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1,000 Questions

A Thousand Acres hexes the sexes

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he meets up with acclaimed novelist Joyce Maynard (To Die For) to check out the hotly-debated "chick flick" A Thousand Acres.

We're late.

Informed by our ticket-taker that the previews have already begun, our tardy foursome moves quickly, in strict double-date formation, toward the glimmering sign that proclaims, "Jessica Lange. Michelle Pfeiffer. A Thousand Acres." As we enter the long, carpeted runway that leads to the theater, we suddenly slow down at a signal from author Joyce Maynard, gliding in the lead, arm-in-arm with her boyfriend, Michael, as I follow along beside my wife, Susan.

"You realize," Joyce warns playfully, turning to target Michael and myself, "you'll probably be the only two men in here, don't you?"

What? Oh, surely not, I silently protest. A high-profile movie like A Thousand Acres? Based on a Pulitzer prize winning novel (by Jane Smiley), starring two of the big screen's best actresses, in a story suggested by King Lear, a tale rife with epic themes, of sex and death and cruelty and power and love and loss and, um, hog farming?

Men can handle stories about relationships, can't they? After all, I'm male yet I've read Joyce Maynard's books--To Die For, on which Nicole Kidman's hit movie was based; the compelling Where Love Goes, a tale of a divorced woman redefining the meaning of love-- novels that have been typed as "chick fiction" due to their emphasis on the twist and turns of relationships. Surely I am not alone among by testosterone-secreting brothers in appreciating--even craving-- a good emotional ride now and then, am I?

Glancing about as we enter the darkened theater, I make a rough estimate. Approximately 250 seats filled. Exactly... let's see... eight men in the whole audience. Ten counting Michael and myself. That's one man for every 25 women.

Embarrassed by this anemic showing, I drop sheepishly into my seat, and the movie begins. A malevolent farmer (Jason Robards) divides his Iowa farm among his daughters (Pfeiffer, Lange, and Jennifer Jason Leigh), after which they have numerous exposition-filled conversations in which all manner of shocking secrets are brought into the light, secrets that threaten to tear the sisters apart and succeed in driving old demented Dad out into the rain. I give myself over to it, desperately trying to ... you know... feel something.

To no avail. By the time the film finally comes to a close, the strongest emotion I've experienced is fear; fear that the damned thing would never end.

"It was pretty bad," Joyce agrees--to my relief-- as we take places around a patio table at a nearby coffee joint. "Pretty much a watered-down version of the book. It's a shame too, because I loved the book. It was subtle and powerful. But in the movie, every character was reduced to about four personality traits. I don't believe, actually, that the best books necessarily make the best movies."

Fifteen minutes pass, as the men--who have not read the actual book-- lob questions at the women, who have. For the most part, these questions are variations on, "Was the father better developed in the book," and, "Was the sister's relationship more fully explained," and, "Weren't there any likable guys?"

As Joyce and Susan compare impressions of the novel, I return to my earlier thoughts about men, and my belief that--in spite of our protestations to the contrary-- we are not immune to emotions, or to stories about emotional subjects. So why weren't there more fellas in that movie?

"I felt there was possibility that this might have been a rich movie for men," Joyce acknowledges. "I think part of it is, you don't usually have men writing those kind of stories, so you get women defining the world of men's feelings. My guess is that men would be very interested in a man's novel about these sorts of relationships... but it just doesn't happen.

"With Where Love Goes," Joyce continues. "I've been told by men that if I'd wanted men to read that novel, for starters I shouldn't have named it 'Where Love Goes.'" She shrugs. "Actually, there's a consistent pattern that happens. I get a lot of letters. A lot of e-mails at my website. When men write about that novel, they almost always begin like this: 'I bought that novel. For my wife. For my girlfriend. I never read books like that, but I was flipping through this one... and hey. I ended up getting into it.' A lot of the most enthusiastic readers of that novel have been men, who supposed that that territory was not for them.

"I think they've probably been burned by a lot of 'relationship' books that don't sufficiently encompass the male perspective. I shouldn't presume that I do, either," she goes on, "but I do think a lot about men's point of view. Perhaps because I'm the mother of sons, I've tried really hard to get into the head of men, because I really like men, and I want to understand how they got to be that way."

"Um, 'that way?'" I repeat, raising one eyebrow in mock offense. "That way being, 'Unable to watch 'women's fiction?'"

"Oh, you know what I mean," she laughs merrily. "But it must be very, very hard to not get to comfortably explore that whole realm of experience. It must be hard to be a man."

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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