The Bayley Film Club: Alexander Payne

Film 1: “Citizen Ruth”
Film 2: “About Schmidt”

Citizen Ruth

Author: Agsy E Drapinska
Anticipation: 3
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 3
Score: 10

My choice for this round was “Citizen Ruth” because the abortion debate which dominated America of the nineties had just become a very hot topic in my own country. Three decades later. 

Ruth (Laura Dern) is a woman from the margin. Her addiction to sniffing glue and inhaling other substances combined with a chain of very poor choices delivers a view of life that I wouldn’t wish upon the worst enemy. Her balancing on the edge of every society member’s soft hearts gets her by. While Ruth’s brother raises her children whom she is incapable to take care of, she spends every miraculously gained penny on alcohol or stuff she could inhale – anything that will grant her one of the brief trips into oblivion. 

After one of those trips, she is being arrested. Again. Apparently, since all the officers and officials seem to be quite familiar with her persona. Before being delivered to court, Ruth is being informed that she is pregnant. 

The judge, tired of Ruth’s continuous poor behavior decides to choose more strict measures in hope of forcing her to change and become a valuable part of the society. He charges her with fellony of endangering her unborn child. Then, in private, he promises that he might work on softening the blow if Ruth decides to have an abortion. 

After this, Ruth is caught in the national debate between the Baby-savers and the Pro-Choice group. Both movements are trying to manoeuvre her accordingly to their beliefs and aim to gain a powerful symbol for their cause. Both groups, want to use her to “send a message”. 

“Citizen Ruth” is not taking sides, and it’s actual message is very straight-forward and transferrable into many other movements – don’t loose your sight from the true north. Both, the Baby-savers and Pro-choice got so deep into focusing on their own goals and prospects of influence and power that they forgot that every debate should focus on the needs of the everyman, in this case, on the needs of Ruth.    

About Schmidt

Author: Agsy E Drapinska
Anticipation: 2
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 5
Score: 11

“About Schmidt” opens with a closure as Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), an actuary in a life insurance company enters his retirement. Time for Warren to say farewell to his career and welcomes an entirely new chapter, a transition which he meets with great deal of fear, doubt and reserve. 

With so much more time on his hands he slowly realises that his life lacks depth and meaning. He focuses on things out of his control – the fact that he has been replaced by a young and fresh talent at the firm; the small, annoying habits of his wife Helen; or later, flaws of his future son-in-law. One evening, moved by a tv commercial, he becomes a foster-dad to an African orphan in Tanzania, Ndugu Umbo. Encouraged by the foster-program leaflet, he writes a letter to Ndugu. Sadly, when new family member enters the man’s life, an old one, leaves it forever. Warren returns from a trip to the post office, only to discover that his wife, died of a blood cloth in her brain.  

Life without his caring wife has its ups and downs. Finally, to escape the downs, Warren decides to go on a trip in his Winnebago Adventurer motor home, recently bought by himself and Helen. While on the road, Warren keeps writing to his foster-son, pouring his thoughts, hopes and frustrations on paper. With time, less and less of the later. Having someone to “talk to” seems to have therapeutic effect on him.

“About Schmidt” tells us the awful truth. It presents us with a perfectly ordinary life, with all it’s sour-sweet aftertaste along with it’s irony. A lesson to us all, to find joy in the little things, and not to become a sad, sad, man. The quality of appreciation and ability to see the bright side in things and events out of our control. Finally, to realise that not ending up as multimillionaire CEO of an international corporation, doesn’t automatically translate into a meaningless life. To find a meaning, is fully in our power, and Warren finds his in the very last scenes.  

Better late then never, because, as Alanis Morissette sang,   

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
It’s like free ride when you already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Citizen Ruth

Author: NA Tonge
Anticipation: 2
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 3
Score: 9

Whilst the abortion argument seems to have slipped down the pecking order in the recent American election, it remains highly debated topic and “Citizen Ruth” provides a comical take on the tensions between the pro-life and pro-choice camps.

Laura Dern plays Ruth – a solvent huffing addict, who has already had three children taken out of her care. She wakes up in hospital after passed out behind a hardware store (again) and is told that she is pregnant (again). The judge sentences her to a stretch in prison unless she decides to have an abortion. 

An evangelist group pay Ruth’s bail in an effort to use her case to gather further support for their pro-life stance. But, in a turn of events, Ruth is kidnapped by undercover pro-choice activists. 

Ruth is comically passed between the two groups, who attempt to persuade and even buy her off to act as their poster girl, in order to advance their own self-interests. 

The two groups are hilariously portrayed in accordance with typical stereotypes. The bible-bashing pro-lifers Norm and Gail Stoney are shown as the typical suburban family, who enjoy a nice meal of boiled chicken and beans. The pro-choice group comprise liberals and lesbians, who sing to mother moon.

The two sides shout it out, with Ruth seemingly just interested in selling her narrative to the highest bidder. 

I had a lot of fun watching “Citizen Ruth” and was impressed in the way in which it takes on a difficult subject in an original way, using correct amount and type humour so that it doesn’t get too serious.

About Schmidt

Author: NA Tonge
Anticipation: 2
Enjoyment: 3
Retrospect: 3
Score: 8

Retired widower Warren Schmidt, resigns himself to the depressing belief that his life has been void of any real achievement, and in old age feels generally redundant in the eyes of society. 

Schmidt sponsors Ndungu, an impoverished child in Tanzania, to whom he writes candid letters, venting his myriad frustrations. 

Following a road trip in his ‘adventurer’ winnebago, Schmidt return to his suburban home feeling uncared about and very much on the scrapheap. However, he receives a letter from a nun who takes care of Ndungu, thanking him for his donation and letters. Schmidt’s emotional reaction, portrays an honourable man, who much like the rest of society, just wants to be appreciated for doing some good. 

A very relatable film in which Payne manages to provide a nice blend of thoughtful gloom regarding the pitfalls of society, with a level of humility that provides a silver lining.

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