Wednesday, May 10, 2006

84. The Naked Truth

Jane Campion would be pleased to know how uncomfortable Holy Smoke (1999) made me feel. Ruth (Kate Winslet, who one of these days should do a mother-daughter movie with Kathy Bates) comes from regular folk, Australian-style (and it's always interesting to note how often in the movies Australian mainstream culture seems to resemble American eccentric redneck culture, their swell opera house notwithstanding), but goes to India to follow a guru. Fearing for her mind and body, her family hires a cult de-programmer, or "exit counselor," P.J. Waters, played by Harvey Keitel with his usual, beautifully schizoid approach, at once in complete control of the role and yet seeming to invent it as we watch. Don't get me started on Harvey; his quirky choices have not had the weight they should have, and we have missed much. With Christopher Walken and even, it seems, Robert De Niro, Keitel has all-but-squandered an immense talent, no matter how good he is (almost) every durn time I see him.

But I digress.

My discomfort is understandable, since Campion made it happen. As soon as Ruth is alone with P.J., we can tell the real battle will be over P.J.'s mind and body. Ruth combines surface strength with inner uncertainty, so that her decision to go to India in the first place is implied in her back-to-the-outback agonies over the boozy seductions and dysfunctions of her old life and the efforts she makes to expose P.J.'s deepest insecurities while simultaneously confronting her own. Watching P.J. preen and plead, and finally succumb, I saw that part of me that requires attention--and more, identity, bestowed by others, confirmed by their love. Ruth makes both of them naked--literally; this is, after all, a Jane Campion film, a parable of Eden stripmined, then gingerly sifted through for signs of life. At one level, of course, it is a "feminist" parable, but only in so far as Ruth is asserted as a person, defiant, lost, and searching, while P.J. struts and boasts, his age and position at first scorned by Ruth--until she defines and destroys it for him, until they can reach a tentative truce--and more, a kind of love, as Ruth returns to India with her mother and P.J. remains with his wife, a virtual cameo by Pam Grier, who can use her solid presence only to hint at the sexual-spiritual rock on which P.J. will have to learn to moor his bobbing boat.

I saw in this movie so much of my own foolish assertions, as well as uncertainties. Winslet and Keitel deliver the kind of brave performances Campion demands, which helped me be brave myself, as I faced my own silly cock-of-the-walk inclinations, and asked them to come clean, so to speak, and remember how waging the war between the sexes makes one one's own cuckhold, male or female, betrayed and bereft--unless someone is kind, as Ruth was: kind enough to love without owning, despite the heat-and-cold, sorrow-and-joy, of love, and the purchase one feels giving way beneath one's feet every other moment, backsliders all, if not for the vagaries of the terrain and the grasp of another.

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