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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

An American Affair (review)

Boy of Pigs

It was originally titled Boy of Pigs, and while that makes me cringe, it’s at least less mundane than An American Affair… and it also captures the near-risibility of a movie that attempts — with a gravity so solemn and so self-important that you want to smack it — to conflate the sexual awakening of one lonely adolescent with so traumatic an event as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I know men are so enamored of tits that they can lose their heads over them, but equating a 13-year-old’s first glimpse of an actual, in-the-flesh pair of women’s breasts with something so earthshattering and historic as JFK in Dallas? Pul-leeze.
It’s a boy, of course, whose sexually awakening is happening in the fall of 1963 — it’s almost always a boy having a cinematic sexual awakening. The Marilyn type who just moved in across his Washington DC street is Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol: Life on Mars, 3:10 to Yuma), one of those women who lolls around naked right in the window for all the neighbor boys to see — I believe these women exist only in the fantasies of male screenwriters. This affords Adam Stafford (Cameron Bright: X-Men: The Last Stand, Ultraviolet) his first look at human mammaries outside the confines of Playboy magazine. He’s delighted, of course, and instantly becomes obsessed with her, and scams himself into a job for her, helping her relandscape her garden. Which allows her to indulge her hobby of flirting with 13-year-old boys… a compulsion also limited to the fevered imagings of male screenwriters.

This is the best part: She really is like Marilyn. We sorta learn this through the disapproval of Adam’s parents (Perrey Reeves [American Dreamz, Mr. & Mrs. Smith] and Noah Wyle [W., The Librarian: Quest for the Spear]), who refuse to allow Adam to associate with her and scowl that “she’s different than we are” and moan about her undefined but apparently notorious reputation — of course, in the 1960s, the only “reputation” a woman could have was a bad one. We gather, through things that Adam overhears or witnesses surreptitiously, that she’s a mistress of JFK, that her ex-husband (Mark Pellegrino: The Number 23, Capote) is a CIA agent, that she is scheming with — or perhaps against — “Cubans” to do something — or maybe to stop them doing something. Adam’s father, a journalist, is preparing to leave for Dallas to follow JFK’s trip there, so you know what Very Bad Thing is in the offing.

It’s all presented so earnestly by writer Alex Metcalf and director William Olsson that you barely realize at the time how preposterous it all is. Intrigue! Cubans! The Bay of Pigs! JFK! It’s the coming-of-age tale filtered through the mind of Oliver Stone, only far less entertaining than Stone’s conspiracy theories ever are, partly because it can’t decide whose perspective to take. For a long while, we are limited to what Adam’s sees and hears, and that’s fine — when we can’t grasp all the details of Catherine’s life and what that notoriety of hers entails, it’s merely a mirror on how ignorant Adam is. We don’t understand everything that’s going one, but neither does he, and that could have been a nice metaphor for adolescent sexual awakening, how we try out adult things without really realizing at the time what we’re doing or what it means.

But Metcalf and Olsson can’t leave well enough alone. Suddenly we’re privy to Catherine’s conversations with her ex and with high-up CIA Lucian Carver (James Rebhorn: The International, Baby Mama) — conversations that Adam is not privy to — that move beyond the metaphor. Suddenly the political intrigue is painted across a larger canvas that we’re allowed to see only a tiny corner of… and that’s supremely unsatisfying.

“Form is dead,” Catherine — a painter of abstracts — tells Adam, and I imagine we’re supposed to take that as a clue that the ultimate formlessness of An American Affair is intentional. And at the end of the film, Adam receives a gift from Catherine that’s all about pieces and puzzles and making sense of something that had seemed senseless before. Adam, however, gets all the pieces he needs. We do not.


MPAA: rated R for sexual content and language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Fichetail

    I don’t know why this reviewer zeroes on the name Marylin, as if to suggest that Marilyn Monroe was the only other-woman in JFK’s sights, and therefore to support her contention that the team of the movie was preposterous. In fact, it seems well reported that JFK did the town in DC, and in the last months before his assassination, had taken up with one of the women in Jackie’s Washington social circle–motivating Jackie’s October ’63 appearance sojourn on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis! (The plot gets thicker, in the best selling investigative book, Nemesis, AO admits to a role in having RFK killed 5 years later. And who was seemingly Oswald’s closest confidant in the summer of 1963–a close relative of Jackie.)

    There is nothing absurd about the theme of this movie at all. To those who have read much about the preposterous era of the Presidency on which it is based–one that jetted this country into decades on increasing moral formlessness and irresponsibility, it is all too regrettably true to life…..though maybe outrageous to a reviewer who takes offense at the fascination of men and boys with the female form.

    The formlessness theme is particularly well-developed and depicted, down to the scattering of children in a schoolyard at the whispered word that JFK was dead. Never before has public inspiration and form been so contradicted by the chaotic moral behavior of a President. But then, those of us who have read about his father are better prepared to despair at how this manner of behavior eventually came to undermine all traditional forms of responsibility in American life. In that context, the title of the movie is perfectly conceived.

  • MaryAnn

    though maybe outrageous to a reviewer who takes offense at the fascination of men and boys with the female form.

    Oh, pul-leeze. I don’t “take offense at the fascination of men and boys with the female form.” I take offense at the idea that there’s anything deep or philosophical about looking at tits, as this movie would have us believe.

    It’s all JFK’s fault that “traditional forms of responsibility in American life” became undermined? Are you seriously suggesting that if one man had been able to keep it in his pants, then the 1950s would have gone on forever?

    Geez, maybe people really do believe the preposterous shit this movie is shoveling…

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