Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Senior Thesis: Ordinary People

I don't know if you've noticed, but I have been absent here for the past couple of weeks. Okay, so I wasn't exactly "absent" so much as I haven't done any substantial posting. Well, don't fret because I am back and hopefully better than ever (Cue massive sighs of relief)! School got in the way, unfortunately, but one of the projects I was frantically working on was my senior thesis. Instead of doing a traditional research paper, I chose to do a collection of film reviews and essays. Some I used for this project were a couple of pieces I had already done on the blog before, but a majority were brand new. Now that everything's complete, I want to share them with you. This first piece is about 1980 Best Picture winner Ordinary People, one of my ten favorite movies of all time and a film that leaves me emotionally devastated for days after I watch it. I hope you enjoy and thanks for your patience while was gone!

Winning an Oscar, as stated numerous times before, can be both a blessing and a curse. Hearing your name on the night of ceremony is a thrilling sense of accomplishment, proof that even for a fleeting moment of time you have the enthusiastic support of your peers. But, later on, if you somehow end up beating an “obviously” “superior” nominee, whatever glory you may have achieved on Oscar Night gets flushed down the toilet faster than you can say, “How Green Was My Valley.” This is exactly what happened to the reputation of Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People, a then highly lauded look into how a typical middle-class family deals with the death of their oldest son. Over time, resentment has built against this film for one reason and one reason only: it beat Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull for the Best Picture Oscar in 1980. Every time a list is made of the worst Best Picture winners, Ordinary People is usually found based on this. Not to dispute Raging Bull’s status as a classic--far be it from me to question the film’s gorgeous black and white cinematography or Thelma Schoonmaker’s sharp editing--but Ordinary People is just as laudatory and original in its own, quieter way. The emotionally damaged son/cold and distant mother dynamic the film establishes is one very rarely, if ever, discussed in the movies. And the way Redford sets this up is in ways more uncomfortable than any of the wife-beating and bloody violence in Raging Bull.

A cold and distant father who cannot quite connect with his children is not an infrequent sight in the movies; they have probably around as long as the movies have. Mothers of this sort, however, are highly unusual. Whenever you have a “monster” mother, she is either an alcoholic/drug addict of some sort, physical or mentally abusive or, the be perfectly blunt, a whore. There is always some kind of behavior to “excuse” her lack of warmth and feeling toward her children. In Ordinary People, on the other hand, Beth, matriarch of the Jarrett clan, has no such crutches. She is a well bred, middle-class ice queen with the ability to mask her lack of emotions with a completely fake friendly demeanor. The fact that Beth is someone we have all probably run into our lives, most likely without even realizing it, makes her all the more fascinating and real than another bad mommy like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Even after confronting us with a character type never show in movies before, Redford does not stop there in highlighting the uncomfortable tension and lack of connection between Beth and her youngest son Conrad, the survivor of a tragic boat accident that killed his older brother. Subconsciously, Beth has always loved the older son more than Conrad, but it was never brought out in the open until this accident drastically changes their lives. Conrad, now receiving therapy after attempting suicide, has started to realize the toxic effect her distancing is having on their relationship. At one point, Conrad tries to start a conversation with his mother about his recent trigonometry test. Beth lets it slip that she was awful at trig and Conrad, seeing an opportunity to connect with his mother, excitedly asks her, “Oh, you took trig?” Then, as quickly as she brought it up, she shuts the conversation down by awkwardly asking herself, “Did I take trig?” and then closing the door of her bedroom in Conrad’s face. The moment is incredibly awkward and even stranger to read in written word, but it is the perfect example of what has become of Conrad and Beth’s relationship by this point. Beth was always closer with Bucky, her now deceased older son. Now that he is gone, Conrad has become the sole reminder of what she lost in the accident. Instead of embracing him closer, she continually pushes him away and shuts off any attempt at an emotional connection between the two of them. As shallow as this trig class may seem, this similarity between her and Conrad is too much for her to handle.

Robert Redford also reinforces this lack of connection between Beth and Conrad with more subtle moments. One such instance is a minor shot towards the beginning of the film which speaks volumes about the relationship troubles in the Jarrett household. Beth is setting the table for breakfast. In a very quick overhead shot, we see her set glasses of orange juice in both hers and her husband Cal’s spot at the table. Then, in a separate motion a couple seconds later, she sets Conrad’s glass in his spot. Even at this very early stage in the movie, it becomes clear that Beth, however subconsciously, sees Conrad as disconnected from herself and the family. There is another scene later on in the movie where Beth, in an uncharacteristically warm and nurturing gesture, sees Conrad sitting outside by himself and decides to have a conversation with him. When she first steps outside and approaches him, Beth and Conrad are shown in completely separate frames to highlight their disconnectedness. As their conversation warms up to a civil debate about whether Conrad needs to wear a coat, they are slowly pushed into the frame together. Sadly, this moment is the closest Beth and Conrad come to having a true moment of emotional connectivity. Then, Conrad wants to talk about a random memory involving Bucky, and Beth completely shuts down. They both start talking over each other about completely different topics, at which the camera starts separating them in different shots again. Conrad eventually starts barking like a dog to get Beth’s attention. She is stunned by this and decides to exit the conversation before anything more happens. By this time, Beth and Conrad are in such different places emotionally, they cannot even occupy the same frame together. Doing that would represent some kind of false connectivity in their relationship.

But to think of Beth as a complete monster is both unfair and too easy. Sure, she is not a terribly warm person, nor is she completely upfront with her emotions, but that does not make her a horrible woman. Plenty of people have a hard time expressing themselves, just as there are plenty of people who are too expressive with their emotions. Where Beth’s problem lies is in the fact that she cannot see how her lack of warmth is affecting those around her, namely Conrad. When Cal confronts her towards the end of the movie, she appears aghast at Cal’s insinuation that she does not love Conrad. “Mothers don’t hate their sons!” she exclaims, completely missing the point of Cal’s outburst. Later on in the film, Conrad hugs Beth. She, instead of hugging back, sits completely stone-faced and dazed by the display of warmth. The moment exemplifies that she is in pain from losing the son she loved more, consequently blocking her from showing any affection towards Conrad. This does not make her a monster--rather, she is a victim of her own pain. Unlike Conrad, who has found some kind of outlet with his psychiatrist, Beth is trapped and will not be able to fully function again until she can deal with Bucky’s loss.

To continuously pit Ordinary People against a powerhouse of a film such as Raging Bull is unfair to both films. Both films have their own merits and work for completely different reasons. Whether or not it deserved the Oscar, Ordinary People provides an engaging and original viewpoint of mother/son dynamics within the confines of the traditional family melodrama. Ordinary People is not nearly as earth shattering as Raging Bull is in any given moment, but the film pushes boundaries in subtler, succinct ways that can be reflected upon much later.


Marcy said...

Wonderful essay. I love this film, too. This is also the best defense I've ever read for a so-called "undeserved" BP winner.

And I agree. As much as I love Raging Bull, Ordinary People is just such an extraordinarily moving film.

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