There is more to all the movies I watched for this week, so let's get to part 2!
Parents & Kids
Another theme I noticed in 1981 was the relationship between parents and children, and in a larger sense the relationship to authority. In Taps, an interesting but flawed military drama, everyone agrees that authority is really important, even while everyone also subverts it in small ways. Especially in the beginning, you can see how much authority (which is seen as an important value) is the same as having and exerting power (which is seen as a kind of achievement). Authority is important if you have benefits from it but is avoided when it brings you a disadvantage.
The cadets stage some kind of rebellion because they don’t want their school to be closed but the movie never clearly takes a side. On the one hand, it honors tradition and argues that they are correct for defending the school, although they simply do it by force (as they were taught to as soldiers), but when the force becomes too much, the movie suddenly turns around and shows the bloody consequences. When someone dies in the end, everyone is sad and there is a sense of tragedy, but he actually was mostly responsible for it, he used authority to enforce his goals. But he had “honor” and to the movie, honor is more important than anything else.
In one scene Brian (Timothy Hutton) and Alex (Sean Penn) talk about Brian’s father and how he forced Brian to do something he didn’t want. The scene never makes it explicit, but it’s clear that Brian suffered from his father’s strict authority (that left no room for an emotional bond). Still, Brian now acts the exact same way, although it is obvious that authority is problematic. In a later conversation with this father, he speaks out against him, trying to get back at him for his troubled childhood. When the father can’t get through anymore, he slaps Brian, using force as the last desperate measure, just like Brian is doing in the conflict about the school. The movie this way shows how everyone suffers from authority, especially in parent-child-relationships, but there are no real answers provided.
Mommie Dearest makes this even clearer by showing a mother controlling every single aspect of her kids’ lives, traumatizing them forever. While Taps at least raises interesting questions, Mommie Dearest uses the abuse just for spectacle, thereby abusing the children again by showing their suffering in an awful movie. The only successful parts show Joan Crawford sacrificing herself and her kids to keep up an image of herself. There are some nice moments in the beginning where she elaborately tries to hide her insanity through make up and photographs, as her pretense is more important than her real feelings.
I discussed the father-daughter relationship in On Golden Pond already, but there is more to in terms of the power dynamic between the two. What the movie is saying, especially towards the end, is that while Norman hasn’t really been a good father, he still is a good person and shouldn’t be blamed for his mistakes for too long. He simply can’t act in a different way. Basically (like Billy Hope in Southpaw), Norman gets a lot of slack for being a dick just because he is the protagonist of the movie and her father (and Henry Fonda). Chelsea, I think, really has every right to complain but she also has to accept that he can’t give her the salvation she wants to have. She might never get her father to show emotions and that is his fault, but now it’s not his job anymore to help her living with this. There is a scene between her and her mother in which Chelsea complains that the problems with her father follow her everywhere, making her feel like a child. Her mother responds that everyone is bitter about their childhood and you just have to move on. I can’t decide if that response is cold or correct.
Die bleierne Zeit shows a lot of problems and people who are suffering but the one who suffers the most is the son. His mother goes to prison for her ideology and eventually dies, his father abandons him and then kills himself and no one else wants to take care of him. He is clearly scarred by this experience but the ending of the movie shows him as someone who wants to know “everything” about his mother. On the one hand, his trauma seems to make him a stronger character than his parents were (which I find problematic), on the other hand unlike his parents, he seems to have found some passion, in wanting to know more. His three seconds of passion are stronger than anything else any character in the movie shows. Anyway, while we don’t see much of the boy during the movie, it might be possible that this is intentional, since we (almost) begin and end with him, possibly making a point of his parents abandoning him for their ideals.
While it was pleasantly surprising to find positive aspects in all previous areas I’ve talked about here, this is much harder to do when it comes to race. One thing I noticed is that for it being 1981, it often felt like the music video to Public Enemy’s Burn Hollywood Burn, in which we see clips from black and white movies where black people only play servants or fools. While most movies had no black characters at all, you could see black people at train stations, in restaurants or other places where they had minor background jobs.
In Taps, there are some speaking roles for black characters among the cadets staying at the school. There is only one really relevant black character, Pierce (Giancarlo Esposito), among all the white students and his race is never mentioned or used for anything specific. But when the city turns off the school’s electricity, the students try to fix the generator, which causes a horrible accident where one of the students is burned to death. Guess who they picked for this pivotal role?
But this is nothing compared to Modern Problems where the major black character is a woman called Dorita (Nell Carter) is the caretaker of Brian (Brian Doyle-Murray), a Vietnam vet sitting in a wheelchair, which is handled by the movie with exceptional subtlety and decency, considering that everything else is either offensive or lazy. She talks with an accent and during the last third of the movie, where everyone goes to a house at sea on holiday, she automatically becomes a housemaid and cook for all the other characters. In addition, she suddenly turns into something like a voodoo witch, reading from intestines, talking gibberish and in the end receiving Max’s powers. She, of course, has no trouble using them for her advantage since mystical powers come naturally to black people. They literally were digging through tropes from the 30s for her character and no one seemed to mind.
Finally, Quest for Fire doesn’t really depict race as much of an issue. There are different tribes but while the tribe of the male protagonists and Ika seem to have different ethnicities, they aren’t portrayed as being better or worse. This considerate treatment makes it even worse that when another tribe steals the fire, they are portrayed in a much more negative way than all the others. They are cannibals and seem to be more aggressive. This completely unnecessary vilification of the other makes the movie strangely conventional for a while. It falls into the trap of our culture’s dichotomy of heroes and villains, which contrasts with the attempt of more or less objectively trying to portray life of people in pre-civilization times.
That's it for 1981 week! See you in another year!