Alan Ball Frames The World in Human Emotion

By Tamara Jones
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 18, 2008

There is something disturbing about Alan Ball, a kind of bland, impenetrable elegance, polished to a grainless varnish, like blond wood. His tireless scratch, scratch, scratching away at life's most fragile layers may leave the rest of us raw and reeling, but the acclaimed 51-year-old screenwriter knows how to spare himself such discomfort. Glibness does quite nicely, and Ball can carry it off whether he's talking about child pornography and art, or bigotry and loneliness, or vampires and popcorn.

All of which he does, in the course of an interview barely an hour long. And, as in the darkly humorous scripts that won Ball an Oscar for "American Beauty" and an Emmy for HBO's "Six Feet Under," all the disparate, perplexing pieces manage to fall into place.

September lays out a full-on feast for Ball fans, with his independent movie "Towelhead" opening tomorrow, fast on the heels of his quirky HBO vampire drama "True Blood." Central to both are the twisted ingenues Ball favors: dewy yet carnal creatures, exuding sexuality without a surge protector, delivered on-screen in unnerving jolts.

"I don't analyze all these things," Ball says with a dismissive flick of his hand. "Certainly I'm aware it has something to do with my sister's death and me being gay and all the horrible things associated with what happened when I was growing up."

Ball was 13 when his sister, Mary Ann -- "the person I loved most in the world" -- was killed driving him to his piano lesson. "It was her 22nd birthday," he recounts, when they hit a car coming around a blind corner. Mary Ann's neck was broken, and her brother remembers that she died instantly. He, physically, was uninjured. But the accident "shattered my family," he says, and life in Marietta, Ga., never regained equilibrium. He is disinclined to elaborate, latching an emotional gate not just against intruders but against himself as well. His one attempt at autobiography was discarded after 30 pages, he says. "It felt too . . ." He waves his hand again.

If sorrow was the defining emotion of his life, terror was the subtext. "Terrifying" is how he describes being gay in a small Southern city, "living outside the acceptance of society" -- and that sense of isolation, of being "other," is what drew him to "Towelhead." Adapted from Alicia Erian's even more graphic novel of the same name, Ball's script remains true to the incendiary coming-of-age story of Jasira, a 13-year-old Arab American girl sent to live with her strict and sometimes violent Lebanese father on a soulless Houston cul-de-sac. Jasira becomes sexually obsessed with the predatory daddy next door, an Army reservist who rapes her. Jasira's volatile mix of rampaging hormones and naivete leave her uncertain whether she's been eviscerated or emancipated.

"I really loved the writing, really loved the characters and how the story was structured," Ball says of Erian's novel. He appreciated the thread of dark humor running through the book and Jasira's "sort of clumsy innocence."

But even his Oscar for "American Beauty," with its poetic depiction of a middle-aged man infatuated by his daughter's cheerleader friend, wasn't enough to give Ball a free pass when it came to making the rougher-edged "Towelhead." Every major studio turned him down, Ball recalls, and he decided to produce and direct it himself. "They would say, 'I have no idea how to market this,' or 'I can't possibly do this movie -- I have daughters.' I think it scared them."

Ball fiercely defends the provocative and disturbing sex scenes in "Towelhead," which stars newcomer Summer Bishil as the doe-eyed Jasira and "Six Feet Under" alum Peter Macdissi as her father, Rifat. Aaron Eckhart plays the odious Mr. Vuoso, whose 10-year-old son is the first to hurl an ethnic slur at a dumbfounded Jasira. Despite the movie's title, though, sex -- not racism -- is at its core.

"I think it will push a lot of emotional buttons," Ball allows. "I believe people will really respond to it. I don't think there's anything gratuitous or exploitative. . . . I was always very conscious that you not see any nudity, any body parts, because I want the audience to experience the emotions."

His own emotions about "Towelhead" are tricky. Ask where the line is between child porn and art, and his answer is calm and measured. "Obviously, art is attempting to communicate something about the human condition, and illuminate why we're here and what it means. Art is interested in people's souls. Pornography is interested in people's bodies." But was it disturbing to direct sex scenes involving a character who's so young?

"What disturbs me," he shoots back in an acid drawl, "is how many kids in this country are without health insurance. What disturbs me is how many people go to bed hungry each night.

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