Thursday, February 18, 2010

Life With (and Without) Father

For those of us lucky enough to have known our fathers, many of them have played a critical role in our lives. Not just as the parent who paid the bills or drove the family car, but as the person who served as a role model and may have sometimes offered a quieter kind of love than that of our mothers.

For many gay men, their father was someone who always kept an emotional distance. I was lucky enough to know my father extremely well and be able to talk with him honestly. As he grew older his skin became more creased, his hair continued to thin, and his spirits often sank due to family problems. Still, we made it a point to speak on the phone each weekend to make sure we knew what was happening in each other's lives.

Sometimes we would meet in a city where there were new things to explore. On a weekend visit to Walt Disney World, we shared a day with friends of mine from Rhode Island. Standing in the 360-degree Circle Vision auditorium, I watched my father (a former high school teacher) hop up on a railing right after the announcement warning people not to sit on the railings.

During a week-long visit to Hawaii my father insisted on comparison shopping for prunes (despite my insistence that all of the ABC convenience stores charged the same price). Late one night, when I returned to our hotel room after spending a few hours at a gay bathhouse, he asked if I'd had a nice bath.

Several years later, when he started to run to catch a bus while we were in North Beach, I told him to slow down and wait a few minutes for the next bus. Old habits never die and, as a former New Yorker, it killed him to lose those precious few moments.

Once, we met in London for a week of sightseeing and theatre after he had attended a week-long ElderHostel devoted to birdwatching in Scotland. As we prepared to leave our hotel room one morning, I asked if he wanted to take an apple with him. Because he was facing away from me, my father replied "No, I think I'll take the bus." My sister later told me that she was convinced he'd been reading people's lips for years without telling anyone how bad his hearing had become.

Watching a parent start to lose it -- whether from a mental process like Alzheimer's or the sheer physical deterioration of aging -- is always difficult for children who, as adults, are in the midst of experiencing the painful role reversal in which the child becomes the parent and the parent often becomes increasingly childlike. Two new films handle this acute change in a family's equilibrium with a combination of comedy, drama, alienation, fantasy, and no small amount of anguish.

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It's difficult to describe a film which has a clear narrative yet feels like the writer/director is trying to herd cats on the set. Perhaps that's because the characters in Mitchell Lichtenstein's new dramedy, Happy Tears, are so sadly torn between their fantasies, their fears, and reality.

Because the filmmaker's father (Roy Lichtenstein) was a famous artist, he knows the price of fame as well as the inner workings of the art world that haunt a minor character. As he explains:
"Since I know something about the art world, I thought I could deal with it in a sort of shorthand, which was necessary since it’s not the main focus of Happy Tears. I thought: what if I had to -- or felt compelled to -- deal with my father’s legacy by myself? Overseeing exhibitions, creating the catalogue raisonné, etc.? I’m completely unsuited to the task, and anyway, it’s not a one-person job.

All that would be overwhelming. So I created Jackson, who is trying to make a connection with his father that he never had in life. Jackson’s dilemma is that he’s trying to prove something to someone who is no longer there. He should have worked it out while his father was still alive."
Unfortunately, Jackson's psychological problems (and the ways in which they affect his wife and sister-in-law), end up in a tug of war for control of the main narrative. Perhaps that's because Lichtenstein's plot centers around the following highly dysfunctional characters:
Rip Torn as Joe
  • Shelly (Ellen Barkin) is Joe's latest female companion. A nearly incoherent crack whore who treats Joe with great tenderness and affection, Shelley often wears a stethoscope around her neck while pretending to be a nurse.
  • Laura (Demi Moore) is Joe's older daughter, a realist who has been forced to accept her husband's bisexuality. Having protected her little sister from reality during their adolescence, she has no illusions about their father's deteriorating mental and physical condition.
  • Laurent (Sebastian Roché) is Laura's husband, who sometimes enjoys his work as a masseur more than one might expect.
  • Jayne (Parker Posey) is Joe's younger daughter, who has obviously thrived on playing the role of Daddy's little princess. Having married into money, Jayne has no problems spending $2,800 on a pair of boots she doesn't need. Unfortunately, she can't bear to face the reality of her father's decrepitude.
  • Jackson (Christian Camargo) is Jayne's wealthy husband. The son of a famous albeit deceased painter, Jackson has made a noble effort to manage his father's art and estate (but is obviously in way over his head). Terrified of the prospect that he could pass his own neuroses on to the next generation, Jackson has been reluctant to father a child with Jayne.
  • Ray (Billy Magnussen) is a teenager in Joe's neighborhood who has always had a crush on Jayne. After the two of them take Ecstasy during a rainstorm, they have some other-worldly sex which leaves Jayne surprised but happy to be pregnant.
Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore)

Happy Tears struggles to weave the fantasies in the minds of its characters into the reality they face when sober. Although the film has many genuinely funny moments, Lichtenstein has trouble pulling things together. Whether dealing with Joe's drunken folly, his daughters' quest to find the treasure he always told them was buried in his back yard, or one daughter's sudden decision to have a garage sale that will quickly get rid of her father's belongings, the film will probably have limited appeal at the box office.

That may be because audiences are not sure of what they're getting or because Lichtenstein's film hits some people too close to home. Laura's rage at being the sister who followed all the rules (but ended up poor) is no match for Jayne's talent for denial. Despite some lovely cameos from Celia Weston and Roger Rees, the film careens across the screen like a bus whose driver has suffered a heart attack.

Ellen Barkin

As much as I adore Parker Posey (and admire Demi Moore and Rip Torn), there is one compelling reason to see Happy Tears: the chance to watch Ellen Barkin steal the movie from some formidable competition without saying very much of anything. It's a virtuoso, award-worthy performance stuck in a mediocre movie. Here's the trailer:

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Turning 50 puts some people in a big funk. But for a German family man, what should be a routine midlife crisis turns into a bizarre experience accompanied by baroque music sung by a group reminiscent of the Swingle Singers, Norbert Baumgarten's new film, Mensch Kotschie, revolves around a woebegone soul whose family and professional lives are rapidly falling apart.

Stefan Kurt as Jürgen Kotschie

Nothing is going well for Jürgen Kotschie (Stefan Kurt), an architect about to celebrate his 50th birthday. His wife, Karin (Claudia Michelsen) can't seem to make up her mind between ordering hot or cold trays of food from the caterer. When not pumping iron, his teenage son Mario (Max Mauff) just wants the keys to the family car. Kotschie's father (Axel Werner), who lives in an adult care facility, is senile, silent, and refuses to let go of his television remote. Markwart (Henning Peker), one of Kotschie's close colleagues at work, is a total asshole.

In scenes that recall Jacques Tati's 1958 comedy, Mon Oncle, Kotschie is constantly challenged by malfunctioning automated sink faucets, paper towel dispensers, and sliding glass doors that conspire against him. His former girlfriend, Carmen Schöne (Ulrike Krumbiegel), has a young daughter named Jenny (Nele Trebs) whom Kotschie visits, takes to an amusement park without his mother's knowledge, and gives an envelope containing 20,000 Euros.

In between several bizarre encounters with hitchhikers, Kotschie manages to befriend a stray German Shepherd who eventually saves the man from his attempt to commit suicide by attaching a garden hose to his car's exhaust pipe.

Jürgen Kotschie (Stefan Kurt) with a man's best friend

There are times when Mensch Kotschie glows with a strange tenderness and wry sense of humor. At other times, it can easily lose its audience. While the dog's role as a guardian spirit becomes obvious toward the end of the film, this film is worth seeing for the beautiful cinematography by Lars Lenski. Mensch Kotschie will be shown on Sunday, February 28th as part of the German Gems film festival at the Castro Theatre. You can order tickets here.

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These days, the word "Daddy" has taken on new depth, especially within the gay community. While there are plenty of websites for gay men interested in intergenerational sex partners (SilverDaddies, DaddyHunt, NiceDaddies, etc.), few offer the wry charm found in My Heart Belongs To Daddy. Written by Cole Porter for 1938's Leave It To Me!, the song was made famous by Mary Martin (who appeared to be stranded in a Siberian railway station with nothing to wear but a fur coat). Martin sang it in the 1940 film, Love Thy Neighbor, and again in 1946's Night and Day. Enjoy the following clip:

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