Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Citizen Tania

Paul Schrader's "Patty Hearst" tells the story Americans didn't want to hear.


Charles Taylor
September 23, 1998 8:11PM (UTC)

"I'm basically an example, a symbol," says Natasha Richardson in the title
role of "Patty Hearst." An all-purpose symbol. To middle-America, Patty
Hearst was a symbol of their own kids who'd gone to college and come back
unrecognizably radicalized. To the tatters of the New Left, she was a
symbol of the bourgeois who dabbled in radical politics, then cravenly
attempted to evade responsibility. To the prosecutors who insisted on
trying her for her "participation" in a bank robbery while being held
captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and to the jury that convicted
her, she offered a chance to prove that the rich weren't given preferential
treatment. It's perhaps the blackest irony of a Kafkaesque case that the
courts finished the job the SLA started: They punished Patty Hearst because
she was rich.

Public animosity toward Patricia Hearst can't by itself be blamed for the
murderous reception given Paul Schrader's 1988 film. It's hard to think of
another commercial movie as difficult and austere as this one. Schrader and
screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (who based his script on Hearst's "Every Secret
Thing," written with Alvin Moscow -- an articulate and sometimes bitterly
humorous account of her ordeal) are stubbornly, uncompromisingly true to
their conception. "Patty Hearst" is formalized, intellectualized,
distanced, whittled down to bone-and-sinew. The excitement comes from what
might be called the common-sense audacity of the movie's ideas. The
hostile tone of the reviews suggested that critics weren't ready for
Schrader and Kazan's answer to the big question of whether Patty Hearst
really joined the SLA and was reborn as the gun-toting revolutionary Tania
or whether she was just playacting to save her life. "Patty Hearst" is a
devastatingly thorough demonstration of the question's ludicrousness. Of
course she meant it, the movie says; if the stakes are your life, you damn
well better be able to offer something more convincing than "just
playacting."

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Schrader's method is deceptive. At first, the movie can strike you as too
narrowly focused to answer anything. Following the kidnapping (which comes
right after the credits) Schrader spends the next 27 minutes -- a full
quarter of the movie -- replicating the way Patty, locked in a closet,
experienced the first weeks of her captivity: as an exercise in sensory
deprivation. During many of these brief, fragmented scenes, we're in the
closet with her. We see the SLA only as black outlined figures against a
blinding white background whenever the door opens. Nearly all words
spoken to her are harangues from "General Field Marshal Cinque" (Ving
Rhames) about the fascist system of "Amerikkka" (you can hear those three
k's in his voice) or threats that she'll take the first bullet if the FBI
discovers them. She's watched when she goes to the bathroom and when she
bathes, and kept blindfolded the entire time. You know exactly the toll
this treatment is taking when Patty imagines that she's back among her
family sitting at the dining room table: In her fantasy, she's still
wearing a blindfold.

This harshly stylized section sets up everything that follows. By the time
Patty "accepts" her captors' offer to join them, we already understand --
as she later testifies in court -- that, in her head, she had nowhere else
to go. When she's told it's only "comradely" to have sex when "asked," we
understand she's being set up for rape. And when she watches on television
the shootout that left most of the SLA dead and sees the police firing
into the house without bothering to ascertain whether she's inside, we
understand that Patty believes one of Cinque's crazy predictions has come
true: She's now a police target because she's been "turned."

Schrader uses our memories of the case to shame the judgments and
assumptions we made about it. Patty's participation in the bank robbery,
which formed the basis of her eventual conviction, is staged just as we saw
it on the network news: in a herky-jerky succession of security-camera
stills. The difference is that we also see that Patty is so terrified she
can't recite the speech the SLA has prepared for her. Schrader and Kazan
make hash of the claims used against Hearst that the SLA would have had to
use incredibly sophisticated psychological techniques to brainwash her. All
the SLA needed, the movie shows us, was persistence and the elimination of
any alternative but death.

Other movies have evoked the creepiness and rot that attended the implosion
of the counterculture and the radical left ("Who'll Stop the Rain," for
one). Schrader and Kazan have the nerve to treat it as deadpan black
comedy. The movie's view of the SLA as the Keystone Revolutionaries -- a
group of middle-class white kids in thrall to their fantasies of black
power as the path to the revolution -- is ominously funny. They take
everything Cinque says as an article of faith, even when he warns them to
switch the TV off at night because the FBI can use televisions to spy into
people's homes. As the endlessly bickering Bill and Emily Harris, the
couple Patty goes on the lam with, William Forsythe and Frances Fisher are
Maggie and Jiggs by way of the Days of Rage. There's a wild comic moment
when Bill, who desperately wants to be black, does himself up in blackface
and Afro, and a priceless one when the SLA moves into a new safe house in
Watts and Emily gushes, "At last, we're really poor!"

The burden of drawing us inside Patty falls almost totally on
Richardson, and she's phenomenal. Richardson suggests how Patty used the
social skills that were part of her upbringing in order to fit in with the
SLA, to seem obedient, eager to learn and eager to please. And, beneath the
flat Western accent Richardson employs (the best American accent I've ever
heard from a non-American actor), we hear a wafer-thin edge of irony that's
Patty's only means of hanging on to something of herself ("You're all so
attractive," she tells the SLA when they finally remove her blindfold).
Richardson's performance works on an interior, at times nearly
subterranean, level. She pulls off the incredibly difficult task of playing
an unformed character discovering who she is by being forced to be who
she's not.

"I finally figured out what my crime was," Patty says in the film's final
scene, "I lived. Big mistake." Unable to be summed up as either kidnapped
heiress or radical fugitive, she became inconvenient. To its credit, this
film's insistence that something complex happened to her for very simple
reasons is just as inconvenient. Richardson's performance honors the lack
of self-pity that's one of the most distinctive qualities in Hearst's book.
Patty finds herself when she's stripped of any illusions about what kind of
place the world is. At the movie's end, she lays out her plan to change the
public's perception of her through press interviews. Her father says, "You
sound like your grandfather." She's not a victim anymore.

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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