Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reconstructing Jodie

Foster followed Silence of the Lambs with a series of projects that widened her range.

The following post is part of a series of on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.

Jodie Foster came out of the post-Silence of the Lambs gate with Little Man Tate (1991), her directorial debut. Although it’s namesake is a precocious, Salingeresque little boy (Adam Hann-Byrd), in a screenplay written by Scott Frank (a newcomer at the time who went on to have a successful career), it’s not hard to see an oblique autobiographical subtext this story about a brilliant child and the tug-of-war he engenders between two powerful women. Foster plays Dede Tate, working-class mother of the seven year-old Fred, who loves him fiercely but lacks the resources, intellectual and otherwise, to develop his prodigious talents. Enter Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), who runs an institute for gifted children, but shows startling deficits in nurturing them. It is to Foster’s credit that she chose to tell this notably fair-minded story, which shows sensitivity to some of its specifically gendered dimensions (Harry Connick Jr. does nicely in a brief role that shows the possibilities and limits of male role models for the boy). Little Man Tate is also a hopeful movie in that it suggests that conflicts between adults over children may actually contribute positively to their development when those adults come to realize the important, if incomplete, roles they can have in the life of children. (In this regard, Little Man Tate is a bit like Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, a film in which an argument between two men helps forge the strong character of a Civil Rights leader.)
Foster followed Little Man Tate with a bit part in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992) one of the better-realized projects of that prolific director. Shadows is Kafkaesque fable set in an unnamed city—think New York or London in the second quarter of the twentieth century—about a man (Allen) ordered to find a serial killer abroad on a foggy night. Mia Farrow plays a circus performer angry with her unfaithful companion (John Malkovich) who finds herself in a whorehouse whose employees include a genial prostitute played by Foster. “There’s only one thing men will brave murder for,” she says in a moment of wry levity with her companions. “The little furry animal between our legs.” Though thoroughly gothic in its black-and-white cinematography, the movie has an upbeat ending that gets about as close as Foster ever does to buoyancy in her movies.

Her next project, Sommersby, is really the only one in the Foster Hollywood canon that can truly be said to be a historical epic. Given its French source material, it’s a bit surprising that co-star, Richard Gere was executive producer, though he probably had more money and clout than the Francophile Foster did at the time. Sommersby is based on the life of Martin Guerre, a sixteenth century man who became a source of folklore in French life and culture. Guerre, who hailed from the Basque country, left his wife to fight for the Spanish Habsburg King Philip V, in a Europe wracked by religious conflict (Spain of course was arch-Catholic; Guerre hailed from a region with strong Calivinist tendencies.)  Years later, the returning soldier resumed his place in his village. But suspicions grew that he was an imposter, and those suspicions grew substantially when the real Martin Guerre returned and claimed he had been robbed of his identity by a man who was really Arnaud du Tilh, nicknamed Pansette (“belly”). Pansette was eventually tried, convicted and executed. A 1982 cinematic version of this story, starring Gérard Depardieu, was co-written by Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis, who later published the definitive scholarly account of the tale.[1] The inspired conceit of Sommersby involved taking a different period of intense warfare and ideological conflict—the American Civil War—and telling an analogous story rooted in local events and relationships.

Though nominally a conventional romance—the only one Foster ever made—it’s not hard so see how Sommersby held appeal for her beyond simply establishing her as a leading lady. Though presumably a struggle over identity between two men, it’s really the woman—Bertrande du Rols in life, Laurel Sommersby in the movie—who functions as the keystone of the story. It strains credulity to believe that du Rols failed to recognize that that the returning soldier was not her husband, but this was nevertheless her stance as long as she could possibly maintain it, largely because her actual marriage was an unhappy one (partly the result of Guerre’s impotence, which brought their union to the brink of annulment before his departure).

Sommersby feels compelled to stack its deck beyond simply having dreamboat Gere as the fraudulent title character by having him champion agricultural self-sufficiency for poor farmers and having an almost laughably enlightened view of race relations in the Reconstruction South. Yet there is a modicum of historical truth in his trial being presided over by a black judge (James Earl Jones), for the story is set in that brief interregnum between slavery and the imposition of a segregated Jim Crow regime. In one of his many fine performances, Jones manages to both endow his character with dignity and an implicit recognition of how fragile it is. Which really goes to the heart of one of the most important meanings of the Martin Guerre saga: that in times of social upheaval, it becomes tantalizingly possible to plausibly imagine a different, better personal life.

No one makes this point better than Foster, who manages to convey it solely on the basis of her facial expressions at the start of the movie. We first see her tilling the family field, accompanied by another farmer (the ever-game second fiddle, Bill Pullman), who is in love with her. Informed that her husband has returned from the war, she runs to the house, grabs her son and goes inside to watch his approach with an excited crowd. Obviously guarded—is it because she’s unhappy to see him or knows he’s an imposter?—the two go out to the front steps, awaiting the veteran’s approach. “Go say hello to your daddy,” she finally says to her son, clearly too young to really remember his father, and we sense she’s playing for time, not ready to embrace the man or call him a fraud. But he’s playing his part to the hilt; “I’d forgotten how beautiful you are,” he says, taking the hands that she had just been rubbing nervously. Foster’s faint half-smile seems to suggest amusement with the performance, but after she closes her eyes and two embrace, she opens them briefly, suggesting nervousness about where this ruse is headed.

Mrs. Sommersby nevertheless proves skillful in parrying her “husband’s” advances, “reminding” him that they had not been sleeping together at the time of his departure and would not now, either. Over time, of course, the two fall in love; the great irony of Gere’s character is that his identity theft cannot disguise his irrepressible optimism and sincere generosity. The couple’s happiness is ineluctably temporary, but no less precious for that. The thin but heartfelt smile Foster renders as she watches Sommersby on the scaffold at the end of the movie suggests a joy that not even his death can take away, and the final image of the movie, of black men repairing the steeple on a damaged church, suggests that such small islands of hope become the basis of new and better worlds.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Unwarranted speculation

In When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors Democracy, Julia C. Ott describes the early 20th century moment when shareholding replaced stakeholding

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

Once upon a time, Americans believed that economic success was a matter of hard work and thrift. The word "investment" was commonly understood to mean the expenditure of resources in an enterprise directly controlled by its owner. Even corporate titans like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller understood their success in these terms (though not their critics). An avowed Social Darwinist like William Graham Sumner counterposed "the simple honest laborer, ready to earn his labor by productive work" with "the vicious, the idle, and the shiftless." In the popular imagination going back to the time of Alexander Hamilton, those who sought wealth through financial instruments like stocks and bonds were scarcely more than barroom gamblers. Such a view may have been simplistic, but it was certainly widespread, an article of faith in the Democratic party from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Roosevelt.

Ah, the good old days.

The story of how finance capitalism was transformed from a marginal element of modern industrial society to the inescapable imperative of contemporary life -- even after its demonstrable failure in 2007-2008 -- is the story Julia C. Ott tells in When Wall Street Met Main Street. The core of this story is a historical hinge, a crucible of about twenty years between the Progressive era and the stock market crash of 1929, when the logic of modern economic life snapped into place. It's a tale of contingent events and unexpected consequences of intended events, but it's also one of a determined elite successfully manipulating regulators and public opinion through the creation of a concept Ott dubs "an investor's democracy": the idea that replacing a nation of stakeholders with a nation of shareholders would stabilize and extend an American way of life in ways more meaningful than votes, unions, pensions, or self-governance. What's more astounding than the mere fact of this marketing strategy is the degree to which it succeeded.

One of the great ironies in the emergence of investor democracy ideology is that it was to a great extent the creation of those who presumably sought to contain and regulate capitalist excesses. The Pujo Committee of 1913 (a staple of SAT II U.S. History exams) made the first step in this direction, seeking to legitimate trading by reforming the market. Organizations like the New York Stock Exchange, which stood to benefit from such legitimacy, nevertheless parried a potential loss of prerogative by arguing that better results would be achieved through self-regulation and reporting. But it was Progressives themselves who demonstrated just what mass investment could do in the bond drives of the First World War, which used sophisticated marketing techniques (as well as less subtle ones of coercion) to finance the cost.

The federal government was strikingly good at this, and the early postwar featured even greater capital flows into the national state as well as proposals for nationalizing the rail system. But increasing impatience with Progressive policy as well as a full-bore mobilization of private interests led to a rejection of such approaches in favor of allowing capital to flow toward private enterprise. An emergent ideology of "New Proprietorship" promulgated by advocates like Thomas Nixon Carver and William Z. Ripley worked tirelessly to convince policymakers that mass investment by workers and consumers in private companies would serve as an excellent hedge against socialism as well as a modern incarnation of the family farm or small business that had previously been the core aspiration of republican ideology.

Such a version of history conveniently overlooked the fact of slavery, tenant farming, and wage labor, which always lacked such a stake in enterprises. By contrast, the boosters of New Proprietorship were very mindful that giving investors a piece of the action was hardly the same thing as control of a company, which remained firmly in the hands of corporate elites. Ott injects a gender motif into this analysis, contrasting a "feminized" vision of collective investment in instruments like pensions and social welfare with a "masculine"one of individuals empowered to amass wealth in the form of a diverse portfolio, typically in the service of a romanticized vision of retirement as a time of painless leisure. Even though women were in some cases important shareholders in AT&T -- known for decades as a blue-chip "widows and orphans" stock, a masculine, libertarian vision of trade and finance took root; hence the instinctive, dismissive description of liberalism as "the nanny state" by contemporary radio talk show hosts.

The truly astounding fact of the ideological regime that Ott limns here is how durable it has proven. The Great Depression shook it, but left the self-policing core of the NYSE intact. The primacy of the shareholder over the consumer, worker or even the manager, which first took shape early in the century, became increasingly central to the logical of modern business, achieving unquestioned supremacy in the Reagan era. Even now, when the literal and figurative bankruptcy of an investor-driven regime has saddled taxpayers with bills whose scale is only beginning to be felt, it seems almost impossible to imagine an alternative financial universe in which banks and other financial institutions are not too big to fail. As Ott notes, every major presidential candidate since Reagan has proposed some form of Social Security privatization, and even Barack Obama, who opposed the efforts of George W. Bush in this regard, nevertheless continues to insist that individuals should pursue higher risk investment strategies in order to achieve financial security.

The clarity and force of Ott's message is sustained by its medium: this is a sterling piece of scholarship. Its 225 succinct pages are buttressed by another 70 pages of notes, scaffolded into chapters that are sturdily framed with clear introductions and conclusions, as well as carefully chiseled topic sentences. The utter solidity of the volume is itself a form of force. The final irony is that it leaves you badly shaken.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

You may want to miss this thing

Steven Tyler has a little trouble drawing the line in Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Like a meal at McDonald's, reading autobiographies of pop culture artists always seems like a better idea before I begin than after I'm finished. I start out wondering how particular works of art I've always loved got made, but by the time I'm done reading I find myself amazed that the person I've read about was actually capable of such achievements. Their tics, stories, and laments seem to demystify them to the point that putting down the book feels as if I'm finally parting after spending too long on vacation with someone I thought I liked. If familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it does engender impatience.

I've long been a fan of the rock band Aerosmith, and I've long liked its lead singer Steven Tyler, no time more so than recent stories about the graceful way he handled a wheelchair-bound woman as one of the talent judges of American Idol. Though long regarded as Rolling Stones knockoffs -- Tyler's autobiography arrives in the wake of Keith Richards' widely acclaimed Life -- Aerosmith was responsible for some of the memorable songs of the 1970s: "Dream On," "Sweet Emotion," and, of course, "Walk this Way," which received a new lease on life when it became a hip-hop hit for Run DMC in 1985. After struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, Tyler and his bandmates enjoyed a renaissance with a string of pop hits in beginning in the late 1980s, greatly aided by some classic MTV videos (like "Crazy," starring Liv Tyler, a daughter from one of his three marriages), and had a #1 hit in 1998 with "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." In recent years, the term "rock star" has become a metaphorical term for someone who's celebrated in his field. But back in the day when rock was king, Tyler was a bona fide rock star, and a title he's riding into a celebrity retirement.

For a while, the noise in Tyler's head didn't bother me at all. You understand going into a book like this that you can't expect a carefully sequenced story line, much less self-aware appraisals, though it's a bit disappointing that Rolling Stone veteran and co-writer David Dalton couldn't impose more order on the material. I was charmed by Tyler's recollections of his summers in New Hampshire and his teen years in Yonkers, New York, though it would have been nice if he had explained his father was a music teacher a chapter or two before he did, for example. I particularly liked Tyler's description of his day-to-day life on tour, which gives readers a glimpse of the intriguing rhythm of a performing career and how different it is from most workaday routines. Tyler mentions blowing through a million dollars on hotel bills on a typical tour, and the millions of dollars that went up his nose. Knowing more about his relationship to the business as he experienced it would have been interesting, as would more details on songwriting and fewer excerpts from his largely forgettable lyrics.

But after a while the pleasures wear thin. Particularly because they're crowded in with a whole lot of narcissism: Tyler's laments about how his bandmates don't understand his constructive advice, how his wives don't understand his need for additional female companionship, how his managers and therapists don't understand his addictions, and so on. His children seem to wander in and out of the narrative like groupies. And the accounts of his various physical ailments and operations make you long for the good old days of youthful self-indulgent excess.

Actually, I thought the most arresting material in the Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? was ancillary, notably its many photos. I bought the "enhanced edition" Kindle edition of the book, which came with a series of supplemental audio and video files. They include a clip of Tyler talking with Dalton, which gives one a pretty good idea about how the book took shape. They also include a series of brief videos with Tyler talking about aspects of his life and work. These were quite compelling; hearing his actual voice and watching his gestures was more vivid than words on a page (his words, anyway). I suspect that the autobiography makes for a pretty good audio book. I also suspect this package points the way toward the future of e-books as a medium, at least when intellectual property issues don't stand in the way of illustrative excerpts and clips as part of a written narrative.

In any case, print is not Tyler's medium. It cheers one to see him and hear him, not read him. Keep your day -- make that night -- job, Mr. Tyler. Rock on.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Good Shepherd

With The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster gave her work an enduring moral vision

The following is part of an ongoing series about Jodie Foster's vision of U.S. history.

I remember vividly the night I went to see Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. All day long, I dreaded it. I’ve always hated horror movies; only a compelling reason like a sense of professional obligation will lead me to do so. But as a lifelong movie buff, I’ve always tried to stay up with what’s current (like the Best Picture contenders in any given year), and the buzz on Lambs was too great to ignore. On that winter night in February, my wife and I threw a dinner party as a prelude to a trip to the movies. I was uneasy the whole time, looking ahead to the movie the way one does a trip visit to the dentist.
The movie begins somberly, and takes a little while to get truly frightening. The first such moment occurs when Foster’s character, an FBI agent in training, walks down a long hallway toward a waiting folding chair to visit the high-security cell of the psychiatrist-turned-cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by the unblinking Anthony Hopkins. It’s one of the great strengths of Lambs that one’s sheer fascination with Lecter almost overcomes one’s fear of him. If nothing else, Lambs is a great movie because it – by which I mean the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, Ted Tally’s screenplay, but above all Hopkins’s thrilling performance – utterly crushes the shopworn liberal piety that evil arises from mere dysfunction or lack of understanding on the part of those who would otherwise be good. Maybe that’s true of the nominal villain of the piece, a serial murderer by the name of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who skins women so that he can live out his transvestite fantasies. But in his in his alternatingly courteous and dismissive, understated manner, Lecter is far more troubling in his cell than many criminals are outside it, because he represents a cunningly intelligent malignance that simply cannot be destroyed, only contained (temporarily). So it is that in the first scene together, an annoyed Lecter cuts Starling down to size. “You know what you look like to me? In your good bag and cheap shoes? A rube,” he tells her. “You’re not more than one generation removed from poor white trash.” As he continues his deconstruction, you watch Foster’s face begin to crumple from the verbal barrage and yet somehow maintain its shape: she’s already flinched more than once, she’s being toyed with, and yet she refuses to entirely surrender, making a not entirely convincing, but still resilient riposte that Lecter should focus his insight on someone his own size.
Despite the fact that it’s Lecter/Hopkins who in many ways steals the show, in an important sense Lambs is really a Clarice/Foster movie. And that’s because the creation of such a powerfully credible evil character simultaneously opens the possibility of redemptive good. At a couple points in the story, Lecter guesses that Clarice was abused by her policeman father or the rancher who temporarily served her foster parent after she was orphaned following her father’s death in the line of duty. But here he is wrong. Her father, as we see in flashbacks, was a good man; so, we’re told, was the rancher. So why is Starling so hell-bent on catching Buffalo Bill before he kills his next victim – who, it turns out, is the daughter of a powerful female (Republican) U.S. Senator? Ambition? Surely. But Lecter is smart enough to sense there’s more involved, and insists on knowing as the price of his cooperation in capturing Buffalo Bill (whose name, incidentally, is a mordant parody of a mythic American figure). Starling, who has been repeatedly warned about the dangers of self-disclosure with such an exploitative figure, is desperate enough to agree to his demands.
Starling and Lecter have a series of discussions in the course of the story, the most important of which occurs about an hour into the movie. In a rapid series of quid pro quo exchanges, Lecter relinquishes tidbits of analysis in the Buffalo Bill case and then presses her on why she suddenly left the home of the rancher. Starling describes a night when she woke up to the sound of screaming, and went to the barn from which it emanated. “I was scared to look but I had to,” she says, a remark that also encapsulates her behavior in this grisly case. Lecter correctly speculates that what Starling saw was the rancher engaged in the annual slaughter of the spring lambs. “First I tried to free them, but they just stood there,” Starling muses, her vacant stare suggesting she’s reliving that terrible moment. She grabbed one and ran. “I thought if I could just save one,” she says, her hushed voice trailing off, “but he was so heavy. So heavy.” She reports that only made it a few miles (!) before she was caught. What became of the lamb, Lecter asks. “They killed him,” she informs him. Lecter grasps the implications quickly: “And you think if you can save poor Catherine [the Senator’s daughter], you can make them stop, you think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.” Starling replies, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
That night in 1991, and ever since, I’ve always found Lecter’s final remark breathtaking: “Thank you, Clarice. Thank you.” Lecter understands and appreciates Starling’s honesty, which has characterized their relationship from the very beginning. But you get the sense that what he also appreciates is a sense of mystery. It’s possible to reduce Starling’s actions to a form of neurosis, an irrational belief that following by her father’s professional footsteps and apprehending a serial killer, she will somehow repair the psychic wounds of her childhood. But this only begs the question as to why her behavior takes this form and not some other, far more destructive course, which after all is the more typical response to psychic trauma. Lecter, it’s clear, is fascinated by Starling – he draws a gorgeous pencil drawing of her holding a lamb – and we sense he’s right to be. She enlarges the world with a sense of moral possibility. In the process, she enlarges Jodie Foster’s career  by giving us a character who’s not simply forced to respond to the malice of the wide world, but who can take proactive steps in giving herself and other people a real reason to live.
Which brings me to one of the most exciting moments in my cinematic life, which occurs when Starling unexpectedly finds herself in Buffalo Bill’s house, and decides to she must descend the stairs into his dark basement alone and try to apprehend him. Foster literally shakes with fear, in one of the most authentic representations of terror ever committed to the screen. It has long since become a horror movie joke that characters defy all psychic logic by entering situations that will prove catastrophic, because if they don’t there won’t be a scary movie. This is the opposite of that: Starling knows full well she shouldn’t go down those stairs, and she does so anyway so that she can save Catherine, a woman she’s never met. Soldiers at the front have to muster courage, but in part that’s because wars create situations where scared men have little effective chance for survival but going forward and hoping for the best. This, too, is the opposite of that: courage as the decision to experience fear. Starling’s descent is just the beginning; she finds herself plunged into pitch darkness while Buffalo Bill gazes upon her in night goggles. (In an eerie move, director Demme shows us Starling from his point of view, implicating us in his gaze.) But she will prevail.
There, anyway. For Hannibal Lecter has his own agenda, and while Starling and her colleagues are in hot pursuit of Buffalo Bill, he ruthlessly engineers his escape from prison. The movie will ends, as its moral logic dictates, with Lecter abroad, as evil eternally is. But he can’t resist a call to Starling at her moment of triumph. “I have no plans to call on you Clarice,” he tells her in what is not quite an entirely reassuring locution. “The world’s more interesting with you in it. You take care now to extend me the same courtesy.” Starling responds by saying, “You know I can’t make that promise,” which of course is the essence of her character. Lecter responds with one of the movie’s memorable jokes: “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.”
The Silence of the Lambs pulled off a rare coup, becoming one of only one of only three movies to sweep the five major Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay (the others were It Happened One Night in 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975). Never again would Foster have to re-credential herself in the industry. Indeed, she consolidated her position by founding a production company, Egg Pictures, and moving into directing and producing. But while both would remain facets of her career, and while she would repeatedly claim that both were where her future lay, Foster would continue to work primarily as an actor. Fortunately, as she did so, her vision widened, and became more psychologically generous in ways that extended to her depiction of historical subjects. 
 Next: Foster heads toward Reconstruction, by way of the Reformation.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Turning a "Corner"

Jodie Foster, non-exceptionalist 

The following is part of an ongoing series about Jodie Foster's vision of U.S. history specifically, and Hollywood actors as historians generally.
Jodie Foster is not really a historical filmmaker. Yes, over the course of making some forty odd movies, she’s made a few set in the past. But most of those take place in her lifetime (perhaps not surprisingly, the 1960s are well represented). Of those that handful which be considered genuinely historical dramas, the most important are French, like the 1984 World War II Claude Chabrol production The Lives of Others, or the beautifully made, yet graphically realistic, 2003 film A Very Engagement, an Audrey Toutou vehicle in which Foster has a small but compelling part as a Polish woman who becomes unwillingly enmeshed in a tragic love triangle between two soldiers on the Western front. Even her most prominent U.S. historical drama, Sommersby (1993), has French origins as a transposed version of the 1982 classic The Return of Martin Guerre, moved from the sixteenth century Basque countryside to the nineteenth century Reconstruction South. Among Foster’s first post-collegiate releases – one that marked an early foray into the role of producer – was Mesmerized (1986), based on a real-life 1882 New Zealand case in which Foster plays an emotionally abused orphan-turned adolescent bride acquitted of murdering the her sexually deviant husband (John Lithgow), which she actually does by hypnotizing him into drinking poison.  Shot in New Zealand while she was still at Yale and given the alternative title My Letter to George, it was not a particularly impressive piece of filmmaking (I think of it The Little Girl Who Lives Down Under, albeit less satisfyingly gleeful in its villain getting his just desserts.)
But when thinking about these projects in the context of the movies Foster has made and set in the United States, there’s something real implicitly embedded in her choices as they reflect her vision of American history: She’s an anti-exceptionalist. There are bad people everywhere, and bad things happen to good people at all times. Not even the land of the free and the home of brave is exempt from the capricious – or not so capricious – hand of fate. What’s particularly striking about his message is that it surfaces in movies set during periods that are often viewed as moments of hope, even optimism, like the sixties (1860s no less than 1960s).
One can see the outlines of this vision emerging in the one true prestige project Foster undertook at Yale, Tony Richardson’s The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), based on the 1981 novel by John Irving. As a number of observers have noted, the movie, a weird hybrid of Hollywood farce and European art-house drama, falls flat somewhere between the two. (I’d also place some of the blame on the source material, as John Irving’s fiction always seems stuffed with too high a quotient of zany characters and improbable scenarios.) Foster plays Franny Berry, the oldest daughter in a large family whose parents met in Vienna in World War II and later open a New England inn.  But the father’s true American Dream of success is going back to Vienna where he opens a financially wobbly hotel (hence the title). Over the course of the story, Franny will endure rape at the hands of a classmate (Matthew Modine), resist the incestuous entreaties of her brother (Rob Lowe), be held hostage with the rest of the family by Marxist terrorists (among them Modine in another role and Amanda Plummer), and grapple with the tragedy of a suicidal sister who happens to be a dwarf as well as a gifted writer. If ever there was a role written to appeal to Foster’s imagination, this surely was it. Indeed, it’s a virtual compendium of the scenarios in which she’d appear for the next thirty years.
A more compelling variation on Foster’s sensibility is a much more modest project, Five Corners (1988), written the emerging playwright John Patrick Shanley, who would go on to write Joe and the Volcano for Tom Hanks before finding major commercial success with Moonstruck (1987) and the stage and screen versions Doubt (2004/8). Though not autobiographical in any strict sense, Five Corners, set in the Bronx of 1964, is vivid with a strong sense of local color. That color, however, is dark: this is not the sixties of the Beach Boys or the rising tide of the Civil Rights movement, but one of rising urban crime and national backlash hinted at in background television sets that broadcast information about Barry Goldwater and the murder of Civil Rights workers. Early in the film, which also features Tim Robbins and John Turturro on the cusp of their commercial breakthroughs, a high school teacher is killed when an arrow pierces his back, a work of random violence that helps establish a tone of mordant humor. We also see the threatening figure of Heinz (John Turturro), a psychopath recently released from prison, who bullies the owners of a Jewish delicatessen. Now that he’s back, he wants to resume his pursuit of Linda (Foster), a pet store clerk who was only rescued from an earlier rape attempt by Heinz with the intervention of her friend Harry (Robbins), who has since become a convert to non-violence by the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. Linda has a boyfriend (Todd Graff) who wants to protect her, but it’s clear that he will not be a match for Heinz. When Heinz summons Linda, she feels she has no choice but to meet him, and is subjected to his brutality in the form his frustration over her lack of enthusiasm for the gift of two penguins (stolen from the Bronz Zoo). Heinz, who will go on to show himself capable of decidedly more hideous violence, knocks Linda unconscious, and takes prisoner King Kong style. Her boyfriend, Harry, and the police frantically track them to the roof of an apartment building in which Linda is literally rests on the edge of death. Nominally, the movie has a happy ending, but Linda is saved neither by any of these men, but rather another random act of violence in the form of one of those arrows. A strangely quirky yet compelling movie, Five Corners has an indy sensibility (it was made by George Harrison’s company, Handmade Films, and features the Beatles song, “In My Life,” on the soundtrack) that anticipated the breakthrough of the movement the following year with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape.
From one standpoint, it seems bizarre that Foster would choose to make a film about a crazed stalker. It seems even more bizarre that she would claim not to have realized she’d done so until the film began shooting. When the subject came up, as it did repeatedly, she reacted with irritation. “I took this film because it’s the best screenplay I’ve read in a long time,” she said at the time. “It has a very strong narrative – it’s realistic as well as mythic and is about an era that interests me. I’m not of the school where I look for juicy parts, and I don’t do films because psychologically I could learn something about myself or because the character is something I always wanted to play. A lot of people do, but that doesn’t interest me as much as doing a good book. I look for good films.”
Fair enough. But such a response begs the inevitably subjective question about what makes a screenplay “best” or “good,” and here it does not defy logic to believe that Foster defines it in such a way that might also allow her to work through her experience and exorcise it artistically. Still, even if one accepts such a premise, it’s clear her tastes run broader than refracted autobiography. Yet even so, a grim subtext was apparent even in presumably more upbeat stories. Foster followed Five Corners with Stealing Home (1988), a much more conventional Hollywood story in which a lost soul and former baseball player (Mark Harmon) is inspired by the memories of his childhood babysitter, played by Foster. But these memories are prompted by her suicide, which is disclosed early in the story. Foster is credible as a wild spirit and source of adolescent fantasy, but Stealing Home is marred by its clichéd plot and the lack of a credible reason why her character would kill herself.
Again, though, she was still at a stage where she could not afford to be picky. And one, moreover, that she would have to fight hard and even create any opportunities that might come her way. Foster’s third film of 1988, The Accused, was her breakthrough. But it was a movie in which she got the lead only after more prominent actors turned it down, and was forced to audition for the part, something not usually required of an established actor.
The Accused is based on the true story of Cheryl Araujo, a waitress from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who was gang-raped at a local bar in 1983. What was important about the case was not simply that it became a local media circus in which Araujo’s identity and character became matters of public discussion, but that two men were convicted for their role in inciting the rape along with two who actually committed it (two others were acquitted). Besides a relatively trivial change of venue to the Washington state, the movie significantly changes the facts of the case by stripping its ethnic dimension: those tried for the crime were Portuguese immigrants, leading to charges of bias, despite the fact that the victim was Portuguese as well. Instead, the movie inserts college students into the largely working-class mob, simplifying the ethnic politics and replacing it with a more straightforward story of gender violation reinforced by white privilege.  While this seems politically dishonest, it’s also probably the only way an already difficult movie could have ever been made.
That said, The Accused does challenge its audience by giving it a relatively unsympathetic protagonist. Foster would win her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Sarah Tobias, a hard-bitten working-class woman whose evident appetite for sex and alcohol made her case a difficult one even for the zealous prosecutor played by Kelly McGillis (herself a rape victim) to press. Indeed, Tobias’s behavior in the movie appears to have been more provocative than that of Araujo. McGillis’s character nevertheless drives a hard bargain and cuts a relatively stiff plea deal with the lawyers of the rapists, but Tobias reacts with outrage: she wanted her day in court, and would endure any backlash to get it. This leads McGillis to prosecute the secondary figures for incitement, despite her (male) boss’s resistance, culminating the victim’s testimony in open court.  Foster’s performance is compelling not simply for the profile in courage of her protagonist but also – and this would increasingly become a theme of her career – her ability to convey the terror of women facing brutal treatment, physical and otherwise. While one must be careful not to conflate the agony of Cheryl Araujo (who died a few years after her ordeal in a car crash) with that of the woman who portrayed her, there’s little question that the graphic rape scene in the movie was a serious personal trial. The decision to do it was a professional triumph, to be sure, but also one of solidarity with a victim and one important for calling attention to serious issues of public policy.

The Accused was an important personal milestone for Foster, and as an entrant into the elite club of Oscar winners, put her in the catbird seat for her next role. Characteristically, she did not cash in this chit by seeking a commercial payday, but instead by deciding to take a leading role in the next movie by Dennis Hopper, a Hollywood legend for behavior no less than directing movies like Easy Rider (1969). It would prove to be a move she regretted, as Hopper lived up to his difficult reputation and was never able to complete the film, titled Catchfire (1990), in a form to be exhibited in theaters. It was later issued in DVD as Backtrack (1994). In the movie Foster plays an artist who witnesses a murder that leads the criminals involved to hire Hopper as a hitman to rub her out.  But he falls in love with his prey, and she ultimately with him. It’s surprisingly high concept fare for a man who was always known for pushing the envelope – a weird array of actors from Bob Dylan to Vincent Price make cameo appearances – and the movie was competently executed (notable in particular for its use of Southwestern landscapes). But it was at best unremarkable film, if still one in keeping with Foster’s penchant for choosing roles in which characters find themselves in dangerous situations for reasons not of their choosing.
In her next role, however, Foster would play someone who did find herself in a dangerous situation of her choosing. And in so doing achieved durable greatness.

Next: Facing Hannibal Lecter

Monday, July 11, 2011

New Haven blues

Jodie Foster faced a series of challenges during her Yale years, but emerged with a mature artistic vision that would shape her career

The following is part of an ongoing series about Jodie Foster's vision of U.S. history specifically, and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Jodie Foster turned 18 years old in the fall of 1980. This is a treacherous time in the life of a child actor, one of difficult currents from which many never emerge, whether by choice or not. Foster was well aware of the uncertainties, if for other reason than her brother Buddy’s career. Such considerations, along with a genuinely academic bent, were surely part of the reason why she accepted an offer from admission to Yale. This is not as unorthodox choice now as it was back then, which People magazine described as “the most startling career move since Garbo chose exile.” In an industry where momentum is nearly everything, she was sailing into uncharted waters.
By all accounts, Foster cherishes her Yale education, where she proved to be an adept student and a loyal alumna. But it proved to be a very difficult time in other respects. Foster never gave up her acting career entirely, squeezing screen work into compartmentalized slots like summers. But the material she got – like a supporting role in the 1982 television movie O’Hara’s Wife, with Ed Asner and Mariette Hartley; a more prominent one the following year with Svengali, where she played a muse (onscreen and off, apparently) for the rakishly charming Peter O’Toole – suggested the bobbing of an actor trying to stay afloat rather than a star charting her way. This began to change in her final upperclassman years, when she began doing more high-profile film work. But she was nevertheless waging an uphill battle in terms of forging an adult career.
The biggest challenge Foster faced, however, was the enormous shadow cast over her life by John Hinckley, Jr., a troubled young man from a well-to-do family who developed an obsession with Foster. In some ways still a child, she naïvely tried to parry his advances by phone and letter by taking his calls and trying to dissuade him from pursuing her (he went to New Haven on a few occasions, but the two never met face to face). A warped devotee of Taxi Driver, Hinckley convinced himself he could impress Foster by acting like Travis Bickle and attempting to kill the president – he tried first with Jimmy Carter in 1980 before settling on Ronald Reagan in March of 1981. In the aftermath of the unsuccessful attempt, Foster was unwittingly sucked into the vortex of unwanted attention, which she tried to manage by holding a single press conference, and writing a single essay, which she insisted not be a cover story, for Esquire magazine in 1982 (an anguished cri de coeur, she nevertheless managed to maintain a wry sense of humor, concluding the piece with an expectation that a stranger would one day come up to her and ask, “Ain’t you the girl who shot the president?”). For many years, the incident was something of a forbidden subject; Foster canceled an appearance on the Today show in 1991 when she learned Hinckley’s name would be mentioned in the introduction. In recent years, however, she has referenced it, freely if briefly, without obvious trauma.
 It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of bizarre notoriety to gauge the adversity it imposed. Foster, of course, was not responsible for what happened, and indeed had been a victim of Hinckley’s long before Ronald Reagan was. Still, it would appear to be in the nature of such situations that people feel forced reflect on what they could possibly have done to attract such attention. But to focus on Hinckley is to some degree to miss the real ordeal Foster faced – and to overlook the bona fide courage she has shown in the decades since.
The first indication that her ordeal was not over came within days. Appearing in an undergraduate play – a challenge in its own right, as she has never been comfortable on stage and has never done live theater since – Foster was stalked again, this time by a man who planned to kill her. Though he could not bring himself to do it, he nevertheless later issued a bomb threat on her dormitory, forcing its evacuation, before he was apprehended by Secret Service agents in New York. In subsequent years, Foster repeatedly would face similar threats – three years later, it was a woman who got arrested for plotting to kill her – along with encounters with flash photographers that ranged from annoying to frightening (one precipitating a broken clavicle). She would also require a fairly elaborate infrastructure, human and otherwise, to ensure her security.
Still, Foster refused to let this ordeal prevent her from proceeding from her acting career. That in itself is not something one should take for granted; it’s easy to imagine another person in similar circumstances suffering some kind of breakdown or simply deciding to retreat from the public eye. But beyond that, Foster has repeatedly chosen to work on movies in which her characters are preyed upon by people with malicious intent. As I’ve already documented, it would be simply inaccurate to suggest that such choices can be explained entirely in terms of her personal experience; before 1981, at least, they reflected a combination of factors that include the opportunities she was offered and her mother’s guidance – and, one would have to assume, her own wishes. But it is nevertheless striking to consider how often her post-1981 movies involve people confronting and overcoming such challenges, including those posed by stalkers (to be discussed in more detail shortly).
While he should not be considered the final or even most authoritative judge of the matter, it’s easy to believe Buddy Foster’s assertion that the Hinckley affair changed his sister, making her a much more guarded figure. That would seem to extend to Foster lending her name to political causes. Much to the consternation of gays and lesbians, for example, she has refused to discuss her romantic life (which, on the basis of what I’ve seen, appears to be bisexual). In the tense atmosphere surrounding homosexuality in the 1980s and 90s, this was seen by some as a damagingly closeted stance. And while in thought, speech, and action Foster is clearly a feminist filmmaker, she seems to deploy the term more descriptively than ideologically, casting her vision more in terms of art, not politics. Many eyebrows were raised in 2010-11 when Foster stood resolutely by Mel Gibson, her co-star in The Beaver (2011), who enjoyed little good will in Hollywood even before he faced domestic violence charges against his companion, later dropped. In interviews Foster would skillfully allude to Gibson's bad behavior while insisting on a redemptive integrity. More generally, it seems Foster has a special sympathy for those in scalding glare of publicity. In his 2011 memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friends, actor Rob Lowe writes that Foster was one of the few people who reached out to him when media reports of his addiction made headlines in the 1990s.
Indeed, one might generally say that for Foster, the personal transcends the political: ideas matter less than relationships. To paraphrase the classic post-boomer line by young women that drives older women crazy, “She is a feminist, but . . .” That’s not necessarily because ideas are unappealing, or even unimportant.  Actually, by most reckonings, Foster is among the most cerebral figures in Hollywood. But at the core of her view of the world, there will always be powerful people – usually men, who tyrannize other men as well as women – who will stand in the way of collective aspiration. For the most part, they must be confronted alone. Now and then.

Next: Toward The Accused, and her first Oscar

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Anne's House, Our House

Remembering Goodwife Bradstreet, homes lost and homes found, on the 345th anniversary of a personal calamity.

Even now I can see that house burning. The fire, a huge orange sheet, sweeps up toward the New England night, overrunning the wood, glass and thatching, gray smoke against a black sky. Clothing writhes, curls and blackens amid the overpowering heat. I'm stunned by the quietness of the destruction, which is punctuated by occasional crackling and the songs of crickets.
I wasn't there, of course. But Anne Bradstreet was. She would have been about 54 years old. She labeled the poem she later wrote with this heading: “Here followes some verses upon the burning of our house, July 10, 1666. Copeyed out of loose paper." The "loose paper" is evocative; it's as if she literally or figuratively grabbed a fragment of the ruins and tried to inscribe her memory on them, to somehow preserve what was irretrievably lost.
She knew she couldn't bring that house back. And deep down, she knew that she shouldn't be trying. In essence, that’s exactly what her poem was about.

And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine . . . .

The problem is that she does repine. She saying all the right things: that the house was never really hers to begin with, that all glory should go to God, that while his ways may be difficult to understand, they are always right – period. And yet as the poem proceeds, it's clear that she can't quite let the matter rest.

Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.

It's a heartbreaking scene – and one that bristles with tension. I picture her as she pictures herself, walking among the ashes. No no, she saying, it doesn't bother me a bit that this place I loved has gone up in smoke. I won’t miss the furniture, or my trinkets, or the company of friends and family that gave it life. More importantly, my faith is so secure that I need not grieve for it. Really.

No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.

Bradstreet didn’t want to come to America. Born in Northampton, England in 1612, she had been a child of relative privilege. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was a skilled manager who had transformed the balance sheet for Earl of Lincoln. Shortly after her marriage age 16 to Simon Bradstreet, she joined her new husband and father in founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 (both men later became governor). But while she thus some real stature in his fledgling community, she nevertheless found it difficult to adjust. As she later explained to her children, "I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country, at which my heart rose [in rebellion]. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the Church of Boston." You get the sense that there’s a lot of personal history compressed between those two sentences, a story she didn’t particularly want to tell at that point, the way parents sometimes don’t.
         To the difficulties involved in moving and the rigors of her faith was added another, which he described in language typical of the Puritans: "it pleased God to keep me a long time without children." She eventually raised eight in the frontier settlements of Ipswich and Andover (which is were the house that burned down as located), making the fact that she wrote any poetry all the more remarkable. Upon learning that she had accumulated a body of work, her brother-in-law brought some of it back to England, which was published in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. These poems, which demonstrate the degree to which Bradstreet absorbed Renaissance history and literature, had a largely public voice; one poem, for example, is a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I.
      But much of her work, especially her later work, has a more personal focus, and at times a startlingly modern edge. “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits,” she complained of those real or imagined figures who complained about her. She could also be a true romantic. "If ever two were won then surely we," she begins a poem "To My Dear and Loving Husband.”
        But the central struggle of Bradstreet's life as expressed in her writing can be described in terms of the Puritan injunction to live in the world but not be of it. “Farewell dear babe, my hearts too much content," she wrote of a grandchild who died in 1665 (she lost four and a daughter-in-law in rapid succession, which broke her heart). This passionate, if somewhat belated, love of the life she had made in America was checked by a higher sense of duty, the very sense of duty that led her and her compatriots to come to a foreign land in the first place.
Indeed, while the house and Bradstreet lived in was an actual structure of stone and wood – its very materiality was a source of its comfort – a "house" is not necessarily synonymous with a "home." If for her, and many of us, the concept of home can notes a series of concentric circles that includes one's family, birthplace, region, and nation, Bradstreet in some respects left home for good at an early age. The Puritans, after all, founded Massachusetts because they believed that King Charles I – a sovereign from the “house” of Stuart – was betraying the legacy of a Protestant Reformation that had transformed the houses, villages and cities of England. While Bradstreet's Massachusetts Puritans called their variety of the Church of England Protestantism “non-separating” (in contrast to the even more disenchanted Pilgrims who founded the colony of Plymouth when they arrived on the Mayflower in 1620) it's clear that they were trying to put as much distance between themselves and the mother country as possible.
Even so, the ties between house, home and nation remained deeply entwined. In the context of the 17th-century world, when English and Dutch renegades challenged the supremacy of Catholic Spain, virtually all sacred and secular striving to place in a world of emerging religion-based nation-states. When future Governor John Winthrop, who arrived in the same boat as Bradstreet did, implored his fellow emigrants to found a fabled "city on a hill" even before they arrived in Boston, he took it for granted that a new Jerusalem could not be born in Spanish Mexico or French Québec. These people went on an errand into the wilderness to found a New England. And they did so – and distinguished themselves from the "savages" they conquered – not by building forts or trading posts, though they certainly did build those, but rather by building houses, far more of them in New England than anywhere else in the “new” world.
So it was by this twisted path that Bradstreet’s house really had become a home as fact and symbol, an emblem of family and nation. And yet a spiritual restlessness would not quite allow her to live there at ease. In her poetry otherworldly commitments always have the last word. "The world no longer let me love," she concludes or elegy to her burned house. "My hope and Treasure lies above."
If, by some magical process, I could be transported into the wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, circa 1666, I would guess that Anne Bradstreet would not be so familiar. The differences between us – of sex, religion, and the sheer weight of history coursing like the Merrimack River near her house – are so great that I wonder if we could really communicate, even if we were both speaking the same language. To say, on the basis of reading a poem about her house burning down, that I understand how she feels, is more likely to trivialize her experience than honor her memory.
And yet I feel drawn to her. Some of this can be expressed in simple geography. I, too, have seen and marveled at “the trees all richly clad, yet void of pride” (as she describes the New England landscape in her celebrated poem "Contemplations"), trees that remain even after the advance of the interstate highway and cellphone tower. But there's more to it than that. Across the centuries, she and her children, literal and figurative, have shared a belief that their destinies would be found on the shores.
This is, of course, a familiar myth, though it isn't quite elastic enough to effortlessly incorporate other Americans, like slaves who didn't choose to immigrate, or Indians who (in this millennium anyway) didn't immigrate here at all and in fact were forced to emigrate further away. Still, for all its obvious shortcomings, the myth of America as adopted home has helped explain – better yet, it has helped unify – a nation that could, and did, find plenty of other reasons to be a house divided.
But I now realize that what may be the most important thing I share with Anne Bradstreet is a sense of shame. Her shame derive from a deep, but not altogether justifiable, love for the house that burned down in 1666. My house – our house – has not burned down. Yet we live in it with a sense of foreboding, because we know it cannot last forever, and we sometimes fear it may be demolished sooner rather than later. But our unease is not simply a sense of anxiety about the future; it also involves a sense of nagging unease about the past. We love the house even as are aware, however vaguely, of the displacements that made it possible, as well as the evasions that allow it to stand even as I sit to write these words. We cannot really expect mercy. But, God help us, we hope for it anyway. Here, for now, for the grace of Anne, we lie in our beds on summer nights.

A notably good recent biography of Anne Bradstreet is Charlotte Gordon's Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet (2005). For a nicely sculpted introduction to Bradstreet's work, I recommend Heidi Nichols's compact paperback Anne Bradsteet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet (2006) Much of Bradstreet's poetry is available online.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Admirably bad girl

In The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Jodie Foster showcases a form of grim feminism that seems necessary given the malicious character of American life

The following post is part of a work-in-progress on Hollywood actors as historians.

Taxi Driver was a paradigmatic movie in Jodie Foster's career in pointing toward the dark tenor of her mature work. But the transformation of her child persona did not happen right away. Foster followed Taxi Driver with Freaky Friday (1976), another of her Disney films, and one that can be said to be her first true star vehicle. The movie, based on the classic 1972 children’s novel of the same name features Foster as young teen who switches identities with her mother (Barbara Harris) after eating an enchanted fortune cookie, each gaining a better appreciation of the other’s life (it was competently remade in 2003 with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis in the daughter/mother roles). Foster followed it up with Candleshoe (1977), her final Disney outing, in which she plays a street waif who masquerades as the long lost heir of an old woman (Helen Hayes) who lives in a dilapidated estate managed by her butler (David Niven).   
Foster’s success at imprinting herself on the collective imagination as the tomboy next door is impressive, but also a bit odd. That’s not only because she was simultaneously emerging as a serious actor on the strength of her work in Taxi Driver, but also because she was making films abroad as well. In the Canadian production Echoes of a Summer (1974), which preceded Taxi Driver and shows her growing range, she plays a terminally ill child who befriends a young boy while living at a waterfront house on the Atlantic coast amid parents with divergent styles of coping with the tragedy. In Moi, Fleur Bleue (1977; English title: Stop Calling Me Baby) she plays a teen who accompanies her older sister to Paris, eager for sexual experience. And in the Italian film Il Casotto (“The Beach House,” 1977), she’s a pregnant teen whose parents want her married. These movies are all over the map in tone and content, though alike in their relative mediocrity. Actually, Foster would be afflicted with generally inferior material from the late seventies to the late eighties. Despite this, one can begin to see a characteristic pattern emerge in the film roles she landed, most of which still reflect her mother’s sensibility. And that sensibility is one of girls finding and showing strength in the face of terrible (usually male) behavior.
The most vivid early document in this regard is a Canadian-French production, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1977). Little Girl is a strange hybrid of a movie, combing elements of the horror and thriller genres while somehow leading you to suspend your judgment about a protagonist who probably really should be viewed as a monster and yet somehow comes off as a heroine. Set in a remote Maine town, Foster plays Rynn, a remarkably self-sufficient early adolescent who presumably lives with her father. Yet he’s not in the rental house where she lives when the landlady’s daughter (a menacing young pedophile played by Martin Sheen) stops by on Halloween and aggressively makes his sexual interest clear. That’s bad enough, but in ensuing days the landlady herself proves to be far too nosy about her family arrangements, demanding to see Rynn’s father. She also seeks to go into the basement of the house for some jelly glasses, something Rynn refuses to let her do. When the landlady insists, and goes down anyway, her shock at what she finds – something we don’t see – leads to an accident that causes her death.
Over the course of the story, Rynn befriends a friendly police officer, and begins a romance with the officer’s nephew. As that relationship takes root, we learn that Rynn’s father was a loving man but terminally ill. Her mother, by contrast, was dangerously abusive, and after the couple’s divorce he gained custody of their daughter. Upon his death, he left instructions for Rynn to give her mother potassium cynanide in a cup of tea if she ever came looking for her, something Rynn successfully does. The landlady came across the body in the basement, which had led to her own death. Rynn and her boyfriend would have been able to maintain these secrets – they bury the bodies outside the house – but the landlady’s son continues to stalk Rynn, and his subsequent discoveries culminate in sexual blackmail. So Rynn poisons him, too.
There’s something coolly bloodless about Little Girl – the credits roll as Sheen’s character quietly chokes off-screen – in the way it leads us to admire its protagonist. Foster’s character shows a functional independence striking for a child her age, and her actions (or in the case of reporting the landlady’s death, inaction) reflect not only her pragmatism, but behavior that seems justified in light of the malice her antagonists exhibit toward her. (We enjoy watching her poker face as she outwits Sheen, anticipating that he would insist drinking her tea, which is the cup she’s poisoned.) What’s also important here is that legal authorities, like that police officer, are unable to help even when they show good will. In an important sense, Little Girl is a feminist movie, in that it shows an empowered female acting effectively in her own interest. But it’s a grim form of feminism, one driven not by a sense of hope about what women may yet accomplish than a belief that survival is a matter of fighting back against a hostile world by any means necessary.
The last two movies of Foster’s childhood (which is to say the last two she made before going to college) are not quite so bleak, but nevertheless portray worlds in which dangerous men and random violence are pervasive facts of life. In Carny (1980), she plays a runaway waitress who gets a job at a carnival and becomes involved in a romantic triangle between Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson, the legendary leader of the classic rock group The Band, and a producer of the movie. Though the film has a contemporary setting, its core scenario is redolent of carnival road shows dating back to the nineteenth century, particularly in its depiction of the friction, if not hostility, that often characterized the relationship between performers and the locals in the towns where they performed. The tensions between the two friends and in the communities they visit pales, however, before the threat posed by the gangsters who seek to extort money from the troupe at one stop in its tour of the south. Busey and Robertson’s characters ultimately foil this effort, but before Foster’s character endures a brutal near-rape that stopped only by the rapist having his throat slit. It’s truly remarkable how much violence Foster characters experienced in her child acting career, and while all of it was clearly “pretend,” it’s hard to believe that at some level it did not seep into her psyche somehow.
Foster’s other movie of 1980, Foxes, is not as dark, and indeed it has a slick contemporary feel to it, as it was the first film directed by Adrian Lyne, who would go on to have a highly successful commercial career later in the decade. In this movie she was again portrays a precious teen, something of a chic mother hen among a group of high school friends, and in her way perhaps more mature than her own mother, played by Sally Kellerman, who is trying to navigate the new social mores of the late seventies in the aftermath of her divorce. There’s plenty of sex and drugs in Foxes, whose themes anticipated the more successful (and durable) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). But the climax of the movie is a violent tragedy that befalls Foster’s best friend and which leaves her bereft at the end of the story.
 Next: Foster's acting career in college.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Declaration of dreams

This essay, published in the current weekly edition of the History News Network, is adapted from the newly released “Twilights Gleaming: The American Dream and the Ends of Republics,” in The American Dream in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Sandra Hanson and John White.

What is the point of this story?
What information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts
And our brains
--Paul Simon,
“Train in the Distance” (1983)

“America is a young country,” people sometimes say. What they really seem to mean is: “the United States is a young nation.” Such a statement makes some sense if one thinks of a political entity that came into existence circa July 4, 1776. It makes less sense when one considers that the Constitution that followed about a dozen years later is the oldest written functioning one in the world. Compared with a traditional nation-state like France or Spain, sure—the United States is a young nation, even if France has had a few republics since then.
But that swath of territory between Canada, Mexico, and a pair of oceans is not a particularly young country, if one thinks of a country as an entity with a (loosely) shared history, language, and culture. For such a place, the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 matters more than what happened in that late-blooming city of Philadelphia in 1776. Many of the hallmarks of what we have come to know as “American life” took root then, among them a penchant for relatively strong local governments, religious pluralism, and a comparatively high standard of living, even for slaves. Among the most important was the emergence of a deep and durable belief in the efficacy of individual aspiration that Alexander de Tocqueville, in his closely observed two-volume study, Democracy in America (1835/40) dubbed “the charm of anticipated success.” In modern times, we have come to know it as The American Dream. This dream, codified as “the pursuit of happiness,” was affirmed, not created, in 1776. It was already old by then.
Ever since, the Declaration of Independence has functioned as the banner of the American Dream, one repeatedly waved by figures that included women’s rights activists, populists, homosexuals, and anyone who has ever believed that happiness can not only be pursued, but attained. The U.S. Constitution, which marked the other bookend of the nation’s creation, lacks the mythic resonances of the Declaration, though it takes little reflection to see that it is the backdrop, if not the foundation, for all American Dreams. Whatever their disagreements about its scope or character, most Americans would agree that their national government is legitimate insofar as it permits a level playing field of dreams. Many of us have doubts that the government does serve this function; many fewer have doubts that it should.
            But again: the American Dream was alive and well, even if nobody called it as such, long before there was a Declaration, a Constitution, or even a United States of America. The life of Benjamin Franklin, who rose from obscurity to fame and fortune a generation before the American Revolution, makes that clear. Indeed, as historians of the Revolution have long asserted, much of the energy for independence, at least initially, was understood as a struggle by the colonists who feared losing an old way of life in a reorganized British empire, not creating a new one. In an important sense American society in many colonies preceded anything resembling a powerful, centralized government, and even after independence.
            So the American Dream is more the product of a cultural environment than a political ideology or a set of political arrangements. The Dream thrived in a monarchy before it did in a republic. And, some might way say, the Dream seems to be thriving in a civilization that has long since become an empire. In fact, some might go further and say that the American Dream itself is an imperial construct, a sense of possibility for some that necessarily depends on taking it away from others—in this case Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexicans, among others.
There is, of course, considerable cogency to this view. But it may also explain a little too much: As far as I can tell, every society has derived its legitimacy through some means of apportioning and distributing opportunity to its members, however broadly or narrowly defined, whether the society in question is that of the ancient Mayans or the presumably egalitarian Soviet Union. And that has usually meant confiscating the resources of others. If we must shed our illusions about the Dream being a uniquely good thing, I think we should also recognize it has not been uniquely bad. It is, simply, one of those things—maybe the most important thing—that defines us as a country. It is the unum in our pluribus.