Rightwing Film Geek

“Coming Around Again”

THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA, 2003)

Early this year, my friend Rod Dreher wrote a vigorous attack on THE HOURS and a Gloria Steinem appreciation thereto, as an apologia for selfishness, applause for walking out on one’s family as a means to “self-actualization.” “A fairytale for contemporary narcissists,” he called it. He also favorably cited a James Lileks bleat about what a dirtbag the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire is for having abandoned his family. “Life is not about always being happy; it’s about doing the right thing,” Rod wrote on the Dallas Morning News’ blog.

Well, here is the anti-HOURS, anti-Hollywood, anti-narcissism movie. And it’s a great film — the somewhat-misleadingly titled THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS. From the title, you’d expect a bizarro comic romp, and the film does give you some of that for a while. But it gradually becomes a serious, dry-eyed and, finally, romantic film about marital love and a husband’s struggles with his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him.

Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a married pair of dentists, with three daughters, an SUV and another car, one home in the suburbs and another in the country, and all the rest of the setup that might make you think you’re in for AMERICAN BEAUTY. Early on, Scott sees his wife with another man, but not irrefutably cheating. But then he starts having more and more suspicious thoughts through the score of asides, facial looks and “I’ll be home a bit late tonight, dear” moments of daily life. Those suspicions become embodied in a fantasy character played by Denis Leary, a belligerent patient at the film’s start who was on the outs with his wife and wouldn’t get any dental work done until his teeth started to hurt (there’s a lot of metaphor packed away in there, especially considering Scott’s opening voiceover about the strengths and weaknesses of teeth).

Fantasies of unfaithful-spouse-killing has been the subject of comic romps before (as in Preston Sturges’s UNFAITHFULLY YOURS … DENTISTS even has an early scene at an opera), and the fact that DENTISTS plays with two levels of reality in the Leary character and a couple of other scenes may make you think that’s where the film is going. But no. Scott tells Leary that he’s not going to confront her with his suspicions, because “then I have to do something about it.” Hopefully, he says, it’s just a momentary lapse that will pass. Leary taunts him, and the suspicions mount as the film progresses through a nor-especially-eventful plot. There’s a sequence where Scott drives off after a quarrel with Davis over the youngest child and yells at the top of his lungs “fucking bitch!!!” that led me to believe he was going to stray — LAST TANGO IN PARIS starts with a near-identical yell in a similar-looking setting. But no.

Through these sequences, DENTISTS instead shows the romance of routine, what “love” means after sex has worn out its immediate luster. And yes, the title of this entry *is* a Carly Simon reference. Scott and Davis are shown in bed together a few times, but there’s nothing that could qualify as a sex scene (there’s an instantaneous flashback of a quick encounter) or even any particularly sexy clothing or nudity. What “love” means for this couple, and most marriages (I suspect) is the joy-pain of parenthood. There is a lengthy sequence during which stomach flu strikes every member of the family, and it will resonate with anybody who has had a sick child or can remember being one (i.e., all of us, I suspect). And who remembers having his father rush him to the hospital. Scott feels ill himself but still does his best by the varying ill members of the family — gets a little frazzled, fantasizes to the song “Fever,” as the healthy kids make things difficult, as he wipes the vomit off the shoes of the youngest who doesn’t know better, as he takes a daughter to the hospital and stays overnight when the fever hits 105.

In other words, Scott is an almost-unheard of character in Hollywood movies today and someone whom the makers of THE HOURS looked at with contempt (the John C. Reilly character in that movie) — a conventionally loving good husband and father who is happy in his role and who defines himself and his happiness in those terms. DENTISTS is like an American SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (though obviously far lighter in tone, and more immediately “pleasurable”). Or maybe, something more like an American version of one of French director Eric Rohmer’s films, where little in the way of great dramatic events happens, but rather, like Rohmer once said about his own films, it’s less about what people do than what they think about while they do it.

That approach to this movie is why Roger Ebert is wrong in the one criticism he makes against the movie in an otherwise-positive review. The Leary character is necessary as a route into Scott’s mind. What makes the film lifelike is Scott’s taciturn manner; if they were the kind of overpsychologized couple who hashed everything out, yes, Leary would be redundant and mood-breaking. But in a movie that’s all about surfaces and maintaining appearances, there has to be some way to show us what temptations, suspicions, and ill thoughts Scott is resisting.

And this is ultimately why the husband and wife love one another. They *don’t* act on every impulse. Or if they do, they repent. And the other has the grace to forgive unconditionally, without dwelling on the particulars. (Despite the theological language there and my firm conviction that the film follows a Christian template, DENTIST is a secular movie about a secular family.) Instead, “love” for them as with my parents (I had as happy a childhood as my parents could reasonably have provided), is a verb not a subject. Love is the things they do (and don’t do) without thinking, just *because.* Nothing is said between Davis and Scott. They just do. Exactly.

Another part of what made DENTISTS so moving for me, and enhanced its intellectual appeal for me, is that it doesn’t over-romanticize love. Or turn it into *luv* as Peter Kreeft might put it. Scott and Davis have outgrown both *luv* and the original sexual passion that first brought them together, but still they clearly love each other and their children. To the movie’s credit, there is only one, not-very-long scene near the end where they explicitly try to hash things out “in our relationship.” And it’s not psychologizing or therapyizing, it’s a potentially-nasty confrontation. Tempers start to flare, but the children unintentionally (the key point) get in the way. It’s ordinary routine asserting itself over narcissistic explicitness.

Why DENTISTS is so convincing in its portrayal of an ordinary family may lie in the performances given by the children. Davis is good enough; Scott is merely as brilliant as can be expected (he gave *this* performance *and* the greasy, fast-talking ROGER DODGER at more or less the same time); Leary is nothing short of perfect casting — sarcastic, brusque, rude. So far, so expected. But the kids — Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle — are revelations. They’re not “performers” or Olsens-esque muggers. The youngest (Hinkle) looks about 3, openly prefers her Daddy and slaps both her parents in the face. But the slaps are innocent, and somehow Hinkle knows how to slap like someone who doesn’t know any better, rather than as someone following the script. The elder two girls, meanwhile, know how to be in the room with their parents while paying no attention to them, since they’d rather watch the Powerpuff Girls, or eat their own food, or get absorbed in their own quarrels, even as mommy and daddy are cleaning up after them. There’s a natural, unostentatious quality to them that’s both perfect for DENTISTS and the (blessed) opposite of most child actors who get significant screen time.

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August 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

This week, I prefer Roeper

It has long been obvious to all who cared that Roger Ebert was a liberal Democrat with radical and counterculture sympathies (yet somehow in the pay of Vast Right-Wing Conspirator Conrad Black and the evil Disney Cultural Megamonster). His reviews of the films of Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore came laced with asides and whole paragraphs that made it clear to anyone with the eyes to see. Fine, whatever.

But the subject of President Bush in the past couple of years has pushed him out of the closet, and his own doors have come a bit unhinged in the process. His review of LUMUMBA, a biopic of the 1960s Congolese radical, began with a rant about Bush’s missile-defense plan. And in his post-September 11 review of ZOOLANDER, he more-or-less said the film could cause Malaysians to kill Americans by the thousands. Or something like that.

Now, that kind of stuff is just funny. And Ebert, the most influential film critic of his era, the man who first lit the fire under practically every film geek of my generation, isn’t even the lefty critic most worth laughing at for that sort of thing. (There’s a whole gaggle at the Village Voice). But he crossed the line in an interview in the latest issue of the Progressive.

Much of it was fine and par for the course, until he began exhibiting a generational and intellectual arrogance that I find utterly breathtaking, but entirely typical for Ebert’s kind of culture snob. I suppose there isn’t really any point in my saying anything since I’m a generation younger than Ebert and therefore never took a civics class. And this is all obviously the same “Limbaugh rhetoric” from “parrots” who “don’t have any ideas of their own.” But reading tripe like that makes me think I was in the first generation that ever took a logic class.

The double standards are appalling and legion. Sean Penn is “probably not dumb” because he’s the greatest actor of his generation. Um, OK. About anyone who would make that argument — who thinks there’s a greater correlation between intellect and acting ability than between intellect and thinking you’d learn the truth about Iraq from Saddam Hussein and Baghdad Bob — that person probably *is* dumb. But let that go. How does this “probability” sit alongside Ebert’s repeated and open contempt for Dubya as stupid? The man has degrees from Harvard and Yale. Yes, he had all sorts of connections and advantages that middle- and lower-class people didn’t, but Harvard and Yale don’t just hand out degrees, even to their legacies, and they don’t graduate dummies. Yes, Bush is not philosophically sophisticated or reflective (very, very few people are), but that’s not the same thing as being dumb, as in the caricature Ebert and the his SDS pals draw. And Ivy League degrees have a far greater “probably” relationship to intellect than acting ability (which is essentially the ability to convincingly pretend, a skill that the uncharitable might note is much closer to self-delusion than to knowledge).

And what’s this born-yesterday piffle about religion and politics? “Religion in the White House has crossed the line between church and state … we finally get a religion in the White House” in the form of Bush? Was Ebert taking so many civics classes that he skipped history classes? In fact, if anything Ebert’s generation, far from being the last to have a civics class, was the first to decide on a new, secular sense of “civitas.” Prior to approximately the time of Kennedy, religion had proudly never left the White House or American politics — the only questions had been what religion and to what ends. Does Ebert think the Puritans were people with funny hats and turkeys who came to America to set up the “shining city on a hill” as a secular republic? Has he read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, in which he explicitly interprets the Civil War in providential and salvific terms? Or anything by the civil rights movement from *Reverend* King or Fanny Lou Hamer? Or does he know about the Calvinist Woodrow Wilson, who justified U.S. imperialism as God’s civilizing hand (and was far from alone in so doing)? Or Teddy Roosevelt, who justified same as a form of muscular Christianity (James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was of that school of religion)? Or the Abolitionist movement, which was a product of the Second Great Awakening? Where was he when Jimmy-fricking-Carter was in the White House? Or when Bill Clinton publically set up a counsel of religious elders to look after his soul during the Year of Monica? Or … I could go on and on, but why bother? It’s obvious Ebert is just parroting a set of ACLU talking points because he’s never had an original thought of his own. Doesn’t he even remember from 1959-1960 that the wider-shared objection to Kennedy wasn’t that he’d bring *religion* into the White House, but that he’d bring in the *wrong religion* — Catholicism, the foreign tyranny of the Pope of Rome and all that. Again, prior to Kennedy, it always had been assumed that the president and Congress would come from one or another strain of mainline Protestantism and govern accordingly. Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class. Or maybe he was busy praying for the election of Harry Truman (no church-state separation issues or cause for thoughts about the stupidity of a man who thinks God takes sides in politics there of course).

The “civics class” comment is self-righteous demogoguery. And wholly unjustified as an opinion for Ebert to have about his own intellect as demonstrated here. To avoid being one of those who “don’t understand the First Amendment,” one must first have read it, and what it says is “Congress shall make no law …” (This prohibition was later extended to state and local government through the 14th Amendment.) What it says absolutely nothing about, what no court has ever construed it to say, is private action, private criticism, private open-mindedness or anything else private. It’s a restriction on government. The only offenses cited are Fox being a meanie to the brilliant Sean Penn, the refusal of some stations to play the Dixie Chicks and right-wingers’ dismissal of his own political columns as worthless (an entirely justified one; the Florida recount columns are comedies of forensic errors, not excluding lies). Oh … and some people on the Internet keep a list of who they see as U.S. enemies. Big fat hairy deal. What does any of this have to do with government action, the only thing the First Amendment speaks about? Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class too.

If you want to argue a policy, you first have to understand and talk specifically about what is happening. And on the most basic of economic concepts, Ebert is just plain all thumbs. Now it could be, in principle, a perfectly reasonable complaint that the tax system is insufficiently progressive or the welfare state insufficiently generous. Or that certain politicians have made it thus and that’s bad. But what is this Ebertish babble about “their money is being stolen” and “a concerted policy of taking money away from the poor and giving it to the rich”? The poor have little or nothing *to* take away or call “theirs” to be stolen … that is why they are called “poor.” What is this “concerted policy” that Ebert is talking about? Tax cuts? All they can do, by definition, is let people keep more of what they have earned in the first place. To the contrary, the Earned Income Tax Credit actually “gives” money (there is no “Negative Income Tax”) to people … but only the working poor. Further, the share of people near the bottom who pay no federal income tax at all has grown in recent years, and will continue to expand under Dubya’s tax cuts. Government spending programs? Leave aside the empirical (and therefore far too complex for Ebert’s posturing) question of whether they have in fact been cut (they have not … nondefense government spending under Dubya is as high as it has ever been). Just think conceptually about what Ebert is saying. Government spending programs give some people money or benefits they didn’t have before. A government might cut such programs, but that could only give the beneficiaries less, and that’s just not the same thing. This might sound like a Jesuitical distinction, but Ebert was too specific and too repetitive in his usage to think he was speaking loosely. Besides, he took all those civics classes that gave him a corner on reason against those who parrot Limbaugh rhetoric and have never had a thought of their own. He genuinely seems to live in a world where the government robs from the poor to give to the rich. And that is just plain nuts, except under some Brezhnev Doctrine of permanent entitlement growth or some absolute objection to any and all private property.

Speaking of Marxism, I also loved the way this millionaire presumes to speak for the poor. Remember how the Progressive’s writer mentioned Ebert’s car license plate, but didn’t say what kind of car it was? That was awesome. He complains that so many “ordinary people” are “voting conservative and thinking that the conservatives represent them” and then haughtily says “they don’t.” Has it ever dawned on this guy that other people might be at least as decent (maybe better) judges of their own interests and who represents them as he is? Or that people’s interests might be broader than economics (e.g., the culture war or foreign policy)? Or that, heaven forfend, he might be wrong about economics. No, Ebert is just so sure, so sure. His certainty doesn’t come from political or economic realities; it comes from apparently on high.

These are acute distinctions, I realize, but I have no patience with them or tolerance for them when they come from someone who so pointedly looks down on other people’s intellects, say they parroting Limbaugh’s talking points because they never took a civics class and have no thoughts of their own and all that rubbish. The reason I suspect that Ebert only gets rude dismissals from conservatives is simply that when he talks politics, he isn’t worth engaging. In fact, as a general rule, the more profound somebody’s distaste for a political view, the less likely he is to address it.

Ebert plays like he wants a civil discussion, why can’t we celebrate people with different opinions and argue with them, etc., but how can one have a civil discussion with someone who wrote a snob-act-masquerading-as-a-column on the presidential daughter’s wardrobe choices, calling her “uncouth” and a “yob,” but exactly what you’d expect from such dumb family stock? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who compared Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris to Bill the Butcher from GANGS OF NEW YORK? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who says Bush getting caught in the London rain proves that missile-defense is a bad idea [I am not making that up]? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who defends the Florida Supreme Court’s conduct with “I trust that if any of those justices believed in their hearts that their decision was wrong, they would have said so” and yet has no problem with calling the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a “federal coup” [the double standard stinks to high heaven]?

And why would one want to?

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Ebert icon from Rentertainment.

August 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment