DVD Review Of Things Behind The Sun

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/8/07


  The best way to kill a technically well made film is through a bad screenplay. Exhibit 1A: filmmaker Allison Anders’ 2003 Showtime film Things Behind The Sun. Ostensibly based upon Anders’ real life ‘trauma’ of being raped as a child, the film wallows in every manner of cliché on the subject of victimhood imaginable, as well as wasting some fine performances, save that of the ever PC and increasingly hyperbolic Don Cheadle, whose performance here presages his terrible role in last year’s Oscar-winning Crash.

  The tale is about a blond sexpot singer-songwriter, Sherry McGrale (Kim Dicken), whose life has fallen into the dregs of self-pity, alcohol and self-destruction because she has not been able to get over being gang raped, at fourteen, by the older brother and friends of a boy she cared for, and shared a love of music with. She has blocked out all memories of that time- even the boy’s name and where he lived. That boy, Owen (Gabriel Mann- a younger, slimmer James Spader), has now grown up into a rock critic and interviewer, in Los Angeles, for Vinyl Fetish magazine, whose boss is a woman named Pete- giving Rosanna Arquette her cameo, and flies to Florida to interview Sherry, after her being arrested for being drunk- on the lawn of the house where she was raped (yet for which reason she has no memory), for the third straight year, and because her song on rape (ala Tori Amos) is climbing the charts. If all the clichés of a rape/victim movie are present, they are added to by all the clichés of a rock and roll movie, as well as those of the tormented writer that Mann embodies. Yet, for all the clichés, the truth is that Sherry is simply a typical artsy ho or skank, whose wimpy black manager/ex-boyfriend Chuck (Cheadle) has not the strength nor verve to tell her to grow up. The all-worrying manager of a rock singer is yet another cliché the film is not shy in mining; although plaudits for the nonchalant way the interracial romance angle is accepted.

  Owen, meanwhile, who loved Sherry before the rape, is looking to make amends, because after his brother Dan (Eric Stoltz)- now in prison for armed robbery, and pals had their go at Sherry, they physically (and melodramatically) dragged Owen out from his room, and forced him to have sex with her. Since that time he has never been able to have a good sex life- either failing to maintain an erection or coming too quickly (which we learn he did when he lost his cherry to Sherry). Perhaps the only really ‘true’ moment in a PC-fest of a film like this is when Owen feels some guilt and shame and claims that his ‘body betrayed him.’ Since he loved the girl, and was drawn to her (as seen in digitally desaturated flashback sequences, which could have been more subtly handled, even if well filmed in fluorescent violets and reds) it is perfectly plausible that if forced on her, he could not help but be aroused. In that sense, both he and Sherry are victims of a sexual crime- one that Sherry has blocked out but which Owen is obsessed with. Yet, Anders then undercuts that notion by having Owen sob that he did not even realize it was Sherry, when doing it. Huh? This is justified by portraying older brother Dan and pals as serial rapists that Owen allowed to go unhindered for years.

  In the end, Owen skulks back to Los Angeles, after visiting Dan, in prison, for a second time, and telling him that he is writing not only of Sherry and her song, but pinning the rape on Dan, as well as getting other rape victims to speak out. Dan spits at his brother, as he leaves, and it runs down the plastic screen separating them. Yet, even this bravura moment- and Stoltz’s great performance- which brilliantly distills his character’s obliviousness to his own evil (which is far scarier than the Hannibal Lecter-like portrayals of evil most films indulge in), is ruined by having Owen state that the reason ‘this one’, meaning Sherry, was different than all the other rape victims, was because he….are you ready?, ‘loved her.’ Well, we know that, and do not need it stated since it is hammered into us the whole film. Then, Sherry returns to the house where the rape happened, and recovers her self-esteem, and drives off with Chuck.

  The screenplay was written by Anders, who also directed Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca, and Kurt Voss, and is so up and down that one has to realize that neither writer has a clue as to what constitutes a cliché. Then there is the characterization. On a psychological level, the film posits that almost all people are victims of their pasts- arrested adolescents whose lives and fates are predetermined early on, yet who seek redemption through art. OK, that’s fine- even if wrongheaded in reality. But, for the fictive world of the film, the film violates its own rules with the trite happy ending. There are some good jabs taken at AA- whose meetings Sherry is ordered to attend by court, as the film portrays them as laughably worthless (as many ex-members vouch for). Yet, for every good moment, there is a really bad moment, such as the scene where the new owner of the house Owen and Dan used to live in invites Sherry in, when she returns more soberly, and Sherry seems to steel herself. Aside from the fact that the scene is trite- how many times has someone ‘gone home’ again?- what real person would let a lunatic stranger who has previously only drunkenly raved on their property into their home, especially with three young children there?

  Aside from the brilliant Stoltz, Dickens does very well as Sherry- making the viewer understand, if not like, her unsympathetic character- despite the trite material. Mann gives a solid performance as Owen, but his character is so obnoxiously unmanly that it’s sometimes difficult to tell what was acting and what was merely limp performance. Cheadle does his usual PC scenery chewing- especially in his final scene with Mann- where he punches as refrigerator and abuses a box of cereal, in a classic moment of bad acting that is thought of as good because it is so hammy that only a brain dead judge at an arts panel could think it was good acting. The alternative 1960s era rock score, by Sonic Youth, is very good, even if the songs supposedly penned by Sherry are banal in lyric and music (in reality they were penned by Tiffany Anders- daughter of the director). This sort of mediocrity makes the idea that Sherry is some sort of budding indy music star that a magazine would want to profile a bit of a stretch- rape song or not. Aside from the cameos by Stoltz and Arquette, there are also cameos by such minor ‘name’ actors as Elizabeth Pena, CCH Pounder, and Patsy Kensit- as another troubled white, blond ex-flame of Chuck’s; indicating he is also some sort of arrested sexual fetishist with issues that remain unresolved.

  On the DVD, the film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and features a rather pointless commentary track from Anders, co-writer Voss and producer Dan Hassid. The only interesting thing gleaned is the fact that the scene where Stoltz spits at Mann’s character was an improvisation by Stoltz, and Anders had no clue about it. Even on the track she is unclear as to its power. You know a director is in trouble when the best bit in their film is something they had no part in, and do not understand. Much of the rest of what they state is blatantly obvious in the script and film, as well as detailed in the other bonus features- brief on camera interviews with Anders (who looks and sounds like a blond Roseanne Barr), Stoltz, Sonic Youth, and Brittany Finamore, who plays the young Sherry. The young Owen is played even more wimpily than Mann’s performance, by Owen Butler; but kudos to the young Dan- a chilling Justin De Prume. Perhaps the only bit of useful information Anders imparts in her commentary is that the young kids’ scenes were shot first, which allowed the older actors to pick up physical habits from their younger counterparts, thus add to their own performances. This is especially true with Stoltz (for whom De Prume is a dead ringer), who perfectly adopts the mannerisms of his younger stand-in. There is also some audition footage, suggested reading on traumatic events by Anders, filmographies, and weblinks.
  Yet, for all the potential this film has- and which a better and/or more objective director may have well exploited, it bogs down in the sort of Feminist PC clichés that made Monster such a bad film. The men are either unrepentant beasts- like Dan and his rapist pals, or wimpy excuses for men- like Owen and Chuck, straight out of the Alice Walker school of misandry. The film even ends with a trite dedication to Anders’ long dead grandmother, described as a rape ‘survivor,’ not ‘victim.’

  Yet, despite this seeming sensitivity, instead of showing how the vast majority of rape victims actually do adjust, mature, and cope with their violation, then move on, Anders indulges the Hollywood cliché of the eternal victim who cannot move on. This is, however, in keeping with the film’s immature schizophrenic attitudes toward sex and psychology. As example, it also has too many pointless T&A scenes of sex, yet no male genitalia. Yes, we know Owen is impotent, so why do we need to see him try banging two different women, and failing? That such gratuitous, and sexist, sex is in this film is startling since the rest of the film is so PC. And, as a whole, the film is far too long at two full hours, and could lose much of its first forty minutes by just getting Owen back to Florida, and cutting the scenes of him shooting blanks. Yet, if that were not enough, there is the bizarre threesome scene with Sherry and two of her groupies, climaxing to furious rock music- an obvious steal from the famous drug scene of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, to the music of The Doors’ The End. Even worse, though, is the whole device of the flashbacks tells too much of the story, and lessens the impact of Owens’ telegraphed guilt, as well the impact of the film.

  Things Behind The Sun is, ultimately, an example of the old good intentions lead to….trope, and fails as a work of art, despite glimmers of breaking through its self-imposed political strictures. In that way it recapitulates its main characters’ failures to move beyond themselves. If only such a trope had been ameliorative. Ah, well, there’s always tomorrow, Allison. <cringe>


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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