Wednesday, November 17, 2004

A clinical distance

Amy Wellborn points her readers to this revealing review of the recent remake of "Alfie." There's a scene in the original Michael Caine film that you won't see in the Jude Law remake. James Bowman explains:

The one thing everyone remembers about the original Alfie (1966) — and, I think, one of the great moments in cinematic history — is the scene in which Michael Caine breaks down on seeing the dead fetus an abortionist (Denholm Elliott) has left in his kitchen. Lewis Gilbert’s film version of Bill Naughton’s play allowed us to watch as this jaunty Lothario who’s got it all figured out suddenly and unexpectedly acquired a conscience. Afterwards, Caine’s Alfie treats his emotional lapse as a curiosity. "I don’t know what I was expecting to see," he says to the camera; "certainly not this perfectly formed being." He "expected it to cry out. It didn’t of course; it couldn’t have done. Still, it must have had some life." And then there comes, like "praying or something," his moment of insight when an "it" becomes a "him": "‘You know what you done?’ I says to myself. ‘You murdered him.’"

Of course, this would be an impossible line in Charles Shyer’s new remake of the picture, which stars Jude Law in the title role. Shyer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elaine Pope, must have seen that the last 40 years of feminist consciousness-raising have made "You murdered him" in this context into a political — and, of course, a reactionary — statement.

. . . In the original, Alfie is made to realize that there is a transcendent dimension to what he has hitherto treated as nothing but the satisfaction, to which he is manifestly entitled, of appetite. Now, if only for a moment, this becomes literally a matter of life and death.

Bowman then wonders what the new "Alfie" offers as a replacement for this scene where Alfie is suddenly face to face with his conscience.

. . . Alfie’s moment of emotion and moral insight comes from remorse at the betrayal of a friend. . . . the new Alfie’s regret at losing a friend, even apart from the fact that it doesn’t pack the same moral wallop as horror at a murder, is experienced only in terms of his own feelings. His feeling bad in the circumstances is expected. Who wouldn’t? Do not even the Scribes and the Pharisees feel as much? Betrayal and remorse in this situation lacks the transcendent dimension. Was it just this woman that he shouldn’t have trifled with? Is the rest of his string of conquests morally unproblematical? If so, why should he feel the need to change — whether or not he does change — his whole life? . . . Nowadays, hardly anyone thinks that sex outside marriage is wrong per se — apart, that is, from personal loyalty and betrayal. And if Alfie’s sort of tom-catting is disapproved of, it is chiefly as a matter of degree.What was once a glimpse of a whole moral universe has been reduced here to the banality of that well known ailment, commitment-phobia.

Apparently there is an abortion scene in the remake, but as Meghan Cox Gurdon writes on OpinionJournal, it's kept at a clinical distance.

In the remake, neither Alfie nor the woman raises any other solution than the "safe, legal and rare" one, so off they go to a clinic. The scene takes perhaps two minutes and has the emotional wallop of a pharmaceutical ad. It's just as NARAL/Pro-Choice America would want it: Keep your judgmentalism off her body, man. Looming far larger in the "Alfie" remake is the hero's, er, sword of seduction. It goes flaccid. It may be diseased! Cliffhanger! Memento mori! The triviality would make you weep if the film weren't itself so trivial. An unplanned baby means a quick trip to the clinic, but an endangered penis? Now that is distressing. That is cause for soft-focus soul-searching.

. . . What is striking, but not surprising, about films that do tackle abortion is how the "products of conception" end up having no claim on the audience's sympathy. They're like so many extraneous scenes left on the cutting-room floor. Perhaps expending screen time on what--or who--might have been would clog the narrative, and anyway, what a drag.

Better to touch on the melancholy and physical suffering of the adults. Better yet to cast any such suffering in solipsistic terms that will be pleasantly painful for the audience while not forcing anyone to think too hard about what, exactly, was aborted. Thus the new Alfie, jogging to keep warm as he waits outside the clinic, muses: "I find myself having regrets. Here's another kid you'll never get to know--your own." I, me, mine, you, and yours but, er, what about the kid?

About the only film I can remember that even touched on abortion--and then just barely--was "The Apartment," the 1960 film with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. I'm working from memory here, not having the film available, but I recall a scene where Jack Lemmon's character encounters the brother of Shirley MacLaine's character. Upon learning that a doctor has been called to attend to MacLaine, the brother goes ballistic, assuming that the doctor is performing an illegal abortion. (Though it's only hinted at--never stated explicitly.)

I remember being a bit surprised to see that subject in a 1960 film, let alone one that was billed as a "comedy."

With a little googling, I found this essay on the subject of abortion in the movies. The essay begins well enough, and I agree with writer Eve Kushner's suggestion that movie depictions are unrealistic:

Unexpected conceptions occur onscreen with surprising frequency, but filmmakers routinely play it safe, avoiding substantial discussions of a pregnancy’s pros and cons. They keep abortion out of plots and even out of dialogue, ensuring that movies end with a heartwarming birth. Female characters rarely feel any ambivalence about carrying unplanned pregnancies to term — and why should they, when life always works out so perfectly? An unhappy and unwilling dad-to-be will convert to a pro-baby stance in time for a happily-ever-after ending. If mom isn’t too crazy about dad and would prefer to parent by herself, she’ll soon find that single motherhood is a cinch. Although childrearing seems expensive in the real world, money isn’t much of an obstacle for film parents (and made even less of one by the fact that most movies feature middle-class women with plenty of resources).

But the author's perspective quickly becomes clear:

This sentimental support for parenthood in movies matches our culture’s strong pronatalist streak and its profound uneasiness with abortion. In spite of the facts — 82 percent of Americans think abortion should stay legal, and 43 percent of American women will end at least one pregnancy by age 45 — the issue remains highly controversial, with anti-choice groups garnering disproportionate visibility and wielding significant political influence. Against this backdrop, unplanned pregnancy on film plays out in an alarmingly oversimplified manner. Procreation becomes every woman’s destiny and every man’s responsibility, regardless of circumstances. Abortion exists only as a faux option — something to choose against.

What Kushner apparently wants to see are more films celebrating the choice of abortion.

What better way to handle one of the most heated contemporary sociopolitical dilemmas than to present streams of couples who conceive by accident and routinely ignore their reproductive choices? Hollywood can then have its plots completely risk-free. What with talking fetuses, soft-focus lenses, and abortion as a theoretical possibility only, anti-choice propagandists could hardly do it better.

But if abortion is depicted honestly, how could it possibly be seen as something worth celebrating?

Last week at The Corner, the subject of abortion on television shows came up. Here's Jonah Goldberg:

I always think it's somewhat hilarious on shows like Friends and going back through countless others to Murphy Brown when the single pregnant woman anguishes about whether she's going to keep her baby. I don't mean to say that such pretend anguish doesn't capture a certain reality, and a very sad one. But at the end of the day -- or often at the end of sweeps week -- the woman always says "it's my choice, I'm keeping the baby." Or, they'll have a scene where the woman gets a sonogram and she realizes she loves the baby and again she'll say "it's my choice. I'm having this baby."

And, the moment the women decide to have the baby, the fetus is automatically discussed as if it were a complete person worth talking to, reading to, singing to etc. The implication here, of course, is that if Rachel or whoever had simply chosen not to have the baby, that choice and that choice alone would have been enough of an abracadabra to metaphysically transform the fetus into nothing more than a lump of cells or the inconvenient consequence of a one-night-stand not worth reading to at all.

But -- and here's the funny part -- they never choose the abortion. It's so unbelievably predictable in show after show. Unless there's a miscarriage, the woman always "chooses" to have the baby and that choice makes the fetus into a baby. The ontological status of the baby itself has nothing to do with it.

Pawnking Pundit adds this observation:

Although it's true that TV rarely mentions women having abortions, I have noticed a whole lot of winking in that direction. One of my favorite shows is "Law & Order." In an episode of L&O, SVU, I saw a woman who decided to keep the baby of a rape, only to see the baby become a rapist himself as an adult.

"I thought, since there was me in him too, he'd grow up to be good," she sniffed. She talked about what a rough childhood he'd had, because the rapist was black and she was oriental. All her family hated him, and so did their neighbors.

"Why didn't you move?" the detective asked.

"In my heart, I think I hated him, too," was the answer.

Also in this episode, another woman who was made pregnant by the rapist decided to have the baby, but the baby died in infancy. "I was relieved" was what she said about it.

There was also speculation that violence was inherited, and children of rape would be more likely to becoming violent themselves.

Might as well go out and say the moral . . . Babies from rape bring only heartache and pain, and the baby is better off never being alive.

I can only recall a couple instances of television shows presenting the subject of abortion. One was on the late, lamented ABC series "Nothing Sacred," a fantastic drama about the people working at an inner city Catholic parish. The series was unfairly slammed by Catholics and evangelicals, and treated poorly by ABC. Only 18 episodes were produced, and I think only 13 actually aired.

The very first episode I saw--and the one that sold me on the show--concerned the high school girl who worked in the church office and her decision about whether or not to have an abortion. In the episode she seeks counsel from two of the priests on the show. The older priest, Father Leo, offers his support whatever she decides to do--that is, whether she decides to keep the baby or give it up for adoption.

The younger priest, Father Ray (the series' main character) refuses to take any stand on the issue, communicating that the girl must make up her own mind. Even though she does end up having an abortion, I found it satisfying that Father Ray's fence-straddling on the issue was shown in a negative light. Father Leo upbraids him for being wishy-washy.

(By the way, it's been seven years since this show aired, and I may be misremembering the details. If anyone has it on tape--I only managed to tape about 8 episodes, and this particular episode wasn't one of them--please confirm or correct. I would love to see this series get a DVD release. It surely deserves one.)

The most honest depiction of abortion on a television series that I have ever seen also comes from, perhaps, the most unlikely place.

In the second series of MTV's "The Real World," one of the housemates, Tami, becomes pregnant and decides to get an abortion. Another housemate, Jon, a born-again Christian, makes it very clear that he is against abortion. But while the other housemates pay lip service to their support for Tami's decision, Jon is the only one really befriending her throughout the situation. The other housemates are busy carrying on with their vapid lives.

When the day of her abortion comes, the cameras follow Tami into the clinic where she fills out forms. The receptionist is heard to ask, quite clearly, if she has a money order or cash to pay for the procedure. Tami's mother, who has accompanied her to the clinic is not allowed to be at her daughter's side for the procedure. She is told that she must wait outside for the sake of the other patients' privacy. (And so must the cameras.)

As Tami emerges from the clinic after her abortion, she can barely walk. A clinic worker tells her to take some tylenol, and that seems to be the end of their involvement. Tami's mother tries to help Tami to the car, but she must stop and sit down at least once.

Later, Tami tells the cameras:

After the surgery, I was in excruciating pain, throwing up a lot, bleeding heavily, and I thought instantly that maybe I had made the wrong decision and I was being punished for it. And then I had to come to grips with my decision and realize that this was the best decision for me at this point in my life.And then after the pain came the guilt and hurt of it all.

Tami's mother then adds her own take on abortion, recalling that when she was pregnant with Tami, abortions were still illegal

If they had been legal, I probably would have had an abortion, but as I think back on it today, I have a very lovely daughter. She has made me what I am today. I'm glad that they were illegal at that time.

I have no idea if the producers of "The Real World" were aiming to communicate any particular impression of abortion--either positive or negative--with the way they edited the show. But what emerges is at least an honest depiction. Even with the limited access given to the cameras, the clinic sequence is disturbing. No one could watch that sequence and come away thinking that abortion is something to be celebrated, as Ms. Kushner seems to think.

Far from keeping a clinical distance from the issue of abortion, on MTV--MTV of all places!-- viewers saw the hurt and the pain and the regret that accompany the decision.


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