Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday morning at the movies: praise and pans

Recently I organized a local screening of If These Walls Could Talk. If you've ever seen it or remember its HBO premiere in 1996, you know it's maybe a little hokey but also pretty powerful. Like, in the third vignette, the (married, distant) "man involved" is Coach of Coach, and Dr. Cher tells Anne Heche all about her commitment to providing abortions and sounds just like a hero.* But, you know, what Dr. Cher says is also surprisingly true to life. I wondered if the movie's writers might have had a modern-day abortioneer consultant, and who it was.

"I won't be leaving my wife after all. Here's two hundred bucks; take care of it." 

If These Walls Could Talk centers on the reproductive crisis moments of three different women living in the same house in different decades: a desperate widow in the 1950s, a harried married mother in the 1970s, and an embittered college student in the 1990s. After the movie there was a lot of conversation -- about the time before abortion was made legal, about "what it's like in an abortion clinic," about violence against providers and so forth. I was surprised to learn that about half our little discussion group hadn't heard of Dr. Tiller's murder -- they had gasped when they saw Dr. Cher take off a bulletproof vest to change into scrubs. (For me, that scene was actually a reminder of the doctor -- it might have been Dr. Carhart -- who was quoted saying there was no point wearing a bulletproof vest because the antis aim for the head. How Dr. Tiller was killed.) In any case, it was a good occasion to have a conversation about abortion issues with people who aren't part of the field and don't know a lot of the details.

Here's part of a scene that we discussed a good deal:

Some things I particularly liked (mostly remembering from the final vignette):
-Dr. Cher, as mentioned above. Her words are simple and true and familiar.
-Anne Heche's best friend (Jada Pinkett!), who at first is really shitty to her for even considering an abortion, eventually decides to support her friend and accompanies her to the clinic. It does happen! About A Girl's post about this is still my favorite.
-There's a wide range of protester behaviors in the real world, and the movie did portray a couple of different ones. The protesters in the previous day's scene were less numerous and less rowdy. This giant crowd is more typical of big clinics in the Midwest, say, or of staged "Summer of Mercy" type events, back in the 90s before the FACE Act was passed. Unfortunately, it took a lot of clinic violence to convince Congress to take action, not soon enough.
-It was nice that they showed the role of clinic escorts, who as you know are awesome. This clip doesn't show much of the clinic's single escort, though.
-In an earlier vignette, well, "liked" is a bad word for this scene, but I appreciated how well the interaction between Demi Moore and the pre-Roe illegal abortionist (from whom she requested a kitchen abortion) depicted women's lack of choices in finding safe and dignified care. It was a truly tense scene:

-The women are in different situations and have different decision-making processes, and not all the vignettes end with an abortion decision. (Imagine that!)

Some things that were a little ridiculous:
-Sissy Spacey (the 1970s mom) has a teenage daughter who's the perfect caricature of a feminist activist -- righteous, but a nosy pest; automatically believes that the best option is abortion; acts as though an individual woman's every personal choice is a political statement. She even practices yoga, which I think in the 70s was pretty far-out.

-Anne Heche's best friend, who goes to the clinic with her but is still an anti, ends up having an argument over abortion, with a clinic staff person, at the front desk. I guess you've got to lay out the conflict narrative in a movie, but no way would any of that happen in the environments where I've worked.
-The protester crowd outside Dr. Cher's clinic grew by the hundreds from one day to the next, without much explanation about why that would happen, which might have made it seem implausible. I wish they'd explained that events like "Summer of Mercy" really did overwhelm clinics suddenly and dangerously.

...And then I went home and watched Juno. I promise I don't normally do this! And, although I have always really liked Juno for its silly dialogue and sweet friendships and Kimya Dawson soundtrack (of course), this time I was again thinking about the things that first struck me when I saw it in the theater. The things that would've stuck in my craw had the soundtrack not washed them down.

Unfortunately, this clip is the closest one (chronologically) to the damn clinic scene that I could find!

Most particularly:

The clinic counselor. Of course. What the fuck is up with her?? She seems unqualified, untrained, uninterested, and unnerving. Just plain unprofessional. Over the hamburgerphone, she supposedly asked Juno how long she's been "sexually active" (mostly a device to allow Juno to rant about that phrase), which no one would need to ask just to make an appointment. In the clinic, she's playing a handheld videogame and doesn't make eye contact, has a "withering" expression if I ever saw one, and tells Juno that her "boyfriend's junk smells like pie" when he wears the clinic's boysenberry condoms.

I know it's only supposed to be funny, and she's not even the reason that Juno leaves the clinic (that was because of all the fingernails she noticed, which is also silly but funny), but wow! The friends I went with teased "Hey, that's you!" and I felt sort of sad because yeah, that's probably what some people think. Whereas it couldn't be further from my experiences with abortion work. Sure, you're tired some days or have periods of feeling un-challenged by your work, but even coworkers who are suffering burnout try not to take it out on patients.

Of course, aside from that and how un-scary the single (shy, teenaged) protester is, that's practically the only ridiculous abortion-related thing in that movie...because there's no other discussion of abortion in the movie. Well, except the stepmom asking, "Honey, have you considered..y'know, the alternative?" Man, I love Kimya Dawson, but give me another Obvious Child any day!

Obvious Child from Gillian Robespierre on Vimeo.

*Note: After drafting this post, I realized that Cher directed that vignette! Haha.


  1. This was great, Placenta Sammich! Thanks for all your hard work on it. I have never seen ITWCT; might have to now. As an escort I appreciate the spotlight. I've never had to push through that kind of crowd, luckily, but I'm so thankful for clinic defenders before me who paved the way for safer clinics.

    I also find the clinic scene in "Juno" cringe-worthy. Why can't Juno's decision be based on personal conviction rather than a farcical experience at an unlikely clinic?

  2. anti-anti, thanks! I'm glad I got all the videos etc to work this time. Maybe you can organize an ITWCT screening of your own -- let me know if you do!

  3. In my movie night, I would present a documentary of escorts and clients with their companions. The video, “If this parking lot could talk” would feature unsolicited conversations that reveal the depths and complexities of individual women’s situations and how their own moral compass guides them to make really tough, compassionate decisions. In this documentary, the audience would see for themselves renderings of real women and men making real life decisions, decisions that they recognize have deep moral and psychological implications. Against this foreground of meaningfully rich vignettes would be the constant spectacle of the antis with their faux compassion, their diatribes about regret and harm and their egregious displays of selfishness. As a whole, the documentary would provide a foundation for rich discussions about how morality is contextual, about the origins of hate, about the twin sisters of religion and selfishness as against the virtues of selflessness in making abortion decisions and about the volunteers who endure the unimaginable to ensure the safety of women, to provide compassion to those in need and to deliver from the heart and mind every day, year in , year out.


This is not a debate forum -- there are hundreds of other sites for that. This is a safe space for abortion care providers and one that respects the full spectrum of reproductive choices; comments that are not in that spirit will either wind up in the spam filter or languish in the moderation queue.