‘American Woman’ and More From the Tribeca Film Fest

Mark Read May 8, 2019

American Woman, directed by Semi Chellas

The Patty Hearst story is an odd, murky chapter in recent U.S. history, littered with sensational images and contradictory accounts. Was Hearst — the kidnapped heiress to a fortune turned machine-gun-toting bank robber —  a victim or a revolutionary? Was she a class traitor or a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome?

The project of this understated film by first time director Semi Chellas is not to answer these questions in any definitive sense, but to use the questions that these remarkable and confounding events raise as a mechanism to spark the creative imagination.

This is a quiet film about riotous events, but Chellas slows things down enough for us to catch a glimpse of the damaged people at the center of the story.

American Woman, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is a work of speculative historical fiction adapted from the novel of the same name by Susan Choi. Choi based her novel on the account of Wendy Yoshimura (called Jenny in the film and played by Hong Chuao), who helped Patty Hearst evade capture by the FBI in 1975. Although Choi changed the names of all the principal characters along with many of the details, she hewed closely enough to the facts to allow the story to read as a series of speculative answers to the questions that the Hearst story prompts in us; questions about the post-1960’s revolutionary fervor that gripped America and about life on the lamb in the underground.

The speculative, interrogatory orientation of the film is established in the very first scene, where an FBI agent, the essential interlocutor throughout the film, asks the imprisoned Jenny “what are you girls so angry about?”

It’s a good question of course and has the benefit of being simple. The answer is of course anything but simple. To it’s credit this film does not yield anything in the face of that complexity. Although it clearly has a moral point of view, American Woman is largely experienced as enigmatic and inconclusive. To many viewers, this inconclusiveness, and the film’s correspondingly low-key tone, will no doubt feel unsatisfying. It is certainly an interesting choice from Chellas, to make such a quiet film about such riotous events, but in doing so she slows things down enough for us to catch a glimpse of the damaged people at the center of the story so that we might come to see their damage as emblematic of a damaged country.

At the beginning of the film, we find Jenny working as a domestic servant in Upstate New York, furtively writing letters to former comrades while living underground as a fugitive after bombing several draft centers. Patty Hearst (called Pauline in the film and played by Sarah Gadon) and her comrades Juan (John Gallagher Jr.) and his girlfriend Yvonne (Lola Kirke) have narrowly escaped an FBI assault on their compound in Southern California, as reported on the TV News that Jenny watches with her employer. Soon after, Jenny is contacted by a former member of her radical cadre who is hiding Pauline, Juan and Yvonne at a farmhouse in Monticello. He hires Jenny to take care of the fugitives — buying groceries, running errands, cooking — so that they can write a book about their escapades, which all expect will bring in significant cash “for the revolution.” Most of the film takes place in this claustrophobic, tense and menacing environment.

The menace is provided by Juan, who seems constantly on the verge of violence. His rhetoric about being on the side “of the people” is belied by his bullying cruelty toward the women with whom he is engaged with in “the struggle.” He sneeringly calls Pauline “princess,” constantly ridiculing her for not being sufficiently revolutionary while behaving like the most retrograde misogynist one could possibly imagine. Meanwhile, his sexpot girlfriend seems not to have a political bone in her body but is in it for the kicks and the booze. She shoots off guns and dances seductively. The two of them present as a pair of narcissistic sociopaths, dominating their captive-cum-comrade at every opportunity.

These characters, it is clear, are intended to be representative of a certain kind of so-called “revolutionary” from the 1970s: cynical, angry young people whose political analysis is either twisted or nonexistent or hypocritical, motivated more by their own personal damage than any form of critique. I have no doubt that such a type is based in reality, but I think the story might have benefited from a less cartoonish representation of the radical fringe.

For the sake of the story, they serve as a counterpoint to Jenny, who is the moral center of the film and representative of the ethical revolutionary. Jenny says as much to her fellow travelers, whom she reminds on more than one occasion how she only bombed empty buildings and that nobody was ever hurt, in contrast to the tactics of the “People’s Liberation Army” (standing in for the Symbionese Liberation Army which abducted Hearst) which is guilty of murder.

Furthermore, we discover along the way that Jenny’s anti-war activity was motivated by her family’s experience of Japanese internment during World War II. The filmmakers make it clear that Jenny is not like the rest of them, and yet there they are together, part of the same underground subculture of revolutionaries wanted by the law. After all, it’s Jenny’s job to be there. She’s getting paid to help them write an inflammatory book in the hopes of making yet more money to keep up the work of “the revolution.” The moral messiness is a central feature of the story and it infuses every relationship.

What ultimately transpires is a battle over custody of Pauline, who is the innocent. She didn’t sign up for a life underground, after all. She was conscripted into the revolution. A tug of war ensues between good and evil over her fate — an old and archetypal story, but nonetheless compelling when told well and nested within a specific context.

This film does that.

In 1970s America many people still believed that revolution was not only necessary but imminent and that they could help bring it about. Jenny was apparently one such person, but Pauline? Pauline was merely caught up in the tides of history, notable only because of her family’s fortune. Those tides put Jenny in Pauline’s path. In quietly telling the story of Jenny and paying real attention to the particular historical conditions in which it took place, the filmmakers have offered up a real treat of a film, though perhaps not one with mass appeal.

A Day in the Life of America, Directed by Jared Leto

On July 4th, 2018, ninety-two film crews were dispatched to all fifty states plus Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. All the video seen in this film was shot during that 24 hour period, in an effort to create a sweeping portrait of America at this current moment in time. Dubbed “apolitical” by its director, Hollywood superstar Jared Leto, the movie moves briskly from place to place and story to story, all set to an anthemic rock-and-roll soundtrack recorded by Leto’s band Thirty Seconds to Mars. This is a high-concept work by one of America’s biggest celebrities, a monumental, ambitious film stunt in service to the project of deepening our understanding of our country. As such, I felt compelled to go see it. I was sorely disappointed in the results.

A Day in the Life is pure spectacle, a vapid paeon to diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance, with a lot of flags and fireworks. This is a political project, despite Leto’s idiotic insistence that it is “apolitical,” and the film functions as an aggressive assertion of American Exceptionalism.

A Day in the Life is all surface and style — rock anthems, wacky characters, great visuals.

It’s not the Manifest Destiny version of that exceptionalism nor is it the MAGA version. Yet the liberal take on American Exceptionalism is no less aggrandizing and far more annoying. There’s the requisite articulation of universalist values like individual liberty and freedom of expression. “In America, you get to decide who you want to be,” says one character after another, in various parlance and regional accent.

Isn’t that awesome? How can you not like that? Then there’s the display of that freedom and its resulting diversity, shown in living color to teach us about the central importance of that other key liberal virtue: tolerance. To this end we meet a trans woman in Coney Island who left her Hasidic community in order to live as her true self, a gay black man in Houston who lives with the specter of violent intolerance and a group of KKK members in Alabama that want to ensure that America remains “white and Christian.” America is a big tent, you see, and we need to acknowledge one another. Why can’t we all just get along?

Of course, America isn’t perfect. Some people have it harder than others. Thankfully, the filmmakers elicit endless bromides about the unfulfilled promise of this great nation. While I myself am sympathetic to the notion that America is a “great idea” that has yet to be realized, absent a real discussion of how or why that promise has remained unfulfilled or of how we might yet fulfill it, the film remains at the level of pure platitude, an empty gesture. But including such a discussion, which I am sure several characters in this film were capable of having, would have made this moving “political,” and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Well, why not, is really the question isn’t it? The answer probably lies in how and why the film was made in the first place. It is a confection borne of Hollywood of, by and for a multi-millionaire Hollywood celebrity and his entourage who want to appeal to as many people as possible. By virtue of this imperative, the film is denuded of any historical or material context while the people in it are reduced to mere props.

What remains is all surface and style — rock anthems, wacky characters, great visuals. Hollywood, despite complaints from the white nationalist crowd, is fundamentally committed to the political economy of mass appeal. The very notion that one could make a film shot on the Fourth of July, about America in 2018, and remain “apolitical” is not merely absurd, it is a very political perspective. It’s the perspective of someone that believes he can speak neutrally and therefore for everyone. It’s the outlook of what Theodor Adorno referred to as the “culture industry” and it stinks.

Dreamland, Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in Dreamland.

I was genuinely excited to see this film after watching the trailer and reading the descriptions. It looks and sounds like the kind of nifty little indie flick that turns out to be a real gem and finds its way onto critics’ shortlists by the end of the year. It has a lot going for it. It’s set in the Dust Bowl era, which not only allows an audience to luxuriate in the comforting visual nostalgia of the 1930s but which also has the potential to resonate in interesting ways with our current moment.

Texarkana in 1935 was a place and time much like our own, riddled by severe economic dislocation coupled with an unstable and threatening natural world. Into this milieu, the filmmakers weave a bank robber-love story that echoes one of the most iconic tales in our  American pantheon: Bonnie and Clyde, a rollicking fable of pathos and passion, desperation and daring.

American audiences love bank robbers like they love the underdog, like they love Robin Hood — the mythic morality tale that informs our reading of Bonnie and Clyde. We especially love bank robbers when they are played by someone as flat out gorgeous as Margot Robbie, who also produced this film. So, let’s add up the potential points here: Nostalgia plus metaphor for modernity plus morality tale plus romance plus star power. Oh, and the film LOOKS amazing — beautifully shot, very stylish. Add high production values to that summation and on paper it looks like a hit, right?

So why is the film so awful?

There are lots of guesses I could make as to how and why the people behind this film arrived at the decisions they did but let’s name some of those decisions at the outset. They chose to tell us, through extensive use of voice-over, rather than show us, anything painful or difficult in the background or context of the central characters.

Cinema can be an art ‘of the people’ as easily as it can be a product of the culture industry.

Eugene (Finn Cole), and Allison (Robbie) have both drawn the short straw in life — born and raised poor, coming of age in the midst of the Great Depression, swept up by forces larger than themselves. We witness none of this, however. Instead, we learn through long, rambling voice-overs that Eugene’s father, having been driven mad by poverty, abandoned his family and drank himself to death. That same voice-over informs us that thousands of farmers have been evicted from their land and are struggling to survive. We learn too,  through voice-over, that Allison was driven to bank robbery through hunger and deprivation.

The film does literally nothing to bring to life any of the human suffering of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, either generally or specifically. As a result, we arrive at the film’s central story — the romance — with little to no sense of any broader context that might give it weight. It is very difficult to tell a morality tale with any conviction when the context of the characters is literally only given lip service. You can’t use history to shed light on the present unless you actually take an interest in rendering that history in a way that lands meaningfully on your audience. “Show don’t tell” is so often repeated in film schools that it’s virtually tattooed on the cerebral cortex of everyone in the industry. How this writer and director missed that memo is hard to fathom.

This fundamental lack of interest in the historical, material context of the characters is less surprising when one finds out more about the project’s “path to production.”

This film is a product of the Hollywood Celebrity Machine, pure and simple. Robbie read the script and decided she wanted to produce her first feature. She reached out to Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, a twenty-something New Yorker, to ask him to direct after seeing his first film at Sundance. (I learned all this during the Q&A at the world premiere of the film. One of the perks of festivals is learning a bit more about how films get made). They cast Finn Cole to play the lead. They spent a lot of money and time making the film look perfect, of which they were very proud.

Watching them onstage after the screening, it was pretty evident to me that nobody involved in this film ever thought much about poverty and desperation, historically or otherwise. The topic certainly never came up during the 30-minute Q&A. For these filmmakers, with their dreams of popular success, the setting of the Dust Bowl in 1935 was an aesthetic choice and a production challenge not a central facet of the story. That’s their loss and ours.

The Hollywood machine is designed to fabricate spectacular surfaces in high style, often obliterating history and context in the process. The world and its complexity is too often rendered a flat backdrop against which shallow tales of sex and romance can play. Given the particular historical context of this story, a much richer and smarter film could have been made had the filmmakers taken more interest in the world that their characters inhabit.

The Case for Context

The four films from Tribeca that I have reviewed (click here to read my take on American Factory) exemplify both the potential and the pitfalls of cinema. As with any artistic medium, film, when at it’s best, has the capability of not merely transporting us but transforming our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. It also has the capability, more so than other mediums, of rendering the world as flat as the screens on which it is shared and neutered of any true social or political significance.

The degree to which a film interrogates the historical and material conditions in which its story is situated makes the difference between the platitude and the profound, between the edifying and the stupefying. Furthermore, the path of production — the question of how a film gets made — will frequently determine whether or not a film succeeds as a work of art.

The imperative of mass appeal has always been a crucial component of the film industry, an economic reality that has historically determined what kinds of films are or are not made. However, the advent of cheap filmmaking, brought about by radical changes in technology, has altered this equation.

Today, cinema can be an art “of the people” as easily as it can be a product of the culture industry. For that, we should be grateful.

Films like American Factory and American Woman have always been possible but are now more likely than ever to be made and seen. On the other hand, films like Dreamland and A Day in the Life of America are really nothing new. They are typical cultural products made for consumption by an industry with industrial aspirations.

Film festivals today are places where you can find both of these kinds of movies side by side. While imperfect, they create a relatively democratic space where filmgoers and film critics can go to experience and comment on the mixture. Tribeca Film Festival remains committed to this culturally democratic process, sharing films from a wide variety of makers on a wide assortment of subjects, made by widely divergent means. In a very real sense, this represents the best that America has to offer. I look forward to what they bring to the screen in the years to come.

Photo (top): Hong Chau (foreground) and Sarah Gadon in American Woman. Credit: Greg Middleton.