Creative Impulses

The 24 Hour Woman
Pavilion Place, starts Friday

There are readers out there--my mother, for example--who might argue that since I am not a mother myself, I am not well-qualified to pontificate on the subject of pregnancy and child care. Nor, by that logic, am I primed to comment on Nancy Savoca's mommy-comedy, The 24 Hour Woman, since I haven't experienced maternal labor or love firsthand. Point taken: Mothers are rightly tired of "experts" from Freud to Newt interpreting their experience and informing them how to do their jobs better. But, as Savoca's keen satire also digs into mass-mediated motherhood as fabricated by TV talk shows, pop-psych paperbacks, and women's magazines, perhaps I (pop-culture buff, proto-professional, and maybe a future mother) do know whereof I speak.

As the producer of a caffeinated morning show for working women who want to "run with the wolves" when they're not running late, Grace Santos (Rosie Perez) has built a career sensationalizing domestic dynamics for TV consumers. In other words, she produces sex, lies, and video for daytime viewers. Her program features her hunky hubby Eddie (Diego Serrano) as co-host, and segments ranging from "Romancing the Stone: How to Kick-Start Your Man's Love Machine" and "Grow Up: Kicking Your Inner Child's Butt" to a spot on the dangers of suffocation from tight pantyhose. Image morphs into reality when Grace's real-life pregnancy becomes an ongoing on-air event timed to coincide with November sweeps. But reality impinges on image when Grace confronts ambivalence, exhaustion, chaos, breast pumps, grandmotherly meddling, and husbandly absenteeism after the birth of her daughter.

Meanwhile, Grace's assistant, Madeline (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a mother of three who has just returned to work after a six-year hiatus, struggles to balance her own job aspirations with those of her homebound husband (Wendell Pierce). While parenthood has more than prepared Madeline to handle the workplace frenzy of live-feeds, conference calls, and chaos management, the reverse isn't true for Grace, who eventually loses it during a segment on cross-dressing, ladies, and Lugers. If The 24 Hour Woman grows increasingly jerky, frustrating, and out of control, it's because motherhood is like that.

There's no director better qualified to dissect the myths surrounding motherhood than Savoca, whose True Love (1989) and Household Saints (1993) so lovingly limned women's experiences of wife-, mother-, and sainthood. Whereas Grace Santos, the female saint of the '90s, manufactures new wives' tales for a living, this indie-auteur (and mother of three) has carved out a cinematic niche revising fairy tales to incorporate messy reality. Call her terrain the place where wonder meets the price of bread. Recognizing their allure, Savoca doesn't simplistically dismiss our culture's fictions of femininity but dismantles them with sophistication and respect. She combines awe (as she did in Saints) with anger (as in the two segments she directed for HBO's abortion-themed movie, If These Walls Could Talk). And she replaces old icons with new and better ones--in Woman's case establishing women of color as realistically flawed paragons of parenthood.

Ignoring Savoca's subtlety, film pundits have spun Woman as a warning against "career-obsessed" ambition and a paean to "maternal instinct." Perhaps critics should have read the film's production notes, in which Savoca warns that "this is not just a woman's movie. This thing about career and parenthood is about career and parenthood, not career and motherhood. It's about guys stepping up to the plate and becoming equal partners. It's about that you don't do it by yourself."

A goodly number of male critics prove themselves unwilling to make that step. Take Roger Ebert, who praises the film's "Darwinian" treatment of biological "drives," concluding, "This isn't the kind of movie that would make a working woman think twice about having a child. It would make her think twice about having a job. If that's reactionary, then tough luck: What's a mom to do when [the baby] starts crying and only one person can comfort her?" Meanwhile, critic Jack Mathews, who apparently prefers the solitude of his office to contact with shrill women and children, complains, "This is a movie of ear-busting, wall-to-wall, rock-concert-level screaming. Married couples scream, their children scream, they all scream...As I write this review I still cannot hear the keys clicking under my fingers."

Ironically, while I watched The 24 Hour Woman, a woman left the theater with her crying infant, while her man remained watching the film. Ebert might chalk it up to hormonal imperatives, and Mathews might bid mother and child good riddance, but I'll bet Savoca would have something smart to say.

 
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