Father's Day at the Movies 2003
I enjoyed the responses I received about my Mother's Day feature, so I'm following up with the logical companion piece. Once again, I have used the weeks surrounding Father's Day as an occasion to revisit some favorite cinematic fathers and to focus on some noteworthy paternal characters in a pair of current theatrical releases. As with the Mother's Day roster, I couldn't possibly have room to fit all the movie dads that are dear to my heart—some missing treasures this time around include Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter, Walter Pidgeon in Forbidden Planet, Melvyn Douglas in Hud, Tommy Lee Jones in Blue Sky, Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink, Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thief, Gepetto in Pinocchio, and Terence Stamp in The Limey. If you have your own favorite cinematic papa to contribute to this list, pass it on at nick@nicksflickpicks.com.

This feature page is dedicated to my own wonderful father, whom I adore.

Finding NemoThe Italian JobNanook of the NorthThe Best Years of Our LivesThe Night of the Hunter
Cape FearXalaBoyz N the HoodLove Field/Far from HeavenTime OutThe Man Who Wasn't There

Now in Theaters

Marlin (Albert Brooks) in Finding Nemo
I was lucky enough to see Finding Nemo with my own father, as well as the rest of my family, in the days preceding Father's Day. What a relief it was that 2003 has finally generated a movie that all four of us wanted to see! These past six months have been such a dismal stretch at the cineplex that the glorious colors, gentle humor, and surprising emotional depth of Finding Nemo felt like superior achievements than I suspect they really are. Certainly the film is no Toy Story, but it marked for me, at least, a return to form from the silly, listless Monsters, Inc..

Because of the imminent holiday, I was especially sensitive to the themes of paternal love and anxiety throughout the picture. Marlin, the fretful clownfish voiced by Albert Brooks, loves his little Nemo so deeply, and feels so protective of him, that he hopes nothing ever happens to him. (I was reminded of a graduate school acquaintance who hated sending his daughter to her first day of school, because he wouldn't be able to dictate whom she met or what she did.) Nemo's plot and ideas are hardly new or unpredictable, but the film does a lovely job of mapping the reciprocal educations that both father and son must undergo: the ocean/world really is a threatening place, and Nemo is wise to rein in some of his more exuberant impulses, and yet Marlin must recognize that encountering risks and obstacles is the only way of learning to master them, and learning to master them is the only way of growing up and being happy. The broad cast of characters, colorful in every sense of the word, all play clever and well-defined roles in the evolving education maturation of the central characters, proving that even underwater, it really does take a village to raise a child—and a dad.

© © ©

Donald Sutherland in The Italian Job
Donald Sutherland is a strange and underappreciated actor—his strangeness, in fact, is a major reason why I value his presence. After decades in the movies, his laser-eyed, hatchet-jawed face and unmistakable voice have given nerve and mystery to even the blandest characters (the pyroenthusiast in Backdraft, the sozzled lawyer in A Time to Kill), and yet the weirdness of his screen persona has never grown domesticated or overfamiliar. Sutherland also ranks high in the canon of screen fathers, not just as Kiefer's pop, but as the creator of two of the saddest, most indelible paternal figures in the last 30 years of moviemaking: the haunted, desperate mourner of an undead daughter in Don't Look Now, and another grieving paterfamilias in Robert Redford's Ordinary People, where the pained simplicity of Sutherland's performance saves the movie from the histrionics of his castmates and the burnished, affluent polish of Redford's mise-en-scène.

If Ordinary People is a flawed movie, F. Gary Gray's would-be thriller The Italian Job is simply an awful one. Because of the absence of guns, the few explosions, the mostly credible cast, and the convolutions of its set-piece heists, this film has somehow gotten a reputation, trumpeted in all its ads, as an "intelligent summer thriller." Surely this is proof of how bottomed-out our expectations have become. The performances here are vacuous even by the genre's standards (Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron are particularly lifeless, and Edward Norton is sleepwalking again), and worse, the editing and execution of this 103-minute lark manages to feel unbearably tedious. It is the kind of movie where someone asks, "How wide is that hallway?", and someone else punches some keys on a laptop, and a computer graphic says "6.02'", after which this actor gets his own unnecessary close-up to re-announce, "Six feet," after which everyone standing around the computer gets their own blank reaction shot. The tightest sequence in the film—the only tight sequence in the movie—is the Italian Job itself, the thieving of a Venetian safe masterminded by Sutherland himself. Sutherland dies soon after, catalyzing a series of "revelations" and "conflicts" that I couldn't have cared less about. It is indicative of Sutherland's value to mediocre movies that when he perishes, the film goes with him.

From the Vault

Nanook in Nanook of the North
One of the most doting, most industrious fathers in movie history is Nanook, the Inuit hunter-provider who is the subject of Robert Flaherty's deservedly legendary 1922 documentary. Flaherty is often credited with having invented the documentary feature as a distinct formal entity in American and world cinema. Though it is important to remember that most early cinema was "documentary" in a sense—movies were invented to capture fragments of life, before they were conceived as a venue for fiction—Flaherty pioneered the assemblage of true-life portraits into a narrative vision of a particular human experience, and he famously strayed far from his homeland to showcase lives unfamiliar to his audience. Nanook was his paradigmatic project, and it remains one of the most revelatory and engrossing documentaries ever created, with indelible images and unforgettable details. It has become fashionable in recent years to impugn the veracity of the film—Flaherty coached Nanook and his family and community to perform certain rituals at convenient times, and certain rituals (the climactic seal hunt, for example) represent ways of living that were already passé to Eskimos of the 1920s. These are important observations, but we must always remind ourselves that documentary films are never the same as real life; editing choices, to say nothing of a film crew's disruptive presence, inevitably distort the "truth" of what we see. Moreover, what is unfaked, and probably unfakeable, in Nanook is the parental and familial dedication that seems to animate everything that Nanook does. Lots of dads are handy around the house, but wait till you see Nanook build an igloo in a day, complete with a custom-framed window made of ice! Truly wonderful viewing.

© © ©

Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives
I am amazed at how often I see William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives characterized as a soft melodrama, or a sentimental character piece that, one year after Hiroshima, treeated World War II with a tone of nostalgia. Perhaps it's the ring of the title phrase, but unlike the more earnest, modern catchphrase "the Greatest Generation," The Best Years of Our Lives is, in its title and its story, deeply ironic. The movie is not about the restored pleasures of family and community in the aftermath of World War II; it is about the strained attempts of ex-soldiers, their families, and their neighbors to produce a kind of happy normalcy that no one on screen seems ready to trust, or to feel. Fredric March, in his Oscar-winning performance as Sgt. Al Stephenson, embodies exactly this kind of discomfort. His reunion scene with his family, especially as he surprises wife Myrna Loy in one of classic cinema's most moving shots, are poignant with emotion, but it isn't simple emotion. The complexities and barely-submerged conflicts start to reverberate as March fumbles to reconnect with his teenaged son and daughter, whom he hasn't seen in years. Ensuing scenes reveal March's destructive reliance on alcohol, as well as Loy's honorable/pitiful attempts to respect his pain but curb his grosser tendencies. March's character, like those of Dana Andrews and Harold Russell, and indeed all of the large cast, emerge as fundamentally decent people who aren't sure how to continue in the world, because they aren't sure what world they're in anymore. It's a moving and important film, anchored by astonishing performances—struggles ill-concealed by smiles.

© © ©

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter
Some of the most memorable fathers in cinema are the nasty ones, and Mitchum's dastardly stepdaddy is one of the nastiest. Only John Huston's perverse strutting as Noah Cross in Chinatown and Michael Powell's eerie cameos in Peeping Tom's video footage carry the same psychosexual terror that Mitchum exudes here as Harry Powell, a psychopathic glutton and murderer who disguises himself as a Reverend. In this guise, he marries recent widow Shelley Winters, in hopes of acquiring the stash of money that her thieving husband—a cellmate of Mitchum's, recently executed—has spirited into his house. Mitchum eventually discovers that Winters knows nothing about it, but he also notices that her pre-teen children, a boy and a girl, seem unnaturally quiet and defensive, as though they are hiding something.

The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by the famed British actor Charles Laughton. Laughton's acting style frequently hung on the fence between artful exaggeration and pure hamminess, and The Night of the Hunter, justly celebrated for its dreamy imagery and expressionistic photography, tows the same line even more boldly. A couple aspects of the film don't work—the children, especially the girl who plays Pearl, are not exactly "finds"—but for my money, this is still a fascinating piece. Robert Mitchum's sly, lusty, totally libidinal headcase is probably the crown glory of the picture, and he's at his best when he's squaring off against the other great actor in the movie: Lillian Gish, in a rare speaking role as the hunted children's adoptive guardian. You may be enraptured or bored, but you won't have seen a movie quite like it.

© © ©

Gregory Peck and Nick Nolte in Cape Fear (1962) and Cape Fear (1991)
Mitchum's performance as Max Cady in the original Cape Fear borrows heavily from his role in The Night of the Hunter; by this point, his distinctive brand of macho evil comes pretty easily to this actor, just as Gregory Peck can comfortably access the fatherly dignity of his own character without breaking a sweat. This version of Cape Fear is not a particularly interesting film until compared to its 1991 remake by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese's lead actors are still cast well in line with qualities we'd seen them play before: Robert De Niro can do serpentine pathology, and Nick Nolte is equally skilled at explosive masculine anxiety. But what changes most noticeably between the two versions of Cape Fear is the approach to fatherhood: Peck's moral gravity could hardly be more different from Nolte's chauvinistic bluster, a disparity upon which their respective movies are entirely founded. The 1962 version shows a rock-solid family that holds up under the pressure of extraordinary evil; the 1991 version locates rupture and repressed violence within the family itself, for which Max Cady becomes a projected, almost spectral embodiment (note his capacity for appearing and disappearing). There is no question that Scorsese's is the superior version, but the domestic dynamics and timely associations conjured in each picture yield interesting essays on the respective times in which they were produced.

© © ©

Thierno Leye in Xala
Ousmane Sembene's Xala is one of the very best movies I've seen that you still can't find on video or DVD. Public retrospectives of Sembene's work, however, have become increasingly common in recent years, which means his films are not impossible to locate if your eyes are open, and may even imply—if we're lucky—a DVD release in the near future. Certainly Xala deserves to circulate. It is the rare film that is as timely now, as Africa continues its political convulsions, as it was when it was made. Thierno Leye stars as El Hadji, a spineless white-collar entrepreneur in Senegal, who celebrates, in the opening scenes, the expulsion of the European colonial government from the capital. In Sembene's satiric and sadly truthful vision, however, the empowered African cabinet and the rising social elite are all too willing to mimic the colonials' worship of material goods and other emblems of power, including control over women. It is this last aim which causes Leye's character the most trouble—he is suffering from impotence (the term in Wolof is "xala"), but the condition is not just physical. El Hadji seems to buckle in the face of most women, which is understandable given the clear moral authority of the females around him. One of the film's most striking characters is El Hadji's daughter Rama, who repeatedly admonishes his embrace of colonial values and his preoccupation with false symbols of authority. Their confrontations offer some of the sharpest scenes in an endlessly provocative, funny, and justifiably outraged movie, leading to one of the world cinema's most devastating final scenes. I am including Xala in this list partially as an excuse to advertise the movie, and also because El Hadji offers such a memorable instance of atrophied fatherhood, the kind who sacrifices moral leadership and compassionate guidance for a quick buck and a good—well, it rhymes with "buck."

© © ©

Laurence Fishburne in Boyz N the Hood
Almost everything that Xala's El Hadji isn't, Boyz N the Hood's Furious Styles is: commanding, articulate, attentive, informed, and committed to the education and ennoblement of his community. In fact, John Singleton has crafted such an unforgettably strong father figure that he threatens to short-change the rest of his picture, particularly its women, who are frequently cast aside by the plot or forced to spout dialogue that comes at their own expense. (Imagine Angela Bassett, of all people, being coerced into saying that only a man can teach her son how to be a man!) Still, even if Boyz' cult of masculinity gets a little thick, Furious Styles is one of the most authoritative characters the American cinema yielded in the 1990s. Fishburne is marvelous with Furious' speeches, especially in the Sermon on the Mount scene where he lectures an impromptu audience in Watts about the importance of black-owned businesses and urges them into a systemic, cross-generational approach to their own social elevation. Fishburne has Singleton to thank for these fiery showcase monologues, but the actor manages to humanize this apostolic character with a slouchy posture and a mid-range vocal register that makes Furious more than a symbol or a directorial voicebox. He even finds stray moments of humor—listen what he does with the simple line, "No," in the scene immediately preceding the trip into Watts. The chauvinism in Boyz and some amateurish, unnecessary camera movement have, over time, dulled my overall opinion of the film just a bit—but Furious and Fishburne only improve with age.

© © ©

Dennis Haysbert in Love Field and Far from Heaven
Unquestionably, the screenplays of Jonathan Kaplan's Love Field and Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven are gifts to their lead actresses. Michelle Pfeiffer and Julianne Moore both earned richly warranted Academy nominations, though their performances are very different. Pfeiffer is blustery and mannered as Lurene, a Texas housewife who dreams of meeting Jackie Kennedy and experiences a crisis after watching JFK's assassination firsthand. Moore is characteristically subtle in etching the growing despair of Cathy Whitaker, a Hartford woman who is nearly Lurene's contemporary but feels trapped in a plusher, quieter, and less forgiving social universe. What links the films are the performances of Dennis Haysbert, who provides a skillful counterbalance to two very different roles and actresses with his own stripped-down acting style. Haysbert plays a single father in both films, and his status as an unfairly targeted black man in a bigoted world is the governing concept of both characters as written. Because of his quiet charisma, Haysbert has garnered little of the critical or popular attention that his costars in both films enjoyed. When he was noticed, comparisons to Sidney Poitier frequently ensued. But Haysbert is his own actor: he gets to show more anger in Love Field than in Heaven, but Haynes trusts him with more pivotal scenes, as when he delivers Moore's character a killer disappointment outside his back door. I hope we'll see more of Haysbert at the movies, and when he does appear, I hope people really will see him.

© © ©

Aurélien Recoing in Time Out
Laurent Cantet's Time Out (known in French as L'Emploi du temps) is sort of like a sober Marxist's American Beauty, which is a good thing. Here again we have a middle-aged father and husband who suddenly feels abandoned by his professional life, except in this version, it's the job who leaves him, not he who leaves the job. The lead character, played very well by Aurélien Recoing, is too embarrassed to tell his family, and so he begins taking long drives (and even some long parks) during the day, while his family assumes he is still at work. Actually, embarrassment isn't the whole story: one has the sense, as often in European cinema, that this man's job is not the kind of gratuity, burden, or punchline that work so often is for American characters. His career is a central source of his own self-regard, and when it abandons him, he seems to evaporate. This is a notion almost totally alien to American movies, but probably truer to people's experiences than we may think. What Recoing conveys so powerfully, and yet mutedly, is the increasing sensation that his character is puzzled by his own decisions and deceptions. When his predicament is inevitably revealed to his family, writer-director Cantet reins in the opportunity for grandiose emoting, though the supporting cast—especially Karin Viard as Recoing's wife—are uniformly persuasive. I frankly have a hard time recalling the precise details of Time Out's conclusion, and I remember liking it a little less than its rave reviews had suggested I might. But the central performance still haunts me, just as the character seems haunted by himself. Time Out may not be perfect, but held up against the recent spate of American midlife crisis movies (Life as a House??!), it sure looks like gold.

© © ©

Richard Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There
I close with a film that few people saw in theaters, and in doing so, I focus on a character to which the film itself barely pays passing attention. Billy Bob Thornton stars in the Coen Brothers' typically weird tale of a laconic barber who makes a maladroit first venture into capital investment. His motives are almost unconscious, even to himself (remember that title), but they partake from some combination of loneliness, curiosity, spousal aggression, and an impulse to push the limits of his tranquil life, possibly for the first time. The investment doesn't work out, nor does the marriage, nor does the limit-pushing, nor, you could say, does his life. It's impossible to conceive that The Man Who Wasn't There will end especially happily, though because it's a Coen Brothers movie, we can also be sure that our path through the movie won't be predictable or uncluttered, and the sideshows along the way will be at least as interesting as the core narrative.

I recently returned to The Man Who Wasn't There on DVD and was glad to discover I liked it more on second viewing than I had on the first. Knowing that the Coens are experimenting with the notion of non-being—not just a man who isn't there, but a film that resists taking any one shape, and a plot that sidewinds and sidewinds into a purposeful black hole—made the bewildering scenes and choices a little easier to grasp. But I include the movie here because my favorite performance in the film, both times I saw it, is a tiny gem of character acting that is all too easy for movie buffs, much less the casual renters, to overlook. Richard Jenkins, a star of TV's Six Feet Under has just a couple short scenes as Walter Abundas, an alcoholic lawyer who hangs out on his porch and looks benignly disappointed at anyone who should happen to visit. His daughter Birdy, played by Scarlett Johansson, comes to embody a kind of youthful life-force to Thornton's character, but Jenkins barely notices. He isn't at all cruel to Birdy. Father and daughter just seem to have a quiet understanding that he loves her but he can't do anything for her. He is a profoundly sad character, despite the humor and likability which Jenkins so succinctly and magnificently invests in him. Walter is not a primary or even a secondary character in the movie, and yet the picture would feel entirely different—poorer, lesser—without his inclusion.

The cinema is filled with these kinds of characters, sideline players whom, for whatever subjective reason, you never forget. The world is also filled with fathers who may not feel like stars or scene-stealers, but they remain, in their quiet way, invaluable. Honoring the humble and the unspectacular, along with the prominent and the accomplished, is what Father's Day should prompt us to do.

Home 2003 E-Mail