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What's Playing at the Roxie? 

Wednesday, Jan 22 1997
Normal Life
Directed by John McNaughton. Written by Peg Haller and Bob Schneider. Starring Luke Perry and Ashley Judd. At the Roxie, Jan. 24-30.

Troublesome Creek
A documentary by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. At the Roxie starting Jan. 31, and at the UC Theater in Berkeley Feb. 4 and 5.

As the great Frank Loesser asked and answered in the title song to Guys and Dolls: "What's playing at the Roxie? / I'll tell you what's playing at the Roxie / A picture 'bout a Minnesota man so in love with a Mississippi girl that he sacrifices everything and moves all the way to Biloxi/ That's what's playing at the Roxie." And that's not just what's playing at the Roxie, but at any theater specializing in independent features these days. The difference between Loesser's lyrics and indies like Normal Life is that a post-Tarantino, post-Coen brothers romance depends on true crime and psychopathology rather than true love and selflessness. And it tends to be an absurdist, arted-up docudrama, without rhyme, rhythm -- or reason.

In Normal Life, the guy is an idealistic suburban-Illinois cop named Chris (Luke Perry); the doll is Pam (Ashley Judd), a juicy-looking but frigid high-tech worker who's also a biker chick and Rollerblader. From the start, we know that she and Chris are doomed: The film kicks off with the FBI ambushing them in a parking lot right after they've loaded up their firearms. The plot proper begins two years earlier, when Chris was trying vainly to make it as a rookie while wooing the volatile Pam. Unfortunately, in the ensuing 100 minutes, we don't know what Chris sees in her except for her pretty face and curvy, cushiony body. She's freaking nuts from the git-go; my guess is for Chris she crystallizes the lunacy of a universe in which he can lose his police job because he's too by-the-book. Early on, Pam says she wants to die in an astronomical black hole. Black holes function here like nuclear bombs did in the '50s: They can make you feel like nothing -- or like you can do whatever you want.

The lovers' one clear point of convergence is that Chris likes looking down gun sights and Pam likes looking up telescope sights. Otherwise, they clash even when they share on-the-job problems. Pam can't work without drugs and alcohol; Chris refuses to back the story of a fellow cop who beats up a perp in custody. Pam slashes at her own torso with a knife and plays Russian roulette, but she's not conventionally suicidal; she's more manic-manic than manic-depressive -- before long, it's obvious that she wants to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. Normality has no hold on her; she pursues extreme feeling the way others pursue extreme sports. And though she yowls about her feminist integrity, she relies on her man to pick up the pieces -- to bandage her self-inflicted wounds and to pay off her maxed-out credit cards.

The movie makes marginal sense as a deadpan parody of traditional gender roles. With no other family or friends (save a lesbian co-worker who hopes she'll try the gay life), Pam expects Chris to provide everything, except orgasms. Being an old-fashioned husband, Chris is glad to play protector for this nouveau-psycho woman, no matter that her debts compel him to break the law. Once he's fired from the force, he secretly becomes a notorious "bearded bank robber" and manages to set his marriage up in tract-home splendor. Only after Pam stumbles onto Chris' alter ego and joins him on a heist does she get happy and enjoy her first big O. Chris stashes away enough money to start a small business -- it's a nice touch that this by-the-book officer decides to open a used-book store. Still, Pam and Chris aren't destined for conjugal bliss; she insists they rob till they drop.

Normal Life (like the forthcoming indie romance Farmer & Chase) would probably play better if it were done as an outright lampoon of Bonnie and Clyde. In the orgasm scene, and in the fusillade that climaxes Pam's getaway, it approaches spoofing anyhow. But the screenwriters, Peg Haller and Bob Schneider, based their script on fact. They intend it as a neutral study of folie a deux, and the director, John McNaughton, applies a relentlessly objective style, similar to the one he used on his career-making Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The problem with a style as uninflected as McNaughton's is that unless it's suffused with poetry or compassion, it cedes the film's point of view to the dominating character. The filmmakers give up their movie to Pam just as Chris gives up his marriage to her. Of course, Pam alienates us when she wears in-line skates and a scant outfit to her father-in-law's funeral, but by then the film has adopted her perspective on the supposed sterility of Middle America. (It was filmed in denatured suburbs near Chicago's O'Hare Airport.)

Each citizen of the straight world is a pitiful specimen, whether sickly like Chris' father or officious like Pam's boss or conformist like the other cops; a relatively sympathetic character like Chris' brother expresses concern over an expensive gun only because Chris didn't buy it from him. Ashley Judd has a big-cat unpredictability that keeps viewers on their toes. Luke Perry is both impressive and off-puttingly opaque as Chris; at his peak, he's like a Marlboro man eaten up inside by love instead of cancer. At one point, Chris gives a former colleague from the force a used copy of Jim Thompson's pulp milestone The Killer Inside Me, a novel that walks the reader straight through a sociopath's psyche. But McNaughton and company look at their protagonist from the outside; they can't help Perry indicate the magnitude of Chris' obsession with Pam.

When his parents bequeath to him a cowboy painting called The Scout, we're probably meant to see Chris as a failed cowboy hero, determined to do right by his damsel in distress though she's as spiteful and ferocious as a mythic fury. In the end, who cares? If a movie is as affectless as this one, you give up trying to "read" it. What's wrong with Normal Life isn't just its skewed notion of normality, but its underfed imitation of life.

Life spills over the banks of Troublesome Creek, the next attraction at the Roxie. This semitragic, frisky, and inspiring documentary has the low-key charisma that fact-derived fiction films like Normal Life hardly ever match. Unlike jeopardy-driven feature filmmakers, our finest documentarians, like Troublesome Creek's Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, root their work in character, no matter how public, topical, or dire their subjects. When their people fix on cowboy icons, it matters.

A lot of patient craft has gone into this record of the final months that Russel and Mary Jane Jordan spent on the Iowa farm that by 1990 had been in the family for almost 125 years. But the main attraction of Troublesome Creek isn't the narration's lucid exposition of the agricultural crisis or the way the camera drinks in the country's pastoral beauty in sun or snow. It's the embattled couple itself -- which the co-directors would be glad to hear, since Jeanne Jordan is Russel and Mary Jane's youngest daughter. By subtitling this engaging work "A Midwestern," Jordan plays off her folks' affection for the stirring morality plays of Hollywood westerns. But Troublesome Creek also registers as an antidote to "midwesterns" like Fargo and Normal Life, with their inarticulate clowns and stunted lives. The Jordans' farm is in Iowa, but they present the same stoic face to the world as the Minnesotans in Fargo, and they pepper their conversations with a similar number of "You betchas." The difference is, Jordan and Ascher (her husband) know that stoicism and understatement are heroic -- they contain emotion, they don't cover for its absence.

Russel watches his westerns on the tube with rapt absorption, moving nary a hair of the furry black eyebrows that leap out from under his bald pate; you may think him simple or maniacal until the intensity of his gaze seeps into the celluloid. Russel, like many other farmers, fell prey to the boom and bust that started when agriculture soared in the '70s. Banks encouraged farmers to improve their land, then panicked when farm growth stalled and deteriorated in the '80s. With the help of his younger son, Jon, Russel has been laboring under the burden of increasing debt, and his bank, now part of a regional banking corporation, has decided to call in his loans. At the same time, his older son, Jim, who's been farming on rented land, has discovered that his place will be sold out from under him. So Russel comes up with the daring scheme at the center of the movie: He'll work the farm another year, then sell off all its assets, pay off his debt, and let Jim move in. It isn't a surrender, it's a tactical retreat, and that distinction gives this film its feisty heart.

Jordan and Ascher intercut her parents' contemporary fight with snippets of the westerns they watch happily on TV. Although it's easy to see the Jordans vs. the bank as the good guys vs. the bad guys -- a reflection of mainstream cowboy fiction -- that isn't the ultimate emphasis either of Jordan's film or of her western clips, from classics like The Gunfighter, Red River, and High Noon. These movies and the Iowa of Troublesome Creek have a shifting moral climate, and Russel is trying to master it as manfully as Gregory Peck or John Wayne or Gary Cooper. The banker who spews gobbledygook about a "risk rating system" isn't the devil, he's an instrument of a soulless streak in our political economy. In a world that's become as alien to the family farmer as outer space, Russel, to borrow a Right Stuff term, maintains an even strain. He's got the unassuming gallantry that used to be an essential part of the American character: It shines from his face whether he's watching his cows being bid on or waiting in a clinic for his Parkinson's treatment. And Mary Jane, who fills her day rounding up money on the phone and surveying household collections that will soon be gone, controls her nerves and keeps her chin up. When she does break into tears, they're as cathartic for us as they are for her. Jordan and Ascher know how to lay in personal details without softening the sharp edges of the story. Jon's exuberant intelligence when he relates how a man can get so mad that he loses his peripheral sight, and Jeanne Jordan's unsentimental wistfulness as she recalls the rare alone-time she spent with her father en route to a school "Daddy Date Night," linger in memory along with the spectacle of the sad, triumphant auction. The auction itself displays Americans at their best and worst: The superbly efficient auctioneers can read the slightest ticks or gestures as bids and keep the process personal; most buyers chat genially with the family about the quality of the equipment, but a couple of them break auction etiquette and reduce a piece to scrap metal on the spot.

In Jordan's one overt attempt to "direct" a sequence, she takes her parents back, for the first time in 15 years, to the farm they rented before Russel came into his inheritance. The once-vibrant site is now dilapidated, but for the viewers (if not for the Jordans) it functions as a reverse testament to what the family accomplished there. The whole movie is like that: It reveals the sturdiness of common sense, fellow-feeling, and clannish tradition, though circumstances nick away at them. Troublesome Creek is a salute to the persistence of vision -- the filmmakers', and even more, their family's.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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