Notes from Underground


Abortion horror movies

"Forget the children"



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Many film critics have noted the current vogue of movies about young women facing crisis pregnancies. No fewer than four such movies were released in 2007, all achieving moderate to considerable financial success: the estrogen-soaked chick flick "Waitress," the raunchy gross-out comedy "Knocked Up," the low-budget New York multiculturally flavored "Bella," and the hip, indie gabfest "Juno."

What is truly striking is that all of these movies are at least implicitly pro-life: in each, the heroine is tempted to abort her child, but chooses not to do so, and is happier for her decision. While none of the films can be considered an anti-abortion polemic, each has a subtle way of suggesting that pregnancy termination is both emotionally and morally inadvisable. In "Knocked Up," the heroine is appalled by her mother's callous remark that she should abort her illegitimate unborn daughter (conceived during a one-night stand) so she can have a "real baby" later in her life at a more convenient time. In "Juno," the 16-year-old protagonist is talked into keeping her unborn son (conceived during a slow summer afternoon spent with a male friend) by a shy, sweet-natured Asian girl protesting alone outside an abortion clinic.

Yet as remarked-upon and as remarkable as this trend might be, it hardly represents the first time movies have touched, however lightly, on this touchiest of issues. It appears that as long as we continue to live in a society that tolerates the slaughter of babies, guilt will continue to linger. Our collective conscience, it seems, just won't shut up. The blood of millions cries out; we hear that massive cry somewhere deep in our souls and it troubles us. When a people are disturbed enough by something, it will inevitably turn up in the outlets of that people's culture, sometimes in an overt way and sometimes in a secret, even coded, manner.

I have in mind two films from 2004, three years before the "cinematic year of the unborn child," as one critic termed 2007. Though neither of these movies explicitly mentions abortion, it is easy enough to recognize the subtext, if one looks closely enough.

"The Forgotten," on a superficial level, is a spooky, paranoid sci-fi movie, somewhat after the fashion of "The Twilight Zone" or "The X-Files." Julianne Moore plays Telly Paretta, a mother grieving over the recent loss of her son Sam in an apparent plane crash. One morning she finds, to her consternation, that Sam's image has disappeared from all of the photographs in her house, and that all of his boyish possessions — toys, baseball cards, model airplanes, and the like — have vanished from his room. When Telly demands an explanation from her husband, he immediately calls her therapist (Gary Sinise), who comes straight over and tells her that she never had a son; in fact, she miscarried nine years ago, and in a subsequent bizarre psychotic state, she created nine years' worth of memories in order to soothe her own sadness over the loss.

Telly refuses to believe that explanation, and she seeks out Ash Correll (Dominic West), a divorced father whose daughter also perished in the plane crash. However, Ash now claims that he never had any children either. A frantic visit to the microfiche records of the local library yields astonishing results: records of the plane crash are nowhere to be found. Instead, Telly finds an empty space in the newspaper where the story used to be.

Over the course of the movie, Telly comes to believe that a massive cover-up has taken place. She gets Ash to remember his daughter — his memory is jogged when she tears away at the wallpaper in the spare room of his house, revealing the decorations of a little girl's room — and the two set out to investigate what actually became of their children, now "forgotten" by everyone except themselves.

They find that the conspiracy goes higher than they ever could have imagined, higher than the FBI, the CIA, or the Pentagon. In fact, sinister aliens with godlike powers are running experiments on people, testing their capacity to forget. The human authorities, including Telly's well-meaning psychiatrist, are only the hapless minions of the aliens.

When one government agent tells Telly and Ash, "There are no children — forget the children," the self-contradiction of the two statements is subtle yet pointed: if there are "no children," how could there possibly be children to forget? We may note that many "pro-choice" justifications encompass similar semantic contortions. An unborn child is granted the status of "baby" if the mother wants to keep it; but if the mother would rather terminate it, it somehow ceases to be a baby. The proposition could well be phrased, "There is no child — forget the child."

Ultimately, Telly's determination not to forget her son's existence brings her face to face with the alien in charge of the whole ghastly experiment. It turns out that he staged the "plane crash" as a precipitating event — there was no crash, and the children aren't really dead, but presumably somewhere in the alien mother ship. He had succeeded in getting all of the parents of other children on the flight to forget they ever had children in the first place; now, Telly's stubbornness is ruining his ambitions to rise through the ranks of the alien corporate hierarchy by perfecting his brainwashing techniques. "I need you to ... forget!" he screams at her in rage, literally bowling her over.

The alien is able to reach inside her mind and steal all of Telly's visible memories of Sam; however, in the film's most revealing moment, Telly then recalls the memory of being pregnant. She remembers the rapid thump of Sam's in utero heartbeat, and that helps her recover her wits. "I had life inside of me!" she exclaims. "I had a life inside of me, and his name was Sam!" Then, with renewed strength, she flings this knowledge in the teeth of her extraterrestrial tormenter: "His name was Sam, you son of a bitch!"

With this triumphant, defiant exclamation, victory is won. The alien finds that he cannot accomplish his goal; in Telly's case, a mother's love is simply too strong to defeat. Both Telly and Ash are given their children back, although only Telly is allowed to retain a memory of the whole ordeal.

"The Forgotten" clearly functions as an allegory for abortion. The forgotten children of the movie are stand-ins for the millions killed by abortions every year; the aliens are the abortionists and their proxies, who not only want to take our children from us but even want us to erase our memories of them. All of that comes into sharp focus in the climactic confrontation between protagonist and villain, where the heroic mother's recollection of her unborn son in her womb causes her to reflect on herself as a bearer of life.

The most startling visual sequence of the movie involves the sudden and unexpected levitation of various characters, who rapidly and quite unwillingly fly up into the sky toward their own destruction, at the behest of the aliens who want them out of the picture. In effect, the unfortunate people are sucked up into oblivion, approximating the procedure used against unborn children in many abortions. In a movie whose barely disguised subtext is abortion, the significance of that striking image cannot be ignored.

A similar visual gimmick is employed by French director Michel Gondry in his American production "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Here, entire memories in the protagonist's head are sucked into a vacuum, never to return.

In this fascinating movie, which defies easy categorization (it's part absurdist comedy, part romantic tragicomedy, and part sci-fi cautionary tale, all rendered in a non-linear narrative), mopey everyman Joel Barrish (a toned-down Jim Carrey) is heartbroken over a recent tumultuous breakup with his longtime girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). Joel finds that he can forget that this relationship ever existed when he meets Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, a brilliant scientist who has perfected a procedure that eliminates any painful memories a person may want expunged. Mierzwiak and his technicians can attach electrodes to a person's head while he is asleep, target the unwanted material, and remove them — one might almost say abort them.

While sleeping, however, Joel decides that he wants to hold onto these memories after all. He wildly attempts to "stash" his thoughts about Clementine into other compartments of his mind, with the memory-destroying technicians close at his heels. Though he puts up quite a fight, Joel ultimately loses, and his memories of Clementine are lost for good. Yet future circumstances will give Joel and Clementine another shot; love just might prevail even when memory fails.

Both "Eternal Sunshine" and "The Forgotten" address the very human temptation to want to forget that which is painful to remember. In each film, the erasing of memory is accompanied by an arresting visual — the "sucking up" of a particular person or thing, as the bloodied little limbs and organs of a fetus are sucked from a mother's womb. In "Eternal Sunshine," this vacuuming away of memories takes place as part of a "procedure," by which one who is, so to speak, "pregnant" with an "unwanted" memory can have the problem disposed of before going on with his life. Given that, in the movie, a person registers for the procedure in a dingy-looking clinic and that the procedure itself involves sucking out and destroying that which rests inside of a person, it isn't hard to see the analogy to abortion, even if there is no explicit mention here of lost children.

These two movies are surely not the first to allude in some manner to abortion, nor are they likely to be the last. The human conscience, at first suppressed, will have its revenge; it will appear where we least expect it, even in such a godforsaken place as Hollywood, and thus — thanks to dissemination by multiplexes and video stores — everywhere. The blood of the slaughtered unborn is crying out to us, if not from the ground, then from our movie and TV screens. A culture complicit in an ongoing mass murder will not escape reminders of its own bloody deeds, even if they are slightly disguised or rendered as parables and allegories. No matter how hard we try, we won't be able to forget what we have done.

February 18, 2008

© 2008 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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