Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ordinary People




I have planned on seeing this movie for a long time because I have heard it called a classic. It's bandied about on all kinds of must-see lists and many name it as being a quintessential film about American Family Life.

After watching it -- I can believe that it must have been very important in its day -- but enough films have borrowed its conventions and its themes (and even its characters?) that it was not a profound and exhausting film. I do think that it was a good film. I am confident that it will stick to my ribs for many years.

I loved the pace and tone of the film. I loved that Redford took his time letting the family's story spool out over two seasons. I loved that it was deeply rooted in the past and all of the future seemed to be in the balance but not in a hysterical or over-the-top-way. I loved the silence. I loved the reminder that time was passing slowly. That people often sit in silence and say nothing. I loved wondering about what was being remembered -- and not being allowed to KNOW -- to really know. (no heavy handed voice overs, dialogue that was too pointed and telling.

I love the nuanced way that each actor portrayed their character. In fact this is one of the most solid casts -- all AMAZINGLY even performances -- that I've seen in any movie for a long time. That's about fantastic acting, fantastic directing, and (mostly) about fantastic writing.

I admire profoundly the way that the writer, Alvin Sargent (and Judith Guest, the novelist) hears language. All of our blustery inarticulateness. All of our misguided blurting. All of our hesitating avoidances. And then ridiculously misguided, unmatched arguments ending in places that they shouldn't. It all rang so familiar.

The one emotional reservation I have about the movie was that I never cared so utterly, so completely for anyone's loss. I felt and observed it all from the icy distance that I suspect Beth Jarrett did. I saw, I cared, but I didn't *really* care. I suspect that my lack of resonance springs from some weakness in the poetic fabric of the film. But I haven't found that weakness yet.

I have several moral reservations. The first has to do with the mother character, Beth Jarrett. She is utterly the villain in this film, and while she is a very complexly drawn villain -- complete with parents that explain her waspy reserve, several legitimate chances to explain her point of view -- ultimately the film maker does not have sympathy for her. In order for Conrad to recover, he must renounce the faith of his mother:

A faith in careful reserve. Steady strength. Meticulous order.

And he must plunge into a new faith -- a faith in honest disclosure, heart-felt-emotion, and following one's own heart and impulses.

I embrace neither of these faiths on a personal level. Clearly the new-age, psycho-mushy, uber-contemporary faith suits me better. I'm a child of my times, but I cannot affirm it as being a sufficient antidote for pain or suffering.

But that's not the first moral rub for me (tho' it is the second, so now, i'll not go into the second one later.). The first moral rub to me is that in a movie so trenchantly committed to realism and incremental growth and nuanced characters in complex relationships -- wouldn't there have been a way to deal with the mother more tenderly? Must she and all of her sort -- the waspy, stiff - upper - lipped, well-heeled and well-coiffed matriarchs -- must they pay for the sins that they learned as virtues:

discretion,
modesty,
firm parenting,
pragmatism,
carefully crafted social graces

in the purgatory of this film's neverending universe? My question is: (more directly? please?)

Is there a vaguely misongynist backlash against the traditional mother that lurks under the text of this film?

Is the father really, really not to blame at all?

Nor Conrad?

Just "the mess" and --

her?

I'm uneasy on this point. Not settled or judgmental. Your judicious comments may persuade me.