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02.17.09

mother


THE FIRST WEEK OF UNEMPLOYMENT was rough, and ended on a bit of a bum note. A job I'd interviewed for on the morning I was laid off was probably a long shot, but I was asked to provide writing samples, even after learning that it was originally put forward as an internal posting at the city's biggest newspaper. It looked promising, but I learned at the end of last week that they were hiring someone else. Not a huge shock, but hardly a boost to my morale.

Then there was the book proposal I'd written during the holidays. I was proud of it - thought I had a pretty good chance of making the publisher's shortlist of submissions, but learned that I hadn't on Sunday. Even though the advance would have been negligible it stung more than losing the big newspaper gig, especially since my proposal was rejected so early on. I have to keep reminding myself that this is the nature of my life now, whether I describe myself as unemployed or freelance.

Mostly I have to keep working while I'm looking for a new job, and to that end, I've decided to return to a gig that I actually enjoyed when I did it for the paper, and found myself missing when they took it away last summer - my weekly DVD column. A couple of studios and their publicists have said that they're willing to service me with review copies again, and while it'll take awhile to get things flowing , I'm going to use my pile of Academy screeners to plug the holes. Which brings me to this week's big deal DVD release...

home theatreMAMA TRIED: Clint Eastwood's Changeling begins with a vintage Universal logo - the silver sphere orbited by art deco lettering in a shimmering, irredescent black sky that was the studio's marque for the first half of the '30s - before the camera settles on a black and white long shot over Los Angeles at the end of the '20s, a garden suburb of detached houses and mature trees with the downtown in the distant background.

The film is both a period piece and, as we're informed by three simple words after the title, "a true story," which means it bears a double burden of historical veracity and fidelity to at least the bare bones of the truth. Eastwood has always been an unhurried director, and the story sets about its task in measured strides.

We meet Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a single mother raising her son Walter while working as a supervisor at the city's phone exchange. She's a stiff, dutiful woman, but hardly unloving with her son, and if you're seeing the film armed with even a basic idea of the true story of Christine Collins, you can't help but watch the curt, expository opening scenes with a sense of dread that Eastwood does his best to solemnly amplify.

changeling

On a morning whose date will be repeated throughout the film - March 10, 1928 - Christine is called in to fill in for a sick co-worker, and leaves her 9-year-old son at home parked on a chair in front of the radio with a sandwich in the ice box. She's forced to work late, and misses her streetcar home thanks to her boss, a well-meaning man clearly smitten with her. She returns to an empty house, the sandwich untouched, no sign of Walter or a struggle in the impeccably tidy home.

The police are initially dismissive of her concern, but finally take a statement from her, and her search turns into a major news story, thanks to the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a radio minister who incorporates her quest into his crusade against the city's corrupt and brutal police department. The police finally make a grand show of reuniting her with her son - he'd been found in the company of a drifter in DeKalb, Il - but Christine adamantly insists that the boy isn't hers.

Changeling is a period film where the past is a malevolent place; despite the '20s setting, there are no flappers or parties fuelled by bathtub gin, just a dutiful, vaguely fear-haunted world where bad things happen without reason and authority is cruel, arbitrary and almost uniformly male. The hard face of this monstrous establishment is Jeffrey Donovan as J. J. Jones, the police captain who insists that she take the strange boy home "on a trial basis" for a few weeks, aided and encouraged by the chief of police (Colm Feore) and, behind him, the mayor who has licenced the police to send gun squads out and execute criminals.

Christine Collins' story is undeniably compelling, but its the setting of pre-Depression-L.A.-as-police-state that horrifies and fascinates, though Eastwood dispatches with the bulk of it in a single expository monologue delivered by Malkovich over a montage of scenes cribbed straight out of Warner Bros.' early talkies - men with Tommy guns cold-bloodedly mowing down victims in dark alleyways, bodies being dumped from moving sedans onto streets puddled with rain, and payoffs exchanged between crooks and uniformed cops, all under cover of night.

Changeling screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski has said that he was shocked by the story of Christine and Walter Collins when he heard about it from a source at L.A.'s City Hall. "This can’t actually have happened," he says, recalling his reaction in the film's production notes. "This has got to be a mistake." That might have been true for Straczynksi, but as an audience we're told - not given a chance to discover - that the cops are criminals, and so everything that happens to Christine after this seems inevitable, given the decades-old precedents of movie logic.



When Christine, aided by Briegleb, begins a public protest against the police department's incompetence and cover-up, Jones has her sent to the looney bin under a vague statute - article 12 - that lets him do this without a court order, and thanks to a defiant prostitute (the always watchable Amy Ryan) committed under the same quasi-legal precedent, she learns that the police have the habit of imprisoning obstreperous or inconvenient women in the county mental hospital, where they're at the mercy of a staff full of Nurse Wratcheds and their trusty electroshock machine.

Briegleb leads a cavalry charge that gets Christine sprung just as they're about to turn on the juice, and from this point on the film begins a quickening march toward justice and retribution, thanks to a subplot involving a conscientious police detective played by Michael Kelly, a boy being deported back to Canada, and his cagey, creepy uncle (Jason Butler Harner.)

The detective finds the boy hiding out in a desolate ranch in the desert outside the city, and before he's sent back home, he confesses to his part in the abduction and murder of 20 young boys, bullied into being an accomplice by his psycopath uncle, who's already on the run back to Canada himself. These are the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, a grisly and massive news story that broke just months before the 1929 stock market crash, to which the Christine Collins story was once just a footnote.

Harner's Gordon Northcott is an entirely different kind of monster from Jones, the police chief, and the asylum doctor who tries to pressure Christine into signing a confession absolving the police from responsibility in their deception and cover up. Going from howling rages to a simpering whine, he's the incarnation of perverse, irrational evil, a child's desires and motivations cloaked in adult authority and power, but mostly just another movie psycho meant to bear the full brunt of our dread and horror.



During his trial - held across the hall from the committee hearing into police conduct in Christine's case; I'm not sure if this is historically accurate or merely an elegant filmic device - he frequently compares himself to Christine, persecuted and framed, in scenes that are obviously meant to forge an unhappy bond between the two characters. This bond is the only thing holding together most of the last half hour of the film, from Northcott's trial to his execution, on the eve of which he requests a desire to confess to murdering Walter.

The final confrontation between Jolie and Harner is probably the best-written in the whole film, inasmuch as it's the only one that bucks the mostly pedestrian filmmaking that's preceded it. He tells her that he didn't expect her to respond to his telegram, and that now that she's in front of him, he's changed his mind. He's confessed his sins and believes he's been forgiven, and he doesn't want to undo that by lying to her. "I'm not going to hell," he insists.

Sweating and twitching, Harner doesn't let us believe in Northcott's sincerity as much as his last flourish of emotional sadism, and Jolie lays into him with more rage than Christine has been allowed to show at any point since her son disappeared, pinning him to a barred window, demanding his confession, then howling "I hope you go to hell!" as the wardens hustle him away, locking her behind a barred door as they drag Northcott back to his cell.

---

I put off watching Changeling till the last possible moment; for a parent, the prospect of a film about the abduction, disappearance, and presumed bloody murder of a child is hardly an entertainment to be relished. I have also lost faith in the moral gyroscope of Hollywood lately, having sat through far too many films that are either hell-bent on getting drunk on vicarious thrill-making (most action blockbusters, virtually every horror film released in the last 20 years) or intent on a grim duty to challenge my bourgeouis assumptions about the world (Revolutionary Road, Little Children, L.I.E., anything by Todd Solondz.)

What I got was a typically confused collection of moments, attitudes and effects. On the one hand, there were the quick, brutal cuts to Harner-as-Northcott swinging a bloody axe down on what we know is a helpless child, scenes shot at least once with the camera in the position of the victim. Then there was Northcott's execution, filmed with rapt attention to the details of the capital punishment ritual that stretches time unbearably.

As what is euphemistically and dubiously referred to these days as a "believer," I can't help but be intrigued whenever fictional characters talk about sin, hell and forgiveness, and when a religious authority figure is depicted as a clear force of good, though to be fair, any character is going to be suffused with a hint of perversity and vague menace when played by John Malkovich.

Then there's the scene between Jolie and Amy Ryan, who brings customary depth and energy to her brief but pivotal role as the proverbial whore with a heart of gold. Lying in her cell after getting her brain fried, she's visited by Jolie, who thanks her for cold-cocking the asylum doctor. Through her post-electroshock haze, she encourages Jolie to keep fighting.

"I lost two babies. Back alley doctors. No choice. Never had a chance to fight for them. You did. Don't stop."

Given that Eastwood was the director who gave mercy-killing a half-hearted seal of approval in Million Dollar Baby - though there are those who would prefer to commend him for putting an end to yet another zipless performance by Hillary Swank - I'm not assuming that Eastwood is trying to weave a stealthy pro-life message into his film. What I can't help but note is that, from Alfie to Juno, filmmakers have a hard time spinning abortion as a satisfying choice or appealing move for a character, much as their personal politics might tend to the contrary.

Without a menu of DVD bonus features to comment on (I only had a bare-bones Academy screener on hand for this review) I don't have any explanation or elaboration from the cast or crew that might shed some light on what motivated their decisions in Changeling. A quick Google reveals that the expected liberties were taken with plot and chronology, and that the character of Briegleb was far more problematic in real life.

Then there are the choices I wish the film had made, such as exploring just why the L.A. police department was allowed to function in fascistic defiance of consitutional rights. I know that probably wasn't Eastwood's focus, but it's what makes the inter-war period so bleakly instructive. We've come to regard coercive policing and denial of civil liberties as inventions of uniquely fascist or Nazi inspiration, along with eugenics and state-sponsored capitalism, but the fact is that these sorts of things were being discussed and even implemented in the political mainstream all through the period. (Remind me to show you the admiring things the stringently liberal Toronto Star printed about Hitler's Germany in the mid-'30s sometime.)

What I'm left with is a film that made me wince or seethe when it wasn't boring me with its workmanlike choices in structure and cinematography. I couldn't help but notice that, after letting Jolie look haggard and haunted in an Oscar-approved sense for much of the film, Eastwood lets her walk off as the credits roll with a glamourous mid-'30s flip, a slash of bright red lipstick and a dramatic black and white wide-brimmed chapeau to replace the tight curls and head-hugging cloche hats she's worn for most of the film. A movie star is a movie star, after all.



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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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