Huffing in the Ideological Crossdraft
In Citizen Ruth "pro-life" Christians and "pro-choice" feminists in Nebraska scrimmage over the pregnancy of Ruth (Laura Dern), a young drug addict and mother of four children, variously disposed of, who has a chance to escape prison for felony endangerment of her fetus if she has an abortion. Ruth is from a working-class family but her addiction has dumped her at the bottom of society, and her chosen high is cheap and widely available: "huffing," that is, spraying an aerosol product into a paper bag, fitting her face into the opening, and inhaling. (Connoisseurship involves judging a spraycan by its rattle.) When the town cops find her senseless in an alley in the opening sequence she has silver paint all around her mouth, like the Tin Man, one of them jokes. Homeless Ruth is thus not an example of the virtuous poor. Standing before the judge she expresses remorse with sarcastic TV-comedian variations on "Sorry."
Ruth is first taken in by members of a national Christian pro-life organization, Baby Savers, who meet her in prison when they’re arrested in a civil disobedience action. Ruth actually wants an abortion, but they manage to scare her out of it, hoping to "send a message" in condemnation of the judge who took her aside to suggest the court might be lenient if she terminated her pregnancy. She later ends up in the house of pro-choice operatives who want to send the opposite message. The movie, co-written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and directed by Payne, gets its distinctive tone from frankly acknowledging that Ruth is not worth the anti- and pro-abortion activists’ game. The movie doesn’t dehumanize Ruth but, rather, is wholly clear-sighted about the difference between her as she is in herself--believably committed only to her addiction and her short-sighted goals--and the competing clichés that the two groups apply to her in order to make of her someone deserving of their efforts. (Or, less cynically, someone they can understand at all, someone human in terms they take to be natural.) Both groups operate on a belief in human perfectability, and the joke is how resiliently Ruth remains exactly and only what she is.
Laura Dern: Headlong
The fact that Dern doesn’t move like any other star helps make Ruth her own woman. Dern is tall and willowy, but here she wields those long, delicate-but-sturdy limbs without feminine grace. She’s ungainly in a way that seems at once realistic and highly stylized. She does have moments of repose when cares have made Ruth reflective in that way you get when you can’t help focusing on your problems but no amount of thinking will help you solve them. But at the same time no comic actress today is as headlong as Dern playing this young woman who responds immediately and without calculation to everything. She grimaces and wails in self-pity, she grasps at what she wants and flails to avoid what she doesn’t. She’s all body language, and yet seems unaware that it is a language, communication. Ruth is entirely out there, in the moment, but completely cut off, too. Earlier female star specialists of gangly comedy, Rosalind Russell and Betty Hutton, for example, always maintained a pretty high level of movie glamor. Dern, on the other hand, is fearless about distorting her image to create the character. (No actress has ever relied less on her long blonde hair to appeal to the audience.) As unreachable Ruth, Dern is spectacularly funny, especially so in obscene outbursts, their inappropriateness matched only by their vigor.
Both sets of activists are less fully human, more thoroughly satirized, than Ruth. The movie thus unsettlingly stands stockstill at the center of these violent ideological crossdrafts; the only position it takes on the issue is that both sides are foolish for investing anything in parasitic Ruth. There are distinctions, however, between the groups. A dissolve from a pro-lifer singing "Jesus Loves the Little Children" to a shot of her screaming at a health clinic doctor indicates the dissonance in this sunny-militant Christianity. Altogether, the pro-lifers’ claims of universal love sit uneasily next to their realistically narrow social and sexual attitudes. They’re a chatty bunch whose cheerful formulas can’t meaningfully give vent to their lust and anger or even affectingly impart a sense of joy. (Kathleen Noone is especially alarming as a pregnancy counselor whose crinkly-faced friendliness is indistinguishable from coercion.)
The pro-lifers, of a lower class and less well-educated than their opposites, are at any rate relatively open in trying to influence Ruth’s decision. The pro-abortion people come across as fundamentally hypocritical in their insistence that they want Ruth to be free to choose. The pressure is put on them when they’ve taken Ruth in and the Baby Savers offer her $15,000 to bring her pregnancy to term. Ruth’s self-interest alerts her to the disingenuousness of a pro-choice advocate’s saying, "You’ve made your decision, now you’ve got to stick to it!" More amusing is the way that the feminist slogans, more complicated and less familiar than the Christians’, come out as gibberish in Ruth’s mouth. There’s nothing to choose between the two camps’ cornball religious songs, the feminists’ a hymn to the goddess moon (after hearing which you’ll never snicker at "Casta diva" again). In sum, the antagonists are distinct-but-equivalent rival teams in a shoulder-and-stick-end hockey game over an imaginary puck.
I can imagine people not liking the movie because there’s nothing ambiguous or unprocessed in it, no possible other way to interpret, and maybe even to experience, what you see. It’s a foxy game, like Mary McCarthy’s in The Groves of Academe, satirizing every position so that there’s no ground left on which to take a stand. (More cynically, there’s no ground left to put your soapbox down on. I’ll take it any day over Jane Smiley’s more partial satire of academia in Moo, which can’t withhold affection from the Maoist professor Chairman X, last seen kissing his wife under blossoming apple trees.) In an interview about Election, his second movie with Taylor, Payne began a response, "To be fair," then stopped and joked, "not that I really care about being fair to anyone, ever." 1 This could be his boy scout’s pledge with respect to these two total satires he’s made. When it rains, it rains all over town and everybody could use an umbrella. And in Election Payne more effectively uses moviemaking techniques; with its visual stamp and punchy forward motion the movie’s point of view is that much more unavoidable.
But Citizen Ruth is more than merely clever. Payne and Taylor make you conscious of what can be so yucky about movies in which wayward characters learn their lessons and become productive young men and women we can approve of. Payne has said of his efforts to get money to make the movie, "That was another obstacle, to have a protagonist who is unredeemed.... I had people say to me, ’Make her nice. Have her pet a dog or something. Give us some glimmer of goodness.’ But the point is not how bad or good she is. I hate movies about oppressed people who always end up being noble. Being oppressed is completely separate from what type of person you are." 2
In life people aren’t open to our inspection and judgment, and though they may seek our approval in certain circumstances, any reasonably self-aware person is bound to feel funny about that in itself. As Ruth, Dern is almost oblivious to whether people approve of her, and when she is aware she’s pretty lame at saying what they want to hear. Generally she doesn’t purposely manipulate people by means of what they want. Ruth is all impulses--they only happen to add up to her advantage in the end, and only because at the moment Ruth tries to do something honest, the attention of the pro-abortion worker is diverted by her efforts to "protect" Ruth’s "choice." (The single coherent plan Ruth conceives comes from a financial self-help tape she swipes from her Christian hosts.) For anyone who has reached the end of his rope with an addict or alcoholic, the scathing view of the central character is the only attitude that approximates reality. And watching Ruth scamper off down the road, unredeemed, at the end, is to have the amorality of Chaplin’s Tramp restored-- by an actress! This is a milestone comic performance for a female star.
Citizen Ruth is thus detached in a way that has few precedents in American movies. Preston Sturges shared his heroes’ tender spots, and even Billy Wilder kept a margin of sanctity around the young women in Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment. Robert Altman put Barbara Jean at the center of the commotion in Nashville and when he made a movie without a redeeming figure, such as A Wedding, his attitude turned smug, punishing. I think you have to look outside our movie culture, where even critics complain when works of irony don’t appeal to the emotions, to find entertainment as thoroughgoingly caustic and yet not cheaply cynical.
For example, Citizen Ruth reminds me of the 1951 Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit, starring Alec Guinness as the inventor of an indestructible fabric (produced by a nuclear reaction contained in a laboratory beaker). Blustering management and paranoid labor face off antagonistically out of habit, though it turns out they both want to suppress the invention. They chase Guinness down and grab him roughly, which reveals the fabric’s instability; bosses and workers rejoice together at the failure of progress. There is an ingenue, but she’s tinged with the inventor’s mania, extolling the benefits to humanity of the fabric that repels dirt, but that also can’t be cut or dyed and that glows in the dark. In any case, the almost pre-sexual inventor leaves her behind with the self-justifying singlemindedness of the "genius" who’s oblivious to the workings of the world around him and saunters down the street, already thinking how to improve his formula. (Compare him to Joel McCrea as Sturges’s inventor hero and you can see how odd it would be to have such a remote figure as the focus of an American comedy.)
Payne and Taylor are similarly insulated from the center as well as both sides of the conflict. What they offer is a coherent, impersonal overview of all the ways in which their characters are self-serving and blind to themselves. Their commitment is to laying everything bare, pitilessly yet with a prankish light touch. The characters are seen in only one light, but you feel that the painful traps they fall into are traps that people of free will do fall into. They fall, we laugh: it’s moral slapstick.
- To be fair: Payne, Blackwelder interview. (return to text)
- That was another obstacle: Payne, Strickler interview. (return to text)