Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fool for Shepard

A 1986 production of "Fool for Love." The film version of "Fool for Love" came out, like, 17 years ago. But I reviewed it recently...for a class.

Somewhere deep in the desert of the Southwest, you will encounter a beaten way station. There, garbage engulfs a dirty brown trailer. An ugly, grey sedan sits in the parking lot of a few run-down motel rooms. In one of the rooms, a woman named May sits alone at a sink, staring out a window.

A cowboy, Eddie, drives by the spot in his dirty pick-up, hooked to a trailer of horses. He notices the battered hulk of a car in a junkyard by the trailer. He turns around and pulls into the lot. He walks up to the woman’s door, knocks. When there is no answer, Eddie takes a few steps back, muses to himself for a moment, and then barrels through the door at full force. Now inside, he sits on the bed. May hides in the bathroom.

You don’t know Eddie. You don’t know May, his lover. You are just a traveler, stopping off the road to get some shuteye before you continue a journey. And this is where you find yourself in "Fool for Love", directed by Robert Altman and based on the play by Sam Shepard. (Shepard also wrote the screenplay and plays Eddie. Kim Basinger plays May). In the film, you will see that the journey never ends for this couple. Their whole life is a cycle of acceptance and rejection, and they are determined, if unconsciously, to pull you into it.

Shepard’s plays tell the story of the Dysfunctional American Relationship. His family members and lovers dream, shirk, drink and suffer from psychological ailments. They sit like country vegetables, or growl and bite like farm animals. But they do not act so much as they reflect: broken memories and dark secrets, stories of alcoholic fathers, incestuous kin and fractured families hang in the backdrop of Shepard’s stories like lost relics. In "A Lie of the Mind", Beth tries to convince her mom that her schizophrenic brother Jake killed their father after a night of vicious bar-hopping. In "Buried Child", Dodge’s retarded son Tilden digs up a baby of the family that Dodge buried in a corn field years before, the dead product of incest. In "Fool for Love", the short, quiet, sardonic man who lives in the trailer stalks Eddie and May. Old memories die hard for the two. Yet for a while, they act as though they’ve never met this man before.

A mutual thirst for vindication and resolution kicks Fool for Love into gear. Over 15 years of codependency, abuse and adultery drove Eddie and May apart. The film begins when they have reunited. It is not clear what drives Eddie to this battered rest stop, on a search for May, other than some weak prospect that they’ll live together again. “I gotta piece a ground up in Wyomin’ now,” he tells her in the hotel room, defensively.

They churn out a volatile, liquor-soaked back and forth. They fight in May’s room. Then Eddie broods in his truck, an elegiac country tune blaring, his car door open, the neon motel sign reflecting in the window. Then May puts on thick make-up and a baggy pink dress, walks over and says another man is coming by. Then Eddie pulls out his shotgun and cleans it on the hood of his truck.

Few filmmakers would have the time or patience to stick their hands in such a mucky affair. Neither Eddie nor May is likeable. But they are both convincingly (even amiably) pitiable. Robert Altman typically encourages actors to improvise—and it is hard to guess whether Shepard’s credits for the screenplay meant he wrote a screenplay, or they used it as a skeleton and filmed on the fly. At any rate, Shepard and Basinger exchange with a fluent rhythm. As if by second nature, they stare each other down, they coo, they reason with each other, only to erupt again.

“You know we’re connected,” he tells May, in his country drawl. He’s in his truck, headlights shining, and she’s pounding on the hood, as he says this, with a kind of resigned conviction. He starts driving, slowly, and May keeps pounding. “We’ll aaaalways be connected. That was a sign a long time ago.”

Eddie drives off, his side-view mirror catching May’s face for the last time, we think. In a long, breathtaking shot, May, a little pole bathed in the rest stop’s shining light, fades slowly into black night.

May turns and stares at a little blond girl, staring back. The two embrace. When mommy calls, the little girl returns to her family. In one iconic shot, May crumples to the dirt of the rest stop’s run-down, fenced off playground. The strange man walks up to join her. The man, it turns out, is actually May’s father. Moments later, the family drives off in a huff.
Were it not for Robert Altman’s direction, you would have escaped with them. This cycle of abuse is not entertaining, nor is it worth watching: Eddie and May live in one tedious loop destined to spin faster and faster, presumably until their rage spills over and one of these two are dead long after the movie has ended. There is hardly anything uplifting, thought provoking or meaningful about their situation. They are the perennial codependent couple, and everybody except the strange old man is waiting for them to shut up and go to bed.

Ultimately, though, this awesome rage needs an audience, lest it be a history that no one will know. To die an unknown is a sad conclusion to the knock-down, drag-out kind of life Eddie and May live. An audience of theatergoers is a delight. But Altman endowed this couple with the immortal audience of film. His cameras are fantastic voyeurs. They take wide panoramas of green and tan desert, sweeping skies, then creep down to the streets, spying on neighbors. They stare out of windows, through windows and into windows. They capture this motel and this soil’s many shades of brown—crud brown, dirt brown, grey brown, tan brown. They flit to flashbacks that contradict memories. All in all, you could say the camera does most of the talking in this film.

In Shepard’s plays, there is usually a witness—a distant acquaintance, a tepid lover, a luckless passerby—who is unwittingly pulled into the drama. In Fool for Love, one is May’s new boyfriend Marty, a portly fellow with an orange button-up and a bow tie, played by Randy Quaid. Marty drops by the motel to pick May up and go out to the movies. But May wanders off into another room, leaving Marty with her ex. Minutes earlier, Eddie could hardly control his anger. But she just beat him up and he is resigned. Marty and Eddie talk.

Then Marty asks Eddie how he knows May.

Marty opens all of Shepard’s doors. It would be unfair to explain how, exactly, in the ensuing moments, Eddie, May and the strange man’s lives suddenly become ludicrously interconnected. But, if you’re a fool for Shepard, you can guess what that means.

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