Mike Leigh, 1996
#2, 1996 Skandies
John Sayles, 1996
#3, 1996 Skandies
So here we have two films involving a pair of interracial half-siblings. Only one pair is incestuous, however.
After watching these movies I was struck by how they embodied the psychology vs. sociology axis I talked about a little while ago. Not that Secrets & Lies doesn't care about the collisions among different communities, or that Lone Star doesn't care about feelings — far from it. But look at how the two films go about the business of storytelling:
Secrets & Lies starts with a dysfunctional status quo. You've got a pair of 40ish siblings: Cynthia, a chain-smoking factory worker, and Maurice, a rotund photographer. Cynthia's life consists of little more than eardrum-scrapingly shrill arguments with her 20-year-old daughter Roxanne, who lives at home and sweeps sidewalks for a living. She hasn't seen Maurice in ages, which can be chalked up in large part to a feud with his nasty wife Monica. When he does visit, she ends up blubbering in his arms about how lonely she is. Then comes the disordering incident: the mother of a woman named Hortense dies, and Hortense, who is adopted, decides to try to find her birth mother. This turns out to be Cynthia. Hortense calls Cynthia and explains who she is. More tears. They meet in person. Initially Cynthia is shocked because Hortense is black and she assumes there must be a mistake — she never saw the baby she had delivered — but then a repressed memory clicks into place. A lot more tears. Cynthia and Hortense grow close and Cynthia decides to bring her to Roxanne's 21st birthday party, where in true stageplay fashion all the family secrets come out at once: that Roxanne has a sister she was never told about, who Roxanne's father is, Cynthia's resentment that Monica won't have Maurice's children, the fact that Monica can't have children but had forbidden Maurice to reveal this. Tears all around. "We're all in pain! Why can't we share our pain? I can't take it anymore!" By the time Maurice's assistant is wailing "I wish I'd had a dad like you!", even hardcore soap opera addicts have probably exceeded their RDA for shameless melodrama.
What tears are to Secrets & Lies, exposition is to Lone Star. Sometimes it comes as a lecture, sometimes in the form of a dialogue — i.e., the sort of dialogue you write for a class, like, "Write a 3-5 pp. dialogue between a libertarian and a determinist on the problem of evil (10 points)." Sometimes the exposition is related to the main plot, in which the skeleton of a villainous sheriff of a county on the Texas/Mexico border is discovered 40 years after his disappearance, and the current sheriff suspects his father may have been the killer. But Lone Star is less about its murder mystery than about evoking the past and present of this Rio Grande town with its "lively mix" of cultures, and so the exposition often takes the form of disquisitions on history, politics, even geography. Cut to a teacher: "Okay, we have the fight against the Spanish with bloody conflict for dozens of years till they're finally defeated in 1821 and Mexican independence is declared. Anglo settlers are invited to colonize the area and by the time they begin the movement against Santa Anna they outnumber the Mexicans here by four to one…" (and so on for quite a while). Cut to a reporter haranguing some local big shots: "1963, they dam up the north branch to make Lake Pescadero and a whole little town disappears! People had been living in Perdido for over a hundred years! Mexicans and Chicanos are deported, evicted, moved forcibly out of their houses…" (and so on for quite a while). The movie even opens in expository mode, as a minor character catalogues plants for us: "We got cenizo, that's purple sage, agave, nopal…" Even when they're not delivering these sorts of recitations, people in Lone Star tend to sound scripted; characters will appear, fill in their chunk of the backstory, and then when they finally have a chance to say something just for the sake of character interaction, it always happens to be bursting with obvious metaphorical import. Watching this movie, my inner social science geek ("Thumbs up! This is like a really interesting Geography 159 lecture!") had a vociferous argument with my inner writer ("Thumbs down! People don't actually talk like this!").
Now, the above probably sounds like I'm basically panning both movies. Instead, I'd give them mild recommendations, in large part because they succeed at the element they're not emphasizing. What I found most interesting about Secrets & Lies was the way that, like Summer Hours, it gave a sense of the characters' lives as incorporating more than just their relationships to one another. Like, Maurice's life isn't just about his wife and his sister. He has a job. We see several sequences of what makes up the substance of his days: weddings, studio portraits of bickering clients, a former business parter who abruptly comes back from Australia. I was also interested in the treatment of class and the presentation of different standards of living: Monica's house has three gorgeous, differently themed bathrooms, while Cynthia's — also located in London, fabled capital of the United Kingdom and Alpha++ Global City — has an outhouse. And the film gives us enough credit to let us tie these pieces together ourselves.
On the flip side, the part of Lone Star that I thought worked best was the way that the Anglo sheriff and the Latina schoolteacher, who seem to have so little in common, are so clearly transfixed by each other. In movies this sort of thing tends to be chalked up to "chemistry," since feature films rarely have the space to portray people falling in love gradually and for understandable reasons. But here it turns out to be part of the plot: unbeknownst to them, they have the same father, and are therefore in the throes of genetic sexual attraction. Now, especially due to the "forget the Alamo" line at the end, it's tempting to read this metaphorically — something about Anglo society and Latin American society being different branches of the same family or whatnot. But I think it's a lot more interesting to take it at face value. For a long time I've thought that one of the things that makes a story interesting is for it to be the integration of two different ideas. For instance, Time's Arrow is (click to reveal spoiler) . An example from my own stuff that springs to mind is Varicella, which started to come together when I decided to integrate "courtier attempts to outmaneuver rivals" with "setting is increasingly choked by green glop." So for Lone Star to be about "investigating a murder leads a sheriff to touch base with members of many different communities in and around a South Texas town" and about "two soulmates whose families kept them apart when they were young discover that the reason is not racism but that they're half-siblings" is, to me, a strength. I'm surprised this isn't already on my list of patterns, but since it isn't, I guess I'd better add it:
|38||One sign that you might be onto something good is that when someone asks you what a story is about, there's more than one answer. Integrating multiple story ideas, each of which could plausibly be developed into a stand-alone narrative, can have great results. (It also makes it exponentially less likely that someone will scoop your idea.)|
I saw Lone Star back in the '90s and in the interim I had actually forgotten that the romance between Sam Deeds and Pilar Cruz isn't the primary storyline for most of the movie. Part of this is that it is the focus of the ending; part is that Elizabeth Peña is great; but ultimately this emotional subplot is simply the most interesting thread in what is otherwise a sociological treatise. Just as the sociological observations in Secrets & Lies are the most interesting aspect of what is otherwise a weepy soap opera.