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Talking About the Other America, Again

On the Outs

Just when I become comfortable with the idea that American narrative film has died; that it has finally suffocated from its lack of vision and its infatuation with Hollywood fashion, including the so-called indie cinema, a burst of fresh air suddenly hits me in the face. The work of Harmony Korine provided me with such fresh air and hope for the salvation of American narrative film. The authenticity of Korine’s work is echoed in Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik’s urban drama On the Outs.

Set in Jersey City, On the Outs follows the lives of three teenage girls. Marisol (played by Paola Mendoza, who is also credited as co–creator of the film) struggles with a crack addiction while trying to support her young daughter. Oz (Judy Marte) is a drug dealer living with her recovering drug addict mother, mentally disabled brother, and embittered grandmother. Naïve and sheltered Suzette (Anny Mariano), the youngest of the three, is seduced by Tyrell (Don Parma), a drug dealer who does not return her love. The film covers the course of events that lead the three girls to a juvenile detention center where their paths cross, and the dramatic downturn that their lives take after their release.

What makes this film so exciting is that it defies American narrative cinema’s tendency to favor fantasy over real American stories. In my last film review, I defended the recent Star Wars installment from the standpoint of myth. I am all for myth, but modernity has also defined itself by its move away from myth. Narrative films in America are dominated by stories of heroism, whether the heroes are fighting aliens in the vastness of space or duking it out in a crowded boxing arena. The populace is fed fantasy. Meanwhile, the so-called independent cinema increasingly tells stories that speak only to the bourgeois concerns of trendy urban folks.

What has been needed is an American cinéma vérité that looks to that other America, the one between New York City and Los Angeles that has been deemed insignificant. Recently, the filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas told me that he wants to start a TV channel for farmers to combat fashionable television. However tongue-in-cheek some may take Mekas’s statement to be, he’s right. We are afraid to see the true America. It scares us to see America’s towns and declining urban centers; after all, that’s where the rednecks and the crackheads live. Hollywood milks these people’s wallets to show them fantasy, while the independent cinema is too afraid to look at them. There exists no cinema that speaks to and about their own lives.

Patty Jenkins’s Monster was so shocking to many viewers partly because it showed that other America, which is too poor and, consequently, not pretty enough to be seen. Yet, Monster was too heavily charged with a desire to shock and appall in that now characteristically indie film way. Harmony Korine did not look for cheap sensationalism in Gummo, nor do Silverbush and Skolnik in On the Outs. Both films represent a cinema of truth. There are no political or ethical messages, and no fashionable trimmings to lessen the blow. From the vantage point of the two trendy boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, we can get hysterical all we want about an America that votes Republican or does not vote at all, that bases its morals on fundamentalist Christianity or seems devoid of any, and that is not aesthetically pleasing. We do not even really know what the true America looks like, but we are so eager to characterize and stereotype it. The politics and ethics can all come after truth has been confronted.

On the Outs reminds us of the reality that exists in one piece of the complex American jigsaw puzzle. It is the reality of Jersey City that exists hidden under New York’s shadow. Without any special effects, heroes, villains or philosophical/existential crises, the film shows a way of life that many would rather ignore. Yet, it does so with a frighteningly beautiful simplicity that makes it all the more powerfully real.

One can only hope that there are more filmmakers out there who are willing to turn their cameras on to other parts of the American landscape. Let these filmmakers model themselves as latter-day Huckleberry Finns, watching the varieties of American life as they are and as they change. Only then can audiences nervously step into theatres to see ways of life that are sadly exotic and unknown to them in much the same way that gallery-goers first experienced Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti.


Gragory Zucker


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2005

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