Film

White Oleander (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Seems stuck in first gear, grinding through a series of very "safe" clichés.


White Oleander

Director: Peter Kosminsky
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Renée Zellweger, Patrick Fugit, Billy Connolly, Cole Hauser, Noah Wyle, Svetlana Efremova
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-10-11

A onetime Oprah Book Club selection and monumental bestseller, Janet Fitch's White Oleander now comes to theaters, courtesy of award-winning British director Peter Kosminsky. The result is a hardworking, episodic saga of one girl's journey from scary childhood to sensitive young artist-hood. Beginning with a bad mother and ending with a good man, this expedition takes a number of years and spans various classes in Los Angeles. Proudly unsubtle, it's the kind of movie that gives chick flicks a bad name.

Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman) loves her mom, the lithe and steely artist Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). But, as Astrid explains in her lilting voiceover, she knows that Ingrid probably isn't the healthiest influence to be around. "I belonged to her," Astrid sighs, adding with wistful irony, "Being with someone so dangerous was the last time that I felt safe." The film goes on to explore this ostensible opposition (and emotional collapse) between safety and danger, by tracking Astrid's movements from foster home to foster home, all the way through to the end credits, accompanied by Sheryl Crow's remixed and suddenly much-beloved, following her dramatic performance at the 2002 VMAs, "Safe and Sound." You can never appreciate the significance of security, it seems, until you've felt endangered.

The dangerous-but-safe-seeming Ingrid thus embodies an important object lesson for Astrid, namely, don't let your desires overpower you. At first, she appears as a romantic heroine to her young daughter, gorgeous (she is Michelle Pfeiffer, after all), ardent, energetic and earnest. Reading her poetry aloud on the rooftop, she appears to Astrid (and the camera) almost magical, her hair blowing softly in the breeze. She trains Astrid in all aspects of art appreciation, fiercely insisting that she look at mom's collages before saying she likes them: "You can't be an artist," she says, "if you don't see."

Ingrid's dedication to her daughter is boundless, until she meets Barry (Billy Connolly), who appears mostly from Astrid's point of view, at a fuzzy distance. When he stops calling, Ingrid's rage and grief are overwhelming, especially for Astrid, who can only observe as her mother unravels. The climax comes when, one morning, the cops come to take Ingrid away on first degree murder charges. Seems she's poisoned Barry with crushed white oleanders, a poetically overheated metaphor that grants the film a frightful tagline ("Oleander can be poisonous... so can a mother's love"). In a flashback that recurs when Astrid goes to visit mom in a maximum security prison, Barry comes pounding on the door, "You can't do this to me!" (Imagine this situation: knowing you are poisoned, smashing your murderer's windows, to no avail: shades of Edmond O'Brien.) Ingrid responds, equally wrathful but infinitely icier, "You don't know what I can do!"

Incarcerated, Ingrid becomes, in her daughter's eyes, rather mythic, because she can take what's dished out (she appears with face bruised, slightly, but her hair is ever-silky) and because the first foster mother is the alcoholic and fervently born-again Starr (Robin Wright Penn), fond of spandex and makeup, and married to pretty boy carpenter Ray (Cole Hauser). He's immediately attractive to Astrid, who is, of course, more like her mom than she knows. During one prison visit, Ingrid spots a post-baptism crucifix on Astrid's neck, and recoils in disgust, telling Astrid that such white-trashy religion is for the weak: "We're not like them, we're the Vikings." Desperate to emulate her mother's potency, Astrid heads back to the trailer to assert herself.

While Starr drags Astrid and her own kids off to church regularly, Ray wears a t-shirt and works on his truck. "If there's a God," he tells Astrid, "He ain't worth prayin' to." This makes sense to Righteously Angry Girl, but when she and Ray start exploring other similar interests, Starr explodes, and Astrid's sent off to the depressing state home for unplaceable kids, McKinney Hall (not quite so harsh as the joints where Linda Blair repeatedly found herself, but in the ballpark).

Here she meets an aspiring comic-book artist, Paul (Patrick Fugit, as sensitive an object of a young girl's affection as ever graced a movie screen). But just when they start feeling tight, Astrid is assigned to another foster home, this time that of sweet and needy Claire (Renée Zellweger). She has a nice dog and beachfront home, working occasionally as an actress; treating Astrid as the sister-friend she never had, she regales her with tales of her slasher movie experience, by way of a video clip of Zellweger's work in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, and moans about her often-absent commercial director husband Mark (Noah Wyle, unctuous as ever).

If you've stayed focused, you will have noticed by now that blonds are the kiss of death for Astrid (also blond), and so it continues: Claire insists on meeting Ingrid in prison, who puts a zap on her head, which leads directly to tragedy. When Astrid confronts her mother, Ingrid waxes instructive: "Loneliness is the human condition. Love humiliates you. Hatred cradles you." Oi. Thank goodness that Astrid's next foster placement is not blond, but the dark-haired Rena (Svetlana Efremova), a robust Russian émigré who buys and sells used clothing, including Astrid's. Astrid toughens up, dyes her hair anti-mom black, gets multiple piercings, and dresses like she's auditioning for a goth-girl part on Buffy. She must be truly independent now, as she's finally acting out in a fashion that truly annoys her all-powerful mother.

Amid all this emotional twirling, Lohman comports herself well, especially in the company of her scene-chewing elders. But the film gets in her way, repeatedly. As much as Fitch's novel evidently moved its readers (and I'm not one of them), Kosminsky's White Oleander, adapted by Mary Agnes Donoghue (best known for adapting Beaches), seems stuck in first gear, grinding through a series of very "safe" clichés.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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