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

Casa de los Babys (2003)

Casa de los Babys (2003)
Director: John Sayles
Writer: John Sayles
Stars: Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen


“One thing about a John Sayles’ movie. The man tells a hard story well. It’s not easy to tell a story where shame marks every motive, every transaction, every result. In Casa de Los Babys, South American infants born without a future are given up for adoption to wealthy mothers from other countries, especially the U.S. The babies may be winning a ticket out of a dirt scraping poverty but it is a coveted ticket, carrying the stain of fathers and mothers left behind who long for opportunity. Try that for complexity. And then, to make matters worse, the mothers who are reaching out for the babies bear their own cuffs of shame. Casa de Los Babys doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Told with empathy for all involved, Sayles makes it difficult to take sides, to find any ‘right’ position to defend or any enemy – other than despair – to blame.”

Most movie reviewers took the high road with Casa de Los Babys, calling the mothers superficial and the South Americans poor victims. But there’s more than that. Much more. There’s shame.

Shame – What is it? A deep sense of personal inadequacy passed on from parent to child, one generation to another, as if a child were to blame for being a burden, as if babies were responsible for imposing on a family’s meager resources – material and emotional – and as if their birth accounted for the lack of opportunity that awaits them. Shame conquers by invisibility. This is not a feeling of guilt where something has gone wrong and can be fixed. This is shame, a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with you that is passed down and passed on by ridicule, self-righteous discipline and elitist rules of oppression. It rises up in work that doesn’t pay or provide, thrives in families with mouths too many to feed, and cuts off its victim from feelings of trust for years to come. This is eye-dropping shame, the kind that self-perpetuates long after a baby changes hands. The only way out is for all of us to become aware of the silent erosion of dignity taking place beneath the surface. That’s what Sayles gives us in Casa de Los Babys. Awareness is the beginning of a reversal of fortunes.

This is more than a story about six mothers coming to adopt babies in South America. Casa de Los Babys weaves a profound portrayal of a country’s people trapped by the stifling consequences of corrupt politics, rampant unemployment and a futureless future for their youth. The film backdrops its tale of adoption against a pictorial representation of a fated progression from baby to adulthood in a South American beach town.

Sayles starts with the babies, born to girls too young and grandparents too poor to keep them. They are adorable, innocent – and too many. What would happen to them if they were not adopted?Los Babys shows the next stage – homeless street kids, begging, stealing to survive. They foretell the future. And then it moves along to the cadres of young, well-meaning men and women who have dropped out of school and subsist on menial or pick up jobs. They live on dreams, hoping for a lottery ticket that will bring back a child adopted by a family far away or enough money to buy a seat on an airplane and start a new life in a far away city. Finally, he brings in vignettes of older adults who eke out a living tending, feeding or fixing things for tourists. They shake their heads in disgust watching their fairly grown children who, attempting to rebel against a dead-end, take out their frustrations carousing, hustling and scheming against the government. Almost everyone comes down from dirt floor shacks in the mountains – on foot, bicycles or ancient buses – to work the tourist trade near the beaches. A sense of great sadness, a head hanging shame, accompanies their descent.

Then Sayles turns his eagle eye on each of the six mothers of so-called privilege waiting for babies to be given to them. They are enduring months of anxious waiting, worth it because international adoptions are sure things, but nerve wracking because…well, that’s the question, because why? As each woman’s character emerges under an expectant impatience, another kind of shame emerges. The shame of not feeling worthy – a disqualifying shame that marks them ‘not normal’ women. The women’s wanting and buying babies represents hope against hope, not just for the babies but for them as well to escape shame. Slowly, Casa de Los Babys examines what lies beneath each woman’s desire. Each woman’s history reveals a deeply felt personal emptiness no less poignant than the emptiness of opportunity in this South American town. The baby represents her hope to transform a different kind of shame – one that they believe will be fixed by circumventing their failure to give birth, sustain new life.

Behind each woman’s reality lies debilitating doubt. One prospective mother, easily labeled New Age, strives for the perfect body, exercising obsessively to stave away the pain of giving birth to three babies who died before they lived. Another, easily labeled an alcoholic, looks continually on the bright side, a Pollyanna refusing to entertain a bad thought about anyone as if it might reveal her own weakness. She strives for perfection. But she is the one who has seen another wanna-be mother furtively steal soap from the housekeeping cart. That woman, easily labeled a bitchy bigot, bears a physical scar of shame burned into her wrist by her own mother as a disciplinary measure. She hides her shame with a prickly anger that isolates her. The dark side of yet another rescuer, money worried and working class, emerges as she spins her tale of sweet dreams to a young Latina maid who can’t understand a word she says but gives her the idealizing looks she craves. This woman’s dreams will never come true because she, herself, will have to work long hard hours to pay the bills while her child is growing up. And then there’s the one easily labeled confused. She’s the youngest and most frightened, a woman who seems to be trying to save a floundering marriage by bringing home a baby. The last mother-wanna-be, easily labeled a lesbian, lays out a tight defensive plan about how she’s going to raise her child. It must be a baby girl. She’ll be careful not to show too much feeling, never spoil her or be friends with her. And she won’t be disappointed when the child hates her. These are not women who feel confident, coming to adopt babies for the pleasure of sharing their love, delight and good fortune. They come fearful, needy and equipped with their own personal closets of shame.

The cover-up pictures of shame have a tendency to come with many pretty labels in real life. Mothers of wealth and cute babies-in-need may seem like a match made in heaven but, as Casa de Los Babysreveals, devastating feelings of personal inadequacy lie not far beneath the surface on both sides. Sayles’ complex film with his “picture-worth-a-thousand words” storytelling may leave us sad, feeling helpless and inclined to drop our own eyes. But the shrewd genius of Sayles’ Los Babys is that it makes the invisible visible, bringing hidden wounds into full view and creating an authentic opportunity for healing. Awareness of the circle of shame is the beginning.

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31/10/03 Film Essay # , , ,

In America (2002)

In America (2002)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: Jim SheridanNaomi SheridanKirsten Sheridan
Stars: Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou


“What America comes to your mind as a poor immigrant family with two small children drives into Manhattan, rents an apartment in a ‘junkie’s building’ and starts looking for work? And what does it take to believe in the one you see In America?”

A young girl’s voice starts the film, promising a child’s tale that sounds like a modern version of Jack in the Beanstalk’s magical beans – and conjures up the same measure of disbelief. She’s recently lost a baby brother who she is sure has given her three secret wishes to help guide the family through the transition from Ireland to Manhattan (via Canada). Her younger sister is an irrepressible, angel of a child who, if faith in the three wishes weren’t enough, would make anyone a believer in fairy tales. Their mom’s been a teacher but, of course, lacks credentials to teach in New York, and ends up with a job in a neighborhood cafŽ. She carries a heavy mother’s guilt for the death of her son and, while committed to a stiff upper lip for the sake of her daughters, drags a sack of gloom. Their dad, a wannabe actor and good guy, drives a cab part-time and struggles with his inability to get in touch with the deep feelings he deems necessary to succeed in New York theatre. In fact, the plight of this family seems more determined by frozen grief than by their very real poverty. And the thawing of that grief is the tale Jim Sheridan and his daughter, Naomi Sheridan choose to tell, giving Manhattan a dress of decency that is refreshing if a bit fanciful.

Indeed, lit up like an amusement park, the city seems to welcome the family as they drive in. People on the street greet Ariel (Emma Bolger), the younger daughter who hangs out the window of the car waving her hand and smiling with delight. Sheridan skips the days of looking for an apartment, the nights of everyone sleeping in the car. And keeps the child’s view as they arrive at what the older daughter describes as ‘the only apartment building in Man-hattan that will take kids’. A large black man looks down upon them from an upstairs window. Crackheads offer to ‘watch’ their car. And Christy (Sarah Bolger), the oldest daughter, nicknames the building ‘The House of Screams’ because recurrent moans of anguish emanate from the walls as they enter. Five, six, seven stories up they find a pigeon infested crash pad with scant plumbing, less electricity, broken windows and, probably, a smell better not known. They’ll have to sell the car to pay the rent. But, through a child’s eye, it’s all sheer possibility. “No, you can’t keep the pigeons,” answers the dad when Ariel asks. Contrasting Ariel’s enthusiastic embrace of ‘what is’ with the worried one of grown ups will be a continuing theme. She’s full of ‘beans’, ready to trade the cow and take her chances on an unknown future. When their dad manages to get water to come from an encrusted showerhead, both girls squeal with delight, want to stay in the bathtub all day as if they’d won a ticket to a water park. Christy, just enough older than Ariel to be cognizant of their true circumstances, swings from a quiet retreat behind her camcorder to an occasional romp with Ariel.

The fear of these children being molested, maligned or humiliated can never be far away in the audience’s mind as they go about their business. It tags along with each event. This family could go down in a second. Or up. The roller coaster of getting through a day takes them up and down. On Halloween, it’s time to climb the beanstalk. There’ve been indications all along that another spirit inhabits the world in which this family lives. In a wild, seeing what can’t really be seen moment, the large black man in the apartment behind a door marked ‘keep away’, drops a bare hand on a canvas covered in blood – or oil paint. Be it a malevolent or benevolent hand of a giant that holds their fate, fear shakes the ground when mom gets pregnant, dad has to take a job, and the kids go to school. Mom (Sarah Morton) becomes obsessed by an insecurity that she will fail this baby as she has the other. Dad (Paddy Considine) performs heroic tasks to make up for being a poor provider, pulling an abandoned air conditioner on a dolly straight down the street in traffic – and then hauls it five floors up in his arms! Mom and dad don’t fight at each other. They put their spines together, aching or prickly, to keep the family going. But when the girls, in homemade Halloween costumes, rouse smirky laughs from classmates at school, the parents are at a loss about what to do. Ariel and Christy react to the prejudice as if to the chant of a family game, “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum, I smell the blood of an Irish woman”. They transcend fear, raise their courage to the sticking point and decide to become Americans.

On the way home from school, Christy describes ‘trick or treat’ to her family. “In America, you can’t ask, you must threaten to get what you want.” So, out they go, ‘trick or treating’ in their building. They knock on those closed doors behind which the unspeakable occurs. But no one answers. The girls are not discouraged. They yell louder, pound harder and, finally, behind the door with the yellow scrawled message, ‘keep away’, they hear a faint noise. Thrilled, they climb faster up the beanstalk, until HE looks down on them. The huge black man from the first day. Their parents peek out cautiously to see what’s happening, warily giving the girls permission to be on their own. The reclusive painter meets the mother’s eyes and an unexpected, unexplainable and unmistakable trust passes between them, swirling a soft fairy dust around them all. Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), for that’s the name of this prince of darkness from down under who is dying of AIDS, exudes the gentleness of a wounded giant. He is moved to tears by the girl’s ease with him. He has resisted contact with the outside world. And, Ariel, true to her angelic form, lays her slight white hand on his large dark shoulder without a trace of fear. “Are you crying”, she asks. “Why did you let us in?” And Mateo matches her, “When luck comes knocking at your door, you can’t turn it away.” Thus, the girls free the giant from his self-imposed exile, inviting the fearsome fellow into their family and turning their luck toward the light.

Not a bad backdrop for a fairy tale where mystery is as much a player as any circumstance. African meets Irish on the streets of New York for a profound confrontation between black and white, dark and light, dread death and risky living. While dying, Mateo revives the spirit that once lived freely in this family when their dead son, Frankie, was with them. Frankie died of a brain tumor, an invisible killer that stole their happiness, leaving them angry, sad and massively guilt-ridden. Now Mateo enters the picture, endangered as Frankie was, arousing all the same mixed emotions. Mom is reinvigorated but crazed with feelings of inadequacy. The girls jump for joy but know it’s to be short-lived. Dad attempts to push him out, paranoid about being tricked. He accuses Mateo of trying to steal his wife, his girls and his home behind his back. “You want my place? You love my wife?” But Mateo meets the moment with a fierce cry for help. “No, I am not in love with your wife. I am in love with you. I am in love with your kids, your unborn child. I am in love with your life – and your wife, yes, of course. I am in love with anything that lives.” Spirit of one land meets the soul of another; energetically, an exchange is made as sure as a cow was traded for a handful of beans.

And thus we get the answer to the question of what America is being imagined in In America. It is an America that lives, streams on the streets of cities in human beings of all sorts. And while a specter of death definitely hovers, it’s not the vision. There is a bridge, a tunnel, a way to cross back and forth between the real world and the world of possibility that – somehow – makes all and any life worthy of praise. As surely as E.T. returned home safely, as surely as Mateo crossed the moon on a bicycle with Frankie, as surely as immigrants come to Manhattan and find – somehow – childcare, jobs and friends In America, beans sprout. Returning from a devastating loss means taking a chance, feeling all kinds of feelings again, returning to the gifts of life. In America trades cynicism for the magic of children’s dreams and delivers an adventure, a challenge and an eye opener to healing grief.

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