Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Citizen Ruth

I'm not sure what to say about this one. Was it entertaining? Yes, I guess so. The humor in this movie felt kind of like following someone else's footprints on a snowy path: each step was right there where it was supposed to be. The right-to-lifers were obnoxious hypocrites who wore too much hairspray and whose teenage daughter's demeanor belied their happy-family exterior. Most of them, though, were men, as is often the case. The pro choice people were lesbians in sensible shoes and bad haircuts, women who had passionate beliefs about pregnancy, something they have to pay $20,000 a pop for (or if you're less cynical, $10,98 for a turkey baster). Let me back up here, though, and explain that the premise of the movie is that when Laura Dern's character, Ruth, who is a hopeless fume-huffing, alcoholic wastrel, finds herself pregnant, the judge publicly charges her with reckless endangerment of her fetus and privately intimates that if she gets an abortion the charges will be dropped. The result is a fanatical activists' turf war over the fruits of Ruth's womb.

Laura Dern plays this character quite well, but even Ruth is a "type," and that is what is so irksome about this film. In trying to prove a point, the filmmakers (men, incidentally) made the characters into iconic activists and even an iconic drug abusing Jane. Iconic as she is, Jane is probably the least offensive in the story, and her stupidity makes for some truly funny moments. For example, the pro-life family takes her to a pro-life clinic, where the doctor and the nurse give her an extremely biased description of the development of the fetus and then urge her to make the right choice and keep the baby. Her response is a refreshing, "Are you fuckin' people deaf? I said I want an abortion." She does this in a number of arenas, with both factions as well as with the media. The point, ground in practically to dust, is that Ruth is the only honest character, that even though she is ignorant, naive, and misguided, she's still actually better and smarter than extremists at either end. That probably is reasonably true, but so what? Of course the
truly (supposedly) poignant scene is where the factions begin to fight with each other in earnest and she finally stands and yells that isn't it her body and doesn't she ultimately have the choice. That's the great directorial slap
across our collective faces, I gather, where we're supposed to jump up and take notice and say, yeah, what about all that??

I still am not entirely convinced that there's a point to this movie, at least to those of us who have spent more than a minute thinking about the terrible selection one must make in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. Neither decision is a good one, I'm sure, and this movie sort of confirmed my ambivalence. So, once again, I find myself asking why I spent my two hours on a movie. The real reason I watched Citizen Ruth was that it was suggested to me kindly as an example of dark comedy, so now I must think carefully about why it doesn't qualify as dark comedy in my mind. Well, the premise of objectifying Ruth's unborn baby has an element of disregard for life that Wes Gehring suggests as characteristic of dark comedy. Hmmm...thinking more about this, maybe I'm wrong. Gehring also talks about the futility of going on, that the sense behind characters in dark comedies is that one has to keep on, even in the face of misery and despair, because “the message is that there is no message, so audience members had best steal a laugh before they are too dead to even do that” (Dark Comedy Film 2).

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