When she saw Thelma & Louise in 1991, Jennifer Townsend wanted to do what any kid today can do in seconds: Find out what her fellow moviegoers thought about a film that was inspiring so much controversy in the media. In that pre-internet age, she was curious enough to launch a snail-mail research project, asking people around the country to fill out a questionnaire and mail it back. She got lots of responses, then let the project lapse.
Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise is what happened when Townsend, now a septuagenarian retiree (her website says she has had “careers in law, business, and real estate”), decided it was time to make a movie. Clearly a microbudget labor of love, the earnest documentary never attempts to assess the road pic’s place in film history or the culture generally; most frustratingly, it never asks what a young viewer today might think of it. Rather, Catching Sight plays like a book club whose members have had decades to reflect on the provocative work under discussion, sometimes realizing they’re different people than they were when they first voiced opinions. In this narrow context, the doc can be a fascinating, if incomplete, self-portrait of one generation of feminism. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that Thelma & Louise remains very much worth talking about.
A caveat: Anybody considering buying a ticket should plan on rewatching Thelma & Louise beforehand, rather than afterward, as the doc moves beat by beat through the movie and would drain much of the pleasure out of seeing it again. (For those whose memory has faded, the picture holds up awfully well on the whole.) And if you somehow don’t know how the movie ends, you should stop reading this.
Reconnecting with many of the people who sent in questionnaires, Townsend travels cross-country to sit down with people who now are social workers, ministers, professors and so on. (She also talks to the 1991 film’s editor and two male members of the supporting cast.) Obviously, her interviewees are middle-aged and older; they’re also mostly (but not exclusively) white, female and comfortable-seeming.
All are eloquent when talking about their impressions, which doesn’t always mean they have something new to say. Anybody who has given any thought to gender dynamics in America can tell you what these viewers do about how Callie Khouri’s screenplay dramatizes scary truths about rape and impunity; we all know the societal factors that would, for instance, keep Geena Davis’ Thelma from leaving her loutish husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald, one of the two actors who met with Townsend).
And, sadly, we don’t need a reunion of a 1991 movie audience to find women who, like these, can identify with Thelma when a man tries to rape her in a honky-tonk parking lot. It’s not true to suggest (as some do here) that Thelma & Louise was the first big American movie to make rape and its consequences the focus — just three years earlier, in The Accused, Jodie Foster had played a woman who was gang-raped and fought hard for some shred of justice — but the deeply personal ways these women responded to the pic’s blend of humor, indignation and despair proves that it brought something new to the conversation.
The passage of time also reveals subtleties and ambiguities that eluded many viewers in 1991. One woman admits she now sees the many vulnerabilities plaguing the film’s male characters, who at the time seemed more powerful to her. Another recalls how she and fellow members of her “feminist collective” leapt up and applauded when Susan Sarandon’s Louise shot Thelma’s would-be rapist dead, despite having already rescued her from danger; today, she no longer sees that act as a credible kind of empowerment.
Thanks to Khouri, director Ridley Scott and a mostly fantastic cast, these shades of gray were always there in Thelma & Louise, even if 1991’s version of hot-take culture encouraged black-and-white interpretation. Curiously, though the film’s talking heads debate the message of our heroes’ final act, nobody observes that the way it is framed onscreen is the movie’s only unforgivable flaw. Some viewers feel Thelma and Louise should’ve surrendered to the law and argued their case; others understand that the pic’s painted-into-a-corner contrivances expressed a deep emotional truth about being a woman in a world run by men. In the latter view, driving off that cliff is the only honest way the movie can go. But there’s no defending Scott’s handling of those final seconds, laying Hans Zimmer’s triumphant chorus and chords atop a freeze-frame and sentimental flashback montage, bizarrely trying to leave the impression of a happy ending. Thelma & Louise was funny, frightening, sexy and warm; it was a welcome look at women standing by each other under terrible (sometimes self-inflicted) circumstances. But it wasn’t then and isn’t now a movie that should leave viewers feeling good.
Production company: Far Beyond Film
Director: Jennifer Townsend
Director of photography: Stuart Ferrier
Editor: Sarah Ferrier
Composer: Stephen Thomas Cavit