Property and Passion on
by Shubha Ghosh
Vadim Perelman's House of
Sand and Fog follows a formula as old as Hegel. The movie
depicts a battle between two conflicting claims of right, both
justifiable and understandable. The problem is that both claims
cannot be satisfied, and the result is a solution based on passion
and prejudice. The popular appeal of the movie is that it provides
a two-hour amusement park ride through that basic principle.
Connelly plays Kathy Nicolo, a woman abandoned by her husband
in a California, oceanview house that belongs to her family.
The painful emotions brought on by abandonment are salved by
alcohol, and Kathy misses a tax payment (a tax, we eventually
learn, that was improperly levied). She is awakened from her
stupor by the bank officer and a policeman one morning and is
evicted from her home. The policeman, Officer Lester Burdon befriends
her and becomes in some ways her savior and her undoing. Paralleling
the eviction is the story of Colonel Behrani, a former official
for the Shah of Iran in exile in the Bay Area working a road
crew on the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County to rebuild his
dream, a house like the one by the Caspian Sea that he lost in
the revolution. Ben Kingsley, adding another ethnic embellishment
to his acting record, emphasizes the colonel's officiousness.
Although his stern manner may suggest his foreign, military roots,
he is actually the quintessential American go-getter, a survivor
focused on capturing his dreams. When he buys Kathy's repossessed
house at a bank auction with plans to resell it at four times
the price, he not only sets the stage for the conflict over equally
defensible rights, but also symbolizes the American dream of
success. After all, the colonel is the winner, Kathy, the loser.
But what does the battle mean?
Does justice prevail at the end or is the film no different from,
let's say, a Governor Schwarzenegger film, full of sound and
fury and two-fisted action, signifying nothing? Fans of the writer
Andres Dubus III will recognize similarities between House
of Sand and Fog and In the Bedroom, the film that
received lots of Oscar buzz in 2001. Both films are based on
fictional works by Dubus. Both are about the search for vindication.
Both are about the tension between passion and reason. And both
show lawyers in less than a favorable light. Dubus' work lays
bare the emotion that is masked by legal process and social convention.
The murdered son in In the Bedroom comes from a good family,
and his death is a consequence of mixing with folks from the
wrong side of the tracks. The father's guilt stems from his indulgence
of the son's sexual experimentation. The best scene occurs when
the father speaks with the criminal lawyer who is prosecuting
the case against his son's murderer. We are shown first the lawyer
presenting, in an attempt at sympathy, the weaknesses in the
state's case. But then we are made to focus on what the father
focuses on: the lawyer playing with change in his pocket, his
fidgeting, and several other signs of the lawyer's disinterest.
When the father takes justice into his own hand, the passion,
repressed by process and convention, is unleashed, but we are
left wondering whether he really feels any satisfaction.
Like In The Bedroom,
House of Sand and Fog depicts the failure of the rule
of law in the face of deeply seated passions. It is an act of
passion that causes Kathy Nicolo to lose her house. When her
legal aid attorney curtly informs Kathy that she would still
have her house if only she had opened her mail, she is questioning
her client's fall into despondency, depression, and alcohol.
Kathy's response is that she could have gotten her house back
if only the lawyer had done her "fucking job." The
failure of authority figures to deal with the problem is demonstrated
even more clearly by Sheriff Burdon, the man who helped to evict
Kathy and the man with whom she begins an affair. To call the
sheriff a rogue officer is an understatement. Having lost all
passion in his marriage, Burdon finds Kathy to be an attractive
companion. Their relationship, however, is mutually exploitative.
Burdon is using his position of power within the legal system
to win over Kathy, and Kathy perhaps sees Burdon, not only as
an available sexual partner, but also as an agent, substituting
for the legal aid attorney, in getting her house back. Their
passion veils a complex set of interests and motivations.
Despite the fact the Burdon
sees the colonel only as a man who buys houses cheap and sells
them at a sizeable mark-up, the colonel too is a man of passion.
He wants to regain the lost status that he had in Iran. Part
of the status includes his love for his family and his identity
within the broader community of exiles. While many may dismiss
this motivation as a longing for the bad old days of the Shah,
it is worth recognizing that the colonel is attempting to engage
in a transaction that would have been forbidden one hundred years
ago in California because of his ethnicity and alienage. Alien
land laws would have prevented the colonel from purchasing the
property. In light of this history, his actions symbolize a vindication.
At one point in the film, he tells his son that they deserve
the house and Kathy does not because she is a wasteful American
while they have worked to buy and maintain the property. As with
Kathy's relation to the property, the colonel's is also imbued
with emotion and passion. The conflict between the two over the
property illustrates how passions interfere with the language
There is one moment when reconciliation
appears possible. After seeing how devastated and desperate Kathy
has become, the colonel agrees to forebear from selling the house
and to allow Kathy to regain possession while he retains title.
This settlement, one that would make Ronald Coase proud, turns
out to be the seed of the final, deadly confrontation. It might
make a useful classroom exercise to study why the attempt at
settlement failed. The source of the failure is a lack of trust.
Sheriff Burdon acts as Kathy's agent in the final transaction,
and for the colonel and his family, the Sheriff is a symbol of
renegade, illegitimate authority. He has harassed them in the
past, threatening deportation and resurrecting fears of how the
Savak dealt with enemies of the state in the Shah's Iran. Sheriff
Burdon does not trust the colonel in turn, and the reason may
be racial or an urge to protect Kathy. Given the doubts about
legal process depicted in this film (and in In the Bedroom),
it is not surprising that an agent of the state becomes the catalyst
for disaster. Order is impossible given the characters involved
and the situations they are in.
House of Sand and Fog perhaps is unduly pessimistic about
the rule of law and the pursuit of property. The film is, however,
a useful catalyst for a discussion on how law fails when passions
and interests collide.
Posted January 9, 2006