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Erin Brockovich****

Steven Soderbergh's new movie from a screenplay by Susannah Grant recounts the saga of a single mother with three children whose life is transformed when she finds a vocation as crusader and uncovers a serious incident of environmental pollution by a large corporation (Pacific Gas & Electric), one of whose plants has contaminated the ground water in a rural community called Hinkley with Chromium-6. Erin Brockovich is thus a Capra subject, but it is as far removed from the simplicities of Capra as the United States of Y2K is removed from that of the 1930's. Erin as brilliantly portrayed by Julia Roberts is no latter day Jean Arthur character but a foul mouthed contender with a seemingly endless supply of chutzpah. After her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), fails to win her personal injury case at the beginning of the movie, she forces her way into his office and extorts a job from him in order to support her family. Nor does her tenure in Masry's office, where she rises from office help to paralegal assistant, in the least take the edge off her abrasive temperament--as she demonstrates late in the movie, when she horrifies the prissy aide of a famous tort lawyer who has become Masry's associate by claiming to have amassed a pile of signatures indispensable to the case by offering oral sex in return for them. If Erin Brockovich leaves no doubt about the intensity of its heroine's devotion to righting wrong, her strongest weapon is hardly her virtuousness but her almost reckless honesty regardless of circumstances.

Although only in release for a short time, the movie has had a huge success owing in no small part, I think, to the way it deftly touches upon a number of current hot topics such as the unenviable status of single mothers, environmental damage, corporate arrogance, etc. A capsule review in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar describes it as an "Irresistible, hugely satisfying feminist fairy tale...." However, that seems a very shortsighted view of a deceptively complex motion picture. Not that themes like feminism and the ongoing erosion of the quality of life in contemporary America do not count for something in Erin Brockovich. But those themes serve first of all to supply a highly transparent foreground through which the viewer can observe a lone woman traversing the opaque, unspeakably oppressive landscape of lower middle class American life--and even the shabby neighborhood in which Erin lives looks like Bel Air or Rancho Santa Fe in comparison to Hinkley and its environs. No small part of Soderbergh's skill in directing this movie lies in the ease with which he maintains a balance between this thematic foreground and the intransigently tangible background, keeping the former from imposing itself upon the latter. Without that balance, Erin Brockovich could have all too easily degenerated into a classically bad example of a "message" picture, particularly given the emotionally charged scenario with its depiction of adults and children ravaged by a host of life threatening illnesses caused by the toxic contaminant. If the background did no more than serve as a visual QED for the film's thematic structure, if the space between foreground and background reduced to zero, Erin herself would be the first victim. Happily, such is not the case.

While Erin's language might be characterized as down-to-earth, her character could hardly be called earthbound. In fact, the film is less the story of an impoverished home keeper's transformation into a successful, self-reliant businesswoman than it is the graph of a choreographic parabola, the trajectory of Erin's flight into the open space of an uncertain future--and if she apparently descends to Earth at the end of her flight, who can doubt that it is only to rebound with greater energy? Moreover, the movie provides her with the perfect inertial resistance she must overcome for each new leap into the void in the person of Ed Masry. Perfectly played by Albert Finney--who could have imagined to star of Tom Jones in a role like this?--Masry, with all the innate conservatism of his profession is just the antagonist Erin needs and deserves to develop her own quite different latent talents. In the way it so closely follows the geste of its heroine, Erin Brockovich reminded me at moments of nouvelle vague productions like François Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1961) or Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels (1963), in which characters portrayed by Jeanne Moreau  provided a similar focal point about which the rest of the film took shape. Like those films, Erin Brockovich sometimes gives the impression of bemusedly trying to keep pace with the unpredictable impulses of a fictitious creature who has taken on a life of her own on celluloid, sweeping the movie along with her.

But Soderbergh employs a deceptively underplayed style of filmmaking that more than succeeds in matching Erin's volatile personal style. With its elliptical cuts and unobtrusive use of moving shots, Erin Brockovich is the absolute antithesis of so many recent movies that constantly call attention to their technique. (Any Given Sunday comes to mind most readily, but it is far from the worst example I could have cited.) Quite apart from its many other praiseworthy qualities, the movie proves how it is possible to create a powerful dramatic effect on screen without the help of explosions, natural disasters, flashy effects, or so many other of the standard props of  contemporary American motion picture production. The Danish adherents of Dogma 5 (Celebration) who puritanically reject dollies and lights as superfluous luxuries of film making would do well to take a look at this picture, which more than adequately demonstrates that the demands of commercial production are in no way irreconcilable with those of film art. Yet if Soderbergh makes making a highly sophisticated movie look far simpler than it is, no less remarkable is his treatment of the setting which he neither idealizes nor holds up for contemptuous amusement, abetted by the expressively subdued cinematography of Ed Lachman, dominated by yellows, browns, and dull oranges. (Some of the early shots of Erin's neighborhood have so much yellow in them, I could have well believed they had been photographed with a smog filter, if such a device existed.) This is an environment that Robert Altman and John Waters have depicted--in quite different ways--but never without an ironic edge, an ironic edge nowhere in evidence here, as far as I can see. If a viewer perceives irony, that is his or her own inference and not necessarily the film's implication.

What illustrates the originality of this approach even more dramatically is the film's depiction of the PG&E plant in Hinkley--and metonymically, PG&E itself. There are several shots of the plant in Erin Brockovich, the most powerful being at nightfall when the husband of Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger), who lives opposite the plant, angrily throws rocks at the edifice ominously looming out of a dark blue sky, after learning that his wife has cancer. Imposing and remote, dominating the horizon, always shown in an extreme long shot, these views of the plant suggest analogies with similar long shots of the sinister domes in The X-Files. But Erin Brockovich to its credit never plays the conspiracy card: the plant is not the sign of some monstrously omnipotent agency bent upon the destruction of human life.  If the shots of the plant symbolize anything, they primarily point to the distance which separates this alien presence from the inhabitants of Hinkley, a presence which is not so much malign as it is horrifyingly indifferent to the existence of those who live within its shadow,  just as PG&E shows itself to be indifferent to the fate of those it has harmed. Although shudders run through me when I think what Oliver Stone would have made out of a scenario like this, Erin Brockovich never so much as hints that the utility giant set out to intentionally endanger the victims of its plant. Like all great corporations, PG&E obeys the highly illogical logic of capital which places profit and respectability over the health and safety of the public, and it expects its subordinates to conform to the same logic even if it conflicts with their own self-interest--I would not mention the dictates of their conscience. Early theorists of capitalism like Adam Smith or Jeremy Bentham thought that rational self-interest would necessarily serve as a counterweight to undisciplined self-aggrandizement, but their predictions have not been borne out in fact in the careers of entrepreneurs, much less in the actions of the legal fictions called corporations. Anyone who stops to reflect on this discrepancy between theory and practice might well find it, I think, a good deal more disturbing, if less exciting than loony conspiracy fantasies about the FBI, the CIA, FEMA or The New World Order.

Comparing Erin Brockovich with The X-Files brings out another, more subtle and profound difference between the two movies. Many significant literary works of science fiction belong to the literature of ideas--and they deserve the title far more than do some of the long-winded European novels that have been accorded the label--and the same remark could be easily extended to science fiction on film. In any case, it certainly holds true of The X-Files which remains true to the most imaginatively productive sources of inspiration in the history of the genre rather than degrading the conventions of science fiction to a pretext for bad high-adrenalin film making as do Armageddon or The Matrix. From this point of view, however, it seems more than just a brilliant inspiration of the screenwriter that the action of The X-Files should culminate in the icy wastes of Antarctica as does that of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. What better place to conclude a movie so fascinated with an almost allegorical conflict between abstract forces of whom the characters are merely the representatives, where else than in a setting which could well be a visual analogue to the Platonic realm of pure forms? Erin's flights are triumphs over the gravity of everyday life but they don't carry her into outer space. Erin Brockovich moves in a  mundane world of dramatic particulars, not in a celestial kingdom of philosophical universals. For it too, the dictum might well hold true that William Carlos Williams reiterates in his long poem Paterson: "No ideas but in things." Steven Soderbergh rightly keeps his vision focused on the earthly and earthy spectacle of Erin and her lonely dance without letting that vision be distracted by the intellectual allure of the  foreground or the factual one of the background, and yet also without overlooking the claims of either. In that way he is more just than most courts of law could ever hope to be.

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E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net