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Ya Ya Secrets, Bourne Identity, Frequency

[Our Sunday Visitor, June 30, 2002]

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

A French proverb goes, “To understand all is to forgive all.” If we only understood how miserable his childhood was, we’d forgive the ax murderer. If we only knew how strong his lust was, we’d look kindly on the adulterer. There’s a bit of self-protection in this saying: if people only understood me, they’d never blame me for anything; instead, they’d sympathize.

That’s the theme of “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The film opens with Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), a New York City playwright, admitting to a prying reporter that her mother is a difficult character. Back home in Louisiana, Vivi Walker (Ellen Burstyn) reads the interview, shrieks, and mails her daughter an envelope of family photos with Sidda’s face burned out. As warfare escalates between the two, Vivi’s childhood friends kidnap Sidda and bring her to their lakeside cabin in order to reveal the truth about her mother’s past. When she understands, they think, she’ll understand.

There’s a lot to forgive. We see young Vivi (Ashley Judd) whipping her three children with a belt as they cower in the rain. Yet, because Vivi is feisty and demanding, her friends hold her up for admiration: “If not for your mama, our moral fiber would have been shredded to rags,” says one. It’s the Scarlett O’Hara syndrome, the tendency to see selfish, strong-willed women as admirable-to interpret their willfulness as “courage.” In that story, it’s actually gentle, loving Melanie who exhibits true courage, but she’s overshadowed by Scarlett’s flash.

Likewise, in “Divine Secrets,” Vivi’s longsuffering husband Shep (James Garner) is the true hero. He has loved her steadfastly, though she shut him out of her bedroom forty years before, though she has made it clear he was not her first choice. But longsuffering love doesn’t make an exciting story. As Shep slumps into the kitchen a coffee-mug shatters on the doorframe by his head; he doesn’t even flinch. Who wants to be such a dumpy character? Who wouldn’t rather be dazzling Vivi?

The tragedy of infinite indulgence is that it enables progressive deterioration. As a child, Vivi (Caitlin Wachs) is strong-willed but healthy; as a young wife, she is drunken and peevish; as an older woman, she is spiteful, narcissistic, and silly. She has grown less mature with every year. It’s an object lesson, though the not one the filmmakers intend. Each of us, day by day, is in a process of formation; by each little choice we make, we are turning into either angels or animals. That’s why we can’t use people who “understand” us so much they never challenge us. Left to ourselves, we’ll wind up as spiritually ugly as Vivi-a facelifted, booze-pickled “whitewashed sepulcher,” bright and pretty on the outside but “all rottenness within.” The alternative path is Divine, all right, and it’s no Secret.


The Bourne Identity

“The Bourne Identity” starts with a bang: on a stormy night, the crew of a fishing boat hauls a waterlogged figure out of the Mediterranean. As the ship’s doctor digs bullets out of the man’s back (the most flinchworthy scene in the movie; subsequent violence is merely noisy), he discovers a small metal capsule that discloses a Swiss bank account number. At that moment the patient awakens and expertly overwhelms the doctor; clearly, he has advanced combat training. He’s also fluent in English, French, and German. There’s one problem: he doesn’t remember who he is.

With the bank number his only clue, the character makes his way to Zurich and opens the box. There’s a US passport for “Jason Bourne,” so apparently that’s his identity. But what about the dozen other passports, all with his photo, all with different nationalities, different names? What about the stacks of cash? What about the gun?

The story that unrolls from this point is satisfyingly complex, and fairly suspenseful-because we always stay one step ahead of Bourne (Matt Damon), the tension is not nerve-wracking. Franka Potente, who starred in the fascinating time-trick movie “Run Lola Run,” makes an excellent foil for Bourne, with her imperfect profile and Eurotrash demeanor. The moody, powerful score by John Powell is such an effective presence in the film it deserves its own “best supporting actor” award. Unfortunately, both Potente and the score out-class Damon, who just doesn’t have the depth for this role. An amnesiac who notices that he appears to be a trained assassin might feel some horror or dismay, or be tormented by interior conflicts. Not Damon, whose face is stalwart, earnest, and blank.

(WARNING: PLOT SPOILER AHEAD. If you plan to see the movie, you might want to stop reading here.) “Ya Ya Sisterhood” is clearly aimed at a female audience, “Bourne Identity” at guys. Yet it’s the latter film that surprisingly has a pro-family message. Jason Bourne is “a malfunctioning $30 million weapon,” his malevolent boss tells him at the end of the film. He was sent on assignment to kill an African dictator, but when he crept up behind the man’s couch he was unable to pull the trigger, because the dictator’s child was sleeping on his chest. All the brainwashing and training, all the king’s horses and men, could not bring this man to traumatize a child. He chose a dive over the ship’s rail, and likely death, instead.

Contrast this with “Ya Ya“‘s Vivi, screaming at her little children, jerking them around, burning her grown daughter’s face out of photos. A conversation-starter might be: what do we really admire? Is it better to be your freewheeling unfettered self, or to sacrifice self to protect children? Who would you rather have as a parent, Vivi Walker or Jason Bourne? Who would you rather have as a friend? We are each creating our own identities, brick by brick each day. Who are you growing up to be?



Let’s Rent Something Instead: Folks who prefer to avoid the megaplex crowd may enjoy “Frequency” (2000), a film about strong parent-child bonds that also includes plenty of guy stuff: firefighting, murder, and time travel. John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), fooling around with his dad’s ham radio, discovers that the guy on the other end is in fact his dad, thirty years before. It’s one day before the warehouse fire where Frank (Dennis Quaid) died, and thanks to John’s advice Frank survives the catastrophe-however, other catastrophes then result, as any time-travel fan could have warned them. “Frequency” has some bad language and scenes too intense for children, but adults may find it an enjoyable alternative to hunting for a parking place at the mall.


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