In the Bedroom Is Lame, Its Characters Clueless

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish a cappella performance of Roy Orbison’s
"Crying" in Mulholland Drive, is hair-raising–even
when you listen to it later on the soundtrack CD. It conveys American sorrow,
the same subject poorly treated in the new Sundance-acclaimed movie In the
. Director Todd Field and stars Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson rely
on Actors’ Studio cliches (after all they’re actors) that stave off
the dread implications of In the Bedroom’s plot. Instead of Mulholland
’s pure, direct emotion, they offer fake subtlety: Jumbotron-sized
details of marital disaffection–suppressed sexual temptation, simmering
resentment and the same old plate-smashing that have embarrassed domestic melodramas
since Ordinary People.

Yet In the
’s routine dramaturgy is glossed with portentousness. As Matt
and Ruth Fowler, Wilkinson and Spacek play a Maine doctor and his choirmaster
wife who fall apart after their son Frank (Nick Stahl) becomes involved with
a local hoochie divorcee (Marisa Tomei). Field delays the obvious with an overextended
expositionary first hour. Then, as if sexual jealousy weren’t revealing
enough, In the Bedroom takes the latest fashionable twist: using murder
to focus how Americans deal with anxiety. Instead of contemplating the horror
of death, this insensitive gimmick (as in A Simple Plan and Affliction)
suggests that something loathsome and cruel seethes in our culture, but shallow
filmmaking only exploits it. Not clarifying the tiny offenses, evasive habits
and malingering betrayals in some relationships, Field (adapting a story by
Andre Dubus) steps away from the very stuff of family dramas and indulges unenlightening

This is wilder
than Mulholland Drive, yet far less defensible. After the harrowing,
quiet truth of Altman’s Short Cuts (Anne Archer leaves her postcoital
bed when her husband Fred Ward reveals his callous response to death), In
the Bedroom
seems the desiccated result of filmmaking that avoids moral
confrontation. Broken feelings aren’t considered sexy enough to get a rise
out of Sundance audiences (where In the Bedroom, like the similarly
fatuous The Deep End, was taken seriously) yet the macho alternative
in these vengeful domestic melodramas merely offers distraction. Field’s
emphasis on an average, malice-breeding community only contributes to American
sorrow. The greatness of "Llorando" in Mulholland Drive–and
why it shakes up everything in film culture to come after it–derives from
David Lynch confronting the idea of American (Hollywood) normalcy. Instead of
hiding behind the latest narrative constructs, Lynch’s deconstructed storytelling
uses pop culture to actually penetrate American sorrow.

Reworking soap
opera conventions and pop self-consciousness in the extraordinary Twin Peaks
gave Lynch a fresh gauge of the shock and horror of murder. That’s what
wiped Lynch out. Though his creativity was depleted–and it took him 10
years to get his bearings–the Twin Peaks tv series still stands
as the foremost modern response to dread reality, of catastrophe (serial killing,
domestic violence, outre alienation), invading the home. Now Lynch not only
sees through platitudinous genres (and so discards the conventions, going for
dream logic in Mulholland Drive), he also shows how vintage pop carries
the vestiges of morality. And, unlike Field, he trusts that we’re ready
to move forward.

It’s not
simply nostalgic when Lynch’s 60s-era music cues, dress styles–even
the whitebread countenances of his ready-to-be-spoiled protagonists–communicate
through our complicated cultural heritage. (Two black backup singers appearing
in Mulholland Drive’s lip-sync universe are a nonracist sign that
America’s old-fashioned cultural hegemony has been disturbed.) The complicated,
non-English version of "Crying" is a powerful challenge. Roy Orbison’s
original composition can be heard like new; the memory of his familiar version
haunts in Del Rio’s reverb. Her raw interpretation brings the chestnut
up to date, making its pain psychic as well as social. She expresses the suffering
that Betty/Naomi Watts holds in.

The same pop-cultural
retrieval happens with "I’ve Told Every Little Star"; it’s
an advance over Lynch’s previous freakish use of "In Dreams"
and "Blue Velvet." The voluptuous self-pity that Orbison’s thin-operatic,
60s mode raised to art is a familiar, recognizable reach for catharsis–a
virtue the makers of In the Bedroom can’t conceive. Orbison transformed
sadness. In this era, when most pop insists we forget sadness, Lynch reuses
pop to remind us it is an inescapable part of life. Del Rio, seen in Mulholland
’s tacky karaoke theater, takes "Llorando" past camp.
Its excitement is partly nostalgic, but her intense emotion makes the song come
to immediate life. Del Rio sounds terrified, but she’s also mourning something,
and that, Lynch knows, is our culture’s sense of innocence, a luxury we
can no longer afford.

Not every cultural
development is progressive. In the Bedroom’s normalization
of violence is so lame, you wonder how its creative hub of actors, supposedly
trained in theater, could have ignored precedents from Ibsen and Strindberg
to Bergman, Sirk, Cassavetes, Altman and Mike Leigh, where domestic and social
discord was observed–indeed charted–to its psychic roots. For them
to pretend they’ve discovered some new truth about the American character
while simultaneously ignoring its cultural heritage is fatuous. Have the Fowler
family no clue of their impending crisis from tv, movies, country music or literature?
Or that their distress (Matt’s temptation, Ruth’s haughtiness, son
Frank’s naivete) is actually comically banal? Field casts Wilkinson (from
The Full Monty) with the same misguided pretense as Tilda Swinton’s
casting in The Deep End: that a British actor will provide impeccable
nuance. Actually, Wilkinson lacks credibility (though his New England accent
beats Michael Caine’s in The Cider House Rules). Spacek’s fairly
colorless performance is more exact, but where’s that hand-to-heart coordination,
the Delsartian flourish of her emoting in Carrie? Her gnomic authenticity
in 3 Women? Or that priceless comic moment in Blast from the Past
when Spacek played a housewife responding to a new worry by re-wiping the surface
of her kitchen counter? Publicists are already touting Spacek’s Oscar chances,
but there is no greater movie acting this year than Del Rio’s (and Naomi
Watts’). Their tandem performance during "Llorando" not only
elevates Mulholland Drive, it tears apart the moral fakery taking place
In the Bedroom.