Ordinary People (1980)

I’ve been trying to figure out what the title is supposed to mean.  Rich people:  they’re just like us!  Or is it Depressed people:  they’re just like us!  Somebody here is ordinary, and it sure as hell isn’t me.

If they mean the latter, though, they’re right.  One of the most basic factoids I’ve learned in my time working in the mental health field is that 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.  That’s one person in the average family, or at least one person among a group of friends.  I doubt this is a statistic that has changed significantly throughout modern history, so what it means is that for a long time people have pretended that a pretty significant condition in human society didn’t exist.  Honestly?  Based on my social circle, as limited and homogenous as it is, I would put that number a lot higher.

Depression is ordinary, in the sense that it is not unusual at all.

If we’re doing a historical study of mental health throughout history, this might be a turning point.  Whereas just a few years earlier, we saw the Institution – the mental patient who is not even permitted to interact with regular society for their (or society’s) safety – now we see the other side of mental illness.  The kid from a respectable family who tries to kill himself.

We come into the story a year after the older brother of a teenage boy has died, and find a family unable to communicate.  They’ve grown apart, disjointed now that the glue that once kept them close has vanished.  Conrad, the brother left behind, just spent four months as an inpatient after a suicide attempt, and is now pretending he’s all better, despite a complete lack of follow-up care (probably all-too-common even today, but a bit unnerving to my mind).  Clearly, he’s still not quite back to normal, despite trying to resume his regular school activities, like swim team.  He can’t even stand in the same room with his mom.  If you’ve ever wondered how awkward a conversation with your mom could be, just compare any of yours to a few choice scenes in this film.

I really liked the psychiatrist in this film.  Rather than seeming to be a patient’s nemesis, whose only goal is set unbreakable rules for the powerless patient to follow, this shrink is an ally.  It feels more like the sort of psychiatrist that I’m familiar with, one who challenges the patient’s perspective and guides her toward new insight and progress.  Though I’ve never witnessed my boss properly in session with a patient, I could see something of him in this portrayal.  The psychiatrist here is almost like the Truth Teller or a Shakespearean holy fool or something like that, the one person who can speak honest, hard truths.

Now that I’ve made my way through a good chunk of movies from each decade, I’m starting to get a feel for the trends in different time periods.  The eighties (and late seventies, too) were definitely a time of ponderous films, kind of slow-paced and serious.  About Real Issues.  Gone were the attempts to simply replicate the bombastic stage shows with dancing ladies in days of yore.  I think in a way we’re still in this era of film-making – that, along with the blockbuster comic book movies, which takes over for the Westerns of the past.  What will come next?

 

Theme:  Mental health

Diagnosis:  Suicide attempt

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Shrinks: they’re just like us!

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Terms of Endearment (1983)

Oh, hey, did you know Jack Nicholson is in this movie?  No?  Well, here he is.

 

This is a film about female friendships, and Jack Nicholson.  I liked the former, but could have done with a little less of the latter.

What’s particularly strong in this movie is the way the mother-daughter relationship is portrayed, both in its bond and in the inevitable conflict between the two.  Aurora is so often critical, even casually cruel to her daughter Emma (on the eve of her wedding to a man Aurora disapproves of, Mom tells her, “You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.”).  And yet, they have an unusually fierce attachment, talking on the phone each morning, even when one or the other has company in bed.  It’s the complexity of that connection that epitomizes the family relationship – loyalty and antipathy all rolled up in one.

But Emma also maintains a lifelong friendship with Patsy, even throughout moves across the country, changes in fortune, childbirth.  As teenagers, they share dreams about their future, and there’s something so touchingly familiar in Emma’s certainty that their bond will last.  How many friends have you shared that same conversation with – and how many are still there for you?

Considering how much this film was touted as a story about women, I was a little surprised at the amount of screen time devoted to Jack Nicholson’s former-astronaut-turned-drunken-playboy.  And the inevitable, disappointing attraction that the prudish Aurora develops for him.  His storyline felt a little cliché for the sake of a movie like this, and I didn’t find whatever change of heart he may have had to be worthy of all the effort.  But then, I’m not really a Jack Nicholson fan, so maybe I’m in the minority on this one.  (In fairness, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a Jack Nicholson movie, and I feel strangely compelled to constantly write out Jack Nicholson’s full name every time I refer to him.  To Jack Nicholson, that is.)

Despite Jack Nicholson, the film earned a decent grade on the Bechdel Test.  We even managed to check off a passing grade in the first few minutes, as child-Emma consoles her anxious mother.  Sometimes later in life, the men get in the way of a proper Bechdel-approved conversation, but that’s probably true enough of most mother-daughter conversations after a certain point.

My only complaint about this film is that it dragged quite a bit in the second half.  The surprising twist it takes isn’t really that surprising – after all, these family dramas need to get their tension from something, and it might as well be somebody’s death.  In the process, the twist somehow manages both to spring out of nowhere and to prolong things at a snail’s pace, just to make sure every single character has a chance to talk to every single other character about what’s happening.  It’s like the multiple goodbyes of the end of The Lord of the Rings, which, unfortunately, is not being paired with this film.  Just you wait.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Grown women are prepared for life’s little emergencies.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

 

I swear I didn’t plan to watch a movie about divorce on Father’s Day.  GG, Bridget.  Granted, if there’s a movie that celebrates fatherhood more than this, I haven’t watched it yet.  It doesn’t remind me in any way of my own dad, but then again, my dad’s not Dustin Hoffman, either.

So, I ran into a bit of difficulty with my theme when I reached the seventies.  Fully half of the movies that won Oscars in this decade reference a dude right in the title, so that rules them out.  I suppose I could have managed Annie Hall if I hadn’t already written it up – though, in fairness, that film is less about a woman than about Woody Allen occasionally pausing in his whining long enough for a woman to wander by.  What’s left, then, but Kramer vs. Kramer?  Surely, I thought, in a movie featuring two parents, the lady Kramer would factor in about 50% of the time, right?  Right?

You’d think I’d have learned something, lo these six months.  This is not a movie for the moms out there.  In the first half hour alone, I found myself wondering just how many times I’d have to listen to the sound of boys taking a piss.  Rather than a movie about how difficult it is to be a parent (mother or father), this really comes off to me more as a film about a not-great-dad realizing how hard parenting is when he actually has to do it.  Do I sound bitter?  Maybe I’m a little bitter.

The truth is, nobody would have cared about this movie if the roles were reversed:  dad walks out and leaves mom to do the hard work of bringing up a child on her own.  Because we’ve all heard that story, maybe even lived it.  Even today, thirty-some years after the movie came out, in an atmosphere where work/life balance is acknowledged as important, women face the same threat to their priorities.  Your career sees a setback because you had to stay home with a sick kid?  Ah, too bad, you just didn’t want it enough.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kramer needs a job and manages to bully his way into a new one in the middle of a Christmas party, just because he wouldn’t leave until he got what he wanted.  Would a woman come out of that the same way, or would she end up getting kicked out on her ass?  I think we all know the answer to that.  The same is true in how each parent is approached in the courtroom during a custody dispute: (the former) Mrs. Kramer is grilled about her sexual history and mental health, her fitness questioned at every turn.  Nobody asks Mr. Kramer about the last time he had sex.

Maybe, in the end, this is just the right movie to watch – both on Father’s Day and during a month of movies meant to consider what it’s like to be a woman on film.  Whether it means to or not, it is a film representative of the female experience.  No matter how hard you fight, in the end, you’ll still end up doubting your own worth and giving in.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Complete failure

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  No double-chocolate chip ice cream

Rain Man (1988)

 

Long before the vaccine controversy, I remember learning about autism in a high school biology class.  At some point, after reading about the symptoms a person with autism might exhibit, my friend announced, half-joking, half-panicked, “I think I’m autistic!”  What she actually was could probably be better described as sensitive, socially awkward, and occasionally flaky, not so much autistic.  Or maybe I just misheard her, and she said she was artistic, which was certainly true.

In a way, the autistic character is nothing more than a foil for Tom Cruise, an obstacle for him to overcome in his quest to ascend beyond his own dickishness.  Literally the first note I wrote while watching this movie, within five minutes of the opening, was “the redemption of the asshole.”  It’s a common enough trope (seemingly popular in the 80s, because I would categorize Driving Miss Daisy the same), and I was convinced that I would hate the film as a result.  Charlie Babbitt explains his great rift with his father as originating in teenage antics where he stole his dad’s fancy classic car for a joyride to celebrate getting “almost all A’s.”  He deserved the car!  Then how dare his father call the police to punish him!  And they say millennials are entitled.

But I think Dustin Hoffman’s endearing Raymond Babbitt saves it.  He has this ability to stand out even as he plays a character with so passive a role as the uncommunicative, institutionalized older brother.  When they show up at a casino, lights flashing, bells clanging, I felt overwhelmed.

I loved how it was totally no problem for Charlie to run off with his brother and essentially hold him ransom with literally no consequences.  Even if he was acting out in his grief (or bitchiness at losing out on his estranged old man’s fortune), Raymond must have had someone in charge of his guardianship and thus, someone to press kidnapping charges.  My irritation at this plot point is made stranger by my further complaint that everything seems to be resolved smoothly at the very end, with Raymond hopping on a train to go back to Ohio (apparently he hadn’t learned the statistics for train safety).  I read that the ending was a change from the original script – and while it’s a more reasonable solution than Raymond spending the rest of his life hanging out in his brother’s LA apartment, it also left me feeling that their fraternal road trip was a little pointless.

I would also like to point out how weird the scene was with the girlfriend kissing Raymond in the elevator.  What was up with that?  Okay, sure, you can debate whether Ray was himself interested in pursuing a date with the sparkly woman in the hotel, but then why in God’s name would anyone take that as a sign to make out with her boyfriend’s brother in an elevator?  Yeesh.

There’s a line from a book that’s stuck with me – though I can’t remember exactly how it goes, and I thought it was from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime but can’t find it, so maybe it hasn’t stuck with me as much as I thought.  It had to do with overstimulation, and what it’s like to have so much sensory input all at once.  Maybe it went something like:  People always question how I can stare at the same things all the time without getting bored, but there’s so much to see right around us that nobody notices.  Who needs to watch 88 movies when you can just watch one over and over again?

 

Theme:  Dustin Hoffman

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Definitely a movie.