A BIG, MESSY PLACE: ALAN BALL ON “TOWELHEAD”

Originally ran on FilmThreat.com on 09/09/08

SPOILER ALERT!

“Towelhead,” the complex and audacious film from director Alan Ball, is already inciting anger, winning over enthusiasts, and prompting debate – even prior to its release. The Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR) recently asked Warner Bros. and Warner Independent Pictures to change its volatile title. The film’s creators and studio refused. Ball and author Alicia Erian, who wrote the 2005 novel on which “Towelhead” is based, released thoughtful yet assertive statements explaining why they stand by the controversial name.

The title, however, is but one aspect of the heated hullabaloo surrounding “Towelhead.” The tolerant folks at Fox News declared it the “feel-awful movie of 2007” after a Toronto Film Festival screening last year, denouncing the film’s treatment of hot-button themes like statutory rape, teen sex, and racism.

But wait a minute. Does a film’s acknowledging that bad things happen imply that it’s condoning those bad things? I would challenge this mindset.

Like 1999’s “American Beauty,” for which Ball won a Best Screenplay Oscar, “Towelhead” certainly boasts some repugnant, squirm-inducing moments. However, it balances these with scenes of comforting emotional truth. Tracing its young heroine’s emotional journey from victim to survivor, the film deals with prickly adolescent themes in a shockingly honest manner. It tackles taboos with brave insight, but never condones the abusive, boundary-crossing behaviors of its messed up characters. It’s also pretty funny.

Ultimately, if you can wade through its unsettling early scenes, “Towelhead” offers an inspiring, unforgettable cinematic experience. In fact, the painfully uncomfortable initial passages enhance its final redemption (I was reminded of “The Color Purple”). Symbolizing relief, survival, and rebirth for its young protagonist, the film’s last sequence hauntingly completes something larger and more hopeful than the sum of its parts. There’s retribution at the end of Ball’s emotional wringer.

Many associate Ball with his scripting prowess – and for good reason. After penning several episodes of mid-seventies sitcoms “Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill,” and “Oh, Grow Up,” he scribed “American Beauty.” Ball pocketed prestigious Oscar clout from that celebrated film, then continued his distinctive hybrid of storytelling with the cable series “Six Feet Under” (2001 – 2005). While writing and executive producing this hearse-black look at a Pasadena funeral home, the triple-threat occasionally stepped up to director’s plate as well.

“Towelhead,” however, is Ball’s first full-fledged foray into feature film direction. It’s also an uncharacteristic spin on someone else’s work. Erian’s novel, which follows a 13-year old Lebanese-American girl navigating through a fog of cultural and sexual confusion, is a perfect match for Ball’s artistic sensibility. This canvas of characters might have originated in someone else’s noggin, but Ball uses “Towelhead” to continue exploring the superficial veneer of suburban America first mined in “American Beauty.” It’s a landscape where, as he’s fond of saying, “People are more that what they seem” (an observation that might also fit the telepaths and vampires inhabiting “True Blood,” Ball’s upcoming HBO series).

Jasira (Summer Bishil) lives a life of pure teenage hell, walking on eggshells through the culturally volatile minefields of a sterile cul-de-sac and prison-like high school. At home, she’s a scapegoat for every conflict created by Rifat, her sensationally pompous Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi) – a racist with Madonna-Whore attitudes towards women. Complicating matters further, Jasira is the target of desire for both a misguided, impulsive Army Reservist neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) and a hormone-driven, African-American classmate (Eugene Jones). And her mother (Maria Bello)? Don’t even get me started. Fortunately, an observant, perceptive couple played by Toni Collette and Matt Letscher also inhabits this troubled neighborhood.

Jasira endures both physical and sexual abuse, while acknowledging burgeoning womanhood with both fear and anticipation. Strong stuff? Sure. But Ball never exploits his actress or subject matter for cheap thrills. “Towelhead” isn’t so much about Jasira’s abuse as about how she overcomes it. Ball is clearly in her corner, empathic to the racial and sexual tensions she must negotiate.

But wait a minute. This is supposed to be a comedy?

Indeed – but from that uncomfortable, unforced school of organic, “laugh or cry” comedy. Macdissi plays Rifat as a self-involved jerk, but he’s also a funny self-involved jerk. He denounces Jasira for not wearing “proper clothes.” Later, the egomaniacal patriarch proudly brings home a trophy date whose attire is far more garish and slinky than anything found in Jasira’s relatively tame wardrobe. Rifat is desperate to keep up with the Joneses, frantically erecting a flag in the front lawn (“Towelhead” is set during the Gulf War nineties) – not for the sake of patriotism, but because a next-door neighbor has done the same. We chuckle to keep from gagging.

The very thing that makes “Towelhead” unforgettable is also that which will ruffle feathers of more conservative viewers. A Lebanese immigrant who’s Christian, and not Muslim? A thirteen-year old girl who openly enjoys the inappropriate attention bestowed upon her by older men? A pedophilic National Guard Reservist who – after impulsive, reprehensible transgressions – follows through with a truly heroic gesture? These are not comfortable, cookie-cutter stereotypes. They’re multi-layered, complicated creations. It’s much easier to paint people with black and white brushstrokes. Clearly, however, Ball is not one to play it safe.

Neither do his actors. In a fascinating zeitgeist of timing, Aaron Eckhart plays Mr. Vuoso, the Army Reservist pedophile. He’s certainly a sick, troubled creature, but thanks to Eckhart’s complex performance, not entirely unsympathetic. Even so, Vuoso is light years down the moral food chain from Eckhart’s portrayal of ruined “Dark Night” hero Harvey Dent, who personified Gotham’s heroic backbone until late into that blockbuster film. It will be interesting to see how multiplex-haunting Batman fans respond to Eckhart’s contrasting turn in “Towelhead,” playing a much less likable character.

Finally, there’s the film’s emotionally stirring wrap-up, which suggests Jasira’s escape from the twisted, nearly unbearable web of dysfunction she’s been trapped in for the past two hours of celluloid. During a screening of “Towelhead” at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, these powerful closing passages moved me to unexpected, impossible-to-articulate tears. My prediction is that for every angry theater walkout prompted by “Towelhead,” several new fans will find validation and connection in this unique adolescent survival story.

A few days after screening “Towelhead,” I’m sitting across from Ball during a festival press interview. Dressed casually in jeans and denim shirt, the filmmaker shakes my hand and remarks, “It’s a pleasure.” Ball’s appearance – brown hair, medium build – is that of a low-key everyman. But you’ll take notice when he’s in the room. Ball’s charisma manifests itself through his warm, commanding voice and intense, articulate delivery. When I describe my emotional response to “Towelhead,’ and ask for his analysis, Ball provides an immediate, dead-on interpretation. He’s also not shy about pondering the messiness of the human psyche, society’s discomfort with female sexuality, and the building of complex characters.

You’re known for an ability to create complicated, “five-dimensional” characters. What’s your creative process for building a character? When are you happy with the way the character is finished? Is there a moment in which you say, “Okay – I’ve got it”?
Well, I can’t really claim credit for building the characters in this movie, because they were already built by the author of the book. They are even more complex and multifaceted in the book. I think when I read the book, I certainly responded to how “five dimensional” the characters were. I just tried to keep that in my adaptation. It wasn’t that hard, because I basically just had to transcribe a lot of things from the book and pick and choose what to keep and what to lose. So I don’t really have a process, in terms of reaching a point where I go, “Okay, this character is complicated enough.” I think when I create characters on my own, I’m a very instinctive writer, and I’m always drawn to the moments that are surprising. If I write a scene that feels conventional, then I feel like I’m not digging as deep as I can. And I’m not interested in seeing those conventional scenes or characters, because I’ve seen so many of them. If the character surprises me – once the surprise takes place and I can sort of understand where it came from – then I’m happy.

If the character breaks away from the convention of what you would typically see…
Yeah – and if it tells you something about the character. For example, when I wrote “American Beauty,” in that scene where Annette Bening’s character doesn’t sell the house and starts slapping herself, that happened in a very organic way. I was going, “Oh, my God! This is crazy!” Then I realized that this tells you everything you need to know about her childhood.

In that one moment…
Yeah! In that one moment. For me, that totally redeems all of her superficial, shallow behavior, because she was so traumatized as a child.

There’s a magic little moment in “Towelhead” that takes people by surprise, when Gil (Matt Lescher) suddenly speaks Arabic…
What I loved about the book is… people are more than they seem. There’s a reason he speaks Arabic – he was in the Peace Corps, in Yemen, and he learned to speak Arabic then. But you don’t expect this white suburban guy in Texas to be speaking Arabic. A lot of people who have written about the movie assume that Rifat is Muslim, because he’s Middle Eastern. He’s not. He’s Christian. It couldn’t be clearer. There’s a Virgin Mary on the dashboard of his car. He’ll genuflect before dinner. Jasira comes out and says it: “My dad’s a Christian, just like everybody else in Texas.” I’m always drawn to characters in movies or television shows or novels who are more than what they seem. They force me to confront my own stereotypes.

This movie and “American Beauty” explored the veneer of suburbia, where all the hedges are immaculately cut, the lawns are perfectly mowed, and the houses all look the same. Everything on the surface should be in its place, prim and proper. Beneath, however, are these neuroses and obsessions and things that really aren’t neat and tidy.
I don’t think we’re a neat and tidy species. I think the human psyche is a big, messy place. Somewhere along the line, we started believing that we should keep that mess hidden. I’m not advocating everyone becoming a sociopath or psychopath, or becoming pure id, but I do feel like there’s a lot of self-loathing that we impose on ourselves by believing that we need to be perfect. By placing so much emphasis on the image that we present to others, and worrying so much about what other people think of us. I think a lot of lot of pathology comes from that sort of disconnect. It’s not authentic.

Kind of like the scene in which Rifat is re-doing his garden, so that when Jasira’s mother comes to visit, he will not be one-upped.
Absolutely. Not because he loves gardening. Not because he wants these flowers. It’s like, “I’m gonna show her.” That’s what the flags are. These guys are not really patriots. They’re trying to one-up each other.

There were several moments in the film that showed Jasira asserting herself. It seemed like those scenes accented different points in the movie – key points in which she stands up for herself.
Yeah. I mean, ultimately, you’re leading up to that moment where she says she will not return home with her father. It’s hard for her to say, because she loves her father, and she knows he loves her in his way, as much as a narcissist can love anybody who is not them. It’s all leading up to that moment where she really sort of accepts responsibility for herself, saying, “I’m gonna take care of myself. I’m the most important person now. I’m not gonna try to make you feel better.” Alicia’s book is so beautifully constructed, and the characters are so flesh and blood and completely alive. All of those moments came from the book. There are very few moments that I created on my own. I can’t really claim credit. I just have to go, “Alicia did that and I just transcribed it.” (Laughter)

I understand that at one point, Elicia came onto the set and was startled by Macdissi’s appearance…
Yes. His manner, and the way he looked, reminded her of her own father. It freaked her out a little bit, and made her uncomfortable.

Not having read the book, I’m assuming that there were autobiographical elements in the story.
Certainly, the characters of the parents contain autobiographical elements. Her father’s Egyptian. She did go to live with him in Texas at one point when she was young. Both her and her brother went. I had seen pictures of her father, and actually gave them to the hairstylists and costumers, because he looked so great. I said, “You should make him look like this guy as much as you can.” And it sort of looks like Saddam Hussein, which is so funny.

He has that great line about being both for the Gulf War and against it…
“I’m supporting one aspect of the war and protesting another aspect. It’s the mark of intelligence – the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time.” (Laughter)

The interview concludes in Part Two of “A Big, Messy Place: Alan Ball on ‘Towelhead'”>>>




Posted on December 25, 2008 in Interviews by
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