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Family Viewing

Dysfunction through the decades: The Magnificent Ambersons

By any sociological yardstick applied in the 1950s and early 1960s, when boomers were spawned by the millions in spanking-new nuclear families, the two-plus-two domestic unit I grew up in was a model of normality. No divorce, alcoholism or abuse lurked in our closet. My parents were two hard-working people en route to the middle class, doing their best to raise their kids for better futures than they’d been able to command for themselves. Like most families of the pre-therapy era, ours came unburdened by any emotional or psychological vocabulary. I knew no one whose folks sat up nights mulling whether their offspring’s self-esteem was up to snuff, or whether the family was “communicating” adequately. They were all too busy putting food on the table and getting on our cases to mind our manners, and I for one cared about that less than getting the silent treatment. In my family, displays of strong feeling were discouraged and, when they burst through anyway, were put down to moodiness, and those expressing themsent to their room. Silence was my enemy, which may be why I never saw a quiet space I didn’t want to fill and why the inner workings of families came to seem to me at once seductive (because they were out of my reach) and full of mystery (because I didn’t understand how they operated).

I’ve never been persuaded by the argument that writers come from more defective families than most. If you’ve read Raymond Carver or V.S. Pritchett, or have seen your share of independent movies about small-town proletarians suffering in quiet desperation, or just talked to your friends, you know that we’re all woefully incomplete people with our own psychic holes to fill. The difference is that writers get to put their neuroses down on paper, and with hindsight I’m convinced that the don’t-ask-don’t-tell school of emotional discourse that prevailed in our house led circuitously to my analyzing storytelling for a living, with a marked preference for alarming tales of domestic life gone wrong. Although my many career shifts seemed at the time to just happen, in retrospect it was no accident that I wrote a Ph.D. thesis on images of family in television entertainment. Or that I jettisoned an academic career in cultural studies, which appeared to me a dry negation rather than an embrace of the magic of stories, to become first a TV reviewer and then a movie critic for the alternative press.

But long before that, before we even had a television, I was reading and moviegoing my way into a lifelong yearning to plumb the mysteries of family life, which boiled down to the difference between my own prosaic family and that of my mother’s best friend — a noisily expressive clan who bickered and fought but loved to be around one another because they enjoyed a climate of unconditional acceptance. (If our family was Ordinary People, theirs was Fanny and Alexander.) At age 12, entering my sad-sack phase, I walked around with a copy of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss clutched to my nonexistent bosom, for no more literary reason than that its enchantingly tragic heroine, Maggie Tulliver, had dark hair like mine and an older brother who was as willfully inaccessible to her as mine was to me. I was a sucker for Dickens’ sentimentally polarized families too, reveling in Tiny Tim’s poor-but-honest parents in A Christmas Carol even as I grieved for the neglected offspring of the charity freak Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. While other kids wept over the fate of Old Yeller at the movies, or drooled over the doe-eyed pooch in Lady and the Tramp, I soaked up the protective human love in which these lucky hounds basked. And while my girl pals pined for Snow White to get her prince, I hoped the daft girl would see sense and shack up in that cozy cottage with the Seven Dwarfs, a much less uncertain fate than setting up home in some drafty castle with a tall, dark stranger she barely knew. I suffered through the terrifying kiddie B movies that played Saturday mornings at our local fleapit (wishfully named the Ritz) only because my older sibling gruffly deigned to have his sleeve clutched when maggots took possession of dead bodies. And I will always remember Moby-Dick not for the set piece when the whale shot up the head of steam that did in Gregory Peck, but because it was the one and only time my dad took me, just the two of us, to what was then known as “the pictures.”

When we finally got our own TV, I glued myself to the jolly American shows that peppered the early BBC schedules — I Married Joan, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Lassie — and marvel at their chipper togetherness, which jibed not at all with my own amorphous unease. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, television, the quintessential domestic medium, got busy fashioning a benign, if utterly fanciful, image of American domesticity (Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet) that reinforced postwar prescriptions for a perfectly consumerist, middle-class family. It couldn’t last: By the time I began my own academic study of television families in the late 1970s, that giddy complacency had already given way — in the face of rapidly accelerating rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse, and the long-overdue demands of feminists for equality at home and work — to a pervasive unease that expressed itself in comedy series like All in the Family and One Day at a Time, in fractious and fractured families where single parents were legion and kids declared war on their elders. Meanwhile, a golden family past bathed in nostalgia was popping up in shows like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, to assure viewers that things hadn’t always been this bad. The remedy for the distressed families of the present was no longer a better fridge or washing machine, but a few sessions with a sage psychotherapist. That dreary prime-time genre, the TV movie, sprang up to medicalize the supposedly new pathologies of domestic life: the teenager who won’t eat because her parents are fighting, the child molester who was abused himself, the alcoholic mother whose kids run off the rails — there was nothing a devoted therapist or social worker couldn’t cure with time and patience. By contrast with the troubled hearth, in comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and dramatic series like Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues, the go-to environment for happy ersatz families and warm primary communities was the workplace. That this, in the age of corporate homogenization, was yet another wishful fantasy has been brilliantly satirized in the series The Office, which makes short work of the notion that workplaces provide the nurturing environments so lacking in many households. Maybe that’s why this wildly inventive show, in both its British and American incarnations, has remained a cult phenomenon, while the anemic Friends — with its comfy doofus-and-dits clan suspended in limbo between home and work — was a smash hit for years.

 

Television is a vital bellwether of cultural anxieties about family, work and the breakdown of boundaries between the two. By the late 1980s, though, I had burned out on the medium’s ameliorative proselytizing and suggestion that every trouble has its professional cure. Two decades later, I don’t watch much network programming, in part because prime time has grown horribly contemptuous of its audience. Reality TV has brought consumerism to the family in freshly insidious forms, advocating not therapy but extreme makeovers, help with their wardrobes, interior decorating and housecleaning, even a brisk British Supernanny to clean up their parental acts. So I’m grateful to the cable networks for the gleefully pathological clans of Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. (Tony’s relationship with his shrink is an uproarious reversal of can-do movies of the week — nothing gets sorted, no one ever changes.) It’s here, and in the grittier network dramatic series like Law & Order — and, more crucially, at the movies, which are less bound by “family values”? — that we find reflected our deepest confusions and fears about what are called (with hysterical understatement) “work-life issues.” Namely, ever more galloping divorce rates; serial families’ parents swamped by long working hours; the outsourcing of child care and housework; and kids succumbing to distracted or unavailable parents, the stresses of commuting between two homes, or else the hyperattentiveness of guilty moms and dads trying to pay for private schools while carving out “quality time” with their equally pressure-cooked offspring. Overwhelmed by their schedules, iPods, cell phones and TVs in every room, the middle-class family is a lonely atomized institution these days. Of course, the vast majority of the movies we see about family dysfunction — The Squid and the Whale, The Family Stone, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and every kids’ movie that begins with a dead mother (which is every kids’ movie) — tend to focus on bourgeois problems. How often, outside of documentaries, vérité indies like last year’s little-seen Down to the Bone, or the underrated studio picture North Country, do we see pop culture addressing what are surely the most serious but least sexy threats to a decent family life — poverty, job insecurity and unemployment?

Strangely, neither television nor movies pay much attention to the critical family debate that rages in the American media. While fundamentalists attempt to turn back the clock to some cloying combo of Little House on the Prairie and The Donna Reed Show, liberals and feminists have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that all is far from roses on the home front. Whatever you might think of Todd Solondz’s 2004 black comedy Palindromes, it offered a forceful indictment of two kinds of up-to-the-minute domestic tyrants — the born-again Christian mother who compulsively adopts disabled youngsters and does her best to keep them disabled, and the oppressively empathic liberal mom who turns dictator the moment she discovers her teenage daughter is pregnant. Solondz hits a nerve, but he’s also in step with a long tradition of movie misogyny that blames mothers for all ills: In Ordinary People, Mary Tyler Moore’s icebox of a matriarch was so awful, she got banished from the picture within half an hour, while Jane Fonda’s controlling mom in last year’s Monster-in-Law ended up face-down in a plate of sloppy food. In the surprise hit Nanny McPhee, Emma Thompson plays an austere home help who succeeds where permissiveness fails in getting a bunch of unruly kids (Mom’s dead, natch) to do as they’re told, mind their p’s and q’s and learn self-reliance. When you’ve been around as many laissez-faire hardliner moms as I have since I became a parent (and if you think that’s an oxymoron, try spending time with a mother who insists on the benefits of absolute permissiveness for her monster-in-training), the schoolmarm approach can seem attractive. But it’s also a slide back into domestic autocracy. What else do we have? The young may be giving us radical macro-political forms of protest (from green to global), but I see no evidence of a new counterculture within which to re-imagine the family. How many films these days posit alternatives to the nuclear family, in the tradition of Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (and its kitschy successor, The Big Chill), or that 1967 forerunner to the hippie moment, The Graduate? If it were a stronger movie, last year’s Rumor Has It — a clumsy Graduate sequel (directed by limo-liberal Rob Reiner) — might serve as a reminder of how defensive and reactionary we’ve grown in the decades since Benjamin and Elaine boarded that bus for freedom. Having discovered that her family was the model for The Graduate, Jennifer Aniston goes hunting for Benjamin, discovers that he’s a charming heel and that having eloped with him, her mother then ran back into the arms of the bland quarterback who gave her a very good life. At which point, Aniston herself runs back into the comforting embrace of Pasadena family values. In 10 years’ time, she will doubtless resurface in a haze of dope and drink for yet another remake of The Stepford Wives.

 

Ultimately, though, movies are memorable not for the social issues they address, but for the timeless domestic passions they excite — the ungovernable yearnings, infidelities, jealousies and hatreds; the power plays that seethe in every family along with love and protection. Brokeback Mountain didn’t become the unlikeliest hit of 2005 because it’s a plea for greater tolerance for gays, but because it’s a story of forbidden attraction — and because it suggests that family is the enemy of romantic love, which could be why unsolicited faxes from Focus on the Family about the movie’s harmful effects on gays trying to go straight keep showing up in my in box. Meanwhile, it may be that the horror movie, with its malignantly physical penetration of private space, best expresses our current domestic terrors, though aside from David Cronenberg’s masterful A History of Violence, in which the brutalities of American culture become not only organic to family life but integral to its sexuality, we’ve had none worth mentioning. For all the extremity of American film culture these days, we live in singularly bloodless times when it comes to movies about the private sphere, which are dominated by clever, enervated comedies about families falling apart under the weight of their incoherence, their intensity, or just their incessant chatter. Consider The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale and The Family Stone.

Coming from a family that kept such a tight lid on its emotions, I’ve always had a soft spot for that maligned and neglected form, the melodrama. Watching old movies on television when I was a teenager, I throbbed with schadenfreude as the rich clans in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane went down in flames of jealousy and bile. With my mother, I guzzled 1940s maternal melodramas on TV, glancing cagily sideways at her as Claude Rains’ psychiatrist counseled Bette Davis’ helpless Charlotte in Now, Voyager to “Stick to your guns without firing” when her demanding mater (a virago who made my own strong-minded mum look like Mrs. Miniver) threatened to overwhelm her. I thrilled to Charlotte’s liaison with married Paul Henreid and her stealthy nurturing of his child, and fantasized myself as both mother and daughter in some similarly boho domestic arrangement. In the 1970s, when American movies were dominated by paranoid political thrillers, I was wondrously creeped out by the insidious clans in The Godfather Parts I and II, with their taciturn patriarchs and sidelined matriarchs, their bursts of futile resentment and rebellion. Melodrama, a form too lush and intense for our low-key, therapeutic age and yet peculiarly suited to the emotive mess that is family life today, is long overdue for a splashy comeback, and I had high hopes for a rebirth when Todd Haynes’ wonderfully florid Douglas Sirk homage, Far From Heaven (2002), tore down the 1950s suburban family from its pedestal and recast it as a viper’s nest riddled with mendacity and self-deception. No one (unless you count Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, a tale of one family’s sexual malignancy all the more powerful for being a documentary) followed up, though, and it may be a sign of our evasive times, and the poverty of genre cinema, that the nearest thing I’ve seen to a powerful melodrama that addresses the way the secrets and lies of family life bubble up, unbidden, at the worst possible moments, even in the most silent and laconic of families, is last year’s Junebug — a comedy.


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