I’ve been trying to write about David Gordon Green’s ambitious, curious third effort for a full week now, but have been distracted by the Boston Red Sox. Loving the Sox, forgiving the Sox, creating a voodoo altar for the Sox is a full-time job at this juncture, and we Boston-bred girls and boys can’t help but feel that if we don’t concentrate solely on the boys, they just may lose. Dysfunctional love affairs grow superstitious after a while. See? Manny Ramirez just took care of Walker in the first inning of Boston’s first game against the Cards on their home turf, and I’m convinced it’s because I stopped typing this to meditate on my hero’s Jheri-Curl.
Luckily, writing about Undertow isn’t that different an experience. Take the film’s opener, which looks at first like a wonky little no-winner. A boy runs barefoot through the woods, a pissed-off father chases him down, music twangs — and then the boy leaps on a nail, which cuts clear through his foot with a horrible squish of blood and cartilage and bone. It’s visceral, harsh, too much; I just can’t stop thinking about it.
With an easy, dry naturalism and mostly no-name castmembers, George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green’s first two features, succeeded because they weren’t ambitious. The same cannot be said of Undertow, co-produced by the great ‘70s director Terence Malick, whose big greasy thumbprints are smeared all over the lens. Ironically, the film cultivates the feel of a bad ‘70s movie, the sort you watched idly in the middle of a Saturday afternoon as a kid: slightly overexposed so it all resembles a memory; a Philip Glass soundtrack like that of a lost Damien movie (maybe all his music sounds like that, come to think of it); bright yellow block-letter credits; quick freezes and slow, ambling pans; even a heavy-handed strong-arm of a storyline that fumbles for its inner myth.
There is something myth-like about this movie, if not mythic. Certainly many of its details could be lifted straight from the Brothers Grimn tale your mother never read you. John Munn (the moon-faced Dermot Mulroney, who appears over his head without his usual stank Hollywood script to smirk at) is a widowed pig farmer and taxidermist who’s raising his two boys, Tim (Devon Alan) and Chris (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) in a profoundly unmothered household. At first, John reads as flat-out abusive, but you grasp quickly that his parenting is simply unrelentingly masculine. Teenager Chris chomps at his father’s bit, squirming to get off the farm and into a pussy, any pussy. Young Tim is gaunt, with a wild mouth and wild hair, living the wild boredom of an unsupervised, unstimulated childhood. He wears pilgrim hats and shower caps to dinner; organizes his books by smell; eats paint and then vomits matter-of-factly. He has, not surprisingly, an ulcer. No child psychologists here, of course, though the film may well take place in the present (as with all of Green’s films, era is fairly obtuse). Instead, “Tim’s got a rough stomach,” his father explains listlessly.
This is a house where everyone’s so caught in their misery that there’s no point in speaking because you won’t be heard. Where the wallpaper and the bedding and the fixtures disintegrate so visibly that you can just about smell the mold and aging dirt. Where people shuffle about, gnashing their teeth and mashing their food, wearing nothing but long johns and glassy stares and their crazymaking dolor. Where dinner is comprised of a whole roasted pig and none of them pesky green vegetables. This is an isolation chamber for men, a litmus test of what happens when you get rid of All the Real Girls. The result is a fairy-tale world of ghosts. Carnivore ghosts.
The fable truly begins when the Man, John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas), breaks out of charm school, as someone puts it late in the film. Tightly coiled and menacing, Deel’s so macho that you can’t initially tell whether he’s just wearing more of his brother’s deceptive masculinity. Hell, he smokes Virginia Slims. But Deel’s oily and bristling where John is merely blank, and he’s got a real bone to pick with his brother, who married his girl, it turns out, and made off with the family booty — gold coins that John believes to be cursed, no less. It reveals not so much to say that Deel slays John, and that the children must flee their Evil Uncle (with the nice ass) to set forth, armed with nothing but their wilies and that bag of coins, into a world of urchins. Out there, they stumble upon not only sea and big sky and industry and strange big men but women, though they’re scarcely the capable mother figures the boys so direly need. These women are dumb or conniving, slatternly and sorrowful. They are what those sprung from a City of Lost Manchildren would expect to find, and it is they who unwittingly abet the uncle in reaching what should be his epic standoff with his oldest nephew. Too bad you hardly care by then. Somehow the real movie running beneath the fairy tale slows to a standstill as soon as its heroes journey from their dilapidated castle.
Near the end of this strange specimen of a film, young Tim says dreamily, “I wonder if I’m superstitious.” I wonder if Green is, too, for he has buried within the framework of this bad 70s horror story a stab at a good one, with all of the requisite heart, detail, and proportion — his own bag of gold coins. Perhaps the still-young director is hedging his bets, hoping that such a contrast might lend the tale’s histrionics a much-needed naturalism. The effect works, though not entirely. What lingers instead seems more authentically Green: the slow, narrowing concentric circles drawn of a family devoid of the feminine, a home in which male identity can’t help, like its mythology, but to collapse in on itself eventually.
I wish Vera Drake were my mother. She’s just my type. A bustling woman, no-nonsense but unfailingly kind, with small, bright eyes that barely blink and never flinch, she’s that rare breed who transcended crap beginnings to build a better life for herself and everyone else. That British director Mike Leigh — whose career transcended crap beginnings of its own, especially regarding the woman question (um, Naked?) — bore her renders Drake an even more compelling candidate to be My New Mom. (Though I already have a lovely one of my own, you can’t stop a girl from looking.)
If you overlook last year’s misstep All or Nothing, Leigh’s oeuvre has steadily bloomed over the last decade. I’m a sucker for talky, ensemble movies anyway, but Leigh’s shine where many spoil: He trusts both his viewers and his actors. Directors like Spike Lee and John Sayles’ films strain, sacrificing nuances to admittedly worthy political agendas. Leigh’s camera instead visits seemingly casually with each storyline, lingering just long enough for a cup of tea. And whereas ’70s cats like Robert Altman tend to throw out a messy, if often gorgeous, sprawl at his audience, Leigh whittles his actors’ improvisations (based on already-developed plot points) to a body of quiet precision. That said, nothing in Leigh’s earlier work quite prefigured Vera Drake , the story of a cleaning woman and home-spun abortionist in 1950 working-class London.
The always-affecting Imelda Staunton may have something to do with it. A very physical actress, Staunton uses her tiny stature and plump features to cast just how pleasant, how well-intentioned, how benign her Vera is. She tends to her ailing neighbors and slag of a mum; clucks over, feeds, and even finds matches for her oddly baby-faced adult children; hums as she cleans her chilly employers’ homes; tucks in with her hubby for a bit of a middle-aged cuddle; and uses disinfectant and soapy water to help locals girls out of a spot of trouble. It’s like that. She’s a happy woman, and she labors quite literally to help others achieve a happiness, too.
Visually, Leigh’s movies are typically nothing much (Topsy Turvy being a notable exception), and Vera Drake, dressed in the brown and green drab of mid-century working class London, is downright dreary. It works. Tiny Vera sweeps into tableau after tableau so abject you think they can’t possibly be cheered — and cheers them armed with nothing but a tea kettle and, well, some soapy water. Sure, abortions are illegal, and, sure, at least for poor women, they’re terribly dangerous, but for a while you’re lulled into believing there’s no blight so terrible Vera can’t singlehandedly smooth it all out.
When the axe does fall, it does so with a mighty thwack. One of Vera’s clients suffers complications and an ensuing investigation leads the authorities right to her family’s door amid her daughter’s engagement celebration. As the policemen, imposing in brass and buttons, crowd into her tiny bedroom, they dwarf her and her apartment. It’s a tiny, shabby world she inhabits after all, the image suggests. An obvious visual trick, but one saved by Staunton. She falters, her features crumple, her body goes slack, her eyes go red and wet, she stammers. When she does finally speak — I know why you are here, she whispers — the hush of her voice, the droop of her neck, is terrible. Her defeat, a fate she’s been struggling to subvert her entire life, is total, and she shrinks from a working-class hero into a frightened old woman.
From here on, she’s whisked into the maze of the British judicial system, and her family is left to sort out her story. No one really does, nor does Leigh ask them to. In the film’s last scenes, she ends up in jail. No longer cheery but no longer quite so diminished either, she listens with an inscrutable expression to two other abortionists much more blasé about their transgressions. Her family sits numbly around a dining table in silence.
We never find out how Vera got into the abortion business, nor how it is that she kept it so completely separate from the rest of her life. Leigh’s never been one for moralizing or even psychologizing in his films, and he doesn’t begin to be here. In a subplot, a daughter of one of Drake’s employers is date-raped and then obtains a tidy abortion for a tidy sum. It’s pat, maybe, but the point is clear. Like it or not, women who are “caught” will always pursue options out, and it’s mostly the poor ones who won’t escape physically unscathed. The film’s lack of interrogation in itself makes a point: Why should Drake need a reason to treat these girls? They need help, and she helps them.
Leigh doesn’t normally show much sentiment, but in Vera Drake he has nonetheless made a woman to love, to cherish, to protect. By the film’s end, when the screen flashes a dedication to his midwife parents, it’s clear that the personal — and the persona — is political after all, even for Leigh. And thank God.
Postmodernism (and arts and crafts Busting) in lieu of more nuts-and-bolts feminism is all fine and good when we’re sitting on our basic rights as women. But if those bozos score another four years, soon we’ll all be sitting in soapy hot water. In Vera Drake Mike Leigh has established more effectively than any movie in a long while why some of the tenets of the second wave of feminism need to be front and center. We cannot go back to that drab, small place.
A blog is a lofty undertaking these days, riddled with potential self-referential pitfalls at every line break. I thank my lucky stars it’s a forum that didn’t exist during the height of my giddy supergrrlhood, lest I’d have inflicted upon even more people my ’90s no-accounts of clattering through New York City on improbably high heels. Bust my ass, baby: There’s enough breathless hypernarration masquerading as legitimate writing floating through the e-ther without my own two-cent rationalizations.
So why blog at all, Ladyrosman?
Because, save a few fantastic voices, and despite (or perhaps because of) the breadth of publishing options, the scope of criticism out there has progressively narrowed, not widened. These days, no matter what the subject, a reviewer answers but one question: Do I recommend it? And I’m not sure that one’s enough in the political, environmental, ideological, and spiritual maelstrom we’ve come to call daily life.
Talk about lofty: My goal is to situate cultural criticism in a larger, moral universe. Mostly I’ve written about film and television, and I intend to continue to do so. We’ve become a nation of watchers, so these media have become the great cultural common denominators. Looking at what we look at provides an apt jumping-off point to examine the social contract — and how it is failed and served every day.
After all, art is what speaks most directly to the human condition, for which I’ve always favored prescriptions rather than mere descriptions. We seem to have forgotten that art can move us, quite literally, to another place. And because it can, it’s worth asking about film, tv, and occasionally other social phenomena: Why does it move me? What’s moved the creator(s) to tell this story? How does it move me further, in any direction?
So who am I to tackle these questions? Mostly just a broad, with all the double entendre attached to that word: bawdy, blowsy, a little larger than life. Before I called myself a writer, I worked in the labor movement, and practiced a little too much yoga for my own good, maybe. I’m ever laboring to remain openhearted, though my tongue’s lodged firmly in cheek — if not often enough in check. And I prize in my own work and the work I review: wit as opposed to snarkiness; intrepidity rather than grandstanding; precision rather than sterility; sincerity rather than sentimentality; splendor as opposed to perfection. Really, what I prize is a Broad View.
You can keep me posted about how well I carry out my task.