Thursday, December 04, 2008

Blood for Blood

In The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston is cast as a superstarlet, good enough at acting to win Academy gold. In that film, considering Houston’s limited thespian range, the gesture was assuredly an affirmation of performative prowess, despite the action on screen. These 16 years later, a like shadow runs over Clint Eastwood’s latest bleakie, The Changeling. Before one frame of the pic was shot, there was Oscar speak of Jolie’s turn in this missing children (melo)drama. And sure enough, before venturing off to the cinema today, I was on the phone with a friend. “Oh, she’s supposed to take home an Oscar for that.” Well, the film deigns to think so too. There’s a completely throw-away scene so-near the denoument in which the girls at her office beg Jolie to attend an Oscar party. She cannot oblige them as there’s entirely too much work to be done, but she still listens over the radio. Cleopatra is up against It Happened One Night and Jolie waits with her hands wrung over her chest as they choose her preferred feature. Our alignment with her character (and knowledge of Cleopatra’s dubious reign over film history) congratulates the Academy for their sound choice and… perhaps appeals that the wisdom echo in the 21st century? As the crane scales over the scene of the final shot, we reregister the title on the marquee down the road.

Clint Eastwood has joined the ranks of the Hollywood “stuff of legends” department here. Every moment of the film ebbs a bankroll of studio confidence and Eastwood delivers manipulative moments of duress on par with the likes of Spielberg. All the chips are stacked against our heroine and we/she are put through the debilitating motions of denial, tears, even grimy institutionalization (yes, replete with scenes of electroshock therapy). All of this with one hand on the Art dial to make these utter 50s claims at genre trickery seem required, justified and adding to the auteurist necessities of Eastwood’s vision. Anyone who has read this blog more than once should know that I mean no good on this claim. I’ve been infrequent in posts here as I’ve revisited some old friends in recent weeks. There was a trend of missing children films that I took to writing of first on these “pages” with Panic Room, The Forgotten, Flightplan, Freedomland and The Invasion and have been recently developed a second academic analysis. The Changeling was required reading, as it were. It’s all there, part and parcel, but blended with a vaguely Chinatown vie at credibility. We’ve even got the dirty police cover-up and an actress who, at her toughest, could perhaps get Faye Dunaway to give that flawed retina an awesome tremble.

The missing child film speaks nothing to missing children, but to the horrors latent in the heart of contemporary culture. Emma Wilson’s lovely book, Cinema’s Missing Children goes so far as the venture that the 1990s abduction/murder narratives were attempts at representing the horror and abject despair which is all but representable. They functioned as meditations on the space of complete loss. After 9/11, these dialogues assumed a more patriotic purpose and the child came to figure as the social as these structural figures vanished on that day. The child is both the social order that seemed to evaporate until Bush sounded the war horns and the security which felt similarly abused, rotten from the outside. When the child is returned in most of these pictures, the symbolic/political structure which seems to have toppled is now in full form again, bathed in the golden lights of the films’ reunion scenes.

So why does mister Eastwood find it necessary to tell this tale now? After the infamous flop of The Invasion, it would seem child abduction narratives are on the wane. Nor does he allow the moments of raw emotion to erupt and address the true horror of the scene (sorry Joles, that fantastic lip tremble just don’t cut it). To attest that this sort of missing child narrative has always existed is not quite it, either. Perhaps the nostalgia of “better” times (certainly better clothes) functions to suggest that even our vies for pre-Nam ideals for “the family” are not as sound as they appear. There’s not even much sense of family even in Eastwood’s world, just justice and vengence. When the child finds its parent (there are a few gone missing here) they are whisked from the narrative toute suite. No, this is about vengeance. This is a re-jigged, Dirty Harry appeal of eye for eye. Jolie simpers and purges those inexhaustible aquaducts, but quickly flips the switch and sneers on, through many trial sequences. This is not Wanted, dear, though you’d never know it from the gratuitous and gleeful hanging scene (which recalls the scene from Capote which, umm… got an Oscar) and the Hills Have Eyes-eque Riverside farm house with whirring old fans and Texas Chainsaw style rusted blades scattered about.

Not much adds up and you feel really toyed with. But you feel justified through Jolie’s successes, which you knew were coming from the start. But those successes somewhere lose track of what they were aiming for. Unless they were aiming at impeccable wardrobe design, because, however much I sneered at this grisly film’s emotional assaults, I did gasp at all the great cowl necks, flapper suits and fur lined coats. Jolie certainly found the right role in terms of lipstick shades, but it would be nice if it went beyond that.