john cribbs


July 18, 1989 - Los Angeles, California

Filmmakers have different ways of dealing with grief, two examples of which have popped up so far in this series. Polanski responded to the violent assault on his home that claimed his wife and their unborn child with a particularly nasty staging of family slaughter in his 1971 version of Macbeth. Peter Bogdanovich wrote a book that disappointed unicorn fans but was a worthwhile read for those interested in his relationship with and malaise over the loss of girlfriend Dorothy Stratten. For his part, director Brad Siberling (10 Items Or Less) spent years preparing his own artistic outlet in the wake of the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, the 21-year-old actress he was dating at the time of her death. The result was the 2002 film Moonlight Mile, a fictionalized account of Siberling's reaction to the crime and his relationship with the murdered girl's parents.

The film opens at a funeral, which is often said to be not for the dead but for the living, and it's soon apparent that this is not a film for the dead (Schaeffer) but rather the living (Siberling.) The killing isn't depicted, there are no flashbacks to  the relationship - the dead girl is just a ghost, the lingering sense of obligation the young man (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in brood/no act mode) feels towards his grieving would-be in-laws. Imagine a Graduate where the hero is moody and self-contemplative not because he has no sense of his own future, but because he finds himself unable to escape an awkward social formality. The parents are on bereavement auto-pilot, busying themselves with ambitious projects previously set aside and dealing with the murder in as apathetically practical a way as possible: orchestrating the funeral, cancelling wedding invitations and preparing for the upcoming trial of the man who killed their daughter.

In real life, Rebecca Schaeffer was shot to death in her own front doorway by a 19-year-old man named Robert Bardo. Bardo was a celebrity stalker who had developed a fascination with Schaeffer when she started appearing regularly on TV in a sitcom called "My Sister Sam." In his mind, Schaeffer was the one to blame for his unhealthy obsession. Although she wasn't the only media figure he pined over and harassed with a constant stream of fan mail, her move from the small screen to the big one seemed to Bardo ample reason to devote his intense affection solely on her. Further incensed by an impersonal response to one his letters by an employee of Schaeffer's fan service and two failed attempts to sneak on the set of "Sam," he hired a detective agency to obtain her home address (which they did, using the California DMV). The first time he showed up at the door she politely rebuked him; when he turned up again an hour later she wasn't given time to turn him away. Without saying anything, he shot her in the chest at point-blank range.

At the time the story wasn't unfamiliar: it was a grisly combination of the John Hinkley-Jodie Foster infatuation and crazed fan Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon*. But it sent another one of those Helter Skelter-like shockwaves through the Hollywood community and probably resulted in the return of more than a few unsigned 8 x 10 glossies and SASE's to avaricious autograph addicts (I, for one, never heard jack from two out of three Fat Boys.) It resulted in tighter all-around security on the release of DMV information and stricter penalties for celebrity stalkers, which would turn out to be good news for everyone from David Letterman to Uma Thurman.

Siberling makes the interesting – and telling – decision not to make Moonlight's Schaeffer-surrogate a celebrity. He changes the murder victim from hunted target to unintentional casualty: she works in a small town diner and is shot to death by the murderous husband of another waitress, who survives the assault. The details are flexible because Siberling's movie is about his own experiences in the wake of tragedy, and he focuses solely on his spiritual rebirth. You'd think the guy who directed the live action Casper movie would have a pretty strong thematic understanding of life after death, but the journey of Gyllenhaal's character involves nothing more than existential dreams, narcissistic pondering and falling in love with a new, quirky girl who's dealing with a recent loss of her own. Sentimentality is certainly expected of the guy who turned Wings of Desire into City of Angels, and is in this case compounded by also being produced by guy who did The Notebook, filmed by the guy who shot Phenomenon and featuring the lead actress from Lorenzo’s Oil, Anywhere But Here and Stepmom. But the sentimentalism on display is so self-pitying; it's like the murder is more of an inconvenience than a devastation to Gyllenhaal, and a springboard to discover his own place in the world. The fact that he's saddled to his fiancé's parents is awkward, an imposition more than anything else. His climatic courtroom speech when he refuses to aid Holly Hunter's attorney "Mona Camp" (a clever substitute for Marcia Clark**, prosecutor of Robert Bardo) in her case so he can indulge in a little garden path philosophy about justice is supposed to somehow cure them of their grief-induced eccentricities and incessant neediness. But all this "truth" is really just a conveinent escape route for this character - a way to pack up his dead girlfriend's memory and store it up in the attic. The scene, like much of the movie, seems more grotesque than sweet. I hope it was therapeutic for Siberling to make it; to watch it was a waste of time.

* Allegedly Bardo even brought along a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he murdered Schaeffer.

** Which makes the second case of a parody of lawyers from the OJ Simpson trial to use the same initials, after Jackie Childs on "Seinfeld."

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