' ' Cinema Romantico: The Ballad of Zoe Saldana

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Ballad of Zoe Saldana

At the rehearsal dinner in advance of the spectacular wedding ceremony in the equally spectacular “Rachel Getting Married”, a friend, played by real life saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., of the groom advises that he has crafted a song just for the occasion. It is called Rachel Loves Sidney. Well, that’s the A-side anyway. The B-Side, he says, is Sidney Loves Rachel. I love this moment, and I thought of it while watching Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace.”

The 2013 film is a would-be Pennsylvanian epic, chronicling two brothers, one a war vet taken to bare knuckle fights, one who works at the local steel mill and has just been released from prison after serving a spell for vehicular manslaughter. The latter brother, Russell (Christian Bale), while behind bars, was forced to square with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) leaving him. He understands her decision, but upon being set free, he seeks her out to make amends and hopefully start anew. In the scene, we see Lena from afar, over the shoulder of Russell as he gazes at her from across a park. Lena simply stands there, expressionless, forced to come to (too) quick terms with the person at whom she’s looking. And we wonder, what does she think? It’s a moment caked in more suspense than any of the macho fisticuffs and shootouts still to come. Then……she smiles. It’s not forced, it’s genuine, yet with genuine comes a price.

The ensuing scene is the best in the film, placing Russell and Lena on a small wooden bridge, hashing out all the years they’ve missed in each other’s company, and Russell not so much pleading with Lena for One More Chance as gracefully imploring his True Love. We believe him. More importantly, she believes him, but even more importantly than that is how Saldana plays the moment. Her smile’s been left at the park because now stuff’s real, and even if she believes Russell and even if she loves Russell, she knows responsibility outweighs that love. Which is to say, she's pregnant with her new boyfriend's baby.

I’m Pregnant Reveals are typically employed merely as a means to end. Here, even though it’s purpose on paper is to push Russell away once and for all, it does not wreak of its Reveal roots. It’s a moment of genuine happiness they both share and both regret because they are both responsible enough to understand that she needs to stay with the baby’s father. “You’re gonna make a good mother,” Russell says, choking back tears until he can’t. You leave the scene wishing all grown adults had such perspective. You leave the scene wishing Zoe Saldana had more moments like it.

In fact, the scene flashed me back to another scene of Zoe Saldana's at the movies in 2014. In “Blood Ties” she played Vanessa, a part not unlike Lena, the Love Interest to Billy Crudup’s protagonist, a character who existed solely in Crudup’s orbit. There she had a scene on a beach similar to the scene on the bridge, in so much as she sits and listens to Crudup confess his feelings. She reacts impeccably, but is eventually allowed to make her own confession, speaking of the unfortunate lowlife she took up with in place of Frank, wondering “Why he left me on the outside?”

Well, that’s what I keep thinking about Zoe Saldana. Here she is in two 2014 movies revolving around brothers on opposite sides of the law, more or less, and questions of how deep familial roots run. And there are women, because there have to be women, but the women are left on the outside. Or, more to the point, Lena and Vanessa are left on the outside. We are allowed to understand what has brought Russell to the bridge and Frank to the beach, but we are not allowed to understand what has brought Lena and Vanessa to the same place. And that is, in a way, understandable, because “Out of the Furnace” and “Blood Ties” are specifically stories of men and their manliness (or lack of it) and the dumb things men do and the way idiot men either prop women up as their saving grace or their downfall and yada yada. But it’s an insult to the movie gods to watch Zoe Saldana waste away on the sideline, to be defined by what these men do (or don’t do) for her and say about her.

Russell Loves Lena and Frank Loves Vanessa. Fine. Okay. I get it. But it’s not just about the dudes. Those are just the B-sides. Why the hell can’t we hear the A-sides? Why the hell can’t we hear about how Lena Loves Russell and how Vanessa Loves Frank?

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