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How to Make an American Quilt

August 30, 2010

How to Make an American Quilt (1995)
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Actors: Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft

Synopsis: Different generations of a family share their romantic recollections over the construction of a quilt.

Review: Just as it would be illogical to lambast a conspiracy thriller for being too dark, it seems churlish to chastise How to Make an American Quilt for excessive sentimentality, when it’s very intentionally an exercise in nostalgia and sepia-tinted reminiscence. Admittedly, the scope of the film (a group of elderly quilt-makers passing on their bittersweet memories to Winona Ryder’s young protagonist) is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but on premise alone it shouldn’t be prejudiced. That the film does itself few favours with the way it conveys its story is another matter altogether….First, the very structure of the narrative (each lady in turn recounting an incident from her past to inform her design on the quilt, and in doing so giving Ryder a ‘life lesson’) is prone to being patchy – pun intended – dependent on the quality of each given interlude. While some of the stories hold their own, too many of them are pithy and under-developed – particularly the one about the ‘man that got away’ during a rainy-night in Paris – and to have two almost identical tales of grief and infidelity appears clumsy.

The film is also encumbered by inelegant metaphors. Though the quilt itself is a logical and moving fulcrum for the plot, Ryder’s thesis on handicraft and culture is a silly symbolic mechanism that receives the tritest of conclusions when a gale-force wind blows her pages around the town and is collected by all the quilting ladies who get their own personal moment of epiphany on retrieving the paper. Even the film’s guise as a feminist paean demands further scrutiny. Though seemingly offering an uplifting message of self-reliance and sisterhood, all the mini-narratives ironically showcase that these women are necessarily defined by their relationships with men – even if most of those men are made out to be one-dimensionally devious and philandering. When Ryder has her moment of infidelity with the comically-posited Latin hunk, the narrative conveniently forgets that for her later unsullied reunion with her fiancé. (October 2009)

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