Friday, May 20, 2016

Rachel & Alice & Obama

Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (2008).

In a campaign year which has been filled with anger, violence and rancor, there hasn't been a spirit of hope that many drew from Obama's first ascension to the Presidency. What we have been witnessing in the primaries so far is an ugly reaction to it. Donald Trump, a demagogue Paul Bunyan, lumbers across the land promising walls – both real and figurative – to keep out Muslim and Mexican immigrants and restore America to a greatness he perceives as a land that never had Barack Obama as President. (Trump is the paranoid Truther who first began assailing the presidency by challenging the legitimacy of Obama's citizenship.) The Republican Presidential hopeful isn't stoking the ideals in his country but playing instead to its discontent. Stirring and seeking anger wherever he finds it, especially in the white working-class, he isn't interested in salving the sources of their wounds, but marshaling the power of their rage to vote him in. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton talks and conducts herself as the power broker politician. If Trump speaks to the ugly underside of American exceptionalism, Clinton addresses the unidentifiable masses that make up the country. Given that she comes across like a high-powered CEO who has a demographic sense of her own constituents, it's understandable that she hasn't convinced many disenchanted younger voters to hop on board. They've chosen instead the populist caboose of socialist Bernie Sanders who reaches out to their despair like a crotchety Woody Guthrie and invokes a Promised Land that will build bridges rather than Donald Trump's walls. But his own campaign has been lately doing its own share of erecting walls especially in the face of Clinton's ascending victory as the Democratic choice for President. Unless these two sides truly make peace, a Trump victory is not only highly possible, it will most certainly be a reality. And we'll have as the new President, the anti-Obama.

Over the last eight years, whether it was the partisan gridlock, indecisiveness in Syria which emboldened the apocalyptic force of ISIS, or the arm-wrestling over Obamacare, the President conducted his two terms under continuous siege. It wasn't really a question of whether or not you were a Democrat or a Republican, there was a general unaddressed anger about having a black man in the White House. It was expressed most symbolically in the bizarre scene at the 2012 Republican convention when Clint Eastwood turned Obama into an empty chair that he could address without the President having his own voice. (In the days that followed, there were pictures published of empty chairs being hung from trees in the South just in case we missed the point.) The numerous shootings of young blacks from Madison to Chicago during Obama's Presidency were also no accident. If Obama could be an empty chair, couldn't he just as easily be seen in the black faces that overzealous white cops could blow away? When an African-American is in the White House and groups of protesters have a need to call themselves Black Lives Matter (as if it's somehow a given that they don't), the spectre of racism clearly hasn't vanished. Which is why, despite the formal dullness of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), there was also a strong emotional undercurrent in the picture that connected to the present. In a sense, Lincoln held up a mirror to the ideals of the Obama era by imagining the country Obama inherited, but one he couldn't claim for himself. (Lee Daniels' The Butler a year later would go further and even deeper in reflecting the idea of a black man in the White House who becomes a witness to history rather than free to be a full participant.) Lincoln carried the weariness of unfulfilled prophesy; of the tiredness we also registered on Obama's face during his first debate with Mitt Romney. The movie looked back at how the legislation of racism might have been abolished, but not its practice. Obama's inheritance of that legislation can't fully be acted on because he is cornered by the lingering stain that Lincoln's amendment couldn't eradicate. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner deliberately submerge the drama of Lincoln's life into a more contemplative examination of the troubled paths taken by Lincoln, his allies, and his adversaries, to keep those promises; promises that would continue to resonate unresolved in the years to follow the Civil War.

As we draw closer to the conclusion of the Obama era, the spark of idealism that once ignited his 2008 campaign now seems to be barely a flicker. But I remember how towards the end of the Bush era, just months before Obama won, seeing Jonathan Demme's unassuming little movie, Rachel Getting Married, and it came to anticipate the possibilities that had seemed all but lost by 2008 and that the Obama campaign inspired. During the late Seventies and Eighties, Demme demonstrated one of the most open and democratic spirits in American movies in pictures like Citizen's BandMelvin and Howard and Something Wild. After he was honoured with an Academy Award for the uncharacteristically turgid The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, however, that celebrated open-heartedness went largely missing from his work (Philadelphia, Beloved) in exchange for more conventional melodrama. In Rachel Getting Married, though, Demme’s supple touch thankfully returned. Written by Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married examines unresolved family issues and the skeletons that naturally come tumbling out of the closet. But it was not only an honest and affectionate picture about dysfunctional people, it also came to reflect the fragile state of the country towards the end of the Bush period.

Mather Zickel, Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Tunde Adebimpe in Rachel Getting Married.

In the movie, Kym (Anne Hathaway), the black sheep of the clan, returns to her family home from drug rehab for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt). But her arrival stirs up more grief than happy memories. When she was a teenager, Kym was responsible for the death of her younger brother while intoxicated. Her father, Paul (Bill Irwin), goes overboard in trying to make her comfortable which only makes Kym feel that he distrusts her. As for Rachel, she has never truly forgiven Kym for his death even suggesting that Kym has been lying to her counselors about the reasons because she is in denial. (Rachel discovers that Kym has been telling her therapy group that she was molested by an uncle and taking care of an anorexic sister.) Kym tries to find solace with her estranged mother, Abbey (Debra Winger), even trying to get her to accept partial responsibility for leaving the sibling in her care. But she won't. Which leads to a fight that prompts Kym to drive off in a suicidal state and into a car accident. When Kym returns home slightly battered, Rachel cares for her and the wedding continues as family wounds – exposed and raw – begin to heal. The wedding party itself is one of inclusion, of different cultures and ages (even the marriage is a racially mixed one), and so the feeling we are left with by the end is not an isolated world closed off, but one brimming with opportunity. Thankfully, though, Rachel Getting Married doesn't turn holistic and point a path towards clean mental health.There are no pat answers offered for the family's future as Kym returns to rehab and Rachel departs to the back porch to hear the musicians gathered in a gazebo. When she curiously moves out from her seat to engage with them, the camera stays back and watches her leave while never intruding on what she finds.

It put me in mind of another movie, made many years earlier, that also dealt with familial tragedy, but with a much bleaker prognosis. Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant (1969), loosely based on Arlo Guthrie's 1967 epic narrative song, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" ("You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant"), which depicts the burgeoning Sixties counter-culture through the communal home of Ray and Alice Brock. In the song, Arlo joins friends for a Thanksgiving dinner, gets arrested and jailed for littering afterward (they use the garbage dump when it was closed) and eventually tries to fail his draft physical. "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" is a sweet comic jamboree that captures the spirit of adventure during the late Sixties while celebrating all its promises. But Arthur Penn's movie, which came out a few days after Arlo appeared at Woodstock, already anticipates the promises that won't be kept. In a script co-written with Venable Herndon (a playwright and teacher), Penn uses the episodes from Guthrie's song, but also adds a narrative that creates a luminous shadow into the next decade. As in Rachel Getting Married, there is a main character in drug rehab. But, unlike Kym, Shelley (Michael McClanathan) is a heroin addict. Alice's Restaurant introduces hard drugs into a story that – as a song – simply celebrated the joys of smoking pot. Ray (James Broderick) and Alice (Pat Quinn) hope that Shelley's stay in their communal church will help him stay clean. But the communal environment is not clean of unresolved feelings. Although Ray and Alice are married, Shelley once had a sexual relationship with Alice that left both still bonded. Ray's underlying jealousy of Shelley's vulnerability and how that appeals to Alice is expressed by Ray in the macho bluster of boys working off their aggression. (Ray is less a hippie here than a throwback to the Fifties Beats of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.) With the hope that Shelley will stay off junk, Alice ascends to his sexual advances again, but fails to see that their dalliance will doom him to disappointment once she goes back to Ray.

Rachel Getting Married deals with the dynamics of a real family in crisis, but Alice's Restaurant is about folks who have left their families behind to create alternative ones. In an innocent age where people believed they could have 'free love' without the conventional bonds of the monogamous society they abandoned, Arthur Penn shows us how the utopian world they tried to create can't help them escape the emotional traps lay hidden in our nature. Once Ray and Alice celebrate their union at the Thanksgiving dinner, Shelley sees where he stands and promptly goes back on smack. The heartbreaking scene that leads to the discovery of Shelley's newly acquired habit and his departure and death is chilling in what it reveals. Alice is caught between guilt and a maternal love that she thinks will save Shelley. "He needs taking care of," she pleads with Ray. But Ray uses brute force to get the truth out of Shelley and drives him from the church – even smacking Alice when she attempts to stop him. "Where are we anyway?," asks Arlo in an attempt to stop Ray. "I'm in my church. Where are you?," he answers. His house of worship which has drawn kids from all over – even one with a hook hand replacing the one he lost in Vietnam – to find a sense of home leads to the discovery that his church can't save those who worship there. In Rachel Getting Married, Kym tentatively finds her way through the webs of family denial, but Shelley, in Alice's Restaurant, has no family here and casts himself off to the solution of an early grave. (At the funeral, a young woman with a guitar sings Joni Mitchell's "Songs to Aging Children.")

Pat Quinn in Alice's Restaurant (1969).

As Alice Restaurant ends, Ray and Alice renew their wedding vows and he promises to reconsecrate the church. But moments after the celebration, he tells Arlo that he's changed his mind and that he hopes to sell the church to buy some land in Vermont which he hopes will prevent further tragedies like Shelley. "First you're flying it. Now you're selling it," says Alice bitterly from behind the closed screen door which Ray shuts separating her from the rest of the group. If Ray lives in a helium filled fantasy about their communal future, Alice sees immediately that they've crashed. As everyone departs (with no real hope given of anyone coming back), Alice is left alone on the porch in her wedding gown which is gently blowing in the wind. Michael Nebbia's slowly roving camera ultimately frames her in a cameo looking off into the grey fall landscape as Arlo's song is gently playing in the background. This hopeful ballad has now come to resemble more The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Unlike Rachel, who looks out from her porch at the end with an open curiousity of discovering what was to come, Alice is caught contemplating a future that will never be. Years later, Arthur Penn would tell Cineaste magazine that the final scene was intended as a comment on the inevitable passing of Sixties idealism. "In fact, that last image of Alice on the church steps is intended to freeze time, to say that this paradise doesn’t exist any more, it can only endure in memory." Alice's Restaurant, which would be in theatres ten days after the Manson murders and just months before the calamity at Altamont, may have frozen time, but the years since have made the film deeply memorable. Much of what Penn was speculating here was borne out in the years that followed. (A few years after the release the murders at Kent and Jackson State would officially kill off what remained of the counter-culture.) The deep freeze of the Seventies which Alice saw coming would also carry over through the next decades until the coming of Obama. which seemed to be a culmination of all the reforms that the Sixties had once brought forth.

While movies have a way of deepening with time, where time's affliction provides a bolder hindsight, sometimes a song can do likewise. In a performance of "The Weight," in Martin Scorsese's 1978 music documentary, The Last Waltz, a popular parable by The Band bonded audiences back to the group who first performed it in 1968. The song is about a search for community, a quest for comfort, a place to find comradeship and to set down roots, to lessen the burden of what the singer is carrying, but with no guarantee of being relieved of it. The key to this song is that there are many singers present in the performance – not just one – just as there is a cast of characters in "The Weight" who deepen the riddle. The burden of the story it tells is carried by many and refused by all. In The Last Waltz, we don't see The Band doing "The Weight" onstage in front of an audience, but rather, on a sound stage contrived to give the performance a special imaginary setting. Performing with The Band is The Staple Singers, a black gospel group, a family headed by Pop Staples and his daughters, who had been a huge influence on the call-and-response style The Band used in "The Weight." In this performance, "The Weight" acts out the dream of an integrated country where the quest for community confronts the desire to remain the lone individual fighting for his rights. With nothing pious in the performance, a bolder consideration of America is set forth in this stirring rendition, perhaps even an anticipation of the hopes stirred by the candidacy of Barack Obama in 2008. The Band looks into the American character with a hungry desire to bond with its aspirations, and to test the loyalty and obligations of those they meet in the song's journey. But they also know (being mostly Canadians) they are outsiders to the country's legacy of slavery and brutality. In "The Weight," they are dreaming of a country that is too often crippled by the guilt, the horrors – and the weight – carried by its own citizens. Yet The Band and The Staple Singers dream out its possibilities and ideals anyway. They bond with The Staples knowing that, even as a rock and roll group, they will soon be breaking up, unable to sustain their own bonds of friendship, bonds that once indelibly tied them together and left them unable to carry the weight of their own possibilities. It depicts a riddle larger than the current election year can answer and it will endure long after it's over.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

1 comment:

  1. Great to read your post and relive your last lecture. Looking forward to more of your posts.