How to Make an American Quilt

(Jocelyn Moorhouse, USA, 1995)


How to Make an American Quilt is the first American film by Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse, who made her striking debut with Proof (1991). The qualities that made Proof notable – its crisp economy of style and gesture, a perverse edge, neurotic and cruel story elements – are not on offer in this, her second feature.


This is probably not a personal project for Moorhouse. It is, in many ways, an anoymous film, a sunny, mostly upbeat entertainment in a sub-Spielberg mode. But I didn’t find it (as a number of reviewers did) bland or disappointing. It’s engaging, with a terrific gallery of stars including Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn. And it raises a lot of genuinely important issues about love, relationships and marriage – as well as about how gender subtends all of that. Here, however, I want to concentrate on just two topics that this film made me ponder furiously.


The first topic is storytelling. Many people will draw comparisons between it and Wayne Wang’s affecting The Joy Luck Club  (1993). It may be unfair to compare them on this plane, because their canvas is so different: The Joy Luck Club links up the crises and tremors of personal, emotional life with all sorts of grand upheavals in history, and develops a quite epic wallop; while How to Make an American Quilt traces a more strictly intimate canvas.


Where the two films do overlap is in the focus on women’s lives, and on the act of storytelling. Both films are constructed as a mosaic – or quilt! – of individual women’s stories, woven together by the overall structure. In both cases, there is a ritual or ceremony of storytelling: a time and a place where these women can come togther and tell their tales. In The Joy Luck Club, that’s the ritual of a domestic game table; here, it’s the ritual of a collective quilting project, led by a solemn Maya Angelou.


These days, there is a great charge, an almost mythical or magical power that people like to associate with the act of storytelling – and especially “telling one’s own story”. By telling your story, it seems, you find your deepest self, complete your inner voyage. And by telling it others, and hearing their stories in turn, you join a vast, universal community, where all the stories stream together and become one great, comforting ocean of timeless experience – a group-portrait of the human condition itself.


I confess there’s some rebellious imp inside me that resists like hell the New Age piety of all this storytelling talk. But, for the moment, let me pin down my problems to the extent that such storytelling can be shown and celebrated in cinema, as cinema. The Joy Luck Club and How to Make an American Quilt both have quite clunky framing structures. It’s easy for a novel to be a tapestry of first-person stories: there can be both the tale and the teller, her narration and the quality of her personal voice, equally evident all the time. In movies, this first-person quality is much harder to sustain. Once these films flash back to the past, and the story continues on screen, we tend to forget the teller and her present-day situation.


The stories recounted in How to Make an American Quilt thus tend to float free of the characters who are narrating or triggering them. This prompts a reverie: I can completely accept that stories are a large part of the pleasure of cinema, but not storytelling in that that strict, ritualistic, around-the-campfire-or-quilting-bee way. Stories that are embedded in a film tend to simultaneously belong to no characters or to all characters, to no one or everyone. That, I suspect, is a large part of the poetry of narrative in cinema.


Taking a completely different angle on How to Make an American Quilt, let’s now look at its attitudes to love and relationships – and the fraught, sometimes tragic stand-offs that it shows happening between the sexes. One of the most striking things about Moorhouse’s film is how it presents its gallery of male characters. I fully know it’s something of a tried and reflex cliché for reviewers – especially male reviewers – to sneer at certain “women’s films” by saying: “The men are such two-dimensional caricatures, such ciphers!” They say this, usually, without pausing to remember the many thousands of “men’s movies” where the women are two-dimensional, trivial, peripheral figures. So, I don’t mind a woman’s movie in which men are inessential or secondary, or where they are objectified as two-dimensional figures of sexiness or terror. Saying that, in a film primarily about women, the men are ciphers is on par with saying that, in an average teen movie, the adults are unsympathetic.


Nonetheless, there is something especially intriguing about the sidebar men in How to Make an American Quilt. Several of them are extremely comical figures, and they are never more comical than when their supposedly virile sexuality is on display. If there is one very Australian quality or sensibility here, it is the half-frightened/half-curious attitude towards male sexuality that can only twist itself, defensively, into comedy: virility, in particular, is quite a joke. There’s a scene with a lusty artist, Dean (Tim Guinee); as he gazes upon his luscious, nude model (Joanna Going as young Em), he progressively tears his clothes off, and eventually smears his naked chest with a bit of paint. Meanwhile Em, who’s known what she’s wanted out of this game all along, is almost getting bored waiting for him to work himself up.


In a slightly different mood, there’s the character of Leon (Johnathon Schaech), the fantasy-man temptation figure for Finn (Ryder) while she’s on a holiday away from her usual, dependable guy, Sam (Dermot Mulroney). Schaech played the supernaturally sexy, bisexual punk in The Doom Generation (1995), so it’s an apt stroke of casting. This guy is definitely not meant to be real. Leon is an angelic, erotic projection on Finn’s part; he stands for the thrill of sex without obligation, without past or future, without emotional commitment. He’s a floating sensualist. Every time he appears on screen, I had to laugh. Leon pouts, gazes out of his smouldering eyes and offers big ripe strawberries; in a climactic moment, he confronts Finn in a green field, tears his shirt right off, and lays her down for some love-action.


That sex scene Iends extremely abruptly; before, in fact, we get to the sex part. I can’t help but link up the film’s giggly attitude toward male sexuality with its general squeamishness about all forms, shapes and shades of sex. It’s all very clean and discreet. And also astonishingly heterosexual all the way down the line: far straighter than the equally female-centred Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), for instance. This supposed exploration of the long and winding life-roads of women, gals who bond with each other more than they do with men, never even touches on the lesbian option – not even as an undertone, or a repressed possibility.


Ultimately, the film’s avoidance of queerness is simply part and parcel of what I take to be its general fear of sex. There’s a moment where Finn articulates her dilemma poised between two men: between the lovely guy back home and the fantasy stud in the field. She then asks a female pal: “Should one marry a lover, or a friend?” This is among the classic dilemmas of romantic fiction: the fraught relationship between love and friendship. It’s a dilemma on par with the choice of Francesca (Meryl Streep) between ecstatic romance and family duty in The Bridges of Madison County  (1995). When Finn phrases her problem like that, I find myself hoping to hell that the response is going to be: well, how about marrying both a lover and a friend in the same person? (That is, if he or she can found in the space of one lifetime.)


Many mid ‘90s movies have a hard time arriving at this ideal proposition – for instance, the romantic comedy If Lucy Fell  (1996), which is also about the same, vexed friendship-and-love issue. In How to Make an American Quilt, Finn gets a verbal answer to her question, and it’s essentially: don’t marry your lover or your frend, marry your soul mate.  While watching the film, I thought: OK, soul mate, that’s the elusive friend-and-lover-in-one. But, in the context of How to Make an American Quilt, a soul mate seems to be airy-fairy, an almost mystical catgeory: neither a friend nor a lover, but some ideal fantasy who is not quite of this earth.


I think all my mixed feelings about How to Make an American Quilt were crystallised in an anecdote that appears near its end. It’s a story told by Marianna (Alfre Woodard, terrific in Passion Fish  [1992] and elsewhere). She tells her tale of living in Paris, crying in a café at the end of a relationship, and then meeting, by sheer chance, a man who seemed to be her soul mate. He was a really sensitive, caring guy, and a poet as well, no less: he gives her the poem he wrote that day, which happens to be about “old lovers” seeing the beauty in the scattered pattern of their accumulated life experiences. So, do Marianna and the poet get it on in Paris? Not in this movie; he’s already married and, being a good chap, he just disappears back into the Parisian crowd, like a dream – without having even spoken his name. Back in the present, Marianna tells Finn she has pined over the memory of this soul mate ever since that day.


There are three things in this little, embedded story that prick me. The first is its poignant beauty. Tales of eternally lost and unrequited love almost always belong to men in movies – recall the old guy played by Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane (1941), who speaks of remembering, every day of his life, a woman he once glimpsed on a pier. So it’s rare and touching to see a woman’s version of such pathos. Second – now I’m starting to get worried – the soul mate in this story is absolutely unobtainable, a fantasy-object for all time. And third … here’s the rub. How to Make an American Quilt happens to reserve the most intense pathos of loss, longing and loneliness for the character who has, up until this point, had the most active and colourful sex life. That configuration really worries me.


Note: The reflection on storytelling started here is continued in “The Ever-Tested Limit”, a previously unpublished late 1990s essay included in my book Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

MORE Moorhouse: A Thousand Acres

© Adrian Martin June 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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