Films

Subversive Stardom

Sarah Polley and Tom Green are at the polar extremes of rebel moviemaking

Brian D. Johnson April 30 2001
Films

Subversive Stardom

Sarah Polley and Tom Green are at the polar extremes of rebel moviemaking

Brian D. Johnson April 30 2001

Subversive Stardom

Films

Brian D. Johnson

Sarah Polley and Tom Green are at the polar extremes of rebel moviemaking

What’s amazing about this line of work is that you write about The Claim and Freddy Got Fingered on the same day without actually changing professions. It’s like being a pearl diver in the morning and doing colonic irrigation in the afternoon. The Claim and Freddy Got Fingered have absolutely nothing in common. Except this: they feature young Canadian actors—Sarah Polley and Tom Green, respectively—who are, in opposite ways, subversives.

Polley, a former child star from Toronto, is an actor with a political conscience who turns down glam roles (such as the groupie played by Kate Hudson in Almost Famous) because she can’t stomach the childish games of Hollywood celebrity. Green, a professional adolescent from Ottawa, is Hollywood’s clown prince of gross-out comedy (and husband of former child star Drew Barrymore), who seems bent on proving that he can stomach just about anything.

Bracketing the Why Generation, Polley, 22, and Green, 29, offer polar extremes of rebel dissonance. Polley is a gifted actor who is so unimpressed by show business

that she is taking a year off acting. She hopes to study directing at the Canadian Film Centre, and is an ardent activist— last week, before hopping a protest bus to the Quebec summit, she was scouring Toronto for gas masks. Green is the prankster running riot in the name of bad taste, strip-mining whatever taboos are left unclaimed, while shrugging off any notion of social responsibility.

The two actors also represent very different responses by Canadian talent to a country with no star system. Like Mike Myers, Green emerged from a suburban basement and is now happily gargling milk and honey in Hollywood: he co-wrote and directed Freddy Got Fingered, his first starring movie role. Polley camps out in the thickets of independent film, staring down incest in The Sweet Hereafter and selling ecstasy in Go. On camera, her worldly in-

nocence glimmers like a precious metal. In almost every movie she’s in, there never seems to be enough of her. Green makes it his business to be too much.

The Claim is the most Canadian-looking non-Canadian picture since Fargo. Directed by Britain’s Michael Winterbottom (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo), this snowswept western is set in 19th-century California, filmed in the mountains of British Columbia, and cast with actors from Canada, Europe and Hollywood. It’s not a typical western. There no bad guys, and no gun batdes, just a few dumb shootings.

Inspired by Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbndge, the story unfolds in a pioneer town called Kingdom Come. Its king is a man named Dillon, who made a fortune after selling his wife and child for a claim 20 years earlier, during the Gold

Rush of 1849. Played with grim conviction by Scottish actor Peter Mullan {My Name IsJoe), Dillon is a haunted man who sits on a stack of gold and shares his bed with the local brothel owner (Milla Jovovich), a Portuguese singer. When Dillons dying wife (Nastassja Kinski) shows up out of the blue to beg for child support, she gets more than she bargained for: the prodigal husband wants his family back. Meanwhile, her stoical daughter (Polley) develops a quiet crush on a railroad man {American Beauty’s Wes Bentley)—a handsome surveyor with a wandering eye.

Visually, The Claim is breathtaking. Winterbottom conjures the most evocative vision of frontier-town grunge since Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which set the gold standard in whorehouse westerns three decades ago. What Altman did for rain, Winterbottom does for snow. So much snow.

Snow slanted by wind.

Snow coming down as thick as paint off a roller.

The Claim probably sets a record for snowfall in a movie. And filmed on the high-altitude flanks of Fortress Mountain, B.C., this is the real thing, cold snow, not the mashedpotato flakes favoured by Hollywood. You can read the chill in the raw tint to Polleys fair complexion.

Winterbottom also creates images of surreal grandeur. A palatial house that Dillon builds for his wife is hauled through the forest, like the steamship that Werner Herzog drags through the Brazilian jungle in Burden of Dreams. And out of this panoramic realism comes the spontaneous combustion of dreams gone horribly wrong—the image of a horse on fire, fleeing through the snow.

The Claim is an austere epic, one that asks if it’s better to burn in hell or freeze in heaven. It’s frustrating. The story’s complexity tends to get cmshed under its moral weight. And we never get close enough to the characters, who are overwhelmed—in true Hardy fashion—by landscape, circumstance and Fate. Kinski (once a Hardy heroine in Tess) is a tubercular wraith. Jovovich, in the kind of role that might have fallen to Kinski 20 years ago, is an

awkward diva. Both Polley and Bendey are perfect, but for once you wish they weren’t submerged in an ensemble cast. Guiltily, even while appreciating The Claims sombre beauty, you find yourself wishing they were leads in a Hollywood romance.

Freddy Got Fingered, in case you haven’t heard, is an allusion to molestation. But no one gets molested in this movie, at least no humans. Tom Green does, however, waggle the erect member of a stud horse— the real thing by the looks of it—while shouting, “Look at me, Daddy, I’m a farmer.” He also puts his mouth around a cow’s teat, cuts open a dead deer on the highway and wears the blood-soaked carcass, whitewashes Rip Torn with a shower of (fake) elephant ejaculate, climbs onto the assembly line of a sandwich factory

MOST OF GREEN'S STUNTS, THE CORE OF A SCAITERSHOT SATIRE IN SEARCH OF A TARGET, ARE MORE SHOCKING THAN FUNNY

and waves a giant salami between his thighs, and canes the paralyzed legs of young woman in a wheelchair. Oh yes, he also delivers a baby—biting off the umbilical cord with his teeth, then using it to swing the newborn around his head.

Most of these stunts are more shocking than funny. Humour, of course, is in the gut of the beholder, but with Freddy, Green may have gone too far, overshooting the generation that his visceral slapstick is designed to appeal to. In interviews, he has tried to point out that his comedy does not belong to the gross-out genre typified by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie. He’s right. Freddy lacks the titillation, or the cuteness, of most teen comedies; it’s more in the spirit of Monty Pythons Flying Circus, with a

duller wit. And whenever Hollywood formula does loom into view, it’s just a setup for mockery. Green also gets off some deft swipes at stock-market mumbo jumbo and social-work sleaze, but on the whole Freddy is a scattershot satire in search of a target.

A slim excuse for a story links up the nihilist gags. Green plays Gord, a demented cartoonist who lives in his parents’ basement. While trying to bluff his way into the animation business, he strikes up a romance with a paraplegic nymphomaniac (Marisa Coughlan)—who’s also an amateur rocket scientist designing a rocketpowered wheelchair. But most of the action is between Gord and his belligerent dad (Torn)—a grotesque feud that results in the idiot son falsely accusing the idiot father of molesting Gord’s younger

brother, Freddy. Drew Barrymore has a minor role as an outraged receptionist.

Canadians can take pride, or not, in the the movie’s local roots. It was shot in Burnaby, B.C. And although Green stresses the script is fiction, it was inspired by his own situation as a struggling artist who was still living in his parents’ Ottawa basement just five years ago. The film shows flashes of personal flair amid the cynicism, notably the opening sequence-—of Green taking a virtuoso skateboard ride through a wild obstacle course—but it’s downhill from there. Greens guerrilla exhibitionism has more edge in the rawness of television than in movie make-believe. Like a nervy skateboarder, he shows pluck in trying to kickjump his act to the big screen, but he may be up against a non-negotiable curb. ES3