Monday, 7 February 2011

Alan Rudolph and Moral Relativity (Notes on Equinox and Mortal Thoughts)

Habitually situated somewhere between farce and melodrama, Alan Rudolph’s eccentric comedies often take aim at sexual politics in a manner that can be provocative and unsettling. In the occasionally successful Equinox (available in its entirety on You Tube), Mathew Modine plays separated at birth twins Freddie and Henry: ambitious gangster and everyman mechanic, whose paths eventually cross in duly dramatic fashion. The film is puzzling even by Rudolph’s standards: full of blind alleys, non-sequiturs and other such dot dot dots. But the final picture that emerges is surprisingly troubling for what it does say, rather than for what it doesn’t.

The capital-T Theme (as signalled by the title) is the balance between light and dark, good and bad; the nice and the nasty. The film’s primary achievement however is in signalling each twins own personal moral equilibrium (their inner equinox, if you will) most successfully conveyed in Henry, the nice guy mechanic. At first we meet a character crippled by self consciousness, and seemingly petrified of women. His best friend attempts to get him to meet his sister, but Henry is reluctant to go. At home, Rosie (Marisia Tomai), an attractive but mouthy young prostitute neighbour begs him to look after her crying infant, and when she rewards him with a kiss he pretty much collapses in shock.

But as the film continues we start to know a different character. When Rosie returns and bestows him more than a kiss, Henry feels emboldened enough to violently confront her aggressive pimp. Rosie is of a classic Rudolph type – the melancholic woman who uses sex as self medication. “I like men. I like the feel of their bodies” she says, echoing similar comments by Eve in Choose Me. Henry’s new found aggression directly leads to Rosie’s death. At first he seems to acknowledge the consequences of his surprising behaviour, but rather than examining this guilt Rudolph chooses to switch focus to another odd-romance, now between Henry and his friend’s sister, Beverly.

Beverly (Lara Flynn Boyle) is an equally morose woman who medicates with wine rather than men. We first see her at home, reading Emily Dickinson out loud to herself and receiving silent phone calls from the frustrated Henry. They are finally brought together at a meal with Beverly’s brother. The unease between them is eventually explained as the residue of a previous sexual encounter.  “It was wonderful, Henry” she says, flatly. “I enjoyed it. Didn’t you?” Her face tells a different story. “I forced myself on you, Beverly” Henry confesses, but she wants to downplay the aggression. “You were forceful but you didn’t force yourself on me...entirely.” She looks wounded, but steadies herself. “We laughed, and we touched each other, and we made love. And I felt comfortable...sort of.” The encounter was a month ago, and in the meantime Henry hadn’t called (well, at least he hadn’t called and spoken) Beverly’s sense of rejection, and her own confusion at the events, has clearly led to some kind of depression. “Was I really that horrible?” she asks, turning what sounds like a sexual assault into a failure of her own making. Henry is similarly confused; scared of the sexual aggression that clouds his desire for Beverly. “There’s always this pushing and pulling inside of me. I don’t know what it is, it’s just there. I never know what to do, so I just don’t do anything.”

Strikingly, these two female characters both seem to will themselves into abusive relationships. Rosie shows no sign of wanting to ditch her pimp and Beverly is happy to view Henry’s Jekyll and Hyde routine as a mark of mischannelled affection. Like in Choose Me (where the three female characters all find themselves drawn to a mysterious, and possibly murderous homme fatale) Rudolph’s women are desperate romantics (self deluded or not) masochistically allowing themselves to be subjugated to male authority.

Rudolph’s previous film, Mortal Thoughts, concerns the killing of an abusive male, and two female victims who attempt to cover up the crime. In this film we get no Henry style mea culpa from the two dimensionally horrid James (Bruce Willis). Yet strangely this lack of hand wringing does not stop the film from entering into its own moral grey area. The story is structured around the police interrogation of Cynthia (Demi Moore), best friend of Joyce (Glenne Headly), James’ widow and chief suspect. In contrast to Equinox, this time we actually get to see the sexual assault, but Rudolph leaves it until near the end of the film. James is stabbed by his distressed prey, and eventually bleeds to death. His act of sexual violence is summarily punished, but any Thelma and Louise style justification is negated by a plot twist that appears to frame one of the women as a crafty manipulator, thus turning Willis’ misogynist ogre into some kind of victim.

Whilst both films are most likely minor works in the director’s canon, each is notable for this subversive approach to sexual aggression. Rudolph’s unexpected probing of the liberal consensus regarding non-consensual sex makes for uncomfortable viewing.

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