Domestic Disturbance

An unsettling new documentary explores spousal abuse; Collateral Damage is In the Bedroom for meatheads.

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Little violence happens on-screen in Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, DomesticViolence (Zipporah Films). But violence reverberates through everything we see—violence with a half-life spanning generations. You can discern its effect in the twisted, often pulpy faces of women being interviewed by police and social workers; in their air of discombobulation; in their frightened eyes that seem mostly turned inward. The bulk of Wiseman’s 196-minute movie, which will have a limited theatrical run prior to its airing on PBS, takes place at The Spring, a Tampa, Fla., shelter for victims of physical and emotional abuse (and their children, who are sometimes victims themselves). The institutional tranquility makes for an eerie counterpoint to the tumult that has obviously preceded it—that we can almost hear echoing in the walls. This place, we’re told, is where the healing begins. But how do you stop the internal bleeding? How do you make sure that the cruelty isn’t passed down to the next generation, and the next?

Wiseman has been making long, long vérité documentaries since 1967, and somewhere in the middle of that run I began to think his focus was wobbling, that he was beginning to train his camera on his subjects and then nod off behind it. I should have had more faith. One of the secrets of Wiseman’s greatness is his temperamental inability to force an issue. His noninterference makes his subjects feel safe to go inside themselves and to come out when they’re ready—and then the epiphanies come so thick and fast that they slap you awake and sear themselves into your brain. His movies find their own form: The payoff for the disorientation, the loose ends, the stretches in which nothing seems to be going on is a heightened awareness of the density, the complexity of ordinary life. At the end of Domestic Violence, Wiseman takes us into a house in which a strange, cruel psychodrama is reaching its climax: We understand what we’re watching and hearing in ways we couldn’t have only three hours before. It’s as if we’ve been taught how to see.

Taught by a man who never himself speaks. He lets others provide the statistics—the astonishing numbers of people who’ve been abused in this country, the 700 percent increase in the likelihood that someone abused as a child will go on to abuse someone else. But mostly he just finds a potent setting and settles in to watch. Wiseman spent two months in Tampa, part of the time following the police on domestic violence calls. The early, cops-oriented section is the crudest, the most discomfiting—especially the scene in which a skinny, drunken old man is led away in handcuffs while a bruised, toothless old woman rambles on about the years and years of violence, finally telling the cops (as if to convince herself), “I will kill him, I’ll cut his throat, he’s not worth me doin’ it …” There’s something unnerving about the way in which Wiseman inserts, between scenes, the shots of Florida nightlife—the traffic, the strip malls, the fast-food neon, and all-night liquor stores. This hothouse state is a great enabler—it’s one of those drugs-and-alcohol oriented environments that allows people to act out (and perhaps become addicted to acting out) impulses that might otherwise have remained latent. Wiseman doesn’t have to spell out why Domestic Violence is set in the Sunshine State.

When we arrive at The Spring, the first stop is the switchboard, where overtures are made to women desperately unsure of their next move. Then it’s on to the interviews, where victims answer in single words—”Yes,” “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Every day”—to questions like, “Does he attempt to restrict your movements or social contacts?” “Has he ever struck you?” “Has he ever struck you with an object?” and “How often would you say this takes place?” A middle-aged woman speaks tonelessly of the resentment her husband has of her doctorate, which she was never allowed to bring up; on the other end of the spectrum, a soft-spoken Southern woman close to 80—an aged belle—speaks of how her husband’s education translated into contempt for her ignorance. “I had this little angel who stayed in the bedroom with me,” she says and smiles, painfully correct even under duress. “You must have had an angel to live through 50 years of abuse,” says the social worker, and the woman’s smile fades. She has never heard that sort of talk before; she seems to need permission to process it.

Small children hold up their drawings of mommy and daddy fighting, not knowing how to interpret what they’ve watched day after day for most of their conscious lives; others speak of older siblings who’ve already picked up the habit of violence. A radiant 5-year-old girl can’t account for the bloody incident that finally landed her mom at The Spring: It had something to do with putting her father’s lunch in the trunk of the car instead of the back seat. She’s asked what makes her cry; her answer—a perfectly logical non sequitur—is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever heard.

Wiseman’s brand of realism can be too intense: Apart from its interstitial shots of Tampa and various buildings within the Spring compound, the movie has no release valves. (I felt I needed every second of the intermission to collect myself.) The concentrated heart of the film is the classroom scenes, in which a group of women, many of whom we come to know well, listen to a social worker and interject their own experiences. Whenever the movie appears to be drifting into self-help-mantra territory a revelation will pierce the veneer and give us an acrid taste of what the film is really about—an ecosystem of cruelty so vast and complex that you can’t come at it from any one angle.

A young woman speaks of how her mother was so high on drugs that she just laughed when the father sexually abused his children. And then another woman with burning eyes and a swarm of dark hair, only 40 but well broken-in, cuts in to say that when she saw her husband approach the room of her 16-year-old daughter, “I took a frying pan and split his head open.” She doesn’t rest on her laurels, though. Her monologue weaves back to the dependence that began it all: “To know that you would marry someone that would do that to your children …”

The final act of Domestic Violence is one of the most intense and complicated I’ve seen in a movie—no playwright could have rendered it with such subtlety. Wiseman follows the police into the home of a shirtless man with a deep voice and elaborately polite diction. He’s clearly drunk, but his imperiousness shines through: What deportment! It seems that he wants the cops to remove his companion from his home. They find her sitting on the bed, exhausted and ill from a bladder infection, with nowhere else to go; all she wants is to go to sleep. As the police attempt to reason with him—they can’t force her out if she has been a resident, why doesn’t he just let her leave in the morning?—a chilling picture begins to emerge. The cops linger: They know it won’t end here; they can see that he’s itching to play this sadistic drama out. As they make their slow exit, the phrase we’ve heard again and again begins to flash and then burn in our brains: “Power and Control.”

There’s a temptation when I see a documentary as illuminating as DomesticViolence to boorishly legislate, to say: Every offender should see this movie, every victim of an offender should see this movie, every child of an offender should see this movie, every person should see this movie. I’d like to resist that impulse—but I know what Wiseman’s film has done for this sometimes angry and imperfect husband and father. If I didn’t believe that the experience of watching Domestic Violence would change the world for the better, I wouldn’t believe in the power of movies. And I wouldn’t do what I do.

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It’s also possible that the world would be a better place if no one went to see Collateral Damage (Warner Bros.). This is the movie that was held because its story line—Arnold Schwarzenegger as a heroic firefighter whose wife and child are blown up by terrorists—was thought to be in bad taste so soon after Sept. 11. The grim irony is that the story’s uncomfortable particulars—fireman, foreign terrorists on American soil, explosive carnage—were deemed inappropriate, not its vigilante thrust. Nothing untoward about that, eh?

Anyway, it’s another dumb vengeance picture—In the Bedroom for meatheads. Arnold saves an old lady from a fire, romps with his wife and kids, then after work the next day shows up just in time to see them smile and wave and get massacred by a Colombian terrorist known as “El Lobo.” Although we live in a country that has for some time made its retaliatory instincts clear, the vigilante genre demands that various government bureaucrats must tell the hero, in effect, “Er, sorry. Bad luck about the wife and kids, but there are, you know, more global issues. Justice for you isn’t a priority.” So Arnold decides to slip into Colombia incognito (that’ll be the day!) and nail El Lobo himself. The middle of the picture is flat-out risible—limply staged and absurdly constructed. But the filmmakers have a surprise or two that in the last half-hour gets the blood pumping on all sides.

After Sept. 11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, it’s odd to hear the bad guy hiss the familiar post-Vietnam line about Americans having “lost their taste for war.” But I suppose it was such thinking that fueled al-Qaida’s actions, too—so we’ll give that a pass. The movie’s more provocative conceit is that Arnold is too civilized and humanitarian a fellow to accept the level of collateral damage that his enemies do—and that puts him (and, by extension, us) at a grave disadvantage. In fact, Collateral Damage turns on the idea that by not accepting civilian casualties (especially cute little kids and pretty moms), we’re endangering our very existence. It’s a timely message: Take no prisoners.