Cheese to my Macaroni

by Benjamin Domenech on 2:31 am January 15, 2008

I adore Juno MacGuff

Su-Chin: I’m having a little trouble concentrating.
Juno MacGuff: Oh, well, I could lend you some of my atoral if you want?
Su-Chin: No thanks, I’m off pills.
Juno MacGuff: That’s good. I heard this one chick took like way too many behavioral meds and she went to the mall, ripped off all her clothes, dived into the fountain and was all like “ARGH I’M A KRAKKEN FROM THE SEA!”
Su-Chin: I heard that was you.

There comes a point in every moviegoer’s life where you meet a character on the screen who is so real to you, so tangible, and so familiar, that you cannot help but fall in love with her right in that moment—as if running into an old friend for the first time in a long while in a public place, and feeling surprise and joy that this is not someone who just happens to look like that friend, but really them. The world has turned again, and here you are. Let me buy you a drink.

I can speak only for the men in the room who love movies, because I’ve never encountered a woman who felt this way—all the ones I know fall for actors or rockstars as people, and love them in all their roles after and cut out pictures of them from magazines or buy posters of them shirtless or kissing some girl, looking resolute or pissed off or just plain awesome. They say things like “In real life, I think Leonardo DiCaprio is a really good guy, he’s not just dreamy.” I guess some guys do that too—I’m sure, were she still alive, I could be content just watching Grace Kelly clean her ears—but even more than women, the ones I know fall for characters, regardless of the actress. It becomes one more item of comparison. So friends end up comparing the new girl to Anna Paquin from 25th Hour, or maybe she’s more like Kirsten Dunst from Elizabethtown, or maybe she’s Jordana Brewster from The Faculty, or maybe she’s Elizabeth Banks in every dang role she’s ever had. You get the idea: it’s a solid and immediately recognizable shorthand, and it’s easier to make this kind of recognizable comparison then talk about every quirk a woman has, since most guys don’t really want to hear about that anyway. I certainly don’t unless you’re buying the bourbon.

So maybe you, dear reader, will understand this, maybe you won’t. But if you do love films, and the characters in them born of screenwriter and actor and director, then you will understand what I mean when I say, without any qualm: I love Juno MacGuff.

I don’t consider myself a film buff. I haven’t honestly seen that many films older than the 1970s. I’ve seen a lot more of them than a lot of my peers, yes—but they all tend to be movies of a certain type, or with a famous director. I haven’t even scratched the surface of influential dramas or directors, leaning more toward the popular big names, creators like Hitchcock or Kubrick and talent like Stewart and Grant. When you’re talking foreign films, I’m almost a complete blank, with a few exceptions. I can’t analyze films the way some people can—I enjoy the good ones too much to pick apart what’s being done in them, as a director or an editor. When you get right down to it, I know more about Steve McQueen than Francois Truffaut, and I damn well like it that way. But never in all my years of watching films have I found a character who I recognized so well immediately, and felt so touched by in such a novella of a film.

[As a total aside: What I do have, I’ve discovered, is a slightly disturbing talent to recognize faces of minor character actors and That Guys—a few weeks ago, I recognized the daughter from Signs in a random preview, and the ref from Dodgeball (it’s truly a layered movie, as Ben Stiller says) on a trashy TV show, and … it’s just odd, I know, but I retain that kind of totally useless information. It makes me good to have for six degrees of separation games, and basically just a useless meatbag at everything else.]

Anyway: as Colleen Carroll-Campbell pointed out recently, there were three amazingly pro-life movies in the space of the past year: Knocked Up, Waitress, and Bella. Having seen them all now, I can safely say they are all funny and genuinely sweet movies, and worth watching (for more on Judd Apatow’s work in particular, read Ross Douthat’s posts here and here). I say “amazingly” not because of the power of the films, but because they aren’t explicitly focused on being pro-life, but convey the basic anti-abortion tenet through good and well-told stories, with humor and occasional grace.

It’s important to note that being anti-abortion means just that in this context—not a statement about Roe, or government funding, or stem cells, or cloning, or anything else. It is anti-abortion in the way that those GE sonogram commercials are (and the party of death can’t even stand those!). It merely means accepting the idea that childbearing is a good thing—that the life growing in a womb is unique and real, a gift and not a curse—and that abortion is, on balance, a bad thing that should be avoided if at all possible.

This is not some rabid pro-life view, or at least is not presented as such—it is merely an idea that, despite NARAL’s best efforts, has overtaken the plurality of the American people and the majority of young people if the polls are to be believed: that abortion is a social ill at best, and should only happen in cases of rape, incest, or when a mother’s life is threatened.

But it also brings to mind this illuminating comment, also from a few years back:

Some of these came to light last summer, when a Newsweek article on the “fetal rights” movement pointed out that the latest reproductive technologies—providing, as they do, the ability to see embryos sooner and cultivating, as they do, an atmosphere in which pregnant women happily scrapbook those early ultrasounds—have created a real image problem for the pro-choice movement. As Kirsten Moore, the president of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, put it, the piece “kind of prompted us to realize, oh my God, our movement’s messages suck.”

Not everybody recognizes that truth yet. Despite what TNR argues in its pompous, dismissive tone, this movement toward favoring life marks a generational sea-change in how films deal with pregnancy as a storyline. Start with Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that hasn’t aged well generally, which came out the year that I was born, 1982: in it, abortion is an afterthought, taken for granted, with scars that do not last or haunt. In 1987’s Dirty Dancing—a stupid movie that I really, really hate, and I can’t stand the girls who just plain love it—the legendary back-alley abortionist rears his ugly head again, with dire results (that’ll learn ya, anti-Roe fascists). In 2000’s High Fidelity, abortion—while viewed as a negative, in general terms—is glossed over and discussed only in passing (this is a John Cusack comedy, after all). And as recently as three years ago, the most significant film about abortion to meet with critical success was the gung-ho abortionist-vindicating epic of 2004’s Vera Drake—and a host of other productions kept the pro-abortion drumbeat going in recent years, including The Cider House Rules, Citizen Ruth (come on Laura Dern, at least Teachers was watchable), and the If These Walls Could Talk mini-series.

If you asked me to name the most prominent pro-life scene in any major studio movie in 2005, I’d say it was probably in Godfather II, and you’re supposed to feel genuinely conflicted there, anyway. Not any more.

Now we have Knocked Up, Waitress, Bella and best of all, Juno. I can’t even communicate the kind of affection I feel for twenty-year-old Ellen Page’s character. I swear she reminds me of every girl I adored before the age of 18, quirkily smart and devilishly cruel and relentlessly funny, and with a warm goodness that radiated through in spite of the shell they built around themselves. That point she makes about the jocks—that they secretly crave “girls who play the cello and read McSweeney’s and want to be children’s librarians when they grow up” more than the skinny too-perfect forced-to-be-ditzy cheerleaders—is true of the ambitious political geeks, too. Of course, when I went to college, I found out those girls all turned into potheads working at the dull-ass radio station in the basement of the University Center and who had fickle, starved, conflicted hearts. But in this moment, at this age, I recognize Juno MacGuff as an old friend, and it hits me right in the chest.

The moment of truth that comes as Juno seeks her “hasty abortion” is just astounding and unambiguous—one of the reasons the single-issue folks at choiceusa are among the very few who actively dislike it. Let’s leave it to World’s Lynn Vincent to describe the scene:

That seems to be the case with Juno, the film in which a spunky teen (Golden Globe nominee Ellen Page) changes her mind about abortion after hearing about her baby’s fingernails. Inside the clinic, as Juno fills out the necessary forms, she suddenly becomes conscious of all the women waiting with her—nervously tapping their nails, clicking their nails, biting their nails. As the disparate sounds gel into a kind of heartbeat, Juno suddenly realizes her fetus is a human being.

When she bursts out of the clinic, a teen pro-life picketer outside cries, “God appreciates your miracle!” Astonishingly, the pivotal, life-affirming moment passes without a flicker of condescension.

I can’t offer anything more about the film that critics haven’t already said ten times over. The movie has met with the most critical success of any of this crop of intrinsically anti-abortion films—Roger Ebert actually chose it as his top movie of the year, astoundingly. So let me just say that I wish it, and all the young women who see themselves in Juno MacGuff, all the best that life—in all its challenges, tears, laughter and wonder—has to offer.

Juno MacGuff: [yelling through the house] Uh, dad?
Mac MacGuff: Yeah?
Juno MacGuff: Either I just wet my pants… or…
Mac MacGuff: “Or”…?

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