Sister from Another Planet

I don't know if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but anyone who doubts that we hail from different planets should attempt to discuss with a member of the opposite sex the film How to Make an American Quilt. This is not just another women's movie. It's passive-aggressive cinema at its manipulative, button-pushing, stereotypical worst -- cloying, calculated, sentimental puff. Screenwriter Jane Anderson (It Could Happen to You) and director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) craftily cloak a one-sided polemic in the mantle of an all-American The Joy Luck Club, albeit with fewer tears and more laughs. The fabric appears invitingly lush and downy from a distance but threadbare and shopworn on closer inspection. The transparent veil of tepid humor and soap opera melodrama scarcely conceals the film's underlying men-are-bastards-women-are-saints sentiment. (The hombres in this movie are so uniformly unfaithful and cowardly they give Bob Packwood a good name.) It's the distaff equivalent of one of those propagandistic training films the military used to show young soldiers to whip them into a fighting frenzy by documenting enemy atrocities. Martians, enter the theater at your own risk.

Of course, if you believe the hard-luck tales of love and loss spun by the handful of biddies sewing a wedding quilt for recently engaged 26-year-old graduate student Finn (Winona Ryder at her frumpiest), men aren't really from Mars at all. They're from someplace much colder and more distant. Pluto, maybe. On second thought, men don't even deserve full-blown planets. They're more like meteoroids, careening through the cosmos without reason or pattern. And just like directionless projectiles cracking the atmosphere of an unsuspecting heavenly body, men either flame out and disappear or, if they make contact, knock women out of their peaceful orbits and leave behind a huge emotional crater. According to the American Quilt makers, men either cheat on you or they die; in either case, they always leave. A good woman has no choice but to suffer nobly and bear it. No pleasurable experience goes unpunished; sex always leads to children, who invariably make boring housefraus out of their gifted, once-passionate mothers. It's all so enlightened!

Finn works on her thesis and mulls over a marriage proposal from her nice-guy boyfriend Sam (Dermot Mulroney) while kicking back for the summer at the home of her grandmother Hy (Ellen Burstyn) and great-aunt Glady (Anne Bancroft). While lounging at the local public pool, she meets a tanned and sinewy swimmer named Leon (who woos Finn by telling her that he likes her name because, you know, like, fish have fins that enable them to swim, and he's a swimmer and stuff), and suddenly faces a dilemma: to cheat or not to cheat. The ladies of Hy and Glady's quilting bee chip in their two cents by relating their own bitter memories. Without going into too much detail, let's just say that neither Lorena Bobbitt nor Aileen Wuornos would have had a thing to worry about if these women sat on their juries.

Along with the imperious ringleader, Anna (Maya Angelou), the members of the quilting bee include Hy and Glady, Anna's daughter Marianna (Alfre Woodard), Sophia (Lois Smith), Em (Jean Simmons), and Constance (Kate Nelligan). Each of the women shares with Finn what she considers to be hard-won wisdom. Unfortunately, none of it makes any sense. As each story unfolds, we see how it relates to the individual square of the quilt that woman is working on. The only common thread is that men suck and they'll screw you -- literally and figuratively -- every time.

Two of the quilters' husbands die, one from cancer and the other from some unnamed malady. The male-bashing tone of the movie is so thick that you almost blame the guys for getting sick. The bereaved widows respond by kindling affairs with two of the other quilters' husbands. The film takes a sympathetic view of these adulterers and their "grief made me do it" excuse; one can only wonder how the film would have treated any man who offered up the same mea culpa.

One of the women, in her youth a skilled diver and stunning beauty with low self-worth, tells the tale of begging the first guy who pays her any attention to take her away from a boring small town and her overbearing, harshly critical mother. He's an aspiring geologist who says things like, "There's nothing like water to wear down a mountain and open up its secrets to you." On their first date the young woman leads the rockhead to her concealed swimming hole, strips off her dress, and plunges in. The water does the trick; she opens up her secrets to him with hardly any wearing down required. You can almost hear Bruce Springsteen's "The River" playing in the background: "Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote." Her name isn't Mary, but she does get pregnant. Unlike the song's protagonist, however, her husband eventually abandons his family -- now up to three college-age kids -- rather than wallow with his wife in her self-loathing.

A similar recollection is that of a black woman whose mother was a maid for a wealthy white family. As a girl, she offers up her virginity to the apple-cheeked son of her mother's employer. Just like the diver's, her first sexual encounter results in pregnancy. But rather than give the baby up for adoption, the young mother battles great odds to raise her mixed-race daughter. The filmmakers never tell us what happened to the father. But hey, why bother? He was a man, wasn't he? Since he was so young and cute, we can safely assume he didn't die of cancer; he must have just walked.

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