Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Random Viewing: A Walk On the Moon (1999)

Among the least significant films released in 2010, Conviction is about a high school dropout who completes undergraduate studies and earns a law degree in a two-decade effort to free her innocent brother (Sam Rockwell) from prison. In the lead role, Hilary Swank gives her usual earnestly heroic performance. Nuance is nowhere to be found.

But the disappointing drama marked a reunion of director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray, who had worked together with far greater success to create 1999’s A Walk on the Moon. While surfing the 200-plus channels available on my television in the early hours of New Years Eve, I decided to revisit the autobiographical movie, not seen by me since the previous century and millennium. One compelling reason: a comparison with Taking Woodstock, Ang Lee’s 2009 saga from the perspective of a young man who leads organizers to a potential site for their fabled music festival – Max Yasgur’s farm – in hopes that the extravaganza will rally the local economy and save his elderly parents’ failing nearby motel.

In A Walk on the Moon, the key location is a nearby bungalow colony, the sort of place that lured lower middle class Jewish families from New York every summer. My family regularly decamped at similar rural getaways that were affordable and allowed a breath of fresh country air. The dads, laboring in the city while we relaxed in the sun, could only join us on weekends. Gray, who experienced that lifestyle as a kid, perfectly captures how the season once unfolded among a cluster of rental cabins during the 1960s. In her version, (actually shot in Quebec) there is an instance of adultery to add the requisite cinematic conflict to an otherwise fairly sedate situation in the Catskills.

Adultery and the Catskills also figure in Enemies: A Love Story, the wrenching Paul Mazursky picture, adapted from an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel about Holocaust survivors that came out in 1989. The mountain region shows up yet again as the backdrop for Dirty Dancing (1987). But the Jewish identity of the characters populating a bungalow colony remains obscure in that hit, despite the class and cultural distinctions that are supposed to drive the plot. In the Goldwyn-Gray collaboration, ethnicity is on the front burner. Even though actress Diane Lane is a true-blue shiksa, she earned an Independent Spirit Award for playing a housewife and mother who wants to the escape the confines of her traditional marriage.

Viggo Mortensen and Diane Lane
The time frame is 1969. Everyone is excited about July’s Apollo mission to the rocky orb that circles the Earth. Personal and political ferment has been brewing across America. When astronaut Neil Armstrong proclaims “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” confused Pearl Kantrowitz (Lane) senses that nobody’s yet mentioned any giant leaps for womankind. She can’t quite articulate this idea, so her actions begin to speak louder than words. While husband Marty (Liev Schreiber, before he was recognized as arguably the greatest actor of his generation on stage and screen) is toiling at a thankless job as a TV repairman hundreds of miles away, she starts a passionate affair with an itinerant hippie named Walker Jerome (Viggo Mortensen, before he was Aragorn in Lord of the Rings).

Pearl’s dalliance is only possible because her children, eight-year-old Danny (Bobby Boriello) and adolescent Alison (Anna Paquin, after she won an Oscar for The Piano but before she became a vampire's chick in HBO’s True Blood), have loving, live-in paternal grandmother Lillian (Tovah Feldshuh, before her 2004 solo show on Broadway as Golda Meir) conveniently on hand to care for them while Mom frolics. Pearl and Marty married after she became pregnant from their first sexual encounter as teenagers. Consequently, both know what it means to have dreams deferred: He couldn’t continue on to college and she never explored any options apart from domesticity.

At the bungalow colony, an unseen yenta periodically announces shopping opportunities over the public address system, such as “The knish man is on the premises.” But Pearl’s life suddenly changes when the “blouse man” cometh. He is a sexy, slithery free spirit selling clothes and accessories from a bus. Their chemistry is instantaneous. They screw, smoke grass, romp at Woodstock, imbibe hallucinogens, skinny-dip under a waterfall and screw some more. Meanwhile, Alison is on the verge of rebellious womanhood, with a lifeguard boyfriend (Joseph Perrino) and the onset of her period. It’s a girl's coming-of-age story juxtaposed with that of her mother, a former child bride.

Things at my bungalow colony were never so exciting, as I dimly recall. The same can be said about the Ang Lee’s plodding enterprise, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of half-a-million revelers enduring torrential rain, mud and bad trips to celebrate their newness. (Liev Schreiber appears again, although as a transvestite – perhaps that’s what really happened to Marty Kantrowitz.) Like the motel in Taking Woodstock, businesses in the surrounding towns wanted to cash in on the festival. Pamela Gray has pointed out that even Moishe’s Butcher Shop – where Pearl buys her meat in the film – went for a groovier name in hopes of attracting counterculture clientele: The Funky Chicken.

Avoiding any outright villainy, Moon allows everyone to make mistakes they later regret. The Pearl-Walker relationship is no throwaway, yet she must choose. Things will not return to normal, nor should they, but redemption can signify fresh approaches to the rapidly changing world. In contrast with Taking Woodstock, which had no rights to the genuine music of the era, Tony Goldwyn’s soundtrack is replete with an amazing number of authentic tunes: Among other selections, Janis Joplin belting out “Summertime,” Joni Mitchell singing “She’s Too Busy Being Free,” Bob Dylan’s maniacal “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” ”Today” by Jefferson Airplane and Judy Collins warbling the Sandy Dennis ballad “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”

Joni Mitchell in 1969
The time just goes. The lunar landing is ancient history. Ditto for hippies. Married people now seem to mess around with regularity, as do their sexually active offspring. Contemporary Kantrowitzes – more likely to vacation on cruise ships sailing the Caribbean than in the old Borsht Belt – surely would be long divorced due to irreconcilable differences. The bungalow colonies apparently have become havens for devout Hassids, unlike the largely secular communities inhabited by folks open to spiritual transformation in bygone days. Accordingly, the Funky Chicken, if it still exists, probably had second thoughts. To wildly paraphrase Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock Nation anthem, “We are stardust, we are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to...Moishe’s Butcher Shop.”

 – Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of  Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.


  1. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for the interesting reviews. It's always better to read the opinion of someone who's "been there" as in your case. Did you find the costumes, props, and settings of these films to have an authentic feel for you?


  2. Susan Green responds: Alyssa, thanks for your kind words about my review of “A Walk on the Moon.” My bungalow colony days ended while I was still in elementary school, so the memories are not all that sharp. I don’t recall we had visits from men selling knishes or blouses, but the film captured the excitement when fathers returned from the city each weekend. My dad, still dressed in a work-world suit, once drove up just as a bunch of us kids were squabbling over something or other. He reached into his pocket for a handful of coins and tossed them out onto the grass. The fight ended abruptly because we scrambled to find the money in what was suddenly a very fun game. I also thought the movie’s art director got the bungalow interiors just right -- in particular, the Kantrowitz kitchen with that formica table rang a bell.