Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Buried Treasures: Rain Without Thunder (1992)

I know it may seem sort of redundant to do two Buried Treasures posts in a row, but while I was looking over the list of movies available at Hulu the other day I was genuinely surprised to see this fascinating feature film among the online viewing candidates and I wanted to get a look at it in case its expiration date was around the corner. (You can also watch it at Fancast if you have the notion.) It’s a movie that I’ve wanted to see for some time now; I read the entry on it in one of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guides and it piqued my interest but at the time I came across its listing it had not been released on home video. (The release of Rain Without Thunder would occur three years later after its theatrical run on VHS—but it’s now out of print, and is currently fetching anywhere from $2 [used, good] to $45 [new] at Amazon.com.)

The year is 2042, and in a series of television interviews conducted by an unnamed reporter (Carolyn McCormick, b.k.a. as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet on Law & Order), we learn the case history of young Allison Goldring (Ali Thomas), a college student who became pregnant and decided she wasn’t ready to handle the responsibility of raising a child. Unfortunately, the avenue of getting a legal abortion has been road blocked by this point in history; such procedures are referred to as “terminations” and the very act itself is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law as “fetal murder.” Because Allison is a resident of New York, she is subject to a recently-passed law known as the Unborn Child Kidnapping Act; this results in her trial and conviction (as a “defendant mother”), and she is now serving out her seven-year sentence at a secure facility called Walker Point. But because her mother Beverly (Betty Buckley) assisted her in her quest for a “P-term,” she was also tried and convicted…and is serving the same sentence in the same facility (though the two have been separated by the state). Other interviewees include the ambitious state prosecuting attorney (Iona Morris) who’s using the conviction as a stepping-stone for higher office (and who slickly presents her legal arguments as issues of class and race); the Goldring’s world-weary and acerbic defense attorney (TDOY fave Jeff Daniels, in a low-key and very effective performance); and various and sundry friends, acquaintances, religious and political figures—some who are clearly using the television time to further their own agendas.

Rain Without Thunder is a bone-chilling, cautionary tale that I must confess scared me a hell of a lot more than any “horror” film of late—particularly the ones where oversexed camp counselors are on the run from some nutcase wearing a hockey mask. It’s also quite politically-charged—its detractors would probably label it “agitprop,” and they’d have a strong argument—but in my opinion, it outshines the better-known The Handmaid's Tale (1990) as a wake-up alarm in its choice to present the material in semi-documentary form. (Rain does have an amusing in-joke that references the Margaret Atwood novel by dubbing a women’s rights advocacy organization “The Atwood Society.”) The society prevalent in Rain is a civilization that has come down on the side of morality as opposed to personal liberties (a concept very much being bandied about in certain political circles today); contraception has been made practically illegal (and what is legal doesn’t work) and all female sexual activity is monitored by the state.

What I found most disturbing about Rain is a nameless character portrayed by Linda Hunt, the director of the “Atwood Society” and an individual who argues that their organization should not be confrontational less they be seen as a “fringe group,” but clings to the belief that change must be incremental: “If we’re going to make changes—political changes—we must be political.” The character possesses a great deal of the timidity that seems to have infected the current Democratic party, and also serves as an ringing endorsement of one of Rain’s continuous themes: “People refuse to believe that what is far-fetched can happen in just two generations.” The yin to Hunt’s yang is Rosalind Hart (Sheila Pinkham), who plays the wizened founder of the society and whose politics are much feistier than the cautious director’s. She points out, for example, that prior to 1850 abortion was legal in every state in America…and that in the fifty years following, the act became criminalized in those same states as well. It had nothing to do with the “rights of the fetus”—at that time, Protestant men wielded a great deal of power and were concerned that they were not able to keep up with the procreational rate of Catholic immigrants…because their wives were terminating pregnancies. “Was it really that simple?” asks the reporter interviewing her. “Nothing is simple,” is her whispered reply. She also gives away the real game behind the abortion debate; correctly pointing out that its purpose is to keep women in their place:

Men are afraid of women…men are afraid that women will have too much power…they don’t see it…like a fish cannot describe water, men cannot see their fear of women…and this fear is the very thing that molds their politics about reproductive rights…men somehow respond to a woman’s right to terminate her fetus as if they confront the possibility of their own potential non-existence at a woman’s own hands…

If you’re inclined to disagree with this—stop and think about all the photo-ops that feature a cluster of powerful elderly white Senators patting themselves on their collective backs any time legislation curtailing a woman’s reproductive rights is passed. (I have taken the time to provide you with such a photo on the left.)

Rain was written and directed by Gary O. Bennett, whose curriculum vitae at the IMDb is a bit spotty and that’s indeed unfortunate because so few directors are able to hit one out of the park their first time at bat. Rain did receive some critical attention, but I think its dismal performance at the box office had a lot to do with the film’s semi-documentary feel which some individuals have argued—and again, I’ll concede the point—consists of nothing but “talking heads.” (I have told a similar story here on the blog in the past about how my recommendation of The Thin Blue Line [1988] to a Ballbuster Blockbuster customer was soundly thumbed-down because “it didn’t have nothin’ but talkin’ in it.”) But I will argue that these “talking heads” give superb performances; in addition to those already named, you’ll enjoy seeing Frederic Forrest, Graham Greene (in an atypical role as a historian who argues there never was a “women’s movement”), Robert Earl Jones (his cinematic swan song), Austin Pendleton (as a suitably creepy priest) and Ethan Phillips. Ming-Na (Wen), Katy Selverstone and Steve Zahn (his film debut) can also be glimpsed in smaller roles.

“We have taken the joy out of motherhood, and replaced it with some kind of public duty. We have turned the duty of motherhood into the onus of a compulsory draft. Motherhood has become nothing more than state employment—you cannot love motherhood because the State makes you be a mother, just as you cannot love a flag if the State forces you to salute it.” This declaration comes from the Rosalind Hart character (she gets most of the best lines and actress Pinkham is just sensational in the part) and the words are both prescient and troubling. I will reiterate that Rain Without Thunder (the title comes from a famous quote by Frederick Douglass) will not be everyone’s cup of tea—but sometimes one can find themselves frightened by things other than vampires, monsters and zombies…and this production certainly rises to that occasion.

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1 comment:

Scott C. said...

Fascinating review, Ivan. I failed to see this film when it first came out, although the subject intrigued me, and I'd completely forgotten about it in the interim. You've inspired me to correct this lapse.

(Whenever I see that picture of Bush and his grinning Womb-mates, I can never decided between barking out a harsh, mocking laugh, or beating my head against my desk.)