Hollywood and abortion

Abortion isn’t something we see tackled too often in the movie business. The topic gets skirted around sometimes, toyed with certainly, but almost never directly confronted.

Abortion isn’t something we see tackled too often in the movie business. The topic gets skirted around sometimes, toyed with certainly, but almost never directly confronted.

It’s not too hard to fathom why. Abortion is pretty much one of the most divisive and unsettling topics in the whole damned country. And on the flip side, movies about keeping an unplanned pregnancy seem to be selling pretty well these days, if the runaway blockbuster success of movies like Knocked Up and Juno is any indication (and Waitress didn’t do too badly, either). Hot chicks with baby bellies, it seems, are in.

While it makes sense, it also begs a very uneasy realization. Something so prevalent in our country is almost ghostly absent in both film and other popular culture. Accurate abortion statistics are hard to come by, but the Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2004 there were 238 abortions per 1,000 live births, or 848,163 legally induced abortions in a single year.

But you wouldn’t guess it by hanging out at the silver screen. The few times the topic does make its way to the box office, it usually comes in more readily digestible packages of the political battle, like Citizen Ruth or the new Tony Kaye documentary, Lake of Fire, not in terms of what it means for women to make the decision and have the act performed.

Let’s examine Knocked Up and Juno –arguably the two most successful comedies of 2007, critically and commercially–a little more deeply. In Knocked Up, Alison spends a few minutes of screen time silently mulling over what to do, as the unspoken possibility sits as the elephant in the room. Then she calls Ben to tell him she’s decided to keep the baby, and we all breathe a big sigh of relief.

Right before this, Ben tells his roommates about the pregnancy, and it’s meant to be a comedic moment when one of them condescendingly remarks: “I’m not going to say it, but it rhymes with shmashmortion.” The movie literally doesn’t even want to say “abortion.”

Juno gives the subject a little more depth and attention, as Juno not only initially responds to her pregnancy by walking to the abortion clinic, but also checks with Bleeker, the father, to see if “nipping it in the bud,” as she puts it, is alright with him. But when she gets to the clinic, she can’t go through with it, and races back to her best friend to proclaim she’s going to give it up for adoption, and we sigh with relief again, because now we can go back to watching Ellen Page drink blue Slurpees.

I’m not saying that the decisions Alison and Juno make are poor or unrealistic, just to highlight that abortion isn’t an action filmmakers are willing to touch on much these days. In both films, the two aforementioned scenes occur in the first act of the movie, and serve almost to build and release a small amount of tension so we can go on to “Happier Things.” No one wants to talk about abortion. But we apparently do want to watch Seth Rogen play with baby clothes.

In contrast to the feel-good nature of these two hits, take a look at the flick 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, a harrowing movie about a woman trying to get an illegal abortion in 1987 Communist Romania. The camera follows her and her roommate around in the course of a single day as they struggle to find a venue for the abortion, a doctor who will perform it, the money to pay for it and a way to dispose of the fetus.

The movie is raw, heart breaking, intensely graphic and refuses to touch abortion on a political level, instead focusing on the plight and intensity of what the act itself entails. Critics have also universally lauded it; the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and made 11 top-10 lists of major American film critics (and to underline how well the movie avoids falling into the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” boxes, those critics’ publications ranged from The New York Times to The Christian Science Monitor). It also currently scores a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the site that aggregates reviews of professional critics.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find it in American theaters, though. After being out in a handful of European countries for five months, 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days earned a limited U.S. release on Jan. 23 of this year. And by “limited,” I mean “New York.”

Two weeks later, it’s been expanded to show in a whopping five metropolitan areas: Seattle, the Bay Area, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. The film will be showing for the first time in Portland as part of the Portland International Film Festival on Feb. 22 and Feb. 23.

Reflecting reality by 100 percent is not and should not be the job of art, but the popularity enjoyed by attractive young women turning their unplanned pregnancies into flowery happy endings is more than a little disturbing, and the unwillingness of our culture to address a topic so intensely personal for such a large number of Americans is worthy of concern.