I had the distinct privilege of interacting with two of the actress guests at EbertFest 2011. That would be the delightful Rachel Harris of Natural Selection and the estimable Tilda Swinton of "I Am Love".
I met Rachel Harris after Thursday night's movies as a group set off for an impromptu karoke night at Bentley's.
And I got to ask Tilda Swinton the very first audience question at the Q&A panel after the showing of her movie. From the 3rd row center. Yeow!
Perhaps uniquely, and certainly counterintuitively, it seemed to me that their very different movies had essentially the same plotline: unfulfilled woman leaves town and does something about it.
So let me group these two movies together for discussion.
1. Natural Selection
Rachel Harris is the star of this indie film, shot in 18 days and still seeking distribution. Roger Ebert was significantly impressed with the film's showing at SWSX in Austin and quickly added it to the schedule at EbertFest. First time director Robbie Pickering wrote and directed this impressive tale set in his home town in Texas, inspired by his mother's impending widowhood and her future of facing life on her own.
Harris plays Linda White, a faithful wife in a strained 25-year marriage. Strained, in large part, by her husband's strict religious view of sex, even within the confines of Christian marriage, as only for the purpose of procreation. A discovery made after her husband's unexpected stroke sets her off on a journey to find his son that she didn't know he had and bring the son home to him as a last request. Chased cross-country by their smitten married pastor, who clearly has a thing for her, events conspire against her. Hilarity and personal revelation ensue, culminating in a stunning late-night confessional scene. Moving and powerful.
I loved the movie, principally for how it framed two powerful issues: religion, and long-term marriage. I related to both topics, and it affects how I see the movie.
Director Robbie Pickering addressed the topic of religion in the Q&A session after the movie. His mother, knowing that the film was essentially about her, asked him not to mock the religion he grew up with or her church & friends. He wanted to respect that. I got to ask him about that the next night as we walked to the karoke bar. Was he picking on religion? "Of course I was. What's the point of making a film that doesn't pick at it some?"
From my point of view, he both picked at religion and respected it in a reasonably good balance. I wasn't quite sure as the story developed, and I was steeling myself for the standard Hollywood liberal mockery of religion, especially of the Texas bible-belt brand that Pickering grew up in. It wasn't looking good on its face. The too strict attitude on sex, for example. I go to church weekly in a conservative evangelical church, and I don't know anyone with that strict of a belief that sex in marriage is only for having kids and never for pleasure. That seemed a strawman setup. Also, the hypocritical strict pastor who clearly is lusting for his married parishoner.
What swayed me though, what told me the religious background of the plot had a ring of authenticity, was three things:
First, the music. There is a scene where Linda is driving and she puts in a Christian cassette tape in her car. She says it's "Sally Patty". Wow. That is authentic. An authentic reference to Christian singer Sandy Patty. If you're a Protestant Christian for the last twenty years or so you've heard Sandy Patty sing. I had just watched several videos of SP on YouTube over Easter, like "Via Dolorosa". I got the reference immediately. It locked in authenticity. I asked Rbbie Pickering about the "Sally Patty" reference. He said his mom was a big fan, and the first concert he went to was a Sandy Patty concert. Pickering had a good sport of picking at religion, but it was also clearly authentic to him, and he respected his mother's religious faith. I appreciated that.
Second, Rachel Harris's portrayal of Linda White respected religion and her family. Harris herself took a swipe at "batshit crazy" religion during the Q&A. But, she didn't in character, in acting out the script that Pickering had written for her. There were plot points where they could have had Linda rebel and take gratuitous swipes at her church and her upbringing and her husband. But, they didn't. Even when she felt betrayed, she didn't lash out and trash them. She played Linda with strength and grace, not shallowness and vulgarity.
Third, Linda White had a chance to renounce her religion. There's a pivotal scene where she arrives at the son's house and tries to talk to him through the door. He shouts aggressively "I don't want any Jesus shit!". Three times. It would have been so easy for Linda, with what she's been through, to say I don't either. But she doesn't, and she never does. This is purely my impression, but I think this scene is writer / director Robbie Pickering talking to his mother through his script. I get it. You don't want any Jesus shit. But you respect that your mother does, and there's enough of it still in you that you portrayed that authentically. I appreciate that.
I'm 30 years married this Summer, which is why I related to the authenticity of the White's 25-year marriage. People tell me that it's rare anymore to be married that long. I'm not sure that's true. It's not rare in my family. But, having that experience behind me helped me to appreciate the central crisis in the movie. To appreciate the authenticity of the tension of both strain and strength in a 25-year marriage. Perhaps that will go right by most movie-goers. Perhaps the writer/director hasn't yet experienced that himself but he faithfully transcribed it from his mother's experience. But, he got it right.
The central scene in the movie to me, besides the diner confessional, was a quiet scene with Linda White and her husband retiring to bed - with just these few lines:
Linda: "Why did you...
Husband: "Betray you?"
Linda: "...marry me?"
Wow. The whole weight of the movie is in those three lines. You know by her question that he didn't do her any favors by marrying her. Ouch.
I watched Natural Selection as a Christian man in a 30 year marriage. I saw it in that context. Said ouch a few times, but I loved the film.
I wanted to ask a question in the Q&A, and it would've been this: "What does the title mean, and does it mean the same to Pickering as it does to Harris?" Wish I had asked it. I'm asking it now.
2. I Am Love
This Italian film with English subtitles could not be more different in tone than "Natural Selection". It's sensibility is very European, and I am very not. Yet, it has the same essential plot: an unfullfilled woman does something about that.
Why is she unfulfilled? Well, it takes a long time to tease that out. The movie takes its time establishing the family and the family dynamics. Tilda Swinton's character, Emma - a Russian national in an Italian family, is both the wife and mother of succesor's to a rich industrialist's factory ownership. This is not fullfilling for Emma. Why? Well, because as it turns out - she doesn't fit in the family. Why that is is revealed in a brief conversation with the family chef:
Antonio: "How did you meet Tancredi?"
Emma: "He came to Russia looking for treasures for his home."
She was apparently one of the treasures that he brought home. An art piece, nothing more. Unloved, unfullfilled, she is willing to give that up even if it means going peasant Bohemian.
That's what I got out of it anyway. I didn't love it. I'm glad I saw it. And I enjoyed the setting in Milan - a city that I have been to and photographed.
My question to Tilda Swinton was this: "I loved the street scenes in Milan. You walked by the Duomo, by the Central Station, by the little church where Da Vinci's "Last Supper" hangs. Did you choose Milan as the setting, and how important were those street scenes to the film?" And she looked right at me in the 3rd row and answered wonderfully.
Two films with the same theme: an unfulfilled woman does something about it. One resonated with me, one was foreign to me. Which is why I say that "Natural Selection" told that tale better of the two.
And two great experiences with wonderful actresses & a director. That was me having the full EbertFest experience.
PostScript: Two further moments with "Natural Selection" Director Robbie Pickering
1. Robbie and Rachel Harris did not leave the festival after their film showing day, as I think a lot do, but stayed for much of the festival. I would see them kicking around the theater every day. On Thursday night after the showing of Richard Linklater's "Orson Welles and Me", I saw Robbie run down to the 2nd row in the VIP section to get a fanboy picture of Linklater onstage at his Q&A. Just like I do! That was fascinating, to see one director as a fan of another. So, of course I took a picture of Robbie Pickering taking a picture of Richard Linklater. Here it is:
2. I took several pics of Pickering and Harris onstage in the Natural Selection Q&A. As I was editing the sets, I saw this one with Pickering staring right at me as if to say "Dude, you're killing me with that camera!" As I probably was.
You can see my EbertFest photo galleries at http://www.lickcreekphotography.com/