Why Hate Freedomland? Roth’s Film Honest About Race

022706 article sarris Why Hate Freedomland?  Roth’s Film Honest About RaceJoe Roth’s Freedomland, from a screenplay by Richard Price, based on his novel, has received mostly unfavorable reviews (and a scattering of favorable ones), though I am not sure why. This is to say that I was initially drawn to the movie by my curiosity about what Mr. Price was up to these days in chronicling the lives of the not-so-well-to-do, both black and white. Then what kept me absorbed all the way to the end was the dark take on race relations projected in this lurid story of an alleged carjacking of a white woman’s vehicle in a black neighborhood, with the woman’s 4-year-old son allegedly sleeping on the back seat.

I keep writing “allegedly” as if I were a journalist afraid of being sued because what begins as a familiar kind of media-circus melodrama ends up being something much more complex and tangled. In the process, there is a great deal of jumping to false conclusions, thereby uncovering previously muffled resentments and hatreds.

Let’s face it: There are so many images of apparent racial reconciliation on the screen and on television these days that a movie propelling two rigidly segregated adjoining communities, one public-housing-project-black and the other working-class-white, at each other’s throat might seem a bit quaint and anachronistically agit-prop. After all, just look at the seemingly omnipotent Oprah and the consummately complacent Condoleezza. What progress we’ve made!

But then just look at the aftermath of Katrina, and notice the color of the most wretched victims. Maybe we haven’t come as far as we would like to think in the realm of racial justice. But this is only one aspect of my disagreement with most of my esteemed colleagues on Freedomland. The craziness in the film is so extremely expressed and so evenly distributed that the two lead performers—Samuel L. Jackson as the stormily asthmatic African-American investigating officer, Lorenzo Council, and Julianne Moore as the emotionally distraught and mentally disturbed white mother, Brenda Martin—have been critically tarred and feathered for the presumed sin of overacting.

I can’t deny that there is something nervously disturbing in the unfolding of the narrative, and I can’t guarantee that all or even most of my readers will find Freedomland their particular cup of tea. All I can do is describe how and why I felt about the movie as I did while following it to its wildly startling conclusion. To do so, I have to give the whole plot away, so stop reading this review if you intend to see the movie on the basis of my own less-than-unqualified endorsement.

The film begins with the almost ghostly image of a female figure trudging mechanically through dark streets, looking neither to the right nor the left at the occasional onlookers. We see her face—Brenda’s face—only when she enters a hospital to report that her car was hijacked, and that the palms of her hand were bloodied when she was thrown to the pavement by a black man she had never seen before. Only gradually does she become coherent enough to tell the investigating officer, Lorenzo, that her 4-year-old son was sleeping in the back seat at the time.

From that point on, Lorenzo and Brenda are locked in a hysterical narrative embrace, like Coleridge characters trapped in a fog of mutual misunderstanding. One can point to one lapse of logic and probability after another if one were so inclined. But I was not so inclined, because at some level the hysteria was justified for me by the convergence of two powerful currents in contemporary society: the periodic media frenzy over slain or missing children, and the increasing alienation of adjacent communities from each other all across the country.

Lorenzo keeps hammering at Brenda, both because he doesn’t believe her story and because he fears that the white community’s police force is about to swarm all over the black projects to flush out the carjacker, which is exactly what happens. To complicate matters, Brenda’s brother, Danny (Ron Eldard), is a racist firebrand on the police force. Not that Danny is overly burdened by any great love or respect for his formerly drug-addicted sister, who teaches black children in a special school, and whose missing son, Cody (Marlon Sherman), is a “love child.”

For his part, Lorenzo watches his stature as a troubleshooter for the black community diminish during its confrontation with a largely white police force. Lorenzo’s white partner, Boyle (William Forsythe), urges him to lower his profile in the high-pressure search for Brenda’s son. The boy’s picture on television has made him an instant celebrity, and he appears to Brenda in hallucinatory form as she gazes upon an empty chair in a police station.

Lorenzo and Brenda are joined in their search for Cody by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), the head of a group of bereaved mothers of slain and missing children now working to help others suffering the same trauma. Mr. Price has given Brenda and Karen long and (I think) eloquent speeches on what it means to be a mother who loses a child. Many reviewers have condemned the speeches for slowing up the chase to which all action directors are supposed to cut. One might argue that, to the contrary, these seeming digressions by Mr. Price and Mr. Roth may be clues to the deeper subtexts of the film.

Lorenzo, Brenda and Karen extend the search to Freedomland itself, a forest in which a notoriously harsh institution for illegitimate children was located. It is in this wilderness of long-ago tormented children that Brenda breaks down and tells the whole truth: that Cody died accidentally while in her care, and that she buried him in another field, from which Cody’s body is finally exhumed. But Lorenzo still isn’t satisfied: He notices heavy boulders marking the grave and knows that Brenda could never have lifted them without help. Her accomplice turns out to be her black ex-lover, Lorenzo’s own errant son, about whom his daughter-in-law Felicia (Aunjanue Ellis) is always complaining.

Brenda’s lies—which end up causing a race riot in which Lorenzo is seriously injured—should make her a completely unsympathetic character. Instead, she is curiously purified by her long emotional ordeal (albeit one largely self-inflicted), and by her deep affection for children of another race, as well as her strong attraction to Lorenzo and his son. The point is that life goes on, justly or unjustly—and Mr. Jackson’s Lorenzo displays a degree of existential endurance and resilience that is well nigh heroic.

The 56-year-old Mr. Price has had his ups and downs, as both a novelist and a screenwriter, in a career that began on a high note with the film adaptations of his first two novels, Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers (1978) and Philip Kaufman’s cultish The Wanderers (1979), then moved sideways into big-star territory with his own screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), Harold Becker’s Sea of Love (1989), Irwin Winkler’s Night and the City (1992), John McNaughton’s Mad Dog and Glory (1993), Barbet Schroeder’s Kiss of Death (1995), Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995), Ron Howard’s Ransom (1996) and John Singleton’s Shaft (2000). He also contributed the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s segment of the three-part omnibus film New York Stories (1989), which also featured segments by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. As for the author’s long array of cameo appearances in the movies based on his screenplays, I would politely advise Mr. Price to keep his day job. But looking back on all that he’s written for the screen, who the devil ever said that a screenwriter couldn’t be an auteur?

More Cowboys!

Michèle Ohayon’s Cowboy del Amor turns out to be one of the sweetest, funniest and most enjoyable nonfiction films you are likely to see this year. I don’t know how or where Ms. Ohayon found her hero, protagonist and prime mover, but there he is: Ivan Thompson, a 65-year-old cowboy with the unlikeliest of occupations—one that has earned him the self-coined nickname of “Cowboy Cupid.” What he does is find Mexican brides for middle-aged American men who have soured on American women. His clients include Rick, a long-distance truck driver and ex-Marine, and Lee, a still-hopeful 70-year-old Vietnam veteran. Rick and Lee each pay $3,000 to Ivan for a 600-mile bus ride to the heart of Mexico in search of true and lasting love. Marriage is the only option for both parties—Ivan has no patience for men who just want a little quick sex. He turns out to be the most unexpectedly moral of matchmakers.

Still, he is a comic find with his Walter Brennan–ish cracker-barrel philosopher’s Southwestern twang, which cannot mask the soul of a true gentleman as far as women are concerned. And he speaks from genuine experience, having been married late in life to a Mexican woman, who surprised him after his wedding day by producing four children from a previous marriage. Still, the marriage lasted nine years, despite the language barrier and the unexpected children. It was only when his wife, Chayo, went to school to learn English that the trouble began: Mr. Thompson had argued against it, and sure enough, Chayo soon began bossing him around as stubbornly as any American wife.

The bulk of the film is concerned with Ivan’s perceptive strategies in getting both Rick and Lee married to very attractive Mexican women. Rick turns out to be particularly hard to please, and it is only the third or fourth encounter that proves fruitful. Ms. Ohayon was wise to focus on the successful connections rather than the probably larger number of rejections by the two men (Lee, especially); the few that the movie does show are almost unbearably painful to watch. These are real people up there, not fictional performers in a Hollywood speed-dating farce.

There is a marvelous dignity, humility and sincerity in the two weddings that take place in the U.S. When Lee introduces his bride-to-be, Irmalinda, to his middle-class family, we suddenly realize how little money everyone on both sides of the border have become accustomed to having, and how happy the simple festivities make them. Ivan himself hasn’t given up hope of getting married again, though his Spanish doesn’t seem to have improved despite all the time he has spent in Mexico.

Ivan’s own life would make a heartwarming Hollywood movie, starting with his birth in 1941 in Sandhill County, N.M., to a large, dirt-poor family. His father died when he was 8, after which his family moved to Portales, N.M.—and for three years, Ivan found himself hitchhiking between his older brothers and sisters, trying to find a place where he belonged.

Hitchhiking through Texas at age 14, he was picked up by a cowboy named J.V. Stump, and Ivan soon went to work on Stump’s farm with the cattle and horses. He immediately participated in kid rodeos. Then, in 1961, he joined the U.S. Army and served for three years. He eventually raised horses, married Wife No. 1, got a divorce and was introduced to his second wife, Chayo, by his ranch hand, Carlos. In his approach to the affairs of the heart, Ivan may be serving as something of a prophet for his fellows in the U.S., a country that itself is becoming increasingly bilingual.

Shocking!

Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, from his own screenplay (in Spanish with English subtitles), may or may not be the end of civilization as we know it. After all, the Western world has survived an unprecedented, explicit fellatio scene in Il Diavolo in Corpo, Marco Bellocchio’s 1986 remake of Claude Autant-Lara’s 1946 French classic, with Maruschka Detmers doing the honors (with or without a prosthetic penis). But with all the fuss made over a wardrobe malfunction at a Super Bowl halftime show not so long ago, I continue to wonder how long society can persist with such disparate shock levels.

In some ways, Battle in Heaven charts new ground in what is permissible in ostensibly non-pornographic cinema—not so much in the raw fleshiness of the spectacle, but rather in its almost painterly slowness and allegorical gravity. The extended opening fellatio scene, for example, is followed by a military ceremony accompanying the raising of the Mexican flag. The same unappetizingly stout man who figured in the fellatio footage presides over the flag raising. Quelle ironie, n’est-ce pas? The man is named Marcos, a general’s chauffeur (played by a nonprofessional actor named Marcos Hernández). The young woman servicing him is Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz, also a first-time actress) who turns out to be the general’s daughter, and who also works in a brothel.

Marcos’ wife is played by another nonprofessional actress, Bertha Ruiz, and she is as stout as Marco. Their explicit lovemaking is another prolonged spectacle. Only gradually do we learn that Marcos and his wife once kidnapped a child for ransom, an event that led to the child’s accidental death. The kidnapping, death and subsequent disposal of the body are never shown; instead, we have many close-ups of Marcos slowly registering guilt and despair. After a more traditional nude sex scene between him and Ana, there is a prolonged camera movement around a luxurious part of Mexico City. The director says that he has been influenced by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and the Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos in what he describes as the “purest form of cinema”—one that dispenses with conventional forms of narrative.

Oddly, Mr. Reygadas is referring to one director who works in such a heavily censored environment that he has to keep his camera moving to keep a man and a woman from coming into any physical contact, and another who maintains such a distance from all movements that sex scenes of such physical proximity would be unthinkable. This is to say that Mr. Reygadas has played the anti-narrative film-festival game with the most voyeuristic means at his disposal, and then stuck on a luridly melodramatic plot almost as an afterthought.

There are no clarifying speeches or sermons in Battle in Heaven to explain the phenomenon of widespread kidnapping in Mexico City. Poor people have taken to kidnapping from the not-quite-as-poor—and even from neighbors and relatives—for piddling ransoms. Battle in Heaven ends as it begins, with an act of fellatio invested with spiritual, even heavenly, implications. Somehow, I was never moved or even particularly impressed: The sex looks much too easy in its ritualized splendor to be truly erotic, and the characters might just as well be puppets or animated figures for all the reality they project. The best I can say for Battle in Heaven is that it manages to be more compelling than Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny.