Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fathers and Sons

Literature and psychology may be rife with references to maternal instinct, but much less is written about a father's attitudes toward his children, particularly his son(s). In some cases, shared activities (especially sports) may have helped to foster male bonding. But in far too many instances the father was either emotionally/physically distant or absent without leave. Many grown men will quickly admit to having had less than satisfactory relationships with their fathers.

In today's world we find a surprising number of gay men actively involved in parenting (along with single men whose wives have died or left them custody of their children). However, unless these men were raised in a large family -- where the care of younger siblings was a shared responsibility -- they may just be learning how to raise a child and wildly improvising on a day-to-day basis.

Even further removed from a child's daily life is what has sadly come to be known as his baby daddy (the man who may have impregnated his mother but subsequently failed to show any interest in or responsibility for his offspring). While President Obama and many others have urged parents to take a more active role in their children's upbringing, there will always be a segment of the population that could care less about their progeny.

Two films recently dealt with unique relationships between fathers and sons. Although focused on different times, different places, and wildly different circumstances, in each family the father outlived his son. While the nonfiction son died of rectal cancer in middle age, the fictional son became an accidental suicide during a clumsy attempt at autoerotic asphyxiation.

The legacy of David Carradine lives on.

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Prior to the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I had seen only two documentaries by Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács: Miss Universe 1929: Lisl Goldarbeiter (2006) and The Danube Exodus (1998). Both films were the result of Forgács's remarkable work in restoring and editing home movies by ordinary Hungarians that were filmed beginning in the 1930s. In writing about the "Private Hungary" series in his book, A Critical Cinema, film pundit Scott MacDonald noted that:
"While some of those who work with home movies and amateur films focus on the typicality of this material, the ways in which it exemplifies general historical developments or the human condition, Forgács often does considerable research into the particular films he works with so that, as he presents his version of them, he can provide us with specific information about these nonprofessional filmmakers and, often, about the family members and friends recorded in the imagery. The resulting films create a very unusual experience -- somewhere between the public experience of a commercial film and the intimacy of watching home movies -- during which we are able to experience, seemingly from the inside, the real lives of families not our own.

Forgács's exploration of home movies began as a way of coming to terms with his Hungarian heritage, and especially the psychic complexities of living in a rigorously totalitarian communist state, where much of what one knows and feels in private is dangerous to admit publicly. Forgács himself was for some years confined to Hungary, as a result of his active protests against Soviet domination; in time, he turned this limited mobility to his advantage in an exploration of the private lives of Hungarians.
Since the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, and Forgács's resulting personal mobility -- his investigation of the lives revealed in home movies and amateur films has often extended well beyond the borders of his native land. He remains fascinated with the history of Europe leading up to and into World War II, and with the struggles of Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union in the decades following the war, as this history is revealed in the personal archives of those who took the time to document their experience.

Forgács's videos are full of surprises, both technically and ideologically. In the "Private Hungary" series Forgács learned to work with the standard devices of nonfiction film -- visual text, narration, music -- but he uses each of these with unusual inventiveness. Many of his tapes have been made in collaboration with composer/musician, Tibor Szemző, whose compositions are consistently evocative and powerful. And Forgács has used a wide variety of visual text and has demonstrated an unusual sense of timing with it. Forgács sometimes calls his pieces "video operas," a term that suggests the overall musicality of his presentation of text and image, as well as the way these tapes position the microcosmic lives of individuals within the macrocosm of societal change and cultural history."
Over the years, Hollywood makeup artists have achieved remarkable aging effects with the use of rubberized masks and prosthetics:
Still, nothing quite compares to seeing nearly 90 years of a person's life documented in snapshots and on film. In I Am Von Höfler -- Variation On Werther, Forgács reconstructs the life and times of Tibor Von Höfler, the last in the line of a 250-year-old family of great leather makers from the small Hungarian town of Pécs. Researchers have suggested that Goethe modeled The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) on a distant ancestor of Tibor Von Höfler. Using that idea as a hook, Forgács has spliced clips from a fictional cinematic depiction of Werther into his 160-minute epic.

The son of a father who was a Christian industralist and a Jewish mother, Tibor von Höfler fathered a child of his own out of wedlock. Because many letters between family members survived (as did photographs and home movies), Forgács is able to, in essence, recreate the history of Von Höfler's life from his charmed childhood and spoiled playboy years to his struggles to become a professional chemist; from witnessing the German invasion of Hungary to the Holocaust, the Communist takeover, and 30 years of marital bliss.

Throughout the film, we see images of Tibor's son Peti (Peter), who was born to his mistress. We watch Peti grow from an adorable infant with silky bond hair to a middle-aged parent as voiceovers read letters from Peti's mother begging for money. Later, one hears the distress in Tibor's letter to the authorities after he has been arrested, his apartment seized by the Communists, and his 13-year-old son has returned home to discover he has nowhere to live. In his interview with Scott MacDonald, Forgács explained that:
"Psychoanalysis is part of American culture, but it is still not part of Hungarian culture because Communism was very thorough in killing off 'decadent, bourgeois, Freudian analysis.' There was a psychologist in Budapest who had been in prison because of the 1956 revolution: Ferenc Merei. He had studied at the Sorbonne, before the war, and he taught me psychology and group therapy. I was around him for 11 years; he was my private university, the best.

To me it is revelation to read the faces of people in home movies and the context we see them in, and to consider what this reveals about human psychology. The face is an extraordinarily sensitive surface, and these faces are not just objects like we see in Muybridge or in the Edison or Lumiere films; and they are not just acting, like in the Melies films. In this case, even if it is an artificial situation, they are representing themselves. As a result, these films are full of revelatory moments about how it was there, about how they felt, about what they felt the need to represent. If these revelations of self are then placed in a context where you can sense the whole culture, its history and background, and how particular personalities fit into it, the results become very dynamic."
Throughout the film, vintage photographs and footage of Hungary from nearly a century ago shows the evolution of styles in cars, motorcycles and clothing. I found the references to Werther almost unnecessary (and occasionally distracting from a story that stood well enough on its own). As with any of Forgács's "Private Hungary" films, the viewer feels an eerie, Twilight Zone kind of sensation -- the feeling that one has traveled back through time to a lost world. Here's the trailer:

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While one might feel muted sympathy for the relationship between Tibor von Höfler and his son Peti, the emotions running through me as I watched World's Greatest Dad were quite different. Occasionally one hears warnings that people should never tell their secrets to a writer because a writer's biggest perversion is trying to make use of anything he possibly can.

This film proves the old adage true.

Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, World's Greatest Dad is supposed to be a black comedy in which Robin Williams stars as Lance Clayton, a worn-down high school poetry teacher whose attempts at writing novels and screenplays have garnered nothing but rejection letters. Although Lance may worship the music of Bruce Hornsby and be carrying on a lusty affair with Claire (Alexie Gilmore), his school's shapely art teacher, Lance is the kind of dutiful nebbish who must force a wan smile when one of his colleagues boasts of selling a story to the prestigious New Yorker Magazine on his very first try.

A single father, Lance is also the sadder-but-wiser parent of the teenage Kyle (Daryl Sabara), a totally contemptable, sullen, manipulative and homophobic asshole with a sizzling mean streak. Kyle doesn't hesitate to dump on his father, intimidate his one and only friend Andrew (Evan Martin), and behave like a total dickwad.

The epitome of an adolescent schmuck (Kyle refers to Claire as his favorite TILF -- "teacher I'd like to fuck") Lance's son routinely rejects any attempts at father-son bonding with a stinging putdown. When Lance walks in on one of his son's attempts at autoerotic asphyxiation, his concern for his child is curtly rebuffed with a snide "For god's sakes, Dad, I was cumming!"

Robin Williams as Lance Clayton

Several days later, when Kyle dies as a result of an accident during one of his masturbatory marathons, Lance's grief is visceral and genuine. However, rather than let the world know the shameful truth about how his son died, Lance hangs his son's body in a closet and forges a suicide note (which is far more literate than any thought that ever came out of Kyle's filthy mouth) before dialing the police.

Daryl Sabara as Lance's obnoxious son, Kyle

Goldthwait's plot starts to twist when a nosy teenager finds the suicide note in the online police report and posts it on the Internet. The ensuing behavior from Kyle's classmates (all of whom loathed him when he was alive), is supposed to show what hypocrites people become when given the slightest dose of cheap sentiment. Unfortunately, the joke gets stretched out far beyond its ability to sustain any laughs, to the point where World's Greatest Dad starts to feel like a misguided ode to putz power.

We eventually see publishers fawning over Lance who, smitten with the attention given his son's forged suicide note, has gone ahead and ghostwritten Kyle's diary. As the literary voice of his son, Lance is getting all the adulation he has craved as a writer (including an appearance on a major television talk show). Only when Kyle's school decides to name its library in honor of the deceased student (which is most ironic considering the dead boy's lack of interest in reading), does Lance finally decide to come clean.

The horrified rejection he is subjected to is much worse than any of the form letters he received from publishers. As Williams enters the school pool and strips down to dive naked off the high board (yes, Virginia, you might get a peek at the infamous Williams schlong), he supposedly washes the guilt of his misdeeds away and becomes a free man.

The problem is that, by this point in the film, the gimmick had long outlived its ability to shock. As a writer, I could certainly understand the sense of desperation and shame which led Lance to forge his son's suicide note and then ride the crest of media attention and fame as far as he could. However, as much as I could admire the restrained performance of Robin Williams as the grieving father, I found myself unable to care for him, for his son, for his deception, or for the film.

It should be noted that, from a technical standpoint, Waiting For Dad is well directed (Goldthwait is noted for his efficiency as a film and television director). I particularly enjoyed the contributions of Mitzi McCall as Lance's reclusive neighbor, Geoffrey Pierson as a fatuous school principal, and Henry Simmons as Lance's romantic rival for Claire's attention.

However, one really has to wonder if -- without Goldthwait's friend Robin Williams starring as Lance -- anyone would have made the effort to invest in World's Greatest Dad (or would make an effort to see it). Here's the trailer:

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