Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER" (2002): SELF-DETERMINATION (AND CALLING OUT THE BULLSH*T!) YEARS BEFORE #MeTOO - by CEJ



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SEARCHING FOR 
DEBRA WINGER (2002)

Written & Directed by - Rosanna Arquette
Produced by - Rosanna Arquette, Kristina Birkmayer, David Codikow, Mark Cuban, Patty Long, Todd Wagner, Happy Walters
Music Super. - Jojo Villenueva
Cinematographers - Jean-Marc Barr, Olivier Boucreux, Cort Fey, Joey Forsyte, Nathan Hope, Micheal Wojciechowski
Editor - Gail Yasunaga 
Set Decor. - Carisa Rosenthal, Joanna M. Wright
Running Time: 98 mins.
Release: May 2002 (Cannes) 
July 2002 (U.S. theatrical)
Dist: Lions Gate Films

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     Searching for a poetic reference I've got to go with the biblical one about "a prophet without honor in his own country" - with the definition of "prophet" being the strictest one as in an oracle who divined something which most others at the time did not, could not, or just plain refused to see as that which inevitably very soon would be. In such light it's hard to believe that a film featuring Frances McDormand, Charlotte Rampling, Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Selma Hayek, Kelly Lynch, Alfre Woodard, Venessa Redgrave, Diana Lane, Tracy Ullman, Sharon Stone, Ally Sheedy, Theresa Russell, Holly Hunter, Laura Dern, Patricia & Rosanna Arquette, and Debra Winger among others (and hell, that's only half the list!) could be considered "obscure" or "relatively unknown" for so long. But such is the case with Rosanna Arquette's feature length documentary SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER.


     While it debuted "Out of Competition" at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, then later enjoyed a limited theatrical run through Lions Gate Entertainment, I became familiar with this compressed cinematic gem via Leonard Maltin's now defunct weekly TV series SECRET'S OUT back when the show ran on the (old version) of Reelz Channel in the early 2000s. A couple of years later I'd stumble across a $3.00 DVD copy in a supermarket cheapie bin (the modern day "Well of the Souls" of cinematic treasure troves!), and snatch it up. But watching it now in the slipstream of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it's nothing short of jaw-dropping to look back 15 years and see how, not unlike life in general (and hey, with women ... and Debra Winger in particular), Arquette's film has only improved with age. Now, that's not just because it concerned itself with addressing certain facets of #MeToo and #TimesUp long before those hashtags became front page news, but more because SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER even now manages to supersede them as a rallying cry for action over talk. Stick with me a few minutes and I think you'll understand and agree. Watch this pearl of a film for yourself, and I promise you'll agree even more.


     Upon release there were a few critics who felt Arquette's compilation of one-on-ones with various actresses was, yeah, insightful and in spots even intriguing, but that her cinematic and interview style were "choppy" and at times even "sappy" and unprofessional. I heartily disagree, ... though I can understand why some could misinterpret things as such.


     First off, what's the film about? Well, that's one of those questions wherein on the surface you have one answer as to "Why did the filmmaker set out to make this thing in the first place?", but on another level you have the more bonafied "Okay, I get that, but in the end what's really going on here?" aspect. And those aren't always the same thing. Y'know, as "about" and the "meaning" and / or "truth" of something is often found "in between the lines" of the obvious. And how sometimes that which is between those lines will be subtext written (for all intents and purposes) in invisible ink only later made see-able on the parchment pages via the greatest of reagents - the simple passage of time. In fact often it can be only through said passage of time that even those who are the subjects of / within a documentary (and in some cases even the film makers) can clearly come to see and understand those previously invisible / "between the line" layers themselves. The context of time can often (intentionally or not) change the meaning.


     SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER is the working definition of a famous quote by Orson Welles wherein he stated "In a fictional film the director is God, but in a documentary God is the director" - meaning that a good documentarian will allow the film to take her/ him where it decides it wants to go, ... which may not necessarily be to the final thematic location of the filmmaker's originally mapped-out intent.

     This trip begins with Rosanna Arquette having just crossed the 40 year mark. And, while at said particular life point she's never felt more comfortable within her own skin, she at the same time surprisingly finds herself not as fulfilled in her creative career existence. She wonders, as do many at that life bridge, if it's because she's unable to find a balance between career and motherhood. Or maybe it's that the film industry itself is unfulfilling. Maybe it's always been a b.s. of a sham, ... a two dimensional mirrored construct that she didn't realize or allow herself to see as such in her younger years. Perhaps it's all just in her head as the not atypical musings of a mind approaching midlife. Or could it likely be a combination of elements of all of the above?

     Always wondering why actress Debra Winger (of URBAN COWBOY, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT fame) chose to essentially retire from the business five years prior - when she was around the same age Arquette was approaching at the time she decided to make this film - our director sets out to interview over 40 actresses on two continents over the course of a year, beginning each sit-down by asking each woman why they feel Winger may have left the biz; then ultimately by film's end having a chat with Winger herself in order to ask the same.


     It's not too difficult to see why a few critics jumped the gun in using the word "sappy", because during the first 20 or so mins. of its 98 min. running time, the film does at first appear as though it's going to be little more than an hour and a half of actresses feeling guilty about not spending enough quality time with their children. Now, granted, that's not an unimportant subject to those within the families of those actresses, but (no disrespect intended) it's not necessarily a gripping topic to the average viewer. However, shortly thereafter the Orson Welles adage thematically kicks in, and things take off (or "evolve" might be more accurate) into a stream of (stream of consciousness?) subjects of discussion which have since proven to have major ramifications within the film industry of 2018.


     In this light perhaps one of the most fascinating and admirable things about the film is in what it doesn't do - in that it doesn't turn into a screed about how all men in the film industry are evil. Which is not to say there aren't more than a few horror stories along those lines to make one's toes curl and flat out enrage the hell out of you.

     Because Arquette opts here to use much of (what other film makers might consider) "B roll" footage ... . Y'know, the more unplanned and off-the-cuff material; ... that which was recorded as the interviewer and interviewees were grabbing a smoke and prepping for their official sit-down talks ... . Because she uses that with other footage captured in restaurants and bars after a meal and a few drinks or bottles of wine have been summarily consumed, and everyone is loose, open and honest as hell ... . Well, this is where, how and why the topics of discussion become "no bullsh*t within these borders" extremely frank and honest, and at times brutally so.

     The film is rated "R", and it's not only because of the plethora of F-bombs dropped like V2s in a re-enactment of the London Blitz, but more so because of unexpurgated discussions about studio execs approving or disapproving of an actress in a role because of her "audience fu*kability quotient", or Patricia Arquette recalling expressing her open disgust on a film set when a producer (who in retrospect sounds a helluva lot like Harvey Weinstein) attempted to fondle a crewmember's vagina, then asked an actress to smell his fingers.


     Not shy about dropping names, Winger herself relates how, while enjoying working with a consumate filmmaker like Taylor Hackford on AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, she also had the experience of former Paramount Studios co-head Don Simpson knocking on her hotel door one night during the shoot to offer her pills which could help her "lose some of the water retention" he felt was making her look too heavy in front of the camera. At that moment Winger decided - for better or for worse - that she wouldn't ever play the game by Hollywood's rules. So, yeah, some of the talk in the film ain't pretty. But in spite of this however the conversations ultimately lead towards, while yeah, being pissed at that kind of sh*t, and not wanting to put up with it, the more proactive "out flanking" maneuver of battling that kind of behavior and mindset by (and this is a huge topic for those who know me) seizing control of one's own destiny.


     Whoopi Goldberg and Frances McDormand (and McDormand's interview is candidly conducted in a ladies room at Cannes) talk about the need to outlast the executive a**holes who will eventually fall from power - as the film biz is one wherein a studio mogul at the top of the food chain one week can be (and often is) out on their ass the very next when new corporate interests take over the lot. And for those paying attention, and for others scratching their heads, this very much throws into context McDormand's words just a couple of months ago when she accepted her Oscar for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI.

     Hayek talks of the need for women to become the producers of their own material rather than sitting around to be "rated" as attractive or not, and waiting for someone else to give you a role of which you can be proud. At a dinner table Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy effectively remind those in attendance of the importance of sometimes saying (and I'm paraphrasing) "Screw characters who are so-called 'role models' and 'strong representations', because once a certain age threshold is reached by an actress those roles fall out of favor and out the reach". They say instead "Lets create roles / characters with whom the average person of any given age or social level can identify". Y'know, real normal people like the kind you and I bump into on the street, at work and in the supermarket every day.


     In fact the only one here who has any (what could be considered) uber negative things to say about men in the industry is actually the only man interviewed in the film - late cinema critic & historian Roger Ebert, who effectively (and accurately) rails against those action franchise roles which, while enjoyable, and while they have their place and even importance, are ultimately often little more than "substitute male" fantasy fodder for pubescent boys. And he happens to express this opinion while at Cannes standing before a promo display of Angelina Jolie's first TOMB RAIDER film.


     It might be a bit of a stretch to say that the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews became a "galvanizing agent", or that they "led to" a desire for a new generation of women in Hollywood to want to seize more control of their professional (and yes, personal) destinies as did that earlier Stanwyck / Davis / Hayworth generation of the 1940s. But I do believe it's more than coincidental that around the same time as this docu's filming and release a number of women had just recently founded (or were in the process of founding) their own production companies for the very same reasons. Among those companies were Salma Hayek's "Ventanarosa" - which would go on to produce 2002's multi-award winning FRIDA and TV's UGLY BETTY; Drew Barrymore's "Flower Films" - responsible for NEVER BEEN KISSED, DONNIE DARKO and CHARLIE'S ANGELS; and Sandra Bullock's "Fortis Films" - the entity behind PRACTICAL MAGIC, HOPE FLOATS, MISS GONGENIALITY, TV's THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW and others.


     Shortly thereafter, as other actresses also neared their own 40-year thresholds, and wanted to see more realistic roles for women of all ages, they too became the masters of their own destinies in creating those roles. And the results of their desires would be the establishment of Reese Witherspoon's "Pacific Standard Company" (GONE GIRL, WILD, BIG LITTLE LIES), Queen Latifa's "Flavor Unit Entertainment" (THE COOKOUT, BEAUTY SHOP, and TV's SCREAM), and Nicole Kidman's "Blossom Films" (RABBIT HOLE, THE FAMILY FANG, and BIG LITTLE LIES - this in conjunction with Witherspoon's company).

FRIDA (2002), CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000), HOPE FLOATS (1998) 

     Yet another generation / wave of women-owned production houses would follow in the wake of the previous - among these newer ones those owned by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Banks, Taraji P. Hensen and Natalie Portman - and which would be responsible for even more recent fare such as I, TONYA, the PITCH PERFECT series, PROUD MARY, JANE GOT A GUN and more. And sure as hell as I type these final paragraphs, yet even another wave or two of companies are in the process of sprouting to life to fill the ever-increasing product demand void brought about by the implementation, global growth and popularity of streaming services such as Neflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others - all of these women-owned production houses following similar suit in an insistence to both create more wide-ranging roles for women as well as to help eradicate incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of gender and age-centric abuses within the industry.


     Oh, it's also noticeable (and again, I believe more than coincidental) that shortly after the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews, actresses such as Jane Fonda and Debra Winger herself decided to end their self-imposed retirements in order to take on some of these more diverse, newly created roles in both film and television - the kind of which didn't really exist until after the WINGER interviews and release of the film. So, while I don't necessarily think Rosanna Arquette's 2002 documentary was the catalyst behind the (as Melanie Griffith dubbed it during a dinner chat) soon-to-be "Evolution Revolution", I genuinely believe Arquette managed to here capture as "lightning in a bottle" the overwhelming zeitgeist during a time in which a great deal of frustration,  personal and career self-reflection, and even anger was coalescing for many women in the industry, and being packed like gunpowder into the barrel of a newer era where the old rules of the game would eventually become no longer acceptable.

Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger in Jonathan Demme's RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008),
written by Jenny Lumet

     Watching SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER in 2018 is like watching the glowing hot coals onto which recent incidents such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the successes of female driven projects such as WONDER WOMAN and BIG LITTLE LIES, would be the gasoline tossed onto them. And, as with the future visions of any "Prophet without honor in their own country", those visions and opinions passionately expressed in this rarefied brand of documentary in retrospect now seem obvious and inevitable, though a relatively short time ago this was hardly the case.


     As such a great deal of high praise is due to Rosanna Arquette as director for "following her gut" in allowing this gritty, low budget and at times raw-but-stunningly-realized film to evolve and assert its own broader themed (and ultimately more globally encompassing) self, rather than to settle for being a more tunnel-visioned examination of her own personal journey and angst in search of creative fulfillment. The best documentaries are those wherein the film maker is brave enough to let themselves get out of the god*amn way, and let the film speak for itself. And in being confident enough to do so Arquette's SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER has also (perhaps ironically) become the very answer of / to her own said personal journey / quest - this while simultaneously serving as a thematic lamp post for others hacking their way along the same pathway. It is without a doubt Arquette's bravest and most lasting filmic achievement to date. For me it's a filmic achievement which instantly raised her artistic "street cred" to new levels. And ...

     ... one of which I think deserves yet another rewatch tonight.


                                                                                                               CEJ


2 comments:

  1. Great writing, Craig. Stream of consciousness provides not only far more interesting and provocative cinema than structured, cliché driven mediocrity, but often opens the door to more challenging, intriguing depths of self awareness and discovery. The same is often true of life, with both its chosen paths (whether pre-determined or unconscious), or its profoundly significant detours. In either case, it usually paves the way for more ultimately enduring survival, challenges, and artistic longevity.

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