The Cinematic Female: Catherine Keener as Medusa in War Story

Writer and director Mark Jackson’s new film War Story is the second installment in his island trilogy (all set on islands, the first being 2011’s Without), and hinges on an emotional, sincere performance by the inimitable Catherine Keener. In this heartfelt essay, Jackson explains his determination to make movies about real female consciousnesses, and how they interact with the structures of cinematic fantasy.

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“You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”

                                                                                                                                                                                 – Hélène Cixous

I love Catherine Keener’s voice. She has one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen and one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard. So why in the world would I make a movie where she barely talks, where she never laughs and only half-smiles, with her mouth closed, twice? Today I would say that it was because I’d only done this once before and I failed to learn the first time around how very long you have to live with a movie you make. Back when I started I would have said I didn’t want to give any opportunity for escape. That may or may not be as dark and sinister as it sounds.

Everyone has a crush on Catherine Keener. Me too. She’s charming and cool and funny and beautiful and she curses like a sailor. She is also one of the finest actors of this or any generation. I wrote this movie with her in mind. I would imagine her in these incredibly long weird takes in Nowhere, Sicily and think: “I have seen Catherine run the gamut of emotion since Johnny Suede, but I have never seen her do any of this.”

This. This is the second installment of a trilogy set on islands that deals with grief, loss, guilt, and forging a different path. I am driven by Nabokov’s idea of leaving behind something worth more than proscribed behavior. The first movie, Without, also had a female protagonist. The choice to have female leads felt organic, but if I press further for an answer, it’s probably because there is such a dearth of good roles for women, and I want three daughters like my grandfather had, and I want them to like me. Women have always inspired me more, filled me with more hope.

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I also feel more comfortable writing fiction for a character that I am not. Remember back in the ’90s when Dave Eggers said something about fiction being akin to getting in the car with a guy in a clown suit and pretending that everything is normal?* I’m still hung up on that kind of feeling, so it’s easier when the clown doesn’t look like me. I freely admit that everything I’ve ever done or probably ever will do has happened to me or to someone I know, or else I’ve imagined it happening to me or to someone I know. I imagined that if Catherine Keener doesn’t laugh and smile and curse cool then she is being given a break from being Catherine Keener and is instead invited to be the amazing actor that she is. This is a role that asks so much. Has anyone seen True Detective? More on that later.

In the first movie of the trilogy, Without, I took tropes of the horror genre (babysitter in the woods) and tried to make a film about something I find truly terrifying: being a young woman in a culture where the two loudest sides (a pornified pop culture and an abstinence-only education) are yelling that your body is not yours, that your body is dangerous, that you are not to be trusted. A week in one young woman’s life who is confronted with mourning a loss and caring for an elderly man—two things she does not know how to do—can offer plenty of narrative for a movie, but I wanted to see what it would be like if we gave no more weight to those moments of narrative than we gave to her daily life. I wanted to explore what it would be like to get to know our lead by dint of time spent with her, rather than through background information. In this trilogy, I am interested in making movies that more closely resemble real life in their extending of plot points and emphasis on the mundane. Because life is about washing the dishes. Or… life is too much about washing the dishes.

In the second installment of the trilogy, I wanted to make my version of an action movie. If Without was my horror movie without horror, War Story was my action movie after the action had stopped. An emotional sequel to Without, this was how I imagined that young woman to have turned out 35 years later. A war photographer named Lee holes up in a hotel after being captured and brutalized in Libya. Alone and feeling like she’s sacrificed relationships for a career that is now in its twilight, she sees a last shot at redemption. She tries to help a young Tunisian girl living in the town’s immigration identification center with an abortion and safe passage to France. This sounds capital-M movie to me—Help the girl out and Lee is miraculously redeemed and miraculously healed of her grief!—but it’s not that easy. The poor, dark-skinned Tunisian migrant doesn’t actually need the privileged, light-skinned Arab American to save her. Lee is smart enough to know this, but she’s choking on her grief and she’s trying to escape it through conventional movie means. Anyone who has experienced deep mourning knows this leaden veil that does not allow you to see beyond it. The process of overcoming a great loss, a brutalizing experience, is long. Way too long for 87 minutes. I’ll settle for the first step on the road to recovery.

That brings me to “too long”. The intention from the very first scene of War Story was to pull the viewer into feeling the visceral space/time Catherine’s character is living in. It is a scene contained in a single shot like the bulk of the film’s scenes.

INT. CAR – DAY

Our focus is shallow on a smudged car window that looks out on an out-of-focus scene—a government building with a blob of figures milling about. A figure appears at the door of the building and the blobs snap into action. There are flashes from cameras and muffled yelling—the crowd of photographers and reporters come into focus when the car door is thrown open and LEE slides into the backseat. She sits in silence as the car drives away.

INSERT TITLE OVER PICTURE – WAR STORY

This first shot is held uncomfortably long as we wait for our protagonist to arrive and take her seat in the car where she will finally come into focus. At the very least, the film is clear about its intentions from the outset. It is not so much coaxing you, as forcing you down the rabbit hole from the very beginning.

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Did you know that if you lay down very slowly on a cactus it doesn’t hurt? (I distrust words, which is why I choose images and use very little dialogue. The only two people I’m certain will see both of these movies are my mom and dad. Hi! I love you!). Hopefully, this movie feels kind of like having your head held under water. But what I want you to understand is that you can still sort of breathe down there. You don’t get to come up for air, and you are forced to stay under, but you stay conscious. I want you to feel stuck down there with Lee. This is what I was saying about no escape. We are surrounded by violence. We thrash around looking for an out. But we can breathe underwater. Lee thinks she needs to save the girl because she’s weak, vulnerable and our culture tells her that she has failed as a woman because she hasn’t loved like she was supposed to. Gender binary, bro. But the Medusa is not a monster. If you look at her straight on you will see she’s beautiful and she’s laughing.

This brings me back to True Detective. Did anyone watch it? Mom? Dad? Me too. I watched all the episodes in two days. True Detective was highly engaging… and deeply misogynistic. And people were saying that that was the point. It was misogynistic on purpose, so it’s totally chill. During the making of War Story, people said, “This scene is too long and we are too far away from the characters to engage emotionally.” I said, “That’s the point, bro.” We were at odds, yet they were partly right: it was still too long, and we were still too far away.

So I cut it in half (I did!). And as I watched True Detective I crossed over briefly to their side of things. Shouldn’t there be a distinction between the characters’ misogyny and the show’s misogyny? It may be the point, but the point is just perpetuating the problem if there is not a woman that expands beyond her label as a wife or a daughter or a prostitute or a murder victim. This is really all just to say that I have failed, but I have failed with earnest intentions and, at the very least, Lee feels like a real person to me. I promise to do better next time. MM

*P.S. I am (mis)quoting Dave Eggers as a sneaky shout out to my brilliant friend and composer on this film, Dave Eggar. Dave!

War Story opens theatrically in New York and on VOD on July 30, 2014. It’s being released in Los Angeles, Salem and Sante Fe on August 8, Little Rock on August 15, Miami on August 22 and San Diego August 29.

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