Citizen Ruth

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Alexander Payne

REVIEWED: 05-28-97

An Interview with Citizen Ruth Director Alexander Payne

Of all the holy cows in American culture, one of the biggest is undeniably abortion. People ponder it, fight about it and have even killed over it--which makes it the perfect topic for a sly satirist.

Enter Alexander Payne, the director and co-writer of Miramax's new film, Citizen Ruth. His film stars Laura Dern as the unforgettable title character Ruth Stoops, a paint huffing homeless dimwit who ends up in jail and pregnant--and not for the first time. By sheer synchronicty, Ruth shares a cell with a passel of pro-life protesters just after a judge offers her a reduced sentence if she "takes care" of her pregnancy. Weekly Alibi had a chance to discuss this unique film with Payne.

Do you think the subject of abortion will affect the film commercially? Do you think you'll have a hard time getting it screened in some markets?

You know, I have no idea, but I think Miramax is appropriately trying to sell it as a movie, not an abortion movie. It's a movie that has as some of its subject matter, some of its backdrop, the world of abortion protesting. But it's about other things, I hope: homelessness, drug addiction, a woman taking some degree of self-awareness for the first time in her life and Americana. And then it's funny, and everyone loves a comedy. ... There's a certain American spirit that says, "Fuck it ... let's laugh at anything."

Why do you think people want to ask what you personally think about abortion?

I think people want more clues as to how to read the movie. But I think that's inappropriate because people should have their own reaction to the work and not base it on the words of the director. I have faith in viewers, and I think they should come to react to it however they want to, or can't help but to, because of their individual histories. ... This film is about a lot of things for me. And you know what? I may not even know why I made the movie or what it's about until I'm 50 and look back. And it may constantly change, why I think I made the film at a certain time. It's not a political thing. For me, it's a human and irrational process, the creative process.

One of the film's most interesting scenes was when Harlan (a pro-choice Vietnam Vet) is guarding the clinic and telling the pro-lifers, when they cross the clinic's property line, "Go back ... you know the drill."

Well, that comes from real life, in observing pro-life protests against abortion clinics. Everybody gets routine, and it struck me like those Warner Brothers cartoons with the sheep dog and the coyote: You know, "Morning, Ralph," "Morning, Sam." They punch their cards and then go (try to) kill each other all day then come back and say, "See you tomorrow, Ralph," "Okey doke, Sam." And it's just like that. They all know one another's names, and say, "That's so-and-so, she's always here, does she have her baby picture today or her fetus in a jar? No, she left them at home." It's like a constant banter back and forth and a sense of the banal and the routine. I think when you get out in real life, things are much more banal-feeling than what you've seen on TV, and that's kind of what I wanted to get across in the film.

Do you think Americans have a hard time with satire as a genre? The only film I can think to compare Citizen Ruth to is The Player. It's satire but not terribly broad satire. It's more pointed.

I love that movie. It's fantastic. ... I think actually that Americans have a long tradition of satire. English letters, all the way back to Jonathan Swift, have a long tradition of satire. But somehow satire has disappeared from films recently, in the last 10 or 15 years. But there's The Player, and before that Network, before that The Loved One or Dr. Strangelove. I think this film is both maybe in (that tradition), and also I hope it's a brand new movie because I really have a hard time comparing it to any single other movie I've ever seen.

What do you think your next project will be?

I just finished a script, also with Jim Taylor, called Election about a high school student council election. ... It's about all these people and how their lives fall apart, and these affairs between a teacher and student, and between another teacher and a guy's ex-wife. All these pathetic occurrences.

Is it a comedy?

A painful comedy.

--Angie Drobnic

Full Length Reviews
Citizen Ruth
Citizen Ruth
Citizen Ruth

Capsule Reviews
Citizen Ruth

Other Films by Alexander Payne
Election

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