Sunday, September 12, 2010

The potency of decent sentiment

In the 1930s and 1940s, the studios manufactured them on a regular basis and they were called tearjerkers. Ostensibly they were for women, but since they often involved the loss not only of husbands and lovers, but of children, I am sure many men enjoyed a good sniffle in their day. The cathartic effect of viewing such vicarious tragedy was understood and accepted, even if the form was not artistically respectable. As late as 1968, theater director and critic Harold Clurman called Robert Anderson's I Never Sang For My Father "a play of decent sentiment."

Today, decent sentiment, as represented in a film such as The Greatest (2009) is too middlebrow to be endured by people of education and good taste, and calumny is heaped upon such misshapen oddities, especially by the young. But I think that non-parents must be automatically disqualified from judging any works which contemplate the death of a child. Until you've gone down that road, is impossible for mere imagination to conjure up the fear of such overwhelming and devastating loss. Until then, you can't know how losing another person, even a lover or a spouse, could drain you of your sense of purpose and identity.

And perhaps the only way to exorcise the fear of that abyss is to stare straight down to its center. And so, Pierce Brosnan as the father of an 18-year-old who is suddenly and randomly killed in a road accident cannot sleep, but simply lies in bed clutching the alarm clock, staring at it dully as it goes off. Next to him, his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, stirs from her sleep for a few moments before the memory of what her life has become hits her and she begins weeping horrifically. This scene alone makes the movie the horror film of the year for a parent.

And The Greatest is to be praised for avoiding some cliches without twisting itself out of shape to do so. The mother of the dead boy does not welcome the prospect of a grandchild by that boy as one would expect, but is angry and resentful. The film does not wander far down the road of "is the baby really our son's baby" which would be tedious and irrelevant. And it posits a sweet and quiet bond between the young woman and her would-be father-in-law.

The film has been unfavorably compared to Robert Redford's Ordinary People (which Lillian Gish, presenting the Academy Award for Best Picture, called, in a moment of Freudian truth, "Ordinary Picture"). True, it is not pretentious, it is not directed by an overrated actor-director, does not have a bunch of affluent dried-up WASPs and a loveable Jewish psychiatrist (ethnics are always the bearer of truths to those repressed WASPs). It does not play Pachelbel's Canon over and over the way they did at your niece's wedding until you wanted to grab Pachelbel by the throat and kill him again, though he has been dead for over 200 years.

The one thing the films have in common (other than the set-up of one dead son and one unworthy living one) is that they center around the repression of emotion. But instead of following the road of Mary Tyler Moore's terminal toxicity (which is what makes Ordinary People an Art movie), the parents in The Greatest break through eventually. What is surprising is that the gush of tears, which produces a palpable relief in the audience, comes not from the mother but the father.

And this reveals a little truth about what it is to be a man--a real man, not a boy-man. Contrary to the prevailing mythology about the endlessly sacrificing mother, being a man is living for other people and serving other people's goals: your children, your spouse, your employer, the organization or institution you are part of. Men--other than artists and geniuses--are supposed to submerge their entity into greater entities. Individualism and ego are discouraged. (Yes, I know the movies are full of raving Jack Nicholson-types, but they are in the movies because those people are exceptional.) We men are supposed to keep our heads down, keep the grass trimmed, keep things going, make everything work for everybody else. When we're lucky, we get a beer on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

So it is a small victory to say, "I am entitled to my own grief." The only emotions we're supposed to have is pride, braggadocio, swagger. But like Pierce Brosnan's father character, we need to claim our emotional territory, where tears are allowed.

Maybe that's not art, but it's life, and sometimes art is about life, and not just about what critics are supposed to like.

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