FOOL FOR LOVE: A Reflection
by Mary Scriver
Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” is supposed to be a “lesser” Altman film. I didn’t see it in the theatre since I was circuit-riding in Montana when it was released nor do I remember ever having a conversation with anyone about it. There are only five reviews on imdb.com. Compare that with “Children of Men” which has over a thousand comments and rising. Why is that? I suggest that the people who understand this movie don’t ever read or write reviews or even talk about them. They are experience-based, not print people. Maybe Shepard, Altman and even Quaid and Basinger are the same. Certainly it’s got to be true of Harry Dean Stanton. This is a philosophical movie, but it is Euripides as interpreted by through the ideas of that Redneck Renegade Penelope Reedy and might have been better titled “The Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams.”
It’s not for the ironic and sardonic crowd that wants character dissection nor is it for the “glorious West” crowd. I was interested to see that Ed Harris was in the first production of the play version. “Pollock” is a very close relative to this drama about irresolvable emotion arising from being too tightly wound together, isolated and exposed in a terrifying cosmos of a landscape, outside of the directions and consolations of civilization, and paying for the sins of the fathers. In the end the victims only escape, taking their burdens with them to the next bleak motel in the middle of nowhere.
My two genetic “source” families were uptight, hard-working, rural people with Anglo genes, who were motivated by the need to preserve themselves from this under-culture. They never asked themselves, “what do I have to lose?” because they were grimly determined NOT to lose family, job or home. There was no drinking, which is the quickest way (until drugs) to drop into that subterranean place where people knife their best friends, rape their wives, beat their children half to death, never have enough to eat, always evade whatever authorities come to suppress them — never eliminate them. But they were not church-goers. Family was their religion.
In the prairie west official force, denial and avoidance sometimes reached the proportions of “Children of Man,” the latest trendy dystopic movie, but on a frontier as big as the American West used to be, you just moved on. Still, these Shepard characters are “fugies” (refugees) as surely as the blacks, Arabs, Asians, and otherwise identifiable masses in the dystopia film who crowd the world so much that they must be drowned in batches as soon as they are no longer able to work.
Maybe these “Fool for Love” people are “fugies” from respectability, but the real point and art is that the play resists interpretation. It is “fugie” from neat moralizing, an illumination of the irresolvability of love/hate, equally intense, not opposite to each other but opposite to indifference. One of the five commenters on imdb.com said that he had turned to the database in hopes of finding out what the darn thing meant — but it doesn’t “mean”, it just is. If you want a resolved “Christian” version of this, go see “Tender Mercies.”
The black river Styx pulling down, down, down under the bleached dry grass of the American West flows through here but not so much in the small towns. You need to find the little crossroads bars where the failing ranchers, the fetal alcohol syndrome boys, the vengeful infected women gather to play out their games while the shabby buildings collapse into their own stench. Much of the reputation of the original Montana literature (at least back to post-WWII) is based on this stream of cultural subconsciousness. Richard Hugo knew it well and often towed his students, including James Welch, into small bars in unknown places. Hugo had lived it in Seattle (White Court, really) and — like others — had mastered life there well enough to move West. But he missed the fertility of raw life.
It was James Welch, Sr., the writer’s father, who lived out a mild version of this love/hate tension, marrying and having children with two women, both named Rose, and juggling two vocations, hospital administration and welding. I’ll be very interested to see what happens with the now-casting film of Welch’s “Winter in the Blood,” which dips into that dark river.
Since writing in general became academia-based, the river of blood has sunk down like the Oglalla Aquifer being drained. The reservations have their despairing corners but they aren’t even in bars anymore. (You can’t smoke in bars in Montana.) You have to find where the street people hang out and they feed a circle of predators too dangerous to mess with. Even sand-war veterans are well-advised to stay away. Crime trumps war.
These days the vampires are pretty and one Republican is running for President as Vlad the Impaler, converting evil to ridicule. Most people are into denial — there is no river. Druggies are either road-kill or rehab clients. If your adopted deeply disturbed orphan threatens to burn you out, just send him back where he came from. You don’t have to put up with that. You’re a consumer. You pay taxes. Money can compensate for all evils and losses.
One of the deep sources of hope in the American West is Christian and Native American at once, that is, the deep tribal conviction that a powerful, skillful man will come along and perform the “stunt” of getting sense out of it all, making order, redeeming the father (not the PEOPLE, the FATHER) who started the evil in the first place with his greed for love, his failure to abide by the rules. The man who lives in a junk heap (we could walk to a good example from here) and finally accepts his fate in Hell by walking into the fire.
Not that I would ever recommend any of these strategies to anyone. I would rather talk it through, alchemically resolve the experience of evil into something else. No doubt in his private life Sam Shepard did exactly that. Whether Bob Altman did or not is open to question. He sure looks like Bob Scriver. It’s not just the Van Dyke beard. It’s his heart looking out his eyes.