Movie of the Month: Citizen Ruth (1996)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and Alli watch Citizen Ruth (1996).

Boomer: Citizen Ruth is twenty years old this year, but the topics that it tackles and the way that it approaches those ideas is both frank and depressing. Reproductive rights and agency over one’s body are, sadly and frustratingly, still topics that the public sphere considers to be up for debate, just as they were in 1996. The film tells the story of Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), an homeless drug addict and frequent tenant of the local jail, who has had four different children taken from her by the state because of her overall unfitness to care for herself, let alone a child. After she extorts some cash from her brother (who has custody of two of her four kids), she buys a can of patio sealant and huffs it in an alley, where she is discovered in a daze by local police. At her hearing, she learns that she is pregnant for the fourth time; the state has chosen to pursue felony indictment of Ruth for her endangerment of the fetus. A kind judge suggests to Ruth that an “accident” could reduce this charge to a misdemeanor, but she is convinced otherwise when a group of anti-abortion crusaders led by Gail Stoney (Mary Kay Place) spends the night in the same cell. The Stoney family, including patriarch Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and teenaged daughter Cheryl (Alicia Witt) take Ruth into their home. Ruth takes the first opportunity that she can to get high, ending in an altercation that leads Pro-Lifer Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) to offer her home to Ruth as well, but she turns out to be a mole for the Pro-Choice movement, along with her domestic partner Rachel (Kelly Preston). Soon, both sides of the debate are raging against the other over the future of Ruth’s unborn child, represented by Pro-Life champion Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds) and Pro-Choice queen Jessica Weiss (Tippi Hedren).

Director Alexander Payne has said that this film is less about reproductive rights vis-à-vis abortion than it is about fanaticism, and that this particular fight was chosen simply because it was the most openly divisive political fight of the time. Although I certainly understand that point, it’s impossible to divorce the concept of fanaticism from the topic of the debate at hand, and the lens through which each side is viewed is telling in the way that men are the central point in many ways, despite this ostensibly being a women’s issue (as it is in the real world). There’s a great moment close to the end of the film that shows that the Pro-Lifers have tracked down and recruited Ruth’s own mother in an attempt to sway Ruth to their side, complete with a bullhorn-enhanced argument between the two women that reveals Ruth provided sexual favors to (at least) one of her mother’s suitors while underage, speaking volumes about the home situation from which Ruth and women like her are birthed, ultimately pointing the finger back at men and their attitudes about sex, entitlement, and gendered power politics. Male needs are prioritized over women, from Norm growing increasingly exasperated by Ruth’s long bath time, delaying his dinner, to his wife’s fawning over their son while all but ignoring their daughter. Even among the doe-eyed moon-worshipping loons who populate the Pro-Choice side of the debate, the arguments women present to Ruth fail to sway her like the offer of money… that comes from a man.

There’s also some discussion of class as well, albeit more subtly. Just look at the overall dreary aesthetic of the world Ruth lives in, from the flophouse where she has sex with her ex (in the opening of the film, creating a rhetorical space in which Ruth is taken advantage of, to be bookended at the end by the argument with her mother) to the dilapidated house where her brother lives. As the war for Baby Tanya first begins, Ruth is raised from homelessness into the modest (in that the-frillier-the-doilies-the-closer-to-God/”we homeschool our children because of evolution” way) home of the Stoneys and then into the gorgeous farmhouse that Diane and Rachel share. Neither of these factions understands Ruth’s life and world outside of their shallow conceptions of how she must live, and as a result fail to appreciate the gravity of her situation in any way except how she can be used to benefit their respective causes.

What did you think, Britnee? I felt a lot of sympathy for Ruth even though she was, frankly, a horrible person. Did you feel the same way? And do you think that was because of Dern’s nuance or the representation of the world Ruth lived in?

Britnee: As my grandmother would say, “Pauvre Ruth!” I felt sorry for her since the film’s opening scene, where she’s having emotionless sex with her horrible boyfriend before he throws a television at her. Just when I think this girl’s life can’t get any worse, she turns out to be a homeless addict who has a terrible, insensitive family. And to top it all off, she has 3 children she’s lost custody to. Can this girl catch a break? Ruth comes off as a really awful person, but there’s much to be taken into consideration before making any harsh judgement about her. Let’s start with the relationship she has with the only two family members of Ruth’s we’re introduced to: her brother and her mother. In the beginning of the film, she goes to her brother, who is raising two of her children, for help after being kicked out of her boyfriend’s garbage apartment. Her brother is annoyed and angry to find that his sister showed up at his home asking for shelter, so he sends her off with $15. Then, we’re introduced to her mother at the Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice battle at the end of the film. As Boomer previously stated, we get a pretty clear picture of Ruth’s upbringing after she is accused of performing sexual activities with her mother’s boyfriends. It’s no wonder she turned to drugs and alcohol to escape from her unfortunate reality. She didn’t choose her lifestyle; it was forced upon her.

Ruth is essentially treated as an object and not a human being throughout this entire film. When she finds out she’s pregnant while in prison, the judge handling her case suggests she have an abortion to avoid being imprisoned. Then when she’s “rescued” by a group of Pro-Lifers, they do everything they can to make sure she goes through with her pregnancy. She’s then “rescued” from the pro-lifers by the Pro-Choicers, and they do everything to persuade her to have an abortion. The pro-lifers and the Pro-Choicers go as far as to persuade her with money to either keep or get rid of her child. Both groups use her to support their cause, and it was so hard to watch this happen. How is Ruth supposed to better herself when everyone around her is trying to use and control her? Ruth lives in a world that has failed her, and I think that’s why I feel so much sympathy for her.

Brandon, how did you feel about Ruth’s choice in the end of the film, when she jacks the money from the Pro-Choice group and escapes the rally? Was this a sign that she was in control of herself or was this just Ruth being a bad person?

Brandon: As with all joys in this film, that final triumph feels like a mixed bag at best. I experienced a certain pride in that moment, watching Ruth take control of her own life for the first time in the entire film (except for, arguably, the occasions when she huffs spray paint & household chemicals for a cheap high). There’s a general sense that she’s sticking it to the man, getting what’s hers, finally having her day, etc. It’s a very bittersweet victory, though. Ruth is making off like a bandit, but her loot is a measly $15,000. It’s certainly more than the nothing Ruth starts the film with, but she believes it’s an astronomical amount, when it’s not likely to keep her afloat for a full year. It’s especially not enough to invest in real estate, as the self-help cassette she steals inspires her to (if she can ever get her grubby claws on Side 3). Also, consider for a second who exactly she’s stealing the money from in that moment. She’s not ripping off the horrifically self-righteous Pro-Lifers or their equally slimy hippie-dippie counterparts. She’s stealing from the biker, who, in my mind, was the only character in the entire film who ever offered Ruth freedom of choice in the first place (his $15,000 bribe was only meant to diffuse the financial pressure raised by the opposing, Pro-Life side of the argument so that money was not a factor in her choice).

Ruth isn’t really making any grand political statements or personal strides toward autonomy & self-actualization in her midday marauding. She begins & ends the film an addict with a one track mind. There’s a glorious catharsis in her final stride when she openly gets away with her heist of the century because everyone’s so wrapped up in a hot button political issue that they forget to take notice of the human being at the center of it. However, it’s also a bit of a last second gut punch as you realize Ruth’s most likely returning to the world where we found her at the beginning of the film. I’m not sure how much spray paint & patio sealant you can huff for $15,000, but I’m willing to bet it will land her in a coffin.

That balance between emotional devastation and (pitch black) comedy is a major part of what struck me about Citizen Ruth (besides Laura Dern’s career-consistent brilliance, obviously). Ruth’s not a “bad” person, necessarily. She’s just been turned into something of a feral animal by her addiction, making her play onscreen like a hyper-realistic version of Jerri Blank (who is a bad person, I should add) in her more amusing moments. Since I first saw Election writer/director Alexander Payne has always struck me as an outright sadist in his humor, but this movie goes for a very uncomfortable mix of tragedy & comedy that’s extreme even for him. He’s working on some fucked up Todd Solondz vibes here. Watching the first ten minutes or so of Citizen Ruth it’s near impossible to imagine that something so bleak would gradually be reshaped into a comedic mold, but the film pulls off that balance beautifully (and quite cruelly). You can feel it in Ruth’s “triumphant” stroll at the climax. You can feel it when she punches a child in the gut for snitching on her drug abuse. You can even feel it in her drug of choice, which is somehow more pathetic than alcoholism or needle drugs. Payne is a sick bastard for making us smile through the pain here, but he also never makes the protagonist’s horrific circumstances feel unrealistic. There’s genuine pain on display in this film  even when it’s softened with nervous laughter. Nothing ever feels easy or trivialized, which is impressive to say the least.

What do you think of Citizen Ruth‘s tonal clash between character-based humor & emotional terror, Alli? Did you expect that genre play even before the film took you there or did it catch you off-guard?

Alli: I think from the first scene of her having emotionless and unsatisfying sex while the song “When Somebody Loves you” is the soundtrack, I kind of expected there to be a clash of deep sadness and dark ironic humor. I found the scenes like this one, and also the one where she’s crying into a drain, praying to God, to be sort of the real life kind of funny. You know, the kind of funny where you’re having the worst day but if you don’t laugh what can you do? Not necessarily satisfying but still something to laugh at. I don’t think I expected the genuinely funny, satisfying moments at first, and what I really didn’t expect is how sort of bizarrely surreal the humor was going to get. I think some of those surreal moments even kind of treaded into John Waters territory, or at least for me.

For instance, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is after she’s just been “rescued” by this Pro-Choice couple the Pro-Life crowd comes to demand Ruth back. And they go out to look at the moon, and they start singing to the “moon mother” in unison, and have that three way hug with Laura Dern’s head comically smashed in the middle. It just feels like the exact kind of irreverent over the top situation that John Waters would construct.  Just the idea of a part rescue part kidnap by a fanatical group brings to mind Cecil B Demented, which was released in 2000, four years later, so maybe it was an influence on that. There’s also the clash between the perfect suburban family and the reject weirdo class, which is a huge theme in a lot of John Waters’ films. You have the naive Gail saying things like, “We’re all sinners but that doesn’t mean you can go around smelling drugs!” contrasted with one of my favorite Ruth lines in the movie, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” I would have a hard time believing that he didn’t write this movie if it weren’t for the dark, emotional terror.

There’s also this very Eraserhead moment, where Ruth is just a fish out of water at their dinner table, and there’s these tiny chickens that they’re all eating. And the only thing I could think was, “You just cut them up like regular chickens.” The fact that Laura Dern was in two David Lynch movies before this makes me feel like that was no accident.

What do you think, Boomer? Does this movies humor stand on its own? Or do you think it wears it’s influences a little too on its sleeves?

Boomer:It’s important to bear in mind that this was Alexander Payne’s first film. As a writer (like all of us here), we all start out on our journeys as scribes by paying deference to the creators who inspired us, merging our own voices with those of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. For me personally, I think that Citizen Ruth stands out as truly original in its voice in spite of any inspiration Payne may have taken from other sources, with a clear through line that makes the poetic statement that we are all products of the lives that we are brought into without permission.

On a bit of an existential note, none of us have any agency in our creation. We’re all born without a choice, which is reflected in the way that baby Tanya is no more than a MacGuffin onto which various parties project their personal moral concepts and failings. Ruth, likewise, was born into a world in which she was treated as a sexual object long before she had the emotional capacity to make decisions about consent. Everything about her life that followed was the result of her mother’s unnamed boyfriend using her, just as both factions of the abortion debate use her. Even when she is presented with the illusion of agency when she is taken to a clinic where she demands an abortion and is instead forced to watch propaganda, she’s trapped in a world that doesn’t care about her needs or desires as anything other than a means to a political end wrapped in a fiction about morality. On the face of it, this is a narrative about women and the agency they deserve in regards to their bodies, but on a higher level it’s about how all of our lives are circumscribed by an indifferent society and the personal agendas of people we should be able to trust.

I often find myself thinking about Tanya. What would her life have been like? Even with $15K, it’s not as if Ruth is all that likely to escape the cycle in which society and her own vices have trapped her; would Tanya have escaped that cycle, or would she, too, have been caught in it? Although I would never want to see Citizen Tanya (and Ruth’s miscarriage means that this sequel could never happen), I am curious about who she would have become, whether her life would have been better than her mother’s or not. Would she know about her prenatal past as a talking point for myopic worshipers of God and the moon? What hypothetical future do you see for Tanya, Britnee?

Britnee: It’s interesting how I didn’t really think much about Tanya even though she was so prominent in the film. If Tanya was born and raised by Ruth, her upbringing would have been terrible. Ruth would’ve bought a warehouse packed with patio sealant with that $15K, so that money would not go towards Tanya in any way. Ruth’s brother would definitely not take in another one of Ruth’s children, so Tanya would most likely end up in foster care. Now, foster homes could be the best thing to happen to a child in Tanya’s situation. There are loving families out there that want nothing more than to give children the best life possible, but there are some foster homes that are nothing short of a horror story. There is a chance that Tanya could grow up to be a completed success, even an advocate for children growing up in situations similar to her own. There’s also a chance that she would grow up to huff just as much patio sealant as Ruth and be just as self-destructive. I’ve been trying to think a little more positive lately, so I’m going to say that Tanya would grow up to be a phenomenal social worker that would eventually write a book about her fame as Baby Tanya (with a Danielle Steel-style photograph on the back cover). The book, which would be titled Whatever Happened to Baby Tanya?, would become one of those fantastically terrible made-for-TV Lifetime films. Of course, this is all just wishful thinking.

Something that I’ve been wanting to mention is the choice of casting Laura Dern as Ruth. Dern was in her late twenties when she portrayed the role of Ruth, and I find it interesting that they didn’t choose someone in their early twenties or late teens. Also, at the point of the release of Citizen Ruth, Dern was best known as Dr. Sattler from Jurrasic Park, and it must’ve been so strange for viewers to see Dern in such a different role. The whole thing just didn’t feel right.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dern as Ruth? Would another actress have fit into this role a little better? If so, who would it be?

Brandon: I think I spilled the beans a little prematurely on who I’d love to see in the role of Ruth, were it to be recast. Although logic would tell you to go younger & more reserved, I’d love to see the film go hard in the exact opposite direction and cast Amy Sedaris in the lead role, preferably decked out in her Jerri Blank gear. Citizen Ruth predates Strangers With Candy by just a few years and, to me, boasts an unlikely kinship with the cult comedy series in the ways it finds pitch black humor in the base, animalistic behavior of its hopeless addict antiheroes. If there’s enough room in this world for a second Strangers With Candy movie (and I pray we can all agree there is), one that follows Citizen Ruth‘s exact storyline would be a perfect backdrop for Jerri Blank’s particular brand of finding humor in selfish, subhuman cruelty. There would be plenty of room for Sedaris to go over the top with the role without having to alter a single beat of the story’s current state.

That being said, I wouldn’t change one note of the performance Dern delivers here. Whether she’s a blind horse enthusiast or elbow deep in triceratops droppings, I’ve always found Laura Dern to be a magnetic presence onscreen. Citizen Ruth offers a rare treat in its casting of Dern in a lead role, one she tackles fearlessly as a lovably self-absorbed, violently naïve monster. A lot of actresses at that point in their career would’ve injected too much vanity or empathy into this kind of role, but Dern is content to leave her be as an doomed, ugly soul. I would love to see the Amy Sedaris take on the part, but that mental exercise is transforming the movie into something it’s not, pushing it further into the John Waters territory Alli mentioned earlier. I found Dern’s screen presence to be perfectly suited for the task at hand, as subtly uncomfortable & amusing as that task was.

What’s your biggest takeaway from Dern’s performance as Ruth, Alli? How does this role fit into her career at large?

Alli: I personally really enjoyed Laura Dern in this role, and I actually got really excited when I found out she was the lead in the movie before I even started watching it. I don’t know why, even though I’ve only seen a handful of the movies she’s been in, but I’m sold on something if she’s involved. I knew her as a kid from Jurassic Park and that role is definitely iconic. But recently I just watched Wild At Heart and loved her in that. I really like the way she handles these complex characters in difficult situations. In Wild at Heart, she still plays sort of the naïve youngster, but in a much more positive way than in Citizen Ruth. Both characters make their fair share of bad decisions though. She plays the lovable scamp really well. She manages to bring this almost nervous yet comical in it’s own right energy to these roles. Her acting is pretty charming at the loss of a better description.

I guess given the movies I’ve seen her in I think of her in kind of the Chloë Sevigny category, “the actresses who rock these small, strange movies but can just as easily slide into bigger roles.” She also seems to take sort of daring roles, be it the smart scientist of Jurassic Park (“Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”) or a drug addict Ruth seeking an abortion.

Also, superficially, she has one of my favorite interesting faces, so I like that about her as well.

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Lagniappe

Britnee: I didn’t mention this during the conversation, but I thought it was so creepy how Gail Stoney was totally planning on stealing Baby Tanya. There were a few hints in the film that led me to believe that her son’s real mother was a woman in a position similar to Ruth. What a creep!

Brandon: My favorite tonal shift in this film is when it first reshapes itself from a heartbreaking drama into a subtly comedic character study. After Ruth hits rock bottom (literally) and is rescued from her cold jail cell floor, she’s whisked away to the tackiest version of suburbia you’re likely to see outside a Tim Burton film. There’s so many subtly humorous/nightmarish details to focus on in this sequence — the goth teen temper tantrums, the Kafkaesque trip to the anti-abortion clinic, the rabid feminists trying to break their way into the house through the dining room windows, etc. What really cracked me up/kept me up at night, though, were the depictions of suburban food. What words could you even use to describe those images? Horrific blandness? Nightmarish crimes against good taste? Culinary abortions? The film’s intense focus on the horrors of suburban cuisine were both a great snapshot of the aggressively mild nature of the Pro-Lifers who prepared it & the delicately monstrous humor Alex Payne constructs in his debut feature as a whole. There’s a lot of powerful imagery in these kinds of details that you wouldn’t normally experience in a comedy, no matter how dark or political.

Boomer: I’ll second Brandon’s note that the suburban nightmare was a favorite element of mine, although the thing that stood out to me more than the food was the loud airplane flyover that occurs when the family is having their meal outdoors. It perfectly encapsulates a paradoxical sense of both “nowhereness” and “everywhereness” that permeates the film’s mood. It expresses the lack of urbanity, or more accurately the utter suburbanity, of the Stoney lifestyle, and is perhaps the most artful sound choice in the film.

Alli: I didn’t mention this before, because I thought it would have been weird and off topic, but I really feel like this is a movie just asking to be adapted to a musical. I know it would push it more into the goofball comedy spectrum, but I’d really like for there to be a musical number with the staff of a pregnancy crisis center feeding the audience increasingly outrageous fake information. I’d pay money to watch that and a bunch of stereotypically dressed third wave feminists serenading the moon goddess.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
August:
Alli presents Black Moon (1975)
September: Brandon presents The Box (2009)
October: Britnee presents The Funhouse (1981)

-The Swampflix Crew

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5 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Citizen Ruth (1996)

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