Haunted by the Past
by Vera Djordjevich
The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.
~ Euripides, Phrixus
And the book says: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
~ Jimmy Gator in Magnolia
if some film characters are haunted by lost lovers and dead husbands, others remain plagued by childhood scars. Confronting family legacies—particularly parental failings—has been a theme of great literature from the Greeks to Jonathan Franzen, and filmmakers have also tapped into its rich potential for conflict and character development, producing masterpieces like Ran, Kurosawa’s epic version of King Lear, as well as embarrassments like Albert Brooks’ flat comedy Mother.
Of the many variations on the theme, one popular riff features an ill or dying parent, as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film, Magnolia, or One True Thing (1998), based on Anna Quindlen’s novel. Though typically such parent-child reunions conclude with some form of reconciliation, you’ll also find grimmer cinematic duels between generations. In the bleak but beautifully filmed adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel Affliction (1997), there is no redemption in the relationship between Nick Nolte’s doomed small-town sheriff and his abusive father (James Coburn). And despite its maudlin title, Gene Hackman’s character never does reconcile with Melvyn Douglas’ bitter, lonely old man in I Never Sang for My Father (1970).
The best films reach beyond easy sentimentality for something more complex than a clichéd moment of catharsis and connection. What follows is a selection of eleven B-or-better films that navigate the troubled terrain between parents and their grown children with humor, insight, and understanding.
Chinatown 1974, dir. Roman Polanski. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.
Behind the beautiful, rich, and powerful lurk some ugly family secrets, as Nicholson’s private eye learns when he falls for Dunaway’s femme fatale in this classic film noir. Grade: A+
Postcards from the Edge 1990, dir. Mike Nichols. Starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.
It ain’t easy having a Hollywood star for a mother, but Carrie Fisher (daughter of Debbie Reynolds) makes good use of her plight in this screenplay. Without the wire hangers and campiness of Mommie Dearest, this film has the benefit of sharp, funny moments and a first-class cast. Grade: B/B+
Laurel Canyon 2002, dir. Lisa Cholodenko. Starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, and Alessandro Nivola.
A far cry from the stolid, pregnant cop she played in Fargo, McDormand is marvelous and surprisingly sexy as a free-spirited record producer with a young rocker boyfriend. When her doctor son comes to stay, studious girlfriend in tow, mom’s pot-smoking, music-making, skinny-dipping lifestyle really stirs things up. Grade: B (Great soundtrack bumps it up to B+)
before it’s too late
The Royal Tenenbaums 2001, dir. Wes Anderson. Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Owen Wilson.
Hackman, surrounded by a game cast, is the long-absent father who suddenly reappears to announce he’s dying of cancer. What follows is ridiculous, sad, and at times hilarious. Royal may be selfish, thoughtless, and a liar, but he’s full of fun, and Huston’s overly ambitious mother bears her share of responsibility for their emotionally stunted children. Grade: B+/A-
Pieces of April 2003, dir. Peter Hedges. Starring Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt, and Patricia Clarkson.
One of the better examples of the black-sheep-child-confronts-dying-parent genre, this film boasts an impressive performance by Clarkson as the witty but hard-to-love mother, with Holmes as her angry daughter who is (sort of) trying to please. Grade: B+
The Celebration (Festen) 1998, dir. Thomas Vinterberg. Starring Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, and Paprika Steen.
Public revelation as confrontation and cleansing in this Danish film about one very messed-up family uniting on the occasion of the father’s 60th birthday. Grade: B+/A- (Extra credit as the first film to adhere to Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity.”)
fathers and sons
The Moon and the Son 2005, dir. John Canemaker. Featuring the voices of John Turturro and Eli Wallach.
This 2006 Oscar-winning animated short examines the filmmaker’s troubled relationship with his father through images, words, and imagined conversations. Funny and moving, it’s best when Canemaker’s bitterness doesn’t take control. Grade: B+
My Architect 2003, dir. Nathaniel Kahn.
In his engrossing documentary, the filmmaker searches for his long-dead and secretive father, the architect Louis Kahn, by examining his work and relationships with colleagues, wife, lovers, and children. The film offers thought-provoking perspectives on love, family, and the lasting impact of architecture. Grade: A-
Nobody’s Fool 1994, dir. Robert Benton. Starring Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, and Dylan Walsh.
Richard Russo knows how to mine the fertile terrain of parent-child relationships, and an all-star cast led by Newman and Tandy bring depth to the screen version of Russo’s novel. Deceptively entertaining, this film has a dark side; it’s clear that in Russo’s world, not every relationship can or should be salvaged. Grade: A
The Great Santini 1977, dir. Lewis John Carlino. Starring Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, and Michael O’Keefe.
The burden of being the child of an ultra-macho, hard-drinking military man is explored in this film based on Pat Conroy’s novel. Persuasive, affecting performances by all. Grade: A-
Parenthood 1989, dir. Ron Howard. Starring Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest, and Jason Robards.
Shakespeare it’s not, but the film remains a perceptive and funny reflection on Clarence Darrow’s comment: “The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, and the second half by our children.” Grade: B+
Vera Djordjevich is a senior editor and the art director at On the Page.