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.

Today in Baghdad

I read two breathtaking articles in the Times today about the bombing in the Green Zone's parliament cafeteria and the destruction of the al-Sarafiya bridge, linking the East and West sides of Baghdad. I could muse on them but I'd rather simply post the links:

Simply fantastic reporting:
"Bombing Hits Parliament in Baghdad"

And heart-rending reflection:
"Latest Casualty Is Symbol of City’s Heyday and Unity"

Monday, April 9, 2007

We're Not Leaving Until the War is Over, Or Memories of a Sit-In

I'm not sure who took this picture, but that's me taking the fiery swig of water.

[On March 12, 2007, 20 members of Students for a Democratic Society at The New School and Pace were arrested after raiding a military recruitment center in Chinatown. I put this on the Inprint website today. A little late, but I really don't care about "that" right now. For more information see the article, "20 Students Arrested in Anti-War Protest," by Hannah Rappleye and me, from the April 3-16 issue of Inprint.]

The students funneled down a narrow hallway. They sat down in another one, just as narrow, and crossed arms. Others wandered up and down the space, ripping down “Go Army” posters and tossing piles of flyers to a little pile outside. Then someone dragged over a black, metal display case and jammed it in front of the door.

“We’re not leaving until the war is over!” cried one SDS member, a freshman at Lang with frazzled brown hair and a black arm-band. Students gathered five-gallon water jugs and started pounding. About fifty others stood outside, chanting.

This is how the Students for a Democratic Society at The New School and Pace commemorated four years of war in Iraq a few weeks ago. The U.S. military must have learned its lesson from the fervent anti-war protests of Vietnam years: the officers here seemed unfazed by the attack and the building's architecture ensured that protestors could not overwhelm any offices. Service members at the facility slammed their doors shut, hiding in various rooms around the building, leaving zealous students to overwhelm the barren halls.

The soldiers and the protestors still shared an occasional moment. At one point, a service member with short hair, amber skin and wearing a crisp beige uniform looked at a lanky student wearing fat headphones through a crack in a wall nearest the front door. “Hey," he whispered. "What kind of music do you listen to?”

“Everything,” the student answered.

It was never clear whether the rush fended off any recruitees. The bulky guy in casual wear at the far end of the recruiting center, who stared at the crowd of protestors, looked like one. But he “couldn’t” and wouldn’t tell me anything.

After half an hour, the display case jerked from a kick. A few police officers with poker faces walked inside and surveyed the scene. “Arrest everyone inside,” one said.

Cops outside summarily wrangled me and I sat down at the hall nearest the front door with a group of 22 students. We sat facing each other in two long rows. I was resigned to my fate. Getting cuffed, photographed, strip-searched and thrown in a jail cell for the night, missing class for the third week in a row and botching a paper due the coming Thursday—at the same time it felt exciting, selfless, regrettable and trifling. In Ethiopia, the police and army open fire on crowds of protestors. In Iraq, terrorists kidnap journalists and cut their heads off.

We waited. We passed around a bag of almonds. Some got up to go to the bathroom. Others produced felt-tip pens from their pockets and started writing down numbers for the National Lawyers Guild and Tom Good, a local activist. Morale was high. After twenty minutes, we filled a tiny notebook with names and phone-numbers; two legal observers in neon green caps waited outside, ready to line up lawyers.

The police had to line up over twenty cops to process all of our arrests effectively, one student told me. A detective walked in, slicked back hair and a beige coat, holding a pen and a notebook. Another stepped passed us, into an office near the doorway. A gaggle of cops deliberated in that room. Meanwhile, one in jeans and a dingy zip-up took pictures with a digital camera. We turned our heads, covered our faces with our hoods or held up SDS posters. A lanky, blonde student with narrow, black-rimmed glasses offered a bright smile for every shot.

I asked if the plan was to go “dead-weight” and get dragged out. “No,” the frazzle-haired SDSer said. “They rack up the sentence that way,” said another, a Pace student with intense eyes, black hair and a black zip-up hoodie. He muttered a list of potential charges. He sat with his arms perched on his knees. He stared forward. This would be his ninth time getting arrested for a protest.

“Frosted Flakes!” the frazzle-haired student said, suddenly. “I’m hungry for some Frosted Flakes!” He clarified his joke: That’s what you’re served for breakfast in jail.

I locked elbows with the short Asian girl with glasses and a shy smile to my right. She was quiet. This was her first time getting arrested. She worried how her parents would react.

We began to wonder what was taking so long. Cops walked by with packs of nylon cuffs attached to their belts. Another chided that activism was OK, but not this type of activism. Every time they slammed the office’s partly unhinged door, the girl sitting by it winced. We had to keep morale up. I had to go to the bathroom. I wandered around the back of the building. I returned to my spot.

After forty minutes or so, a man in camouflage fatigues, carrying a megaphone, walked out of the office with a few cops and faced us, his back to the growing crowd outside. Over the megaphone, he introduced himself. In dry legal terms, he said that if we left voluntarily, we would not be arrested. A tall guy with brown hair and glasses shot up and walked out. I joined him. But twenty students stayed put.