Friday, January 30, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Haven’t posted here in a long time—time being an elusive commodity. But I thought I’d throw out a few words about a film with explicit feminist implications—at least, with explicit second-wave feminist implications. I saw Revolutionary Road last weekend with a girlfriend who is also single and a bit ambivalent about it. Films like Revolutionary Road belie the myth that marriage and children are essential elements of a full and fulfilled life. It echoes all those hip studies today that interview the parental types and the fancy-free types and find that kids don’t always make life better. The idea that children make your life worse is such a provocative concept that many viewers of this film will likely reject it outright for fear of investigating some painful ideas.

Then again, the children in this film are barely characters. Rather, they tend to be pawns in a battle between April and Frank, two thirty-something adults in the 1950s who have survived a move to suburbia by insisting that they are “different” from the other sell-outs around them. The Wheelers are “special.” April tries to realize this difference by planning a family move to Paris—she will work while Frank “finds himself.” The practicality of this plan is oft discussed, but what is more interesting, to me at least, is how their neighbors and co-workers react to their plan—with shock, confusion, disbelief, disdain. Introduce an idea that thoroughly places in doubt the naturalness or inevitability of the American, middle-class, heteronormative way of life, and you will be relegated to the funny farm.

The film introduces an insane character who does indeed live in an asylum—of course, he is the only character that speaks the truth to the Wheelers. Watching how they encounter this man at various stages of the film provides for some explosive moments, but the introduction of this character is so intentional (rather than organic) that you simply must accept these conversations as cinematic soothsayering. In general, the film is highly scripted—as characters speak, you can practically see the written words of the script float by in front of you. The dialogue is theatrical—as noted by other critics, the film lacks life. The pretty feathers of Revolutionary Road need to get much more ruffled to get truly down and dirty.

And yet, Kate Winslet and Leonard diCaprio find a way to touch your hearts anyway. When Leo is emphatic, he, too, is stagey. But when he is quiet, he is heartbreaking. Winslet carefully walks the line between sanity and insanity—making it clear how the distinction between the two is frequently determined by the status quo. Two women behind me in the theater commented that they wanted to slap Winslet’s character April—one presumes because she refuses to be satisfied with domestic bliss. Yet this is a case in point—it is easier to reject the ideas conveyed within this film than to embrace the challenge of confronting them.

The easiest way to reject this movie is to call it a history piece. And certainly, the fact that Winslet feels completely trapped in her beautiful home feels pre-women’s lib. And I suppose many audience members will exit the theater saying “thank goodness that women have more choices today.” But do we? What happens when those babies come? Who carries them? Who breast feeds them? Whose work is interrupted as a matter of fact, though maternity leave is frequently not offered at all? Queer theorists have made impressive strides into a complete reconceptualization of gender and sexual distinction as socially constructed and enforced, yet I still struggle to get beyond the trap of biology. April’s unintended pregnancy resonates deeply for me as I consider the choices of my friends and family—their negotiations with marriage and parenthood stand in relief as April and Frank admit that they do not want a third child. As Frank’s ultimate decision reveals, it is easier to accept the status quo than to make the choice that April does. My friend interpreted her final act as a revolution—I saw it more as a sign of despair. She could not defeat biology. And I wonder if anyone can?

More poignant for me, though, was how desperately April and Frank try to connect but fail. During one climactic scene in which April runs out of the house and refuses to let Frank comfort or confront her, I thought about another lie—the myth of finding “the one.” I’ve always hated this concept, yet this myth is deeply ingrained into our social marriage mandate—from fairy tales to tripe like Sex and the City. Yet the boldest move in this film may be its depiction of the inability ever to know someone truly; there are places within a person—even your lover or spouse—that you will never reach. Frank cannot control April anymore than she can control him. Yet the fact that either of them is surprised by the other’s choices only reinforces that romantic love keeps us blind to the harsh truths that lurk under the surface—unspeakable but palpable.


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