“Towelhead,” now available on DVD
When filmmaker Alan Ball’s directorial debut “Towelhead” opened in September of last year it didn’t make much of a splash in spite of its incendiary title and shocking subject matter.
The independent black comedy only played on 100 screens and had a worldwide gross of just over half a million dollars. This wasn’t the same reaction writer-director Ball has received recently with his work. He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for writing the acclaimed “American Beauty.” “Six Feet Under,” the popular HBO show he created, was a regular fixture of award shows during its five season run. In rather quick turn around, “Towelhead” was released on DVD on December 30 where perhaps it will find a larger audience.
The film stars Summer Bishil as 13-year-old Jasira, a girl with an American mother (Maria Bello) and Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi.) “Towelhead” begins disturbing and doesn’t let up. The opening scene features Jasira’s mother’s boyfriend helping to shave the teenager’s bikini line. When her mother discovers the indiscretion she sends Jasira to live out in Texas with her father Rifat.
Jasira, who is fascinated by her developing sexuality, clashes with her traditionalist, physically abusive father who demands she dress more modestly. He watches her like a hawk and grows weary when Jasira begins dating an African-American boy.
It’s in the character of Travis Vuouso (Aaron Eckhart,) Jasira’s next-door-neighbor and a patriotic army reservist, that the film gets much of its controversy. When Jasira moves in she starts babysitting Travis’s son Zack who regularly hurls at her the racist insult of the title. Jasira discovers that one of Zack’s favorite pastimes is perusing his father’s collection of pornographic magazines. She joins Zack and one day Travis comes home to catch her. This sets him on a path to pursue her sexually, eventually leading to molestation and rape.
Not all of Jasira’s neighbors are malevolent. Toni Collette plays Melina, a pregnant neighbor who takes an interest in Jasira’s wellbeing and suspects Travis’s intentions.
The film has mostly been considered in two contexts. The first is as “transgressive cinema” that presents graphic depictions of sexuality. “Towelhead” received pretty mixed reviews – only 47% of its critical reviews were positive according to Rotten Tomatoes – with most critics tending to feel that the movie’s jolts weren’t backed by any serious substance.
The second avenue for understanding the film is as a coming of age story. Based off of the novel of the same title by Alicia Erian, the film depicts a young girl struggling with her emerging sexuality.
What really hasn’t been discussed as extensively is the film’s political symbolism and ideological content. Why is it that Travis, the neighbor who pursues, molests, and rapes Jasira is an aggressively patriotic army reservist who has a flagpole in his front yard? Set during the first Gulf War, what significance is there in Jasira confronting Travis, a married man, for keeping a bunch of condoms in the knap sack that he’ll take over to Iraq? Where do these details fit into this coming of age story? The answer is they don’t, they provide the entry into the film’s political comment.
Travis is America and Jasira is the Middle East. Travis is representative of a vision of America that swoops in to a young Middle East, just beginning to develop itself, and rapes it. Travis doesn’t really care about Jasira, he just wants to take advantage of her, to exploit her for his own pleasure. This is how many people both in and out of America view it – as the imperial force that seeks nothing more than the rape of those weaker and more vulnerable.
Also brought to mind by Travis is the character of Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) from Ball’s previous film “American Beauty.” Why is it that in both of his films the antagonist is a violent, disturbed, super-patriotic military man who disrupts the happy existence of the protagonist? This depiction is an act of symbol warfare. How do you attack America artistically? Depict the American soldier as a racist child molester.
But other characters also have symbolic roles to play. Jasira’s father Rifat, who isn’t a Muslim, but a Christian, is symbolic of the fundamentalist religion that seeks to dominate and control the Middle Eastern world. Rifat exhibits the same sexual hypocrisy of Orthodox Islamists. He demands purity of his daughter and voices conservative social views while engaging in pre-marital, casual sex with his own girlfriend. When Jasira seeks to express her sexuality and be free he reacts with violence and intimidation. This is analogous to a fundamentalist view that allows for both female circumcision and polygamy.
Of course the film’s hero is in the character of Melina and her husband, symbolic of the Left. They’re clearly identified when they invite Rifat and Jasira over to dinner to celebrate the end of the war. Further Melina buys Jasira a sex education book for her birthday and even lets her keep it at her house so her disapproving father won’t find it. Melina begins to suspect Travis’s intentions early in the film when she sees Jasira getting out of his car. In the film’s third act Melina’s home acts as a safe retreat for Jasira when she flees both her father and Travis. In this we see the leftist fantasy for the Middle East – to escape both the rape of capitalist America and the domination of Islamism. It’s an expression of the radical desire to redeem the world and rescue its oppressed.
Ball’s film fails on most of the fronts it intended. As a commentary on racism – the supposed justification of its inflammatory title – it says little. Yes, we know that racism is bad, derogatory terms are unacceptable, and we shouldn’t make assumptions about people because of their skin color. What more is there to say really? As a coming of age story it doesn’t break much ground either. Jasira is so quiet and ill-defined that it’s hard to really understand her as a person. The film doesn’t even have the laughs of “American Beauty.”
Where the film succeeds is as an example of the “progressive” worldview of America the rapist, the Middle East the virginal victim, Fundamentalist Islam the oppressive father, and the Left as the savior and protector. I guess Ball really did make a black comedy.