Monday, January 24, 2011

Juno and the McGilla

The classic “McGilla” goes something like this:

A very agitated fellow walks into a bar and asks: “Is Joe McGilla here?”

“I don’t know,” the bar-tender replies, then he turns around and calls out: “Is Joe McGilla in the house?” He calls this out once or twice and, when no one answers, he says to the fellow asking, “I guess not.”

"Well,” the fellow says excitedly, “If you see Joe McGilla, tell him he’s just become an uncle!”

“Oh, congratulations!” the bar-tender offers his hand, “Let me set you up with a drink on the house!”

Now, the trick here is that there is no Joe McGilla;.

This story is about a fellow who wants a free drink and the whole thing about McGilla becoming an uncle is just the trick he uses to get the drink. Most movies have a McGilla, that is, a plot element that sets up the whole story. Just as in the bar, if the bar-keep didn’t believe that there was a real Joe McGilla, then the fellow wouldn’t get the drink, so too in a movie, if the audience doesn’t believe the McGilla then there really is no movie.

Either you buy it that Carry Grant is mistaken for a spy in “North by Northwest,” or the rest of the movie doesn’t matter. Either you believe Jimmy Stewart has a guardian angel willing to intervene in his life, or it’s not “A Wonderful Life.” Either Bill Murray has to re-live the same day again and again, or the next day isn’t “Groundhog Day.” Theorists call this “willing suspension of disbelief,” I just call it “buying the McGilla.”

So here’s this movie “Juno,” about the trials and tribulations of a pregnant teenager. The movie is not about her getting pregnant, it’s about her being pregnant, and so if she doesn’t stay pregnant then there is no movie. So we need a McGilla: we need a reason for why an intelligent, sarcastic teenage girl, from a typical middle American family, who’s pretty cavalier about getting herself pregnant, would not just do the usual thing and get rid of it. The problem is compounded by the fact that having a baby is a whole lot more trouble than setting someone up with a free drink, so the McGilla has got to be pretty good.

And it is.

When Juno, the girl in trouble, ducks on down to a clinic to have herself a quick scrape, she runs into Su-Chin, a dorky Asian girl holding a sign that reads “No Babies Like Murdering” and crying out in broken English “All babies want to be borned!” (Not since Benson Fong played Charlie Chan’s #3 son has an Asian stereotype been simultaneously so degrading and sympathetic.) Juno walks up and has a conversation with Su-Chin about school, neither of them mentioning why they are there, until Juno walks on to the clinic with Su-Chin calling after her “Your baby has fingernails!” Juno walks on, has a seedy encounter with the receptionist in the clinic, and then finds herself unable to fill out the forms required. In the next scene she is on the phone to her best friend saying that she’s decided to keep the baby, citing the fact that the baby already has fingernails among her reasons.

Now, that’s a pretty good McGilla and I buy it. I actually know sidewalk counselors and they regularly report conversion experiences of that type. Perhaps they are not common, but they do happen and usually for the same reason: the counselor says something that makes the pregnant woman come to see her child as a real person.

So this is actually a very good Pro-Life message — right?

Well, not according to the film makers. On the commentary track (and evidently in interviews as well) both writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman say that this movie is actually Pro-Choice, essentially because Juno makes her own choice.

Do you buy that? I don’t.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Can we imagine someone who’s on the fence about abortion going to that movie, hearing the thing about the fingernails, and then coming down on the Pro-Life side? I think that is plausible. They might also see how happy the baby’s adoptive parent is at the end of the movie, or how the process causes Juno to become more mature, or how crass the clinic employee was; any of these factors might constitute a persuasive Pro-Life message.

Now, can you find anything, any reason at all why someone on the fence might see Juno and become Pro-Choice as a result? I can’t imagine such a thing.

So here’s a lovely irony. Two decidedly Pro-Choice film-makers have made a demonstrably Pro-Life film just to have a plausible McGilla!

I love it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Soviets Against Abortion!

Super cool Soviet poster from 1925, warning against midwives performing abortions.

Abortions performed by either trained or self-taught midwives not only maim the woman, they also often lead to death.