Bright Lights Film Journal

The Last American Ruffalo: Lisa Cholodenko’s Lesbian “Homespun” Family Values

“In order to rectify her own misery with judgmental, shrewish wino Annette, Julianne Moore has to suffer the shame of being caught cheating, the way Dick Cheney had to suffer the blame for all the waterboarding we needed to squash terrorism.”

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko dropped our jaws back in 1998 with High Art, the brave, ruthless tale of Rhada Mitchell rising to fame in the art world by falling into bed with Ally Sheedy, a famous-from-the-’70s photographer now adrift in junky cool thanks to her Nico times Fassbinder junky German performance artist girlfriend. It was mired in the empty indie hipness popularized by 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but its fearless treading along druggy Nan Goldin lines and its cold critique of the art world made it smoking hot.

The word-of-mouth success of that film seemed to throw Cholodenko into a covert conservative free-fall that manifested itself in the strangely repressive subtext of her second film, Laurel Canyon (2002), the story of an uptight son who decks his single-mom free spirit for daring to sleep with his fiancée, even though he wants to marry someone else instead. Amp up that conservative undertow and you have The Kids Are All Right (2010), which looks, in comparison to the refreshing anti-morality of High Art, like a weird selling-out, even as it uses the images and symbols of status quo subversion and alternate lifestyle endorsement as a freak flag in flight.

While High Art seemed to me brave in its dismissal of Mitchell’s conformist “straight” boyfriend (Gabriel Mann), Cholodenko’s success with the film seemed to confuse her as far as the need to discuss heterosexual sidebars in the gay world. If you reach a large audience with your small film, aimed at a niche market, does that mean you now have to aim for the world instead? Are you now a lesbian Spike Lee, burdened by success to “make a difference” and portray upstanding young black men so your inner-city audience can learn not just to take a life but to take care of one, when you became famous for just keeping it real and transgressive?

To be frank, my criticism isn’t with lesbians or Spike Lee, but with the unconscious drive in so many non-mainstream auteurs to get all preachy about “the family” as they get older. Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 1970s, when kids were treated like they are in Mad Men, i.e., able to run free, a time when parents thought more about their love affairs and whether there were enough card tables for bridge than about whether or not the McDonald’s lunches were killing us. Or maybe it’s because family values’ strongest stalwarts are often revealed to be evil pedophiles, while shady-looking weirdos like me have a heart of gold. But one thing I can tell you, dismantling the stifling framework of the post-war nuclear family was our whole goal in the 1970s. Did Diane Keaton die while Looking for Mr. Goodbar all in vain? Did Natalie Wood escape The Cracker Factory just to go home and suffocate her kids with hyper-parenting?

Cholodenko’s third film, The Kids Are All Right (2010), recent winner of a Golden Globe, chronicles a “two-mom household” thrown into disarray by the intrusion of their sperm donor — motorcycle-riding restaurant owner Mark Ruffalo at the behest of “his” two kids (the moms each took a bullet).You know some testosterone is needed in the family, especially by their 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who’s desperate for male guidance. His sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and is preparing to go away for college, and his lack of a male authority figure has compelled him to hang out with a sadistic twit and to join a lot of sports teams. So the Ruffalo is a good thing. But, as Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker:

What Cholodenko, at her sneakiest, is doing here is to ask what occurs when a moral elasticity encounters sturdier, more traditional forms of living. Paul, for example, may only be a makeshift father figure, but under his influence Joni begins to stand up for herself against the brittle Nic, and Laser is inspired to drop an unsuitable friend—something that his mothers have long been urging him to do, without success. As for Jules, she gets laid by a man, which, if nothing else, makes a change, the problem being that the small, tolerant world of these prosperous folk can’t handle a change that extreme. Just as the California sunshine somehow loses its relaxing suffusion and hardens into a cruel noontide, so, by an irony that Cholodenko may not fully have intended, the climax of “The Kids are All Right” grows suddenly humorless, and close to vengeful, in its moralizing glare.1

Now, when it comes to marriage I believe it’s any couple’s right, gay or straight, but at the same time I question the almost fetishistic import the gay/lesbian of film and TV seems to place on it (most egregiously on The L Word). I’ve always bristled about the possessive objectification going on with the term “my wife” or “my husband,” which seems to be running on through all these films, implying ownership and objectification, which should be the real enemy here, the way people use marriage as a kind of sticky fly-trap to ensure their partner can’t escape. In Cholodenko’s lesbian America, it’s just got different terminology and different rules, but it’s the same concept: two people bound together by law and children, slogging (Julianne Moore’s words in the film) through the ages, trying their best to stay civil. Why? Is it some weird fetish? What is the point?

The married heterosexual couple makes sense for procreation and supplying the combination of yin and yang, maternal and paternal. Without that dynamic, the “family” will inherently have flaws, there will be a double absence of the phallus, prompting our lesbians to occasionally bust out some gay (male) porn while going down on each other. It’s an ingenious touch (among many; I won’t argue the film is brilliantly written, observed, and acted) that the gay porn film-within-a-lesbian family film involves motorcyclist males with cocky walks, mirroring Mark Ruffalo’s own bike and strutting entrances and exits from the two-mom domain. His yang energy is clearly needed, at least by three of the four (Annette Bening is against him, feeling replaced as the “male”). That Ruffalo is eventually ostracized from the family unit is expected — Cholodenko is a lesbian mom in a two-mom house as well, and makes no bones about seeing men as a necessary, albeit temporary evil — like every few years they need to keel haul a straight man under the ship of their double-estrogen drama — and anyway he should be enough of a playa to know he can’t go crawling back, but has to just walk away like a man once the jig is up. Instead he crawls back, and the family unit is sanctified by its collective ostracizing. It’s in this that we see the fundamental flaw with same-sex marriages that have children, and how occasional intrusions from the opposite (not generally present) sex help redress a balance. In order to rectify her own misery with judgmental, shrewish wino Annette, Julianne Moore has to suffer the shame of being caught cheating, the way Dick Cheney had to suffer the blame for all the waterboarding we needed to squash terrorism. Someone always has to be the bad guy, the bully.

The insecure, conservative bully of the group in Kids is clearly Nic (Bening), and in Cholodenko’s previous film, Laurel Canyon it’s the son, Sam, played by Christian Bale, an uptight control freak doctor who punches out his own mom when he sees his fiancée (Kate Beckinsale) succumbing to the druggy allure of his mom (Frances McDormand) and her much younger rock star lover, Ian (Alessandro Nivola). Meanwhile, Bale is unable to admit the hot model/psych intern where he works (Natasha McElhone) is much more the ideal mate: she’s a doormat who throws herself at him without even bothering to plumb his soggy oh-so-tortured depths. You can imagine Bale slapping patients who remind him of his mom, and Cholodenko’s script somehow making that all right: “It’s okay it’s okay, his mom’s a rock star. She’s so coked up she doesn’t even feel it.” What is more useless than a psychologist with absolutely no self-awareness? He’s one of those psychologists who proves one needs nary a single shred of self-knowledge to be medically certified, just a rich parent and patient med school. Thus a man can help dysfunctional city youths by day, then punch out his own mom by night, and still wind up having the freedom to lounge in the pool and debate leaving Kate for Natasha. In short, he really, really, really needs a bitch slap.

For a supposedly hip feminist director, Cholodenko seems lost when it comes to seeing through the facile posturing of the insecure male psyche, in the process granting it both more and less power than it has. Ian is allowed to come off as a great all-around guy who remains super cool throughout and is in awe of this older woman in his life, McDormand, in a way that’s reminiscent of Ruffalo’s character with Julianne Moore. These men are both near-caricatures of confident “approachable” masculinity, while Bale’s wounded son stands with the jilted boyfriend in High Art and Ruffalo at the end — also abandoned — of Kids, as the other side of the coin, the cast-offs.

Ruffalo said in an interview that Cholodenko “lets actors live and breathe between the lines,” but that just might be a fancy way of saying she’s a brilliant creator of moments and certain scenes, but damned if she knows how to end a movie. Rather than just lunge forward in a kind of black widow pincer move (i.e., have Nic kill him at the end of the film), the lesbian characters fall back into a conservative posture, trying to have their cake and blame it too.

Laurel Canyon came out the same year as Almost Famous, in which Frances McDormand again played a mom in a rock movie, this time one who liked to break up the party of an up-and-coming Allman-esque rock band via long-distance phone calls to her Crowe proxy rock journalist son. Yeah, ain’t that funny? Dude, bands form and tour to get away from moms, but in Crowe’s sanitized, drug-free perspective, moms are a plus; meanwhile the ultra-cool mom of Canyon gets a sock in the kisser. Where’s the love for the lifestyle you depict?

As a child of the ’70s I had to watch the iron doors close on what I felt as an era of joyful permissiveness and love and mystery, into the Jason Voorhees-haunted cloisters of the sidewalkless ’80s. I watched love go to becoming, as P.J. Harvey sings, “a sickly child” (in “The Desperate Kingdom of Love”). Cholodenko’s stance on it is older than my own; for her there are clearly issues with the 1970s permissiveness, and her 1980s is the land of Prince and partying like it’s 1999, even to the point of marrying Wendy (of Wendy and Lisa from Prince’s Purple Rain days). Now with a son of their own, she seems to be a secret (even to herself) lesbian-hating conservative, or to presume her audience is starved for pro-nuclear family drama over all else, especially genuine transgression.

I can understand, I’m a straight male who is overjoyed when women leave their dumb-ass men for other women. But the other way around smacks of . . . well, for example, this very same thing happened with a very good female divorcée friend of mine, who’s been living with a woman for years and they each have a son from a previous marriage and all is well, but then she tells one of our mutual friends, still in a conventional marriage, of this radical change, and this mutual friend dismisses it as “a phase,” as in: “Well, dear, let us know when you grow up,” afraid of admitting that a woman can shack up with another woman and still not have to choose sides, consider herself gay, straight, or bi, clinging to the outmoded notion that the gravitational pull of maleness is stronger than any feminine moon. Nowhere was this more offensive, of course, than in Kissing Jessica Stein, a film about a straight girl who falls into a lesbian relationship with a cute, happenin’ chick, only to have it quashed when some guy who likes her approaches her at a party with the self-righteous attitude of “come on and stop pretending, and obey me and the natural order.”

Compare that with the genuine subversion of a filmmaker like Pedro Almodovar or even Woody Allen, for whom the classic nuclear family pair bond is itself a farce, misguided, a moot settling at best. The heat of genuine subversion may be more destructive than positive, but at least it has heat. It has the guts to trash the existing structure rather than just toying with the idea of moving the furniture, then ostracizing the moving company.

Consider the ways these films could have gone: Why, for example, since there’s no actual “mutual” procreation in the works, are these lesbian households limited to two people? Why can’t there be a relationship between three, four, even ten lesbians all at once? Maybe with a single guy thrown in for when they get restless and need a little motorcycle cop action? Why can’t a child have five gay moms instead of two?? What is so great about the procreative pair-bond marriage that gay people want it, over, say, setting off and creating their own family unit? Don’t join the establishment! Destroy it!

From my distant vantage point, the gay fetish for outmoded nuclear family aesthetics seems almost camp, albeit a camp masked in glum sanctimony. From my cynically detached, childless viewpoint, such a fetishization of the family is akin to the African American trend toward embracing the traditionally WASP-y country club attire of Tommy Hilfiger. The way Cholodenko’s lesbians worship at the altar of straight conformity creates a dissonance, a space wherein “straight male” behavior isn’t corrected or challenged, so a brooding sulky twit like Bale in Canyon is not even punished or made to feel bad after giving his mom a black eye. It’s unclear in the narrative but nonetheless much too easy to read that we’re supposed to feel his mom “deserved” it, for trying to steal “his” fiancée . . . and Cholodenko stays tacitly complicit with this reading, on one level elevating Frances McDormand’s polysexual liberation only to condemn her later as “bad mom!” Bale’s idealized longing for the “normal” upbringing he never had thanks to his free-spirit mom isn’t challenged as an illusion (something any real analyst would spot a mile away) and that, more than anything, seems to be why Bale’s character isn’t ostracized for his violent outburst.

So in closing, remember: two moms don’t make a right, anymore than a traditional mom and dad combo. As Cholodenko observed in an interview promoting the film:

There are different kinds of families we have never seen before able to be visible. I think alternative families have always been there but not always visible. But it seems to me that there is a return to more homespun values, if you will. In the ’70s and ’80s I think they were off to the left, and then the pendulum went a bit to the right in the mid-’80s and ’90s. Now I think we’re trying to find our way to something more democratic in terms of the configuration of families and who can head a family. But the family values are being redefined in maybe a good way.2

My god! Since when are “homespun values” a good thing? The “family” is not something that needs even more sentimentalizing and pedestal placement. It’s this pressure to provide one’s parents with emotional support 24/7 that’s killing today’s youth. It takes a village, y’all! In aiming for bourgeois family values, the modern same-gender parent household doesn’t mystically tap into a sacred source of wisdom and power — they just recreate the pressurized environment that made them so anxious to leave home, the pressure that’s destroyed the fabric of American society. More than anything, what Cholodenko’s oeuvre thus far reveals is that no grass looks greener to the queer eye than a boring, straight family’s lawn, and in the heart of every gay free spirit is a repressed neo-conservative trying to get out, and whether there’s a vice versa or not, even she can’t say. Either way, no matter how much sun-dappling and rock music you add, it’s not all right.

  1. Anthony Lane, New Yorker, 7/12/10: []
  2. Lee Shoquist, Lisa Cholodenko: The Kids Are All Right. ATZone []