In highschool I came across a poem called The Projectionist's Nightmare, I don't recall the name of the poet but the poem's message is still very much with me. It described a wayward bird inside a movie theatre, where an audience was watching two poeple "being nice to each other". The bird crashes into the screen, its blood slithering onto the image, the spell is broken, the fantasy dispelled and the audience screams. Hector Babenco had already made this poem in substance in 1985s Kiss Of A Spider Woman where his lead character, a prisoner, escaped his miserable surroundings through memories and fantasies of a propaganda film. Two years later Bebanco would make Ironweed, and his lead character Frances Phelan (Jack Nicholson) is well past the dreaming stage, the only fantasies he has are of ghosts from his past.
Ironweed is a film many people would find slow. Nothing much happens and the characters don't change. The stark grim atmosphere and the dead end conditions unrelenting. There is no hope in the story of Frances Phelan. He has abandoned his family 22 years ago after dropping his 13 year old baby to its death. The film starts with him visiting his dead baby's grave for the first time, and then follows him around as he joins his companion Helen Archer (Meryl Streep) and his friend of sorts Rudy (Tom Waits). All three of them are alcoholics, and we watch as they wade through the alleys of Albany 1938 looking for a place to sleep . They get robbed, they see a homeless prostitute from Alaska die of cold and they get into fights. But there is no emotional release in their anger or in their better moments. You'd expect there to be emancipated joy when Streep sings in a bar in front of a full house, or rage when a bunch of kids rob them of all their money. But Streep is quickly back to her depression, and Nicholson shrugs off the robbery. All the characters in Ironweed are infact dead, they live off their memories, do what they have to do to stay alive as they await their physical death. Meanwhile there are quietly affecting scenes of closure as Nicholson visits his abandoned family and Streep remember her "musical days". Nicholson's and Streep's Oscar nominated performance are among their best.
Babenco holds his camera on his characters for a long time, as if waiting for them to crack. They never do because Ironweed is not angry, it doesn't have an agenda, it is just mournful. As I watched it for the first time tonight I became aware that the episodic cyclic nature of the film develops in the end to a complete whole. When the end credits roll you feel like you were standing too close to a painting, and now for the first time you are far enough to see it for the sad beautiful image it is. The famed author John Fowles said that we are all poets but few of us can write it. From the rhetorical dialogue of these hobos, the ugly poverty they endure, the dark allyways they inhabit and the ghosts that haunt them, Ironweed emerges as a sad and deeply affecting poem.