Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Thrill of Family Life

This morning, at about 4:00am, Megan, our eight-year-old, opened our bedroom door and walked over to my side of the bed. It was dark, and raining hard outside our bedroom window.

"I had a bad dream," she murmured, not entirely awake, crying quietly.

"Come on in," I said to her, and she climbed into the bed beside me, and snuggled into the crook of my arm. She lay there until I was sure she was asleep, and then I carried her back to her bed. Lifting her up, her long, slender legs extended almost straight out, I wondered--as I often wonder--how much longer I'll be able to treat her like a child. Sometimes I look at her two sisters, Alison and Caitlyn, playing together, and I think: by the time Alison (who will turn one in just a few weeks) is as old as Caitlyn (four years old), Megan will be eleven--an adolescent. Will she let me carry her to bed? Will she come into our room when she has a bad dream? How will I feel about that?

Questions for another time. This morning, carrying her to her room and then returning to bed, knowing that I've done what a parent is supposed to do, I felt good. Fulfilled. Strong.

Every parent (or, at least, one hopes and prays every parent) knows what I'm talking about: the way that playing with your children, working with them, teaching them, doing right by them, is sometimes, maybe even often, a kind of thrill, a rush of pleasure or power or confidence. "This is working," you think to yourself, "stuff is happening: learning and loving is taking place." Your child, your family, becomes an extension of yourself, or maybe they extend into you; either way, you just feel larger, more capable, with greater breadth and presence than you did before. Of course, this is a central part of most romantic aspirations as well: you want to get together with someone, and with that someone you end up becoming so much more you then you were before, or ever imagined you could be. But I think it's doubled, tripled even, in domestic contexts, as part of ordinary family life. Maybe this is one way in which we can see the innovations of bourgeois life, whatever their blind spots and restrictions, has having been a moral gain.

It's an easy feeling to get all saccharine about, this thrill of family life; harder to dramatize. It's so easy for stories to present the family--the spouse, the kids--as an obstacle, or a dramatic foil (will she ever trust him again? will he do his duty? who will save that dying child?!?), that is assuming they don't take the easy route and just make the hero or heroine a loner, a misunderstood outcast, or someone who leaves domestic life in the background without any attention being paid to it at all. To tell a story where the strength which comes from being a family or a couple that are all in it together forms the backbone of the tale is pretty rare. That's one reason Melissa and I found The Incredibles so, well, incredible. Yes, there were some of the usual domestic tropes: unhappy husband, overbearing wife, kids with problems, etc. But fundamentally, the film simply posited, right from the outset really, that all of them (Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash, even Jack Jack) were "incredible," and so of course they were even more incredible when standing side by side. This isn't a family values debate; I neither know nor care if Brad Bird is or wanted his movie to be seen as traditional or conservative. What I liked was the thrill of seeing the son and daughter and wife and husband all do their thing: run across water and smash robots and stretch through closed doors and escape deadly traps and generally kick ass. And do it in such a way that the real domestic core of their strength, their "agenda" as it were, was always in plain view.

Of course, dealing with superheroes--and animated superheroes at that!--allows you some narrative room that other genres perhaps don't, so maybe it's just not to be expected that many films will give you families acting in tandem and building off one another like that. I can actually only come up with a couple of other examples: Spy Kids, of course, at least the first two, where Robert Rodriguez gave us a lot of delightful and never condescending heroics by way of family dynamics. And then (don't laugh) W.S. Van Dyke's many Thin Man movies. Okay, sure, Nick and Nora Charles aren't anyone's ideal couple, especially since the whole conceit of the films is that they're genteelly plastered most of the time. And there wasn't a kid until the third movie. No matter; in these film, all the tropes of the meet-cure romantic comedy are sublimated into the story of a husband-and-wife detective team whose wit are products of their loving relationship. Because they stand together (mildly tipsy together), they're Nick and Nora, world-class detectives. Apart, what would you have? No thrill at all, that's what.

I'm sure there must be more movies that make something thrilling out of the basic attachments of family life, but I'm drawing a blank. Suggestions anyone?


Anonymous said...

Great post, Russell.

And: don't forget Asta! 

Posted by William Morris

Anonymous said...

We just saw "The Incredibles" as well.

I think it's just such a fine movie. You know why none of what it has to say about the family should grate anyone except those who really have firmly anti-family positions? Because what it has to say is so passionate and emotionally vivid. It isn't defending the nuclear family as default, as so many lukewarm "family-friendly" things do, and it isn't defending the family as a hostile, angry gesture against perceived enemies to family.

I'm also fascinated by the film's overt, aggressive defense of meritocracy, but that's a different issue for a different day.


Posted by Timothy Burke

Anonymous said...

In film school, we spent an enormous amount of time arguing that the domestication of the soveriegn male was the prevailing theme of almost all cinema. Sometimes it came easy as in "It Happened One Night." Sometimes it went down hard as in, say, "Bonnie and Clyde."

Still, it's hard to beat "It's A Wonderful Life." As you say, it makes something thrilling out of the basic attachments of family life, like drafty old houses and old songs and loose stairwells and rose petals. Maybe it seems mostly George Bailey's story, but I'd argue that his family was his story and the movie is about him finally figuring it out. 

Posted by ccobb

Anonymous said...

I thought that the French thriller from a few years ago, translated as "With a Friend Like Harry," explores family issues in an interesting way, albeit from only the father's perspective. The opening scenes are especially well done -- an exhausted young couple with their three loud, fussy daughters en route to a dilapidated vacation home on a steamy, miserable day. It ends somewhat formulaically, but along the way it has a lot to say about familial solidarity, the sacrifices and joys inherent in domestic life, and fatherhood vs masculinity. 

Posted by Greg

Anonymous said...

Cool -- we are going to see The Incredibles tonight, sounds like it will be worthwhile. In the meantime I will wear my thinking hat and see if I can come up with some other movies that celebrate the family in the way you are talking about. 

Posted by Jeremy Osner

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, especially Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are about the ways in which desparate people who've been failed (and failed themselves) at creating family bonds in any of the traditional settings, find a way to create a family-like bond in an unlikely and seemingly impossible place. It doesn't necessarily make them "incredible," as they're too far gone for any such lofty goals. But their desparate stabs at family like connections do end up saving them in some important way. I don't know if too many other people saw it this way, but I thought there were moments in Boogie Nights that were breathtakingly and touchingly sentimental. Probably not what you had in mind, of course.

The thin man movies (3rd and 4th I think) are playing at the art house down the street; I'll make a point of catching one of them before it's too late. 

Posted by DJW

Anonymous said...

"Frequency" seems like the kind of movie you are looking for. The central character is a cop whose firefighter father died on the job when the cop was a boy. A sci-fi element in the story allows the adult son to communicate with the father in the past and save the father's life. But that incidentally leads to the boy's mother being murdered instead. The finale has father, mother and son fighting together to save each other. The core of the characters is that they are family members, neighbors, part of a community. 

Posted by John Mansfield

Anonymous said...

Not a great film, but "Field of Dreams" features an inspiring, supportive relationship between the husband and wife (Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan). Also lots of stuff about boys becoming men: maturation or domestication. 

Posted by DIx Hill