A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne, 1996)

Laura Dern and Kurtwood Smith in Citizen Ruth
Ruth Stoops: Laura Dern
Diane Siegler: Swoosie Kurtz
Norm Stoney: Kurtwood Smith
Gail Stoney: Mary Kay Place
Rachel: Kelly Preston
Harlan: M.C. Gainey
Dr. Charlie Rollins: Kenneth Mars
Blaine Gibbons: Burt Reynolds
Jessica Weiss: Tippi Hedren

Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Cinematography: James Glennon
Production design: Jane Ann Stewart
Film editing: Kevin Tent
Music: Rolfe Kent

"Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim," said George Santayana, a statement quoted by Chuck Jones in commenting on his inspiration for Wile E. Coyote's futile pursuit of the Road Runner. It applies equally well to most of the characters in Citizen Ruth, with the exception of Ruth herself, whose only clear aim, getting high, she never forgets. Director Alexander Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor crafted an audacious satire on political fanaticism, focused specifically on the American furor over abortion, but still applicable 22 years later to almost all of the many political controversies, from gun control to collusion with foreign powers, that dominate our divided discourse. Ruth Stoops is a hopeless case, too addled by whatever she can get her hands on to produce a state of narcosis and too much a product of societal breakdown to ever be the focus of anybody's cause. But when a judge, learning that Ruth is pregnant with a fifth unwanted child, suggests that he might go easy on sentencing her if she'll have an abortion, she is first snapped up by right-to-life advocates and then blunders her way into the opposing camp of freedom-to-choose proponents. Eventually, her decision (which Ruth is incapable of arriving at rationally) begins to be swayed by a bidding war between the two groups, each of which offers her money -- a rather paltry $15,000 that seems like a fortune to the indigent Ruth -- either to have the baby or to abort the fetus. There are those who find the plight of Ruth no laughing matter, and they're right. But Payne manages to stay on the far side of reality in his treatment of the subject, and he benefits from a company of actors capable of teetering on the edge of caricature without actually lapsing into it. Laura Dern manages to find something sweetly naive in Ruth that makes her headlong self-destructiveness both touching and funny. She is a hopeless case, just as a resolution of the abortion debate seems hopeless, too.

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