Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Chopin Concerto, Almond Cookies and a Hot Cup of Tea Laced with Cyanide

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

Am I the only one who's tired of that Kim Davis schmuck? Using your religion to excuse your own homophobia is pretty despicable, but using religion to not do your job is a new low.  Back when Marie Janisse was working as a waitress, she told the manager she was a born-again Pagan and she wasn't going to wait on "any goddamn Christians." If it didn't work for Marie Janisse, it shouldn't work for anyone else.

A quick sidebar about Marie Janisse. We met at the Dead River Paralegal Association and we're quickly becoming the psychotic version of LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY. Marie hails from Covington, Louisiana; it's part of the suburbs north of New Orleans known as the North Shore, land of country clubs and crazy houses. She's a former juvenile delinquent (in eighth grade she finally broke bad and bitch-slapped the newly-elected class president with her pocketbook), at one time had outstanding warrants across Tex-Ark-La, and before she earned her paralegal certificate, she was a topless dancer in a Satanic-themed go-go show in New Orleans. Many say she's a loose cannon, but she has impeccable taste in movies (she not only loves but lives FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!), she's handy with a buck knife and she loves The Ramones as much as I do.

Martin Sheen as Frank Hallet

But anyway, I don't mind religion. I mean, for me it reminds me too much of school with all it's follow-the-rules-even-though-they-don't-make-sense-but-we-promise-this-stuff-will-pay-off-one-day. There are a lot of people out there whose religion enriches their lives and helps them be better people. But I can't stand people who use religion as a façade for their own willful ignorance and cruelty. Like that lousy Thomas family across the street. The husband and wife were missionaries before they moved here so they were in the trade of forcing people to renounce their beloved Pagan gods if they wanted access to sorely needed medical care. Then they joined some cult in Charlotte, North Carolina that sounds like a nerd-version of Jonestown. The cult is trying to expand throughout the rest of the South, presumably so more people can fork over their life-savings, and now the Thomas family is here trying to convert the godless heathens of Dead River. I think that wife spends way too much time being pregnant for them to judge other people for unclean thoughts. Seriously, it's like they're trying to manufacture a boy band over there!

The Thomases are the same jerks that turn their garage into a Hallelujah House every Halloween. For the uninformed, a Hallelujah House is like a haunted house for people that have no sense of humor. It depicts atrocities inflicted upon people who transgress against the scriptures like pregnant cheerleaders gushing blood from a botched abortion and unmarried homosexual men transforming into something from a DAVID CRONENBERG movie for having non-child-bearing sex. And I thought I was depraved.

So, Marie Janisse and I are out minding our own business, painting a new set of homemade tombstones to put up in my yard. Then the Von Twerp family comes out of their house and has to stop and watch us intently for about twenty minutes rather than simply going about their business and you can hear the mother audibly instruct the children not to look over at "the devil's whores" or they'll be turned into salt. I smiled and said, "Aw, now, that's hardly true, I belong to the Church Without Christ, where the blind don't see, the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way." Marie just shouted the only thing she's ever done for the devil is dance topless and hurled a rock through the windshield of their car. She's made some progress though, because the last person that called her a "whore" ended up getting bashed in the face with a skateboard. She said she's going to bring her all-girl punk-acid metal-zydeco band, Satan's Chanteuses, over for a non-stop jam session whenever they're setting up their Hallelujah House but I told her that Otis Calhoun vowed revenge on them last Halloween, and whatever his other faults, Otis is a man of his word.

And speaking of hypocritical neighbors, the second film in my 31 Days of October review-a-thon, is THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1972), adapted by LAIRD KOENIG from his own novel and starring JODIE FOSTER (who also knocked it out of the park with TAXI DRIVER the same year) in a mature, graceful performance as the titular antiheroine, Rynn Jacobs. The film opens on Halloween night in a quaint coastal village in Maine. It's not only Halloween, but it's Rynn's thirteenth birthday and she is celebrating on her own. Rynn is a precocious, fiercely intelligent young girl who supposedly lives with her poet father, but if anyone asks about him, Rynn always has a quick explanation for his absence.

Rynn reads Emily Dickinson on the bus

She lives an autonomous, isolated existence. Rather then attend school ("School is stultifying," she says), she follows a rigorous curriculum (presumably developed by her father) and occupies the rest of her time walking on the shore, reading, listening to classical music and playing with her pet hamster, Gordon. I remember 13-year-old me that saw this movie thought Rynn had it made.

There are some intrusions to this idyllic existence, however, mainly in the form of the Hallets. Cora Hallet, the property manager (ALEXIS SMITH) and her son, Frank (MARTIN SHEEN in a skin-crawlingly creepy performance) exemplify everything Rynn's father warned her about other people: They are petty, nosy, xenophobic, bullying and mindlessly cruel. Mrs. Hallet simply invites herself in and acts as though leasing the property gives her the right to treat Rynn any way she likes. Even though she has leased the house to Rynn's father, she still comes over to the property and picks all the good fruit from the trees. She re-arranges the furniture. She makes condescending, anti-Semitic asides to Rynn ("Awful lot of outsiders in the village these days," she sneers) and makes veiled threats when Rynn refuses to bow down. Every act is calculated to assert her authority and control over another. Mrs. Hallet covers her own sins (including veiled promiscuity) with a façade of respectability and self-righteousness.

Alexis Smith as Cora Hallet

Frank Hallet is almost exactly like his mother. Every action in his first encounter with Rynn  is a passive-aggressive tactic to exert dominance and control over the girl: like his mother, he invites himself in; he tracks mud all over the floor and plops down in Rynn's father's chair, despite Rynn's visible disapproval; he also sexually harasses her.  Rynn discovers that Frank is a child predator, but his mother's wealth and influence has allowed him to avert punishment. She has even gone so far to help mask Frank's deviance by arranging his marriage to a waitress with two children from a pre-existing relationship. Where's Chris Hansen when you need him?

Despite her understandable distrust of others, Rynn is able to develop relationships with the friendly Officer Miglioriti (MORT SHUMAN) and his loquacious teenage magician nephew, Mario (BAD RONALD himself, SCOTT JACOBY). Both are outsiders among the xenophobic villagers because of their Italian heritage, and Mario is alienated from other boys his age due to a limp from childhood polio. Mario's wisecracking bravado acts as a shield against the ridicule of others and his own insecurities. Rynn and Mario become devoted to one another, even to the extent that Mario is willing to become an accessory after the fact for her.

Rynn and Mario


Mario demonstrates his dependability and as Rynn grows to trust him, she begins to reveal her secrets. Her father is dead; he was terminally ill and rather than continue to waste away, he organized a plan for Rynn to live without the interference of others and then committed suicide by walking into the ocean. After his death, Rynn's emotionally abusive estranged mother was able to find out where she was living and arrived at the house. Rather than be subjected to her abuse and abandonment again, Rynn disposed of her by slipping cyanide into her tea.

Like all children who have been subjected to abusive treatment, Rynn has learned that other people are not to be trusted and the only person who can be relied upon is yourself. This mistrust was reinforced by her aloof father, who instilled in her the belief that people are all vicious, controlling and cruel. Rather than teaching her to develop appropriate boundaries to protect herself, he instructed her to build barriers to keep everyone else out. Her worst suspicions are only confirmed by people like the Hallets. Others remark to Rynn how awful it must be to be alone, but to Rynn, alone is safe. Horror is other people.

Rynn has also been the perpetual outsider looking in; as an old soul among flighty pre-teens, an American educated in England and finally an outsider to a provincial New England village. This has only emphasized her alienation and the barriers she has built against others.

Rynn watches Mario ride away

Rather than descend into madness, Rynn is a fighter and a pragmatic survivor. She will not surrender to the abuse and subjugation of others. She is a murderess, but it is her only defense against those that wish to do her harm.

As her relationship with Mario grows, Rynn learns that she is not completely happy in her isolation. She has found warmth in another who has proven himself worthy of her trust. Through both Mario and Officer Miglioriti, she has learned that there are kind, generous people in this world, even if they are usually outnumbered by people like the Hallets. However, Rynn knows she is condemned to a life of protective isolation, a life of hiding from people like the Hallets who want to hurt her and it's only a matter of time before there is nowhere left to run.

Frank Hallet and Rynn Jacobs have tea

I had not seen this movie (omitting catching the first half of it on cable about seven years ago) since I first watched it when I was about Rynn's age and there was something special about viewing it this time. Rynn's struggles, the eerie, evocative soundtrack, and the autumnal scenery all struck a melancholy chord with me.

On this viewing, I was surprised by how much Rynn has in common with the Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Constance, in one of my favorite books WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. Though not as defiantly eccentric as Merricat, Rynn also only wants to live in peace on her own terms, but is intruded upon by spiteful villagers. But while Merricat and Constance have one another, Rynn walks alone.

The film, like many others featuring young protagonists, also concerns how children pay the price for the selfishness and cruelty of adults. Mario suffered polio as a child because his mother could not remember which of her children had or hadn't received the vaccine. And what about those poor children who now have Frank as a stepfather? They are casualties of adult machinations. And then there's Rynn: Rynn has been forced to surrender her childhood, to become hardened and disillusioned. She commits murder, but it's only because the adults around her leave her no other choice. The film ends with an act of perfectly justifiable homicide and the final shot is a close-up of Rynn. She betrays no emotion as her tormentor dies before her, her eyes like stone. The viewer will not blame Rynn for her actions, but at the same time there is concern that in continually defending herself against the heartlessness of others, she may be gradually freezing her own heart as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment