Sunday, June 12, 2011

Foster fears

In this first in a series of posts on the career of Jodie Foster, the author explains why he almost never started on them. 

I've always been a little afraid of Jodie Foster.
Like a lot of fears, this one is grounded in attraction. Certainly there are plenty of reasons to be drawn to Foster, among them talent, intelligence, and the skillful deployment of both in a skillfully managed public persona in which genial good manners do not quite cloak a certain steeliness that she’s too smart to think she can entirely hide. I also feel a generational affinity for Foster; born three weeks before I was, she has always been a presence in my life, a yardstick more compelling and immediate, than, say, Clint Eastwood, who has also always been around but as a more remote figure.  Like a lot of artists who are in it for the long haul, her preoccupations have corresponded to where she has happened to be in the life cycle, and so I can say, not entirely ironically, that we grew up together.
For a long time, the principal source of my Jodie Foster anxiety has been gender difference. Naturally, many a geeky heterosexual white guy could not help be attracted to her, and for that very reason be content to regard her from the anonymous safety of a movie theater. Such is the intimidating allure of movie star. But as everyone of her generation knows, Foster had the uniquely unhappy experience of being stalked by a presidential assassin, and ever since I’ve always regarded my interest in her with inner suspicion, a nagging fear that that it amounts to a manifestation of the dark impulses that lurk in my psyche, whether I’m conscious of them or not.  I attribute this fear in part to a Catholic upbringing, and in part to coming of age in a feminist era in which the people who educated me went to great pains to emphasize the dangerously predatory character of masculinity inherent in the male gaze. Too much interest in Foster was akin to virtually stalking her, and I came close at one point in planning this book to concluding that to even write this about her would be a form of disrespect and would thus not do so.
It didn’t take too long to conclude this was a bit extreme. Perhaps later than I should have, I recognized I conflated a fear of Foster with a fear of myself, and while those fears have been understandable, even legitimate, I’ve come to regard them as unduly paralyzing: having dark impulses is not the same thing as acting on them, and having them does not negate any series of others. Moreover, insofar as Foster would ever care, I’d have to guess that she’d prefer to have a good faith, if imperfect, effort to engage her work rather than studied silence about it. After all, she decided to embark on a public career as an actor, long since accepting that the benefits outweigh the costs. It seems rational to conclude that one of those benefits would surely involve attention designed to affirm her significance as an artist in her time, and a claim that this significance will endure after her time, whoever one may choose to define the term.
And so it is that I have embarked on this chapter. However, in doing so I’ve come up against a different, even more disconcerting, discovery: Jodie Foster does not really love American history. I’m not saying that she’s some kind of radical or traitor or self-conscious incendiary. My guess is that there have been any number moments in her life, like the aftermath of 9/11 or a not entirely implausible imagined scenario of her feeling an unaccountable surge of affection during the singing of the national anthem at an L.A. Dodgers game, where she could cite patriotic feeling.  But I get very little sense in looking at Foster’s body of work that she has tried to engage the American experience as an experience, of thinking of the nation-state as a crucial organizing principle of her experience. Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks have all done this. Even a foreigner like Daniel Day-Lewis has. But Foster? Not so much. Actually, that phrase is important: Foster doesn’t particularly love American history, but she doesn’t really hate it, either. (Would that she did!) It’s just not that important. The subject comes up – she’s made a number of films with historical settings – but her primary preoccupations are not historical per se. To grapple with her history is, in one sense, to grapple with an absence.
It’s tough when someone you like and respect, someone who you at some level you feel you know or at least came of age in the same world, apparently just doesn’t care about the things that you do. Foster is not Malcolm X or Emma Goldman, people with strong clear ideas one can comprehend if not entirely accept, and which any right-thinking liberal would try to understand. I regard her as one of us: for all the obvious differences, she inhabits the same country I do, and was entertaining me long before I ever considered what that might mean. And yet it’s clear that even as she has represented American life in ways I recognize, and said things I comprehend and accept, she feels about it very differently. What does she know that I don’t?
I began this chapter afraid to find out.

[1] My wife has a better, literal, claim of coming of age with Foster, in that they went to Yale together, and were distant acquaintances. I’ve always been proud on those occasions she’s mentioned the exchanged smiles between the courteous star and the equally courteous civilian, which I regard as one more of many vindications of my good luck and judgment in the woman I married.