Tuesday, January 21, 2003
By Kevin John
Boy, did "Pumpkin" (the film by Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams) string me along in exactly the way Jonathan Rosenbaum plots out in his terrific review of the film in the Chicago Reader. When sorority do-gooder Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) had her first uncomfortable meeting with the mentally and physically challenged Pumpkin (the non-challenged Hank Harris), I was scoffing "that's not the way one should approach this subject!" The overcharged PC satire that saturates the scene seemed to let the filmmakers off the hook, allowing them to avert their eyes from the realities of disability.
But does the execrable "I Am Sam" do it any better? And what the hell are the realities of disability anyway? As Carolyn falls in love with Pumpkin and the tone skids off into overcharged melodrama, you realize that the film is ostensibly about our own concepts of realism. As Rosenbaum puts it, "the increasing unreality of what we're watching obliges us to come up with some kind of realistic alternatives which we can't do without embarrassing ourselves... (Thus) 'Pumpkin' forces us to think about style as well as content."
OK, OK, I thought. But weren't Broder and Abrams still letting themselves off the hook by not casting and working with real people with disabilities? To counter this non-approach, I drudged up fine memories of Roeland Kerbosch's "For a Lost Soldier" from 1992, a film Rosenbaum deems "flat-footed." "For a Lost Soldier" is indeed flat-footed, style-wise. But Kerbosch never averts his eyes from his itchy content a man-boy love affair during World War II. In fact, we're right in bed with the little dude for his tenderly recalled deflowering. "Bite my finger" indeed.
In praising unflinching proximity of "For a Lost Soldier" to its subject matter, however, I was stupidly forgetting that the deflowering wasn't (necessarily) real. Certainly, an adult male actor simulating anal sex on top of a child male actor satisfies my realism quotient, as I imagine it even exceeds that of most viewers. But that's beside the point. Or perhaps right to it. Realism in cinema is relative, a set of ideologically reinforced codes, as Rosenbaum reminds us in his review.
And yet, despite eventually admiring the push-and-pull effect "Pumpkin" had on me, I don't think the film's sarcastic meditation on style is entirely earned. "Piling on the cheesy overkill, the movie sarcastically implies that we require this kind of exaggeration if we're going to accept such an impossible romance (between Carolyn and Pumpkin)," writes Rosenbaum. But who is this "we" exactly? Certainly not me. No exaggeration was necessary to accept the perhaps even more impossible romance of "For a Lost Soldier," flat-footed execution and all, and thus I found the sarcasm in "Pumpkin" as defeatist as Rosenbaum found the New German Cinema, a critique of which begins his review. And in a way now I'm back to where I started.
In the end, the problem with both films is that they are so manifestly about themselves, style in "Pumpkin" and content in "For a Lost Soldier." Challenged/non-challenged romance requires exaggeration and man/boy romance elicits flat-footed execution. But the opposite could just as easily be the case, and I bet I could come up with specific examples of both if I allowed myself the time. The point is that despite our varying realism requirements, the very reality of these subjects is so vexed for some people to begin with that their representations seem eternally desperate. We could use more films, not only those that meditate on the realism of, say, heterosexual romance, but also films that approach these other kinds of romances with all the joie de vivre and jazzy invention Rosenbaum located in his beloved French New Wave.