30/01/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

Monster (2003)

Monster (2003)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern


“Monster born or monster bred? It’s a question often asked. What causes a serial killer? Monster depicts Aileen Carol Wuornos as homemade, crafted straight from a childhood of abuse and triggered by the disillusionment of romantic love.”

Monster is not a pretty story. Abuse of Aileen Carol Wuornos – a serial highway killer of seven men in the 1980’s – began early, reducing a sweet child to a teenager desperate for affection and turning a hungry young woman into a dollar a night hooker. But, as Aileen (played by Oscar award winning actress, Charlize Theron) says, the real story all began one night in a bar when she met Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). She wasn’t looking for anything more than a beer but she was down to her last five bucks and in a strange, suicidal frame of mind. If life had anything to offer, it had better come soon.

But Monster is not only ugly, it’s scary because it’s not only about the deliberate murders of seven men by a crazed prostitute. It’s about something familiar exaggerated, taken to an extreme but still within the realm of sympathy for anyone who’s fallen in love and been betrayed. It’s about the way the dream of romantic love can turn to murderous rage when the illusion cracks. It can’t be said that Aileen was happy being a dollar a night hooker but it can be said that she was quiet. She accepted her fate, took her hard knocks, slept where she could and kept to herself. She only had one friend, a Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern) who sympathized with her post-traumatic plight. This was a woman who had long ago given up any idea that she could do any better.

Falling in love changed all that.

At a bar one night, she met Selby, a young lesbian who had struck out so many times that even attention from a hooker felt good. The two hit it off. Loneliness and cynicism had a drink, shared a cigarette and made an old-fashioned match. Lee, as Selby called her, was far from being a lesbian but they inspired each other to try for the dream. Regardless of gender preference, falling in love is a sure thing for igniting hope. Selby hoped she had found a woman to fulfill her smoldering desires. Aileen hoped she had found someone who wanted her for more than sex, someone who truly loved her.

They tumbled together in the bliss of new love and, for a few moments of eternity, enjoyed what had eluded them both. Love. Aileen felt emboldened to go out into the alien world of the workplace and apply for a job. She wanted to give up the sordid life of a hooker, make a normal life with Selby. But the more she interviewed, the more she looked into mirrors of rejection that exaggerated her abnormalities. The fantasy of a house on the beach, an SUV and the soft glow of candlelight that was sold, stamped and delivered in magazines, movies and billboards of romantic love was slipping away. It didn’t seem within the reach of a woman who couldn’t even get a filing job in an office.

So Aileen went to work at the only job she knew. And one night she slid into the open door of a car with a man that she knew instinctively was bad news and, in a scene too nightmarish to describe, was raped beyond her senses. Pent up rage from a lifetime of abuse broke loose and she, believing but not knowing for sure that he would kill her, blew her attacker to smithereens. Her fierce drive to return to the loving arms of Selby, not to die ripped apart on the seat of a car, turned Aileen into a murderer. And from that moment on, a fabricated monster woman took over. She no longer walked or talked in ordinary reality. She lived in frantic fear that Selby would leave her, continuing to kill with impunity the enemy of her obsession – any man with money in his pocket and on the road looking for sex. “He” represented what stood between her and normal life. And the murders that she committed in the name of that enemy stood between her and final despair.

Regardless of Aileen’s efforts, it wasn’t long until Selby was threatening to go back home. No money. No food. Nowhere to go. Aileen wasn’t living up to her promises. Desperate to keep Selby with her, Aileen hooked and murdered. She would fulfill their honeymoon dream with money. Money could buy happiness. It was the American way. She walked back onto the highways, took the ride offered – and shot the men behind the wheel. She turned more tricks than she’d ever turned before. She needed Selby to believe they could accumulate a big pile of money, enough to get them to dreamland. But the door to dreamland opened up a new door for Aileen, one that she wouldn’t have entered before. Risk. Going for the gold ring, she swung out a little farther than she would have when there was nothing at stake.

In one particularly poignant moment, Aileen sees Selby recoiling at the realization of her as a murderer. She pulls herself up into almost noble stance and, fighting back tears with grotesque grimaces, “I want you to know I’m a good person”. She attempts to separate the killing she’s done from a deserving self. The murders she committed in the name of that enemy who had stolen whatever little hope she’d been given for a few moments cannot be forgiven. But her effort to honor the love she felt for Selby was extraordinary and something audiences identified with, a wrenching picture of a survivor’s instinct after hope is gone. Aileen, at least the way this film tells it, held onto her love for Selby right up to the end in spite of the fact that she knew Selby had joined the police against her.

The film ends with Aileen shielding herself and Selby from the truth of betrayal. Monster, like Bride of Frankenstein, is a stiff reminder of the suppressed fear and anger that lie beneath a psyche pieced together from leftover, deadened body parts. Hope became a dangerous, explosive thing when placed into the already heavily damaged hands of Aileen Carol Wuornos. But the murderous rage, rising to the surface when hope was rallied, then rudely recalled, constitutes a dark reality of dreams punctured that goes further than a personal story.

Understanding how rage relates to the breakdown of an illusion in a film can provide insight into how it can happen to a society. In a recent essay in the Los Angeles Times, “Transplanted Democracy Will Wilt in Infertile Soil”, Shlomo Avineri argues impressively that a change in the Arab world must come incrementally, from the inside out. He warns that “To imagine Western-sponsored democracies flourishing anytime soon in the Arab world is a dangerous illusion, doomed to bring about violent resentment and rage against U.S. ” (Italics are added to the original text.) In other words, Americans should not fall in love with the idea that democracy is realizable without considerable healing in the Middle East. Arousing hopes of a quick democracy may have a paradoxical effect. Rage can be spurred by the break down of romantic illusions on a larger cultural level as well as on the personal. Unquiet times.

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14/12/01 Film Essay # , , ,

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Vanilla Sky (2001)
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writers: Cameron Crowe (screenplay), Alejandro Amenábar (film “Abre Los Ojos”), Mateo Gil (film “Abre Los Ojos”)
Stars: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz


“Forget the critics, VANILLA SKY is a wake up call you don’t want to miss.”

It’s no secret. Tom Cruise lives in a dream world. So when Tom wakes up in a chic Central Park apartment, plucks a stray grey from his fine head of hair and roars downtown in a Ferrari to find the streets of Manhattan completely empty, we know we’re in for a wild ride. Just how wild is a surprise I won’t give away but trust me, you’re going to feel like that guy sitting in front of a TV getting your hair blown back by the force of possibility.

In Vanilla Sky, we never get far from Tom being Tom; he’s an icon of American life, living the American dream —— in life and in the

movies. When Tom keeps getting asked the question, “What makes you happy?” Vanilla Sky pushes a commonplace question onto a mythic plane. Tom embodies the “puer eternus” archetype, the eternal golden boy who never grows up, always on the lookout for the perfect woman. However, the character in this film is getting older, turning a critical thirty-three —— and even though Tom’s surely forty, he looks thirty, doesn’t he? With Tom in the lead, Vanilla Sky has no trouble conjuring up a confrontation with immortality worthy of a god. Heir to the American dream of happy endings and having it all, Tom as David Aames explores a brand new solution for beating the odds that goes beyond meeting the perfect woman.

David Aames burns bright as a familiar stereotype of the spoiled rich kid. In spite of his charm, good looks and his father’s billion dollar publishing empire, he hasn’t found love. David’s father and mother perished simultaneously in a car accident, leaving him at twenty-three with only a corporate board of old fogies to oversee his fun-loving approach to running the company. He treats the whole publishing world as a joke, preferring to play tennis or romp in the sack than attend board meetings. His current girlfriend, Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) tops the charts as the quintessentially beautiful, blue-eyed blonde. And, though clearly one of long list, she’s seemingly a good match for David’s cavalier attitude about love. She plays his game. We don’t have to reach far for this fantasy. Julie epitomizes a guy’s dream girl, one who makes love like she’s in love —— with no strings attached. We’ve seen that male fantasy hit the dust in other movies but not quite like it does in this one. Even Fatal Attraction might stand aside.

At his birthday bash, David does what David does. He’s single, unattached and looking for love so he doesn’t invite Julie to the party. But she shows up anyway for a little tete-a-tete in the bedroom. Then David’s best friend walks in with an exotic cutie from the other side of the tracks. David meets her eyes across a crowded room and old-fashioned love is in the air. Sofia (Penelope Cruz) has two jobs and a dream of her own. She wants to be a dancer. David’s fascination with Sofia is not lost on Julie. Dressed like a siren in a red dress, Julie’s eyes bore into David’s back as he lights Sofia’s fire. David ignores Julie and takes Sofia home, spending an exquisite night with her doing everything but making love. David deftly avoids sex, which we learn when we discover that all of our viewing of David from the moment he woke up in a dream that morning is a flashback.

David is on trial for murder, incarcerated and wearing an eerie latex mask. He’s answering questions posed by a court-appointed psychologist to determine his sanity. Our perspective shifts. We’re no longer spectators. We’re inside David’s experience. David explains to Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell) that he was savoring an exquisite edge of tension while he spent the night with Sophia. Even as he ran his thumb along the big question, “is she the one?” he was drawing out the sensual pleasure of the moment. He’s seen the end of love too often, preferring the intensity of anticipation to culmination. As he saunters out of Sofia’s warehouse loft the next morning, Julie drives up. She has an invitation for him. Would he like to hop in the sack with her one more time, satisfy that urge that she knows he’s been building up all night —— one last freebie for old time’s sake before he moves on?

David gives us several delicious moments of deliberation as testosterone struggles with good sense. Men lashed themselves to the mast for a good reason when the sirens sang. But, stereotypes reign. David, in spite of his millions, believes his true power lies in his charm. He can’t resist Julie’s ‘too good to believe’ offer. Imagine, she wants him even though he’s moving on to another woman. Imagine, she’s not judging him. And Julie, in spite of her brains and beauty, can’t stand a smalltime ‘moth’ woman getting her man. She’s played the game; she deserves the prize. She plies all her wiles to draw David into the car with her.

He makes the choice, takes the ride. But then Julie snaps. She gives him a brief peek in what lies beneath the surface when a woman gives her all to a man. She tells him she loves him. But caught up in an egoistic storm of jealousy, her love takes a turn as old as the hills. Julie would rather die than live without him. And, sadly, she does. She drives them off a bridge at eighty miles an hour into a wall of tragedy. David survives, but his face is disfigured, his body broken, his spirit crushed. It’s tough enough to see anyone disfigured but when the victim is an icon of male youth and beauty, a contagion of deep grief invades the heart. Even knowing it’s just a movie didn’t prevent my longing for a restoration of the joy that had just disappeared with that face. Later, Sofia, speaking from a soft voice of wisdom, will say to him, “I wish you hadn’t gone with her.”

David’s down. And we’re only a third into the story.

If you had a billion dollars, would you go to the moon? What makes you happy? How do you get across the line from youth to the long life that lies ahead after you sprout grey hairs, can’t charm the pants off the most beautiful woman in the room and realize money buys everything but love? When we lose the illusion of immortality, we discover an awesome crosshatching of past, present and future realities in our minds that film can allude to even if not capture entirely.

Vanilla Sky crosshatches David’s moment of decision facing that mythic question, “what makes you happy?” with the real, the surreal and just plain vanilla fantasy. We see the good, the bad and the ugly. We respond to visual tricks showing how we make life up out of images that stir our emotions. I myself have walked New York streets feeling the pleasure of a cold morning moment, imagining myself holding Bob Dylan’s arm. I’ve danced at parties feeling Coltrane’s magical presence in the room. I’ve felt childhood needs override good sense. And I’ve dreamt nightmares that woke me up. David tells the psychologist he’ll think he’s crazy if he tells him what happened. Yet, in movies, we accept slipping from one reality to another as perfectly normal. Vanilla Sky offers its fair share of realities.

Sofia’s softly spoken oracle speaks volumes, “Every passing moment is another moment to start over again.” I think Vanilla Sky has something like this in mind when it likens the sky above New York to the sky that Monet painted one day many days ago. It’s a sky full of dreams —— if we open our eyes.

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