ticket. After Lana visits him in jail, Brandon has no choice but to explain the issue of his gender. Although this scene has the potential to serve as the second turning point, Lana suffers from the same sense of denial as Brandon. Deliberately choosing to avoid the issue, she bails him out. Candace, however, has found hard evidence that Brandon is actually a woman. After Candace squeals to John at 73 minutes, it causes a chain reaction. Even so, it does not turn out to provide conclusive proof of Brandon’s gender because both Brandon and Lana attempt to continue the charade with the rest of their extended “family.” The second turning point actually occurs when John and Tom depants Brandon at 82 minutes. This provides the indisputable truth about Brandon’s gender and represents the single event that spins the story into its horrific third act, which depicts the brutal rape and eventual murder of Brandon.

Peirce and Bienen create dramatic conflict by placing their determined but vulnerable protagonist, Brandon, into an extremely combustible situation with two volatile ex-cons: John and Tom. Convinced he is actually a man, Brandon becomes intent on following his own sexual desire, whatever the personal cost. Lonny tries to warn him off, but Brandon has become too swept up in the exhilaration of his own sexual desire to listen. As Brandon watches Lana sing karaoke, he is too entranced to notice that he is not her only admirer. Danger lurks right next to him in the form of John, who shares the same fixation with Lana. Brandon’s crush on Lana draws him further into the orbit of her dysfunctional “family” and causes him to enter into an incestuous love triangle with its symbolic “father” figure, John. Once he suspects what’s going on between Lana and Brandon, John reminds Brandon, “One thing you gotta keep in mind, though, little buddy. This is my house.” Numerous times Brandon comes close to being found out. John notices his tiny hands early on and Lana’s mother “Mom” asks to get a closer look at Brandon when she first meets him. Brandon almost gets caught when the cop stops him for speeding, but the computer is down and he gets a temporary reprieve. The longer the story goes on, the more the risks increase. And once John and Tom find out the deception from Candace, the horrors escalate from depantsing, to rape, to murder.

John and Tom are not simply one-dimensional, evil antagonists. The screenwriters create believable motivations for their behavior. There are a number of scenes that indicate John’s irrational side. In the drag racing scene, John encourages Brandon to elude the cops, but he then blames Brandon afterwards for getting caught and endangering their lives. Brandon appears to be confounded by this response, but the others in the group are quite familiar with the inherent contradictions of John’s irrational behavior. Kate alludes to the fact that Brandon’s entered a “psycho ward.” Tom offers a clinical diagnosis: “The doctors say he ain’t got no impulse control.” At Lana’s house, as John sits watching TV with his daughter April, Mom tells Brandon proudly: “Of course, four years ago, you wouldn’t have thought he could take care of himself, let alone that kid. Well 4 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to talk to him . . . Prison.” But seconds later, John explodes at April – “The little bastard pissed on me!” – leaving Candace the task of consoling the crying child.

John’s obsession with Lana is obvious when we are first introduced to her in the bar, when John screams at someone who distracts him from her performance by breaking a glass. A dreamy, mesmerized look comes over him as he watches her sing. John also carries around Lana’s letters in his wallet. At Brandon’s birthday party, John becomes extremely jealous and intrudes on her in her bedroom as she wraps Brandon’s present. He tells Lana he misses her and tries to hug her. She responds angrily, “You’re giving me the creeps. You’re like a stalker.” John maintains that he simply wants to protect her, but the “stalker” line carries a certain resonance because we do see John staring at her later through the window of the spinach factory as she works the night shift.

When John finds out that Brandon may actually be female, he storms into Lana’s room searching for proof. Mom tries to get him to stop, but John guilt-trips her by telling her, “If you were any kind of mother, you wouldn’t have let this happen.” John reacts with utter disgust after he ransacks Lana’s room and finds the sex-change pamphlet in Brandon’s duffel bag. After reading from it briefly, he screams, “Get this sick shit way from me.” Once Brandon arrives, John assumes the role of the righteous and indignant parent. He tells Brandon, “The fact is, little dude, when it comes right down to it, you’re really nothing but a goddamn liar.” When Kate suggests they should leave and let Lana and Mom deal with the matter privately, John snaps, “Don’t you dare tell me my business.” Later, after John and Tom rape Brandon, John blames the victim for his actions by saying, “You know you brought this on yourself, Teena.”

Compared to John, Tom is a less major character in the story, but Peirce and Bienen have created an interesting backstory for him as well. Tom tells the story of the family fire as the gang heads to the bumper-ski area. In Tom’s version he’s the big hero, the one who rescued everyone. He tells them proudly, “When they brought me in, they were like, ‘this is the biggest fucking fire around here in 50 years!’ You probably saw it in the Lincoln paper. That was me.” But John deflates Tom’s bubble later on by suggesting that Tom actually started the fire himself. When Brandon asks Tom whether he set the fire, Tom avoids answering the question directly, which suggests that it’s probably true and may even be the reason he spent time in prison. Tom copes with his inner demons by mutilating himself with a knife – the scars on his body serve as a testament to his own self-loathing.

Lana’s mother provides a kind of halfway house for Lana’s wayward friends, especially John and Tom, who call her “Mom” and consider themselves to be part of her extended family. But Mom, who is clearly an alcoholic, has her own personal problems. When we first encounter Mom, she’s “sprawled on the couch in a drunken haze” in the scene where Brandon escorts Lana home and the two help put her to bed. The next time we see Mom, she drinks and plays cards with John and Tom. Mom turns up the music and begins dancing to the radio, which wakes up Lana, who needs to sleep during the day because she works the night shift. Although Mom sincerely cares for her daughter, she does several things that escalate the events that lead to disaster. Mom allows John top ransack Lana’s room and find the incriminating evidence. After Lana comes out of the bedroom and announces conclusively that Brandon is a man, it is Mom who suddenly freaks out and screams at Brandon: “You son of a bitch, what’ve you done to my baby? I want the truth. What the fuck are you, you motherfucker!” As Lana attempts to deal with her mother, John and Tom depants Brandon in the bathroom. After Brandon has been raped and shows up at her house, Mom shouts: “I don’t want it in my house.” Mom also encourages John to get rid of the evidence, a sign of her misplaced loyalty to her “family.” After John breaks into her house, Mom is also the one who informs John where Brandon is staying.

John’s attempts to assume the role of the absent father in Lana’s dysfunctional family adds an incestuous dimension to his character. John insists to Lana that he only wants to protect her. He asks her, “So, what do you see in him? I mean he’s nice and everything, but he’s kind of a wus.” Lana replies, “I know he’s no big he-man like you, but there’s something about him . . .” This “something about him” includes Brandon’s ability to satisfy her sexually, which is what creates such antipathy in John because it represents not only a threat to his masculinity, but to his patriarchal position within the family.

Brandon’s attraction to Lana is both immediate and decisive. From the moment he sees her, she’s the only one for him. But Lana only warms to Brandon gradually. When he tries to walk her home, she rebuffs him, causing him to comment about her crankiness. Once they do get together, Lana remains slightly ambivalent despite the orgasmic sex. As Kimberly Peirce has pointed out in various interviews, Lana tries desperately to balance conflicting impulses. In the scene where Brandon walks her home, Lana does a double-take before entering the house, asking him his name. When they have sex the first time, Lana glimpses his cleavage, indicating she knows – at least on some level – that he’s actually a woman. She tells him, “It’s okay, Brandon. Don’t be scared.”

As the above scene indicates, Lana is not the only one who is ambivalent. Brandon, in fact, has his own fears, which causes Lana to console him. If there is any doubt regarding Brandon’s gender, Candace tells Lana the truth after she finds the evidence. When Lana visits him in jail, Brandon has been placed in the women’s cell, causing her to ask: “What’s going on Brandon?” But Brandon concocts a story about being a hermaphrodite. Lana hasn’t heard of the term, so Brandon tries to explain: “It’s a person who’s got girl and boy parts – Brandon is not quite a ‘he.’ Brandon is a she. Brandon’s real name is Teena Brandon.” But Lana cuts him off abruptly and proceeds to bail him out. Meanwhile, Candace reveals the secret about Brandon’s real gender to John and Tom, and they head over to Lana’s house to break the news to Mom. Before Lana goes home, she and Brandon make out, but when Lana tries to touch him, Brandon recoils.

Lana and Brandon make love eventually – as two women – after Brandon has been raped, a scene which J. Hoberman calls “so transcendently sentimental it should have been set in the Garden of Eden or accompanied by a celestial choir,” and which Melissa Anderson in Cineaste considers “the only false note in Boys Don’t Cry.” Afterwards, Brandon asks Lana to accompany him to Lincoln, and Lana agrees and goes home to pack her things. But when Brandon turns up with his hair no longer slicked down and looking more feminine, Lana hesitates, causing Brandon to sense “her confusion and fear.” Lana’s vacillation ends moments later when John breaks into her home, and Mom, now fearful, provides him with the information that Brandon is hiding out at Candace’s farmhouse. Lana tries to save Brandon, but she is helpless against the two ex-cons, determined to prevent their rape-victim from testifying against them. Once Brandon dies, Lana’s love remains steadfast and assumes the level of myth. It is only through death that the transcendence the two sought together will finally be reached, even if only through the device of memory. In Brandon’s note, which Lana reads – and which we hear in his own words in voiceover – as she drives through depressed farm landscape, he ends by saying: “I’ll be waiting for you. Love always and forever, Brandon.”

What raises Boys Don’t Cry above the tabloid sensationalism of its subject matter are the complex characterizations that Peirce and Bienen are able to create, not only for Brandon and Lana, but for the perpetrators of this hate crime. By carefully delineating the social forces that have shaped John and Tom’s stunted world view, it becomes possible for us to understand the threat Brandon poses to the fragile sense of their own manhood, both symbolic and real. How else to explain the fury of the violence he elicits from these two small-town losers, desperate in their intent to hold onto the only remaining power that has not been stripped from them already. But Brandon, the film’s scrappy transgender hero, refuses to allow himself to be defeated by hatemongers. “You were right about me John,” Brandon defiantly tells him at the film’s end, “I just keep getting back up.” In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of Boys Don’t Cry lies in its ability to find hope and transcendence in this otherwise grim Midwestern tragedy. As Roger Ebert writes: “This could have been a clinical Movie of the Week, but instead it’s a sad song about a free spirit who tried to fly a little too close to the flame.”

Posted 9 September, 2007