Alexander Payne’s 1996 feature film debut, Citizen Ruth, is generally remembered as an incongruously comic look at the struggle between opponents of legal abortion and its defenders in the United States. That’s a topic of perennial importance in American politics, and it’s especially relevant now with the conservative shift in state legislatures following the elections of 2010. But the central themes of Citizen Ruth also encompass the paradoxical polarization and uniformity of U. S. culture, sex and the possibility of love, and the place of media—especially television—in our national debates. It overflows with abundant formal as well as thematic imagination. A hit with the judges of film festivals, Citizen Ruth got frequently admiring, sometimes puzzled, and occasionally hostile reviews. For whatever reasons, it seems to have made little impact at the box office or among cinephiles. The latter neglect some might judge a good thing; but if that’s so, it’s a good thing that this essay hopes to spoil.
As its title announces, Citizen Ruth expresses its principal ideas in and through Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern). Virtually every point-of-view and subjective shot is from or of the protagonist, who is also her own most formidable antagonist. As a character, she is a type in the sense that Stanley Cavell defines in The World Viewed: “What makes someone a type is not his similarity with other members of that type but his striking separateness from other people.” Through types, movies “create individualities” (Cavell 1979: 33). Broadening Cavell’s conception, one recalls the opposed meanings contained in the word “identity” and its variants, which describe at once the uniqueness of a person and her close relation to other people, often through her place in society. Ruth’s complicated social locale changes sequentially: from social and familial outcast to icon of the Baby Savers, then icon of the Pro-Choicers, and finally back to outcast (or, better, escapee) from both of the contending forces around the issue of abortion.
Although Ruth has given birth to four children—all of whom have been removed from her—she herself remains a child. Whether reacting to events with anger, enthusiasm, fright, or indignation, her responses are childishly extreme, her understanding childishly simple. Outraged to have been put out of the apartment of the scruffy character whom we see laboriously screwing her in the opening sequence, and incensed by his breaking her portable TV, Ruth expresses her anger by trashing his sorry old car and taking from it a few tapes and a can of brake fluid. (The theft of the latter seems gratuitous at the time, but it will reenter the plot as a crucial prop—somewhat as a spilled carton of ancient spaghetti does in Payne’s next film, Election.)
At the other end of her emotional spectrum, Ruth bounces about with juvenile ecstasy when she learns that the Baby Savers will give her fifteen thousand dollars to foreswear an abortion. Earlier, when Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) reveals her double identity as a Pro-Choice spy among the Baby Savers, Ruth reacts with infantile terror, scrambling away and trying to hold off her new hosts by lying on her back and kicking her legs at them. She is at her most typically adolescent later when the Pro-Choicers demur at increasing their bribe from fifteen to thirty thousand dollars to match the increased offer of the Baby Savers: “Why can’t I ever do what I want?! … If I had money, my life would be different. I would’ve been such a good mother.”
Childish abjection—feigned, honest, or some of both—constitutes another of Ruth’s characteristic emotional modes. It also serves strategic purposes. We first see it when she goes to her brother to beg: “Tony, Tony, (beginning to weep) I don’t got anywhere to go, man!” When he leaves to get her money, she abruptly turns off her tears. An act, evidently; but, as is often the case in Payne’s movies, what she says and does is at once feigned and true. On her first night in the home of the Baby Savers, Gail (Mary Kay Place) and Norm (Kurtwood Smith) Stoney, she seems sincere as she blubbers, “Nobody’s been so good to me for such a long time. You’re such a nice family and your home is so nice.” A little later, however, she joins their rebellious daughter for secret late-night partying, during which she overdoses on “a can of touch-up paint.” After she huffs the model cement she stole from Gail’s and Norm’s young son, Gail’s “little miracle,” she punches the boy, evoking outrage from his father. This time her abjection—“Oh, I’m such a bad person!”—is ineffective, and Gail is relieved to pass her on to the double agent Diane.
Ruth both acts like a child and is treated like one. The Pro-Choice Rachel (Kelly Preston) assures her, “Everything’s gonna be fine, just fine,” and she gets almost verbatim duplicate adult reassurances from Gail, from the Baby Savers’ nurse, and from the national leader of the Pro-Choice movement (Tippi Hedren). When the nurse and doctor with the Baby Savers give her a little doll of a fetus, Ruth responds, “Wow. It’s got a little thing.” To which the Doctor replies, rather like a parent introducing the birds and the bees, “That’s because it’s a little boy baby.” By way of inducing her to watch an anti-abortion horror film, the Doctor coyly asks, “Ruth, do you like to go to the movies?”
Especially expressive of Ruth’s childishness and her corresponding treatment is the sequence in which the Baby Savers arrive at the jail cell where she is confined. As they conclude their group prayer, “Bless all the innocent creatures who depend on us for their salvation,” they notice Ruth curled on the cell floor in a fetal position. She will quickly be adopted as one of those “innocent creatures.” A childbearing child, she appears also as something like a fetus-bearing fetus.
Ruth’s responses to the adults who so often treat her as a child vacillates among passive-aggressive whining, recalcitrance, and unquestioning acceptance—sometimes all three within a few seconds. In court she attempts to stand up to the judge, then mocks him—“Sorry. Soorrrey!” (sarcastically)—then, apparently sincere, “Sorry.” At the Baby Savers’ clinic, she is at first obscenely defiant—“Are you fuckin’ people deaf?! I said I want an abortion!”—then overwhelmed after viewing their film.
When she thinks, often aided by inhalants and/or alcohol, that she has the upper hand, Ruth can be defiant. Drunk, she mocks Diane’s tongue-lashing. With a pistol in her hand, she yells at the guard whom she knocks half-conscious as she escapes the abortion clinic, “Shut the fuck up, you big fuck!”
Most of the time, though, she responds to what she takes as authority with unquestioning acceptance. That she embraces in turn opposite preachments doesn’t diminish her enthusiasm. Converted to the cause of the Baby Savers by their horror show, she angrily returns the middle finger to a driver who gives it to anti-abortion picketers. Not long after that, she parrots back what she apparently had explained to her by the Pro-Choicers, “I’m a citizen … My body belongs to me.” When the judge privately summons her after her appearance in court, she approaches him with the penitent walk and apprehensive eyes of a student entering a grade-school principal’s office. In a subjective voice-over that effectively summarizes her amorphous psyche, Ruth lies in bed recalling the events of her day. She has no thoughts of her own; her mind is entirely filled with the voices of others.
Like her relationships with other people, Ruth’s orientations to the fundamental appetites of sex and eating are childish and often destructive, mostly of herself. Her relation to eating—more broadly, ingestion/incorporation—is injurious and has almost nothing to do with nutrition. Her exclusion from the nourishment and fellowship of having a meal with others is signified early in the film when she watches through a window two of her children, whom she’s been forbidden to visit, having breakfast. After begging her brother for money for something to eat, she purchases what looks to be a large bottle of beer and a can of patio sealant to huff. The result is the opposite of eating; she vomits on the hood of a police car as she is being arrested. With money she steals from Gail’s purse, she later makes the same buy. At the home of Diane and Rachel, she behaves similarly, lifting a bottle of brandy that she begins to swill as soon as she’s left alone. On her first night with Gail and Norm, Ruth delays the family dinner until the grilled meat is “shoe leather.” The next evening, after viewing the Baby Saver’s movie, she sits down with the Stoneys to a plate consisting of a spread-legged Cornish game hen with a blood-red sauce and a side of egg-shaped white beans. Looking disgusted, Ruth may sense the congruity of this meal of baby chicken with what she’s seen earlier that day on film; in any case, the audience in the theater can hardly miss the point. The ironic motif of an egg-devouring Baby Saver family was introduced the previous morning when Gail offered their hung-over, queasy guest most of a nine (!) egg omelet.
Sex, usually painful, perverse, or bizarre, is frequently associated with eating/incorporation. While gulping Diane’s brandy, Ruth finds and sniffs a vibrator—evidently pungent—dons a lacy red bra, and admires herself in the mirror. There is a similar slant association of female sexuality with intoxication earlier, when Ruth fluffs a tampon before dropping it into the bag she is using for inhaling her patio sealant. Her mother, from whom Ruth is fiercely alienated, arrives courtesy of the Baby Savers. Trying to persuade her daughter to forgo an abortion, she asks a rhetorical question, “What if I aborted you?” Ruth’s reply again connects sex with eating, sort of: “Well, at least I wouldn’t have had to suck your boyfriend’s cock!” Even less appetizing is her language when she encounters again the character described (deadpan) in the closing credits as “Ruth’s Lover.” “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!”
The arduous sexual encounter with this person that opens the film Ruth apparently regarded as payment in advance for permission to stay in his apartment. Pathetically, her attempt to thank Harlan (M. C. Gainey), the Viet Nam amputee in charge of the Pro-Choice group’s security, for the fifteen thousand dollars he offered to counter the Baby-Savers’ bribe, edges toward a similar amateur prostitution. The connection that Ruth feels between sex and payment is explicit when she opens the satchel of money Harlan has left her; with both hands, she rubs the cash ecstatically across her face and breasts.
The first word in Citizen Ruth is the protagonist’s “Ow,” during the opening sex scene; her first words in the house of Diane and her lesbian partner, as Diane massages her foot, are “Ow! Ow!” If the erotic possibilities at Diane’s are muted, they nonetheless remind us that Ruth, despite her juvenility, might be an object of sexual interest to those who take her in. When Norm attempts to urge her to finish in the bathroom and come to the long-delayed dinner, his anger turns to erotic fascination as he glimpses her semi-nude. Later that evening, showing her where she will sleep, he tells her, “It’s my old bachelor bed,” and lies down on it. Ruth lies next to him, prompting him to gaze over her body and stop at her bare feet. Obviously aroused, he confides, “I was quite a sinner before I married Gail.” Ruth’s earlier fascination with her own foot while bathing and the pedicure that Gail later procures for herself and her guest contribute to muted undertones of foot fetishism.
Wholly at the mercy of her appetites for inhalants, alcohol, and music, Ruth plays a convincing Houseguest from Hell at both the Stoney’s and Diane’s, where she blows her hostess’s cover with the Baby Savers, gets drunk, and steals a handgun. To judge by her “Lover’s” rage, she was equally obnoxious in his tawdry flat.
Yet she has at the same time that self-interested resourcefulness condescendingly called “animal cunning.” Dern’s acting and Payne’s supervision of the camera unmistakably portray her realization that she might still be able to collect her promised reward even after she miscarries. In the final sequence, her escape from the Women’s Health Services clinic and the protesting Baby Savers is surprisingly clever and—for an audience probably weary of both contesting sides—satisfying.
Her simple-minded innocence, obliviousness to the expectations of society, and childish shrewdness combine to make her a strikingly original ingénue narrator—one of the most entertaining since Huckleberry Finn. Barbara Shulgasser remarked, “Dern … manages to play dumb without lowering herself. … Her Ruth … is plucky and indomitable, and you can’t help but admire her loutish essence” (Shulgasser 1997).
As a narrator, she is often most revealing when she responds to authority. Recalling Huck’s internalization of the culture of slavery that led to his famous admission that he knew he was doing wrong to help the fugitive slave Jim, Ruth absorbs the pronouncements of both sides in the abortion controversy at face value, thereby accentuating their extremity or implausibility. She listens to the Baby Savers singing “Jesus loves the little children” while simultaneously observing the Stoney’s daughter Cheryl (Alicia Witt) sneaking out of her bedroom with a boy who has secretly spent the night. “Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precious in His sight.” But Cheryl and her friend are not precious, or to be seen, something Ruth gives no indication of noticing. Later, as Diane and Rachel sing their anthem to “Moon Mother,” drawing an unenthusiastic Ruth into a worshipful embrace, she stares blankly ahead. As in the Stoney’s home, she witnesses in and around Diane’s the uncompromising perspective of the Pro-Choicers; and, in the scene just mentioned, their figurative and literal looniness. Again, she seems to take it all in uncritically—at least until the Baby Savers begin their campaign of bribes.
The secondary characters of Citizen Ruth often resemble its eponymous central figure. All have a pronounced concern with money—a tendency especially obvious among the Baby Savers. Most seem, at least on occasion, somewhat childish. This is particularly true of Norm Stoney, who sticks out his tongue behind his boss’s back after being reprimanded, and who jumps like a guilty teenager from his “bachelor bed” when he hears his wife Gail approaching. Cheryl’s partying echoes Ruth’s compulsive appetite for drinking and huffing. Harlan at the “Adult Emporium” and the Baby Savers national leader, Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds), with his boy-servant/masseur, contribute to the motif of off-track sexuality.
More than they resemble Ruth, however, the secondary characters and their contesting organizations approximate each other. The most obvious emblem of their paradoxical mutual identity, Diane, functions as both a Baby Saver and Pro-Choice spy (until Ruth blows her cover). Each side uses Ruth, against her will, to “send a message.” The national leaders who fly in to support their local troops are tailored from similar, expensive cloth. Each arrives in a snazzy private aircraft and each is impeccably dressed and groomed. Each side offers Ruth money to do its bidding, a sum that Gibbons, reversing his initial skepticism in the face of local resistance, decides to double. In the final analysis, the aim of both organizations may be seen as attempting to further or prevent one of the outcomes of sex itself, motherhood, which is an important subtheme of the film, especially emphatic in Gail Stoney, Ruth’s mother’s brief appearance, and Ruth herself.
The Baby Savers are quick to invoke Jesus and religion. There may be a mild ironic echo of their Christianity in the tape crosses that Harlan puts on Diane’s windows in anticipation of possible violence from the Baby Savers’ protests. Less ambiguously, at least a couple of the Pro-Choice side has their own religion, the feminist moon worship of Diane and Rachel.
The Pro-Choice group and the Baby Savers enlist music, art, and, especially, TV to their causes. The Baby Savers have four songs, all more or less religious in cast, and Diane and Rachel have their hymn to “Moon Mother.” Each side sees TV news as a crucial ally for its cause and does what it can to influence the coverage (which largely amounts to keeping Ruth inaccessible to interviewers). The Baby Savers display a blizzard of signs, bumper stickers, and placards—to some degree matched by the Pro-Choice proponents. And the Baby Savers have their anti-abortion horror film.
In the woman’s health clinic of the Pro-Choice side, there is a sentimental painting of a lady in a flowing white gown; in the Stoney’s home, a painting of Jesus with a flock of sheep on the wall of their son Matthew’s room. In Diane’s bedroom near the end of the film, Ruth awakens to the anti-abortion protesters singing “Don’t Give Up on Baby Tanya.” Next to the window, its taped “X” visible through the shade, is a painting of an angel protectively shepherding two small children across a bridge. The motherly angel embodies a gently compassionate presence; but the bridge in this context may be seen as evoking with unintentional irony the river Styx, which mythologically separates the land of the living from that of the dead. The juxtaposition of song and picture in this brief sequence suggests at once both the fundamental similarity and the fundamental opposition of the two sides.
In general, music is used ironically in Citizen Ruth, from the opening sentimental “When Somebody Loves You” accompanying Ruth’s loveless intercourse, to the jolly martial band music playing on the soundtrack behind the climactic confrontation of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice crowds at the end. “Baby Tanya” is sung to the to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” another of the Baby Savers anthems, is also sung to the tune of a popular Civil War song, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” This importing of Civil War melodies into the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice conflict seems pointedly appropriate.
Confronting Diana after Ruth has exposed her true identity, Gail indignantly asks, “What kind of a person are you?” One answer is, “Someone very much like you.” With equal truth, the audience and the filmmaker might reply, “That depends on one’s perspective.”
Again, it is first through Ruth that Payne emphasizes the importance of point of view in his film. As an ingénue narrator, she comes close to the outlook embodied in the film as a whole. Converted by their movie to the convictions of the Baby Savers, Ruth is quickly re-converted to the feminist Pro-Choice perspective of Diane and Rachel. Subjective shots through Ruth’s eyes enact the contesting viewpoints that confront her. In her bath at the Stoney’s, she amuses herself by looking at her foot first through one eye then the other, the foot changing its visual position as she alternates eyes. In a similar subjective shot a little later, she is fascinated by the multiple images of a kaleidoscope.
The most telling emblems for Ruth’s position between two warring factions, however, are a pair of images of rather than through her eyes. The first shows Ruth in a head shot, upside down. The image slowly dissolves into a duplicate shot, but right side up. For a crucial moment during the dissolve, there is a full superposition of the two oppositely inclined faces, with the right eye oriented to the “lower face” and the left one to the upper, in precise balance. The second emblematic shot comes as Ruth is being ferried in the helicopter of the national leader of the Pro-Choice organization for her trip to the Woman’s Health Services clinic. With both sides scrambling to pursue them, Ruth gazes down and smiles at the chaos below. No longer torn between contesting doctrines, she is above and beyond them. This shot also anticipates the end of the film, when Ruth will slither through a bathroom window and go off with her cash, leaving the pro- and anti-abortion forces to their ardent battling. In her naively cunning way, Ruth stoops to conquer.
Montage and mis-en-scene, soundtrack, and color design—subtly or pointedly ironic—reinforce the themes developed through Citizen Ruth’s characters. Its cinematic techniques further emphasize the multiple incongruities both within and between the opposing sides of the abortion debate in the U.S.
Among the images implying these incongruities are close-ups of the animal foods the Stoneys serve to Ruth during her stay in their home: a superfluity of meat on the grill (no vegetables), eggs being scrambled in a bowl, and the already-mentioned game hen with its spread legs, egg-like beans, and bloody sauce, the last anticipating Ruth’s miscarriage as well as mirroring easily imagined shots from the Baby Savers’ anti-abortion movie.
While Diane and Rachel discuss Ruth’s abortion and its funding, Ruth is distracted by the juicy sounds of a bug zapper electrocuting its prey. At the Women’s Health Services clinic, Ruth undergoes a comically irrelevant pre-abortion interview, which parallels her first encounter with the nurse at the Baby Saver’s consulting office. Behind her in the abortion clinic hang two signs, labeled with unintentional multiple entendre, “IN” and “OUT.”
Editing in Citizen Ruth is often ironically suggestive. From a close-up of Gail’s pious, saccharine expression as she sings “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” Payne dissolves to her hate-twisted face screaming “Baby Killer! Baby Killer!” Resting by herself in the Stoney’s car, Ruth’s music tape breaks and she inserts in its place one she finds there, “The Larry Jarvig System,” evidently a get-rich-quick real estate scheme. The tape promises, “You’ll be equipped to take care of your own economic destiny in ways you never dreamed possible.” At that moment, the camera is Ruth’s eyes, which focus on an undefended handbag. She seizes it and extracts Gail’s wallet, taking immediate care of her economic destiny. Payne then jump cuts to her emerging from a liquor store, bagged bottle in hand. As noted earlier, Payne similarly cut from Ruth begging money for food from her brother to her walking into a hardware store, holding a large bottle in a similar paper bag.
Ruth’s obsession with quick, easy money gets its final expression at the end of the credits, when we hear “Tape Two of the Larry Jarvig System” being inserted into a tape player, the voice directing calculations plainly beyond Ruth’s capability. It slurs into silence as the tape breaks, prompting Ruth to exclaim “Shit!”—the last word from this cheerfully impious movie.
Systematic use of colors further enriches Citizen Ruth’s meaning-dense fabric. In color cinematography, red tends to be associated with danger, passion, or a combination of the two. Its contrasting color—signifying safety, tranquility, fidelity, and so on—is usually blue or green or both. During most of the first half of Citizen Ruth, a conventional color design obtains. Red dominates scenes of danger, anger, drug abuse, and such passion as the movie offers. The littered room in which we first see Ruth undergoing her tedious intercourse has scattered red objects and a wall painted bright red. During her tantrum after her “Lover” expels her, Ruth carries off a can with a bright red top, the brake fluid that will lubricate her breakout from the clinic. The camera also focuses on her ragged, red-painted fingernails, as it will elsewhere. When Ruth goes to get more liquor and inhale Matthew’s model cement, to note another example, red emphatically returns to the screen: We see her emerge from a store whose windows, reflecting a red car across the street, are full of red-lettered posters and a red neon football, enclosing, also in red neon, “GO BIG RED.” Outside, a man in a red vest squats on the sidewalk.
Arrested after the patio sealant knocks her out, Ruth is taken to the County Correction Facility, where she is cleaned up, receives medical attention, and is dressed in a blue jumpsuit. But in the courtroom, the color of danger reappears, this time in a red bruise on Ruth’s neck, the fuchsia comb she carries, and a large purple-red birthmark on the face of the prosecuting attorney, at whose request Ruth is charged with a felony for endangering the life of her fetus. Blue reenters the film convincingly with the arrival of the Baby Savers in blue prison garb at the cell in which a desperate Ruth is confined. Apparent saviors, they provide the bail that releases Ruth from jail. In addition to the County’s jumpsuits, blue appears to be set against red in some of the Stoneys’ clothing, in the blue sweat shirt Ruth wears to the Baby Savers’ doctor’s office, Ruth’s blue smock and Gail’s jumper at “Nikki’s Nail Nook,” and in the blue flowers and bunnies on the jersey—presumably provided by Gail—that Ruth wears later.
As the film continues, however, systematic contrasting of blue and red becomes ambiguous, in synchrony with the changing portrayal from enmity to a subtle complementarity of the contending sides in the abortion debate. The apparent opposition of blue and red, like the conflict of the Baby Savers and their Pro-Choice adversaries, becomes equivocal, the colors increasingly mixing as well as being joined by white.
The three homes Ruth visits—her brother’s, the Stoney’s, and that of Diane and Rachel—sum up much of the color symbolism of Citizen Ruth. Tony’s—despite its shabbiness a haven for two of Ruth’s children and a place of last resort for Ruth—is blue; Norm’s and Gail’s combines red and blue; and Diane’s and Rachel’s home is overwhelmingly red, but blue gradually intrudes in the many slogans and posters in Rachel’s room and among the groups of their supporters. A striking example of the mixing of colors that at first seem to be set in opposition may be found in the sign for the “TENDER CARE Pregnancy Center.” Gail, in a blue coat, takes Ruth there to be indoctrinated against abortion, but its words as they enter the strip mall are in red letters.
What are we to make of the white, increasingly present as Citizen Ruth approaches its conclusion, and conspicuous in the limo waiting to carry Ruth and her entourage to the Woman’s Health Services clinic? That color (or absence of color) is mixed with blue and red in Norm’s apron as he grills meat for the family dinner. It first appears in the flag patches on the policemen who arrive to arrest the unconscious Ruth after her bout with patio sealant, then in an American flag in the courtroom. Emphatically, the mix of red and blue with white appears during the tumult when Diane, Jessica, and Ruth prepare to leave for Ruth’s presumed abortion. It is especially conspicuous in an object carried across that scene and often known as “The Red, White, and Blue,” the flag of the United States.
The concluding sequences of Citizen Ruth suggest that Payne’s film portrays not just a local battle, nor one having to do exclusively with abortion, but something more deeply woven into the fabric of American culture—or perhaps in human nature. (The conflicts between Gail and her rebellious daughter, for example, are echoed in a coarser key in the exchange between Ruth and her mother.) The martial music that accompanies the climactic battle of this film is not identifiable with either side. The Baby Savers, their Pro-Choice adversaries, and Ruth herself are a mix of red and blue and white; they are The United States of America, in yet another civil war. The culture of the U. S., Citizen Ruth suggests, is somehow infused with a tendency—perhaps even a need—for conflict.
To comprehend why the adversaries in this film are at once radically opposite and pointedly similar, we can turn to Elias Canetti’s understanding of the mutual dependence of what he calls “Double Crowds,” “war crowds” being the most familiar (and most lamentable) modern example: “The surest, and often the only, way by which a crowd can preserve itself lies in the existence of a second crowd to which it is related.” “War presents a picture of two doubly interlocked crowds” (Canetti 1962: 63,71). The Baby Savers and their Pro-Choice opponents depend upon each other for their energy, their goals, their very existence. Their struggle is, as Diane tells Ruth, “a war.”
Through the abortion debate, Payne looks—satirically, with dispassionate amusement—at U.S. culture and at its citizens individually, people who are at once its creators and its victims. A question remains: Where does the film see itself in relation to American culture? Does Citizen Ruth place itself inside or outside the society it portrays and satirizes?
To answer, we need to look at the images and actions within the film that reflect on what Citizen Ruth is. It is, obviously, a film, a work of art. Importantly, it also portrays and alludes to other art in general and visual art in particular, images and allusions that indicate its understanding of itself. Its portrayal of movies and, more emphatically, of that other audio/visual medium, television, reflect on the way it uses its own art and positions itself in its society.
An apparently incongruous reference to a famous film comes early in Payne’s movie, when one of the cops arresting Ruth, noticing a silver residue on her face, remarks, “She looks like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.” We’re not in Kansas, but Omaha, Nebraska; nonetheless, as Payne shoots it, it looks as dull in color as Dorothy’s home did in black-and-white. What follows the opening sequence will be as vivid as adventures in Oz, if less fantastic.
As already noted, the doctor at the Tender Care Pregnancy Center asks what appears to be an innocuous question: “Ruth, do you like going to the movies?” What she’s shown declares “Abortion is murder” and goes on to denounce “the American Holocaust, genocide against the unborn.” To judge by Ruth’s stunned reaction when she emerges, its images must have been appalling: “I slept in some dumpsters. Maybe I slept on some babies.” In contrast, Citizen Ruth offers no polemic for either side in the abortion debate; it implicitly distinguishes itself from the gruesome partisanship of the Baby Savers’ film as well as from the less extreme images offered by the Pro-Choice party.
Equally in contrast with the dispassionate balance of Citizen Ruth as a whole are the heavy-handed, tendentious performances of its characters. Several come to mind: We see Ruth perform for her brother Tony, described earlier. Later we watch what appears to be her comically inappropriate attempt to entertain the Stoneys, including an intrigued young Matthew, with a dramatic recitation from some theatrical experience in her past: “ . . . freaks out, he screams, ‘Wanna see blood?’ Right in my face, ‘I’ll show you blood, fuckin bitch!’” To an uncomprehending Ruth, Rachel recites the standard arguments of the feminist Pro-Choice side. Ruth’s response to her explanation that organizations like the Baby Savers typically exploit “indigent women, third world women, women of color,” makes Rachel’s misjudging of her audience clear: “I’m not a colored woman.” Blaine Gibbons performs as one of his set pieces the obviously much-repeated story describing his saving the fetus that became his boy servant—a narrative for which strings on the soundtrack obligingly provide heroic, sentimental background music.
As in that scene, non-diegetic music in Citizen Ruth is frequently prominent, and it often seems to accept and support whatever claims one side or the other may be making. In doing so, the music track, like Ruth, acts as a sort of ingénue narrator, albeit one with no obvious point of origin. It approximates what Michel Chion calls “an acousmêtre, neither inside nor outside the image” yet “implicated in the action, constantly about to be part of it” (Chion 1994: 129-131). When Gibbons reverses his opposition to offering Ruth money, he delivers another set piece, again accompanied by a sympathetic music track. The stirring march backing the beginning of the final sequence emphasizes the view that both sides hold of their “war.”
The soundtrack accompanying the cut between the sexual intercourse of Ruth and her acquaintance and his expelling her from his apartment underscores the action on the screen while remaining equivocal. We hear a needle scratching a record as the incongruous “When Somebody Loves You” abruptly stops and Ruth’s scruffy sexual partner throws her out. Whether this discord is diegetic or not is unclear; whichever may be the case, it aptly introduces the acrimony that follows.
As part of that acrimony, Ruth demands her portable TV from her “lover,” who flings it after her, breaking it. Television, the most pervasive medium in Citizen Ruth, is thus introduced as contested—and as ultimately broken. Ruth will learn of the Baby Savers’ offer of fifteen thousand dollars through TV news; Norm will use a TV press conference to transmit Ruth’s “deafening message” against abortion, and we later see him during another news conference, addressing few Baby Savers but many TV reporters with their cameramen and sound technicians.
On the other side, the first object we see as Diane brings Ruth to her house is a large TV satellite dish. Inside, the principal activity of the Pro-Choice group seems to be watching TV news. Nonetheless they, like the Baby Savers, refuse to allow the media to contact Ruth. For both sides, television is a tool to further their cause, a medium whose message must be controlled.
(A comic aside emphasizes TV’s pervasiveness and its power to shape people’s self-understanding: Payne shows the police who arrested Ruth waiting while she receives medical attention. The cops are watching “Cops” on the ubiquitous television.)
Norm’s assertion—on TV, of course—that Ruth wishes to send an anti-abortion “message” angers her because she never expressed any such wish and contributes to turning her against his group. She is equally enraged when a somewhat oblivious young man on the Pro-Choice side uses the same word: “You’ll send a strong message that a woman’s choice can’t be bought,” while urging her to resist the Baby Savers’ offer of money. And, like the contending sides, the news media desire to use Ruth for their own purposes.
As does Citizen Ruth, one might add, which, like the news media, uses Ruth’s story for money-making entertainment.[i] But in addition to the fact that fiction movies, like all art, claim to present not something true but something that may be imagined, there are other crucial differences between the work of art that is Citizen Ruth and its representations of media and other arts. One of the most important is that it is conscious of its relation to its subject, and willing to give that subject, fictional, as she is, freedom and understanding. It takes her, finally, on her own terms. With respect to Ruth (and also to the secondary characters of his film) Payne achieves what Northrop Frye has called “an intimate impersonality,” “the total detachment of author from character which comes when sympathy and insight are informed by professional skill” (Gill 2010: 71, 90).
Despite its pointed wit and its portrayal of the self-contradictions and absurdities of its protagonist and those who wish to use her, Citizen Ruth gives some credit to all of them for their sincerity and sincere confusions. It does not stand above them but among them. Its director-writer, its co-screenwriter, and its cast and crew do their work within the world Citizen Ruth portrays.
Payne’s irony implicitly murmurs that things might be otherwise—though he doesn’t seem optimistic that they will be. Perhaps the argument between the Pro-Choice advocates and the Pro-Life ones could be something other than a dispiriting shouting match. There is a hint of civil discussion in Harlan’s repeated appeal for cooperation to picketing Baby Savers: “You know the drill.” Some empathy between opposing sides might be possible; as a double agent, Diane is able to cast herself, persuasively, in the role of her enemy. Enraged partisans might calm down and attain some self-understanding, some cooler perspective. Most importantly, somebody might actually love you “all the way,” rather than simply fuck you—literally or metaphorically—and then toss you out. In a world that does not offer such succor, however, few choices remain but to take what you can, trot away as Ruth does, and leave those who want to use you to fuck themselves.
Lesley Brill teaches film at Wayne State University in Detroit and has published books on Hitchcock, John Huston, and most recently, Crowds, Power, and Transformation in Cinema, as well as numerous essays on film and photography.
Canetti, Elias (1962), Crowds and Power, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Cavell, Stanley (1979), The World Viewed, Enlarged Edition, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.
Chion, Michel (1994), Audio-Vision, New York: Columbia University Press.
Gill, Glen Robert (ed.) (2010), Northrop Frye on Twentieth-Century Literature, Toronto Buffalo London: University of Toronto Press.
Shulgasser, Barbara (1997), San Francisco Examiner, January 10.
[i] Apparently this hope was not fulfilled; the Internet Movie Database indicates that the estimated production costs of Citizen Ruth was $4 million, its estimated receipts $1 million.