A Tale of Two Movies
The Life Before Her Eyes started out as a great secular drama, and then took a left turn into spookytown. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t talk about this film without ruining the “surprise” ending. Since for me, the “surprise” ending ruined the film, I think this is only fair.
Uma Thurman does a brilliant job playing Diana McFee, a woman who is tormented by a moment in her past. She has survived a Columbine-like school massacre 15 years in the past, but her best friend Maureen did not. As the movie switches us back and forth from present to past, we see the relationship develop between two improbable friends. One is a “good girl”, and the other, Thurman’s younger self, is one of those classic, wild, rule-breaking “troubled” teens. We are also given glimpses, a-la-Catch 22, of a repeating and slowly unfolding fatal moment. The girls happen to be alone in the Woman’s Room when the shooting rampage takes place. The shooter bursts in. The girls predictably ask not to be killed, and the killer presents them with a moral dilemma. He informs them that he will only shoot one of them, but they must decide which one it is to be. The tension mounts as the scene develops. We are given ample opportunity to conjecture on just what went down that this woman blames herself for. We wonder when or if she will come out the other side. I wanted her to find peace, and stop blaming herself for being a kid put in an impossible situation by a maniac, whose fault the outcome truly is. Instead, the author takes us to spookytown. It seems that what we have been watching this whole time is an unsatisfying fantasy of what Thurman’s life would have been had she not decided to take several bullets for her sweet innocent friend.
Suddenly, what we have here is a Redemption Story. Diana, we are told, “deserves” life less than her goody-two-shoes friend, and this is her one chance to do something noble. This is apparent because Diana has had premarital teen sex, a serious no-no in teen flicks, and also an abortion as a result. These themes are introduced late in the film, so we are not supposed to feel sympathetic toward this character. Diana’s daughter is in fact, a name on one of those anti-abortion demonstration crosses on the parochial school lawn. The biggest problem of course, is this act of grand nobility coming out of a school shooting spree. To understand what’s so very wrong with this, read Wonder Bread, a review by Melvin Jules Bukiet of a similarly-themed stories that he labels “Brooklyn Books of Wonder” (BBoWs).
From the end of his essay:
“Coddled and cosseted, they’re the first generation of novelists who grew up reading the young-adult pap that they’ve now regurgitated with a deconstructive gloss learned in college. Of course, such aspirations require equivalently high subject matter. Hence the BBoWs’s mock encounter with enormity. Still, they have no teeth. They’re sheep in wolves’ clothing who manage to write about bad things and make you feel good.
So what’s so terribly wrong with all this? BBoWs are benign and smart and claim important antecedents (Krauss’s pantheon, Auster’s nods to Borges and Calvino, Foer’s echoes of Günter Grass before the latter’s recent . . . um . . . awkwardness), and some are stunning prose stylists (Eggers and Chabon and Krauss) who clearly have literary talent to spare. That’s precisely why their books are more insidious than simpler genre novels wherein people manage to triumph over trauma.
In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it. Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the
I can’t say it any better, “a violation of human experience.” There is no nobility or redemption to be found in a school shooting. It’s a senseless act of madness. I was so looking forward to a Joseph Heller ending, seeing as how they so boldly lifted one of his literary techniques.
Graphic from http://www.screamingreel.com/report266.html