Though much about How to Make an American Quilt is lovely, both visually and emotionally, I don't know what to make of the picture. The press materials say that it's about "how women love men." And so it is, but not centrally--it's much more concerned with how women get screwed over by men. This is also a fair enough subject, of course, but it seems at odds with American Quilt's sun-drenched, romantic atmosphere.
Really, even the rottenness of men may not be the biggest concern of American Quilt. Above all, the film seems to be intended as a primer for growing old gracefully. Winona Ryder, the most tastefully appointed of young American film actresses, plays Finn, a Berkeley grad student who is spending the summer trying to finish her third attempt at a thesis at the beautiful rural California home shared by her grandmother Hyacinth (Ellen Burstyn) and great-aunt Gladiola Joe (Anne Bancroft). Are the characters' names getting on your nerves yet?
On the surface, the film is about what Finn learns from Hy and Glady Joe and the other women in the quilting bee they host. But subtextually, it's almost as if we're watching Ryder getting lessons from these older actresses in how to seem cool and attractive and funny and wise when, one day, she is no longer an ingnue. Unlike their rough contemporaries Sophia Loren and Catherine Deneuve, Bancroft and Burstyn and Jean Simmons aren't mysteriously frozen at 30. Their beauty (and sexiness) is a part of their age, not a defiance of it.
There's even a negative example. One member of the bee, played by Lois Smith, is a vindictive, disagreeable woman, and her face is open and wide-eyed with childish malice. She never grew up. It's like a warning to Ryder not to try to stay young.
Finn's thesis relates quilting to women's crafts in tribal cultures, and thus she talks to all of the quilters. Before long the discussion turns to her real interest: their love lives.
Part of the reason for Finn's summerlong retreat is that she wants time to think over the marriage proposal of her nice-guy boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney). Though she has tentatively accepted, her feet are a bit chilly, and her eye isn't above wandering--especially toward the hunky swimmer (Johnathon Schaech) who keeps bringing her strawberries. The dramatic tension is supposed to rise from her conflict over what's preferable, a hunky stud muffin or a nice, stable friend. She doesn't seem to notice that the choice between Mulroney and Schaech renders this conflict pretty negligible.
That even having such a choice puts Finn a notch up on most women is borne out by the stories she hears, and that we see in flashback. They're all of heartbreak at the hands of some selfish jerk of a man. The men's roles in this film, written and directed by women, are as weakly sketched as the women's roles that actresses complain of in films by men. The guys in American Quilt are shown to be sexual and emotional predators, exploiting the insecurity or grief of the women.
Hyacinth had a fling with Glady Joe's husband (Rip Torn), while her own husband lay dying in the hospital. Smith was married to a geologist (Loren Dean) who abandoned her, sticking her with the children. Simmons' husband is a philandering painter (Derrick O'Connor) who is having an affair with a younger member of the bee, a widow (Kate Nelligan). Maya Angelou was impregnated by a young white man as a kid, and had to raise her daughter on her own. The grown daughter (Alfre Woodard) had many lovers, but the only man she wanted to marry (Mykelti Williamson) was married already.
Which leads to the point that I don't get. In spite of the content of almost all of the stories these women tell Finn, they are, at the same time, eagerly making her wedding quilt. As with the uninspired Miami Rhapsody earlier this year, the protagonist spends the whole film gathering evidence--perfectly plausible evidence--that monogamous marriage is virtually impossible to attain. She gathers this evidence from people who in their next breath are encouraging her to dive into marriage anyway. This is an authentic, deeply comic human mystery, but neither film gets to the bottom of it.
It may be that what I resisted about American Quilt was its presumption, its confidence--apparently justified--that we'll immediately be won over by its quaint, hippie-yuppie-Berkeley atmosphere of tastefully spare country furnishings and wry female bonding. It's to the film's undeniable credit that it breaks down this sort of resistance.
The director, Australian Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof), sets a leisurely pace and keeps a light, funny touch with the huge, big-name cast. There's more of the sitcom than the soap opera to this ensemble. When Moorhouse shows Bancroft and Burstyn passing a joint back and forth or singing along to rock standards on the radio while Ryder squirms in embarrassment, it's as if she's quietly demonstrating that the two older women seem far hipper than their prim co-star--which they do.
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The script is by Jane Anderson, of the highly regarded TV-movie spoof The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom, adapting a book by Whitney Otto which reportedly began its existence as her real-life grad thesis. Anderson comes up with some mawkishly pat resolution scenes toward the end that could be done without, but at least she doesn't force any lines too ruinous to be spoken on the cast.
In spite of its pesky flaws and its faint whiff of smugness, it would be ungrateful to dismiss American Quilt. It celebrates the art of storytelling, it gives good roles to a bunch of great, near-great and very good actresses and, perhaps above all, it is achingly gorgeous to look at.
The cinematographer is Janusz Kaminski, the brilliant Pole who rendered Schindler's List in stunning black and white. With American Quilt, as with his other efforts, Grim Prairie Tales and Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill, Kaminski shows himself heir to the mantle of the late Nestor Almendros--master of bright color.
Near the end of American Quilt, there's a series of shots of Ryder, wrapped in the quilt and following a crow through an orchard, that has a mythic splendor. It's as wonderful a use of color as cinema can achieve. Moorhouse and Kaminski, both foreigners, sure know how to make an American movie.