At least since Susan Brownmiller published her furious scholarly indictment, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, in 1975, we have been told that rape is an act of violence, not of sex, as well as a war crime. We have been told this about rape in novels, newspapers, movies, and television programs even as they almost invariably treat the act itself, between preachments, as an extreme sport, exploiting the victim's helplessness and dread for pornographic purposes. It is a necessary half-truth. If the violence weren't emphasized, the cops and courts would go on excusing the crime as an excess of boyishness provoked by flashy dress, raging hormones, dirty music, and too much junk food. But of course, just from the plumbing involved, it is a sexual act, too -- brutal, yes, and vile, certainly, but sex nevertheless. And in the mind, like Faulkner's past, it keeps on happening.
Allison Anders, the indie film director who has startled and moved us with Gas Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca, and Grace of My Heart, was gang-raped at 12 by high-school boys in a Florida coastal town. In the production notes for Things Behind the Sun, she tells us that she tried to deal with the fact "in therapy, through acting out sexually, through self-medication . . . by every means possible, but I still was in a dark place." So now she has done what artists do, which is to use her art to ambush truth. Not the least astonishment in Things Behind the Sun is that much of it is remembered and imagined from the point of view of one of the rapists.
Owen (Gabriel Mann) doesn't look like a beast. He is gentle, almost pretty, and gainfully employed as a reporter at a Los Angeles magazine called Vinyl Fetish. When he hears a haunting song about adolescent rape, he talks his editor (Rosanna Arquette) into sending him to Florida to do a story on Sherry (Kim Dickens), the singer-songwriter, who would long ago have gone on to glitzier venues than a club on a pier if she didn't also specialize in substance abuse, court appearances, and AA meetings. Owen is propelled by guilt, but we won't get to the exact nature of that guilt till after an accumulation of fragmentary flashbacks and nightmare dissolves.
Sherry would be pretty, too, if she weren't so tough about it. She's a hard, blonde, CBGB sort of rocker who picks up guys in bars after her set. Always plural: "It's fun to share." The director of an obscene play from her repertory past, she stages her own violation: "Who's next?" Although the love of her manager, Chuck (Don Cheadle), is unwavering, she won't sleep with people who know her: "I'm more like a guy that way." She keeps getting arrested because, on every anniversary of her rape, she ends up passed out, after a binge, on the lawn of the house where it happened -- the house she won't talk about at AA meetings, the house where Owen grew up and young Sherry entered because she was in puppy love with him, the house she was not allowed to leave until Owen's older brother and his buddies were done with her.
All this we learn (except not quite) in the smoke and sea and honky-tonk noise, from the mosey and lurch of the digital video camera, from the doors and ceilings and walls that fall down on us, and from the lyrics of the songs. (The score is by Sonic Youth, and there are also period favorites, but the music neither bullies nor cues. When people have something important to say, they are surrounded, if not by silence then by whispers of the natural world. This, of course, is the sound of indie films, sometimes as if from the bottom of a well, rarely the crisp, percolating coffee and microwave beep of a Hollywood kitchen. It's overheard.) What only Owen knows, you'll have to watch and see for yourself. And I still don't think his trauma compares with Sherry's.
Meanwhile -- between cameos by Eric Stoltz as Owen's unrepentant convict older brother, Elizabeth Peña as the new occupant of the old house (where a dozen other girls were raped), and CCH Pounder as the judge to whom Sherry will not explain herself -- we are asked to think about complicated and combustible ideas. Indeed, my only complaint about Things Behind the Sun is that it moves rather too methodically from each point it wants to make on to the next, setting the stage and clearing the space, like axioms in Spinoza. Kim Dickens is a remarkable find. Otherwise, I'm stuck with the limitations of my own sex. It doesn't do me a lot of good to find rape unimaginable -- since, obviously, a lot of other men do a lot more than imagine it. And if drugs and rock and roll aren't their excuse, then war is, or pogroms, or ethnic cleansing -- or even Hollywood.
Return to Cabin by the Lake (August 14; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA) brings back snorkel-nosed Judd Nelson, not dead yet, who murdered seven young women, all of whom had spunk, and suspended them in high-fashion clothes in a sort of underwater sculpture garden, all the while writing a screenplay about a murderer of young women. . . . They are, of course, now making the movie, and they prepped for it by watching all three Screams, and Judd is available for more than technical advice, and this is somehow, shamefully, more creepy fun than the original.
My Generation (August 17; 8 to 10 p.m.; Encore) is Barbara Kopple's terrific documentary on all three Woodstocks, '69, '94, and '99, from innocence to avarice, from tragedy to farce, from antiwar anthems to the commodification of youth culture -- plus lots of music, lots of mud, lots of used-car salesmen, and almost as much slacker envy-resentment of bygone hippies. See it and weep.
Strange Frequency (August 18; 10 to 10:30 p.m.; VH1), on the other hand, suggests that rock and roll is literally the plaything of the devil (in this case Roger Daltrey, Mephistopheles himself). The new half-hour dramatic series kicks off with Soul Man, in which James Marsters, a roadie, sells his soul for the satanic talent of Jimi Hendrix, and then tries to buy it back in counterpoint.
Within These Walls (August 20; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime) asks us to believe that hard-case Ellen Burstyn, in prison forever, can be redeemed by Laura Dern, a nun who teaches cons to train dogs to help the disabled, while simultaneously searching for the daughter Burstyn gave up for adoption after she was raped by a cop. LaTanya Richardson, who runs the prison, has the same doubts I do. But Burstyn and Dern would be worth watching in a phone booth.
Taxi Dreams (August 20; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) finds Judd Hirsch following five immigrant cabbies as they get lost in New York City while telling us about Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Ghana, and Bangladesh, where they might have become lawyers or teachers or computer scientists. This will come as a flabbergasting surprise to anyone who watched the HBO series on hack drivers and their backseats. No sex on public television!
Things Behind the Sun
Saturday, August 18; 9 to 11 p.m.; Showtime.