The baby boom generation was born into a time of unprecedented opportunity, but haunted by prospects of nuclear holocaust in its youth and forged by a hated war that spawned cultural revolution as it came of age, we seldom saw ourselves as privileged. We have been a blessed, but nonetheless driven, group. We have known more, and we have wanted more, and we have been dissatisfied with the much we have had. A fatherless Bill Clinton is apt as our emblem. He rose so far from where he started out, but never learned to control the hunger that enabled him to rise so high. Why? One answer is that—for white middle-class boomers anyway—no generation before us has ever had so little in common with their own parents. And as we make the turn into the last third of our lives, as our parents slip away from us, many of us find ourselves yearning to better understand that generation from which we sprang.
My father served in the army during World War II, and he brought back from that life-defining experience an appreciation for military discipline. From the time I could walk I was expected to stand straight with my shoulders back. From the time I could talk I was expected to address adults as "sir" and "ma'am." Like a lot of children who were reared in the 1950s, I grew up both admiring and fearing my father. A relentlessly hard worker, his labors enabled him to put my mother through college and to provide our family a level of prosperity that he had certainly not known in his own youth. His professional focus, however, made him frequently absent from home and characteristically preoccupied even when he was present with us.
My father grew up in crushing rural poverty during the Great Depression. His family home didn't have indoor plumbing until the 1960s. His father was chronically unemployed, and if my grandfather hadn't owned a small spread of land that could support a vegetable garden, a cow, a henhouse, and a hog pen, his family of six children would have starved. As a result of having so little in his youth, my father was always conservative with money. On the rare occasions that we dined out, all in the family were expected to identify and choose the least expensive item on the menu. My sister and I were expected to tithe a nickel and save some portion of our fifty-cent weekly allowances. Under no circumstances were we granted an "advance." As soon as we were old enough, we were expected to work. I mowed lawns and delivered circulars before I was twelve. In high school I worked construction and on the line in a factory that produced metal cabinets. My sister baby-sat until she was of age to work as a grocery-store and drug-store cashier. My mother made most of my sister's clothes, and I was never allowed to be concerned with "what the other guys are wearing" when my own clothes were purchased. The money we made was to be saved in what was designated our "college fund." One of the ugliest scenes of my youth erupted when my father discovered that I had spent some of my factory earnings on slacks and shirts that he deemed needlessly stylish and expensive.
MY FATHER ATTENDED MY SISTER'S PIANO recitals and the plays in which she performed. He came to my basketball and baseball games from little league through high school. He kept a score-card, marking down the baskets and free throws, at-bats, hits, and outs. After the games, he presented these to me without comment. Otherwise he offered neither praise nor consolation. We understood that he was proud of us, but he never said so. We presumed he loved us, but he did not speak those words to us.
The education my father got on the G.I. Bill changed his life, and he was able to enjoy a degree of material comfort unimaginable when he was a boy who never owned a pair of new shoes. But the grinding poverty of his youth left him always looking over his shoulder, always fearful that the wolf of want was still on the prowl, if not at the door or even in the yard, then indisputably just outside the gate of his hard-earned life.
I KNOW ALL THESE THINGS ABOUT MY FATHER, AND many more. I know that he was a man of faith. My dad was a New Testament theologian who at various times in his career pastored churches and taught at liberal arts colleges and seminaries. He was a charismatic speaker who projected great authority from the pulpit and the lectern. He was a committed Christian whose sense of calling to the ministry was genuine. I know that my father saw his strictness with his children as an act of love. Living in the tidy suburban world that his generation had constructed almost overnight, he worried that we might become soft, that we might be blindsided and undone in a world that was harsher than we understood. At spring break of my senior year in college, my father took me aside and told me that he was "cutting me off," that I must not plan, for whatever reason, to come home again to live. I had no such plans, and he knew that, but he felt compelled to state his position plainly. I was on my own now, as he had been at my age. I had never thought otherwise, but I was hurt that he felt he had to say aloud what I judged best left unsaid, to turn into a threat what I had long since decided.
My father and I never suffered the breach that some parents and children experience. We didn't fight. We were always intellectual mates, agreeing on matters of politics, religion, and culture. As an adult, I visited him regularly on holidays, not always conveniently since for all of those years he lived in greater Chicago and for most I lived in New Orleans. Despite a sustained connection, however, my father and I were never close. In our relationship there remained a formality we were never able to overcome. We shook hands rather than hugged. We never talked about personal matters, much less shared secrets. For the most part, I knew my father as other people knew him, through his public words and actions. Thus I felt, as he lay dying several years ago, that I had never known him at all. I don't know that it is typical to feel such a sad divide between parent and child. But certainly the experience is not mine alone. And, as I routinely do, I retreat to the sanctuary of cinema for solace and enlightenment, to two recent American films that address the issue of parents and alienated children trying to connect before it's too late.
Father and Son
Director Tim Burton's Big Fish, adapted for the screen by John August from Daniel Wallace's novel, is the story of an attempted deathbed reconciliation between a father and son who haven't so much fought as they have failed to understand each other and, thus, have drifted apart. Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) is dying in the small Alabama town where he's lived most of his life. Ed and his son, Will (Billy Crudup), haven't seen each other much in recent years, but at the behest of his mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange), Will comes from his journalist's job in the city to his father's bedside so that they can make peace at the twenty-fourth hour of Ed's life.
The reasons for the estrangement between father and son proceed most immediately from an event at Will's wedding when Ed (as we see in flashback) tells a long, wild story about the day of Will's birth. The wedding audience, including Will's French bride Josephine (Marion Cotillard), is charmed by the story, but Will is angered because he thinks Ed is hogging center stage on an occasion when the father ought to be content to let the spotlight shine on the son. And here we have one of the film's central weaknesses. Ed's behavior appears genuinely loving, and Will's reaction seems a mysteriously resentful overreaction.
Eventually, Will makes clear that the wedding story is only the crowning example of a gripe he has nursed for many years. Instead of reading to Will when he was a child, Ed told him tall tales, always with Ed himself as the central character and epic hero. Will loved his dad's stories, but he also believed them. When he became old enough to discover that his father's adventures must surely have been exaggerations if not outright fabrications, Will felt tricked; when Ed refused to admit that his stories weren't true, Will's anger increased. Because Ed steadfastly maintains that his stories really happened, Will feels that he has been denied the opportunity ever to really know his father. And that's the core of his resentment.
ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH TlM BURTON'S EARLIER work as the director of such films as Edward Scissorbands, Bettlejuice, Ed Wood, and the first two Batman movies will not be surprised by the energy of the fantastical sequences that dramatize Ed's tales. These hyperbolic narratives tell how Ed (played in his youth by Ewan McGregor) develops superhuman skill while in high school where he stars on every sports team and takes first prize at the science fair too. Subsequently, Ed makes the acquaintance of a gentle giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), works as a stuntman in a circus, woos Sandra (in her youth played by Alison Lohman) by buying every daffodil in three states, becomes an astonishingly successful traveling salesman, secures his prosperity through an alliance with poet/bankrobber/Wall Street investor Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi at his delightfully sleazy best) and earns honors as a Korean War hero who operates behind enemy lines and cements his friendship with conjoined crooners Ping (Ada Tai) and Ling (Arlene Tai). This is the very kind of otherworldly material that Burton does better than anyone else making movies. But I found it easily this film's least interesting part, not pointed enough to bear much examination, not inventive enough to dazzle and delight.
Most of Ed's stories can be understood as pure exaggeration. But an episode in the small town of Spectre eludes analysis. At first we think the isolated community where everyone is blissful and no one wears shoes is a metaphor for heaven, but like a kaleidoscope, the account of the town twists and transforms in the movie's second half, and we don't know then how to interpret it at all. The picture is emotionally smart in the way it handles Ed's suspected affair with a pretty resident of the town named Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter), but we nonetheless lose our grip on what the town or even Jenny stands for. Moreover, since Burton is more interested in images than actors, one feels that Big Fish's capable cast is utilized less than it might be.
Still, the picture stages a monumental rally at the end and works in canny closing observations about the relationship between the storyteller and the story. Will wants his father to tell him the truth to show who Ed really is. And gradually we get it: all along Ed has. The facts of the story may be altered or largely made up, but they nonetheless relate the truth of who Ed is. And in reference presumably to himself as well as any other narrative artist, Burton asserts forthrightly in voiceover that it's the stories that endure and it's through the stories that the storyteller achieves immortality. In short, the storyteller and the story are inseparable.
The picture's climactic sequence is a knockout. A breakthrough is achieved and Will is able to give Ed the perfect gift with which to depart his life. I dare say the last fifteen minutes of this film will touch anyone who has lost a parent, particularly a parent the bereaved child wishes to have known better, any child, in short, like me.
Mothers and Daughters
There is much to admire and much wisdom in Big Fish, but I am more fond of writer/director Peter Hedges' subtly funny and ultimately touching family comedy Pieces of April, starring Katie Holmes as April Burns, a twentysomething wild child of a suburban middle-class family. Always at odds with her mother Joy (the magnificently versatile Patricia Clarkson, creating another of her edgy, indelibly etched characters), April has moved to Manhattan and fallen in with a series of losers. She's pierced, tattooed, angry, and undirected. Currently, she's living with Bobby (Derek Luke), an African-American man we suspect must be a drug dealer. April's ineffectual dad Jim (Oliver Platt) loves his older daughter, but his inherent weakness has turned him into an enabler for his wife's dark side. In a clearly dysfunctional family, April's overweight teenaged sister Beth (Alison Pill) consciously tries to curry favor with her parents by representing herself to be everything that April isn't. April's teenaged brother Tim (John Gallagher) takes refuge in photography. He can't be expected to play a role or take sides because he's got a family photograph to shoot.
The apple cart of these already troubled relationships is upset as we approach year-end holidays, because Joy has been diagnosed with breast cancer and may not survive another year. In response to this horrible news, April makes a bold bid for reconciliation. She invites her entire family to her tiny walk-up apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. April makes this gesture without eradicating her resentment toward her mother and without false hope that an extended olive branch will result in a lasting truce. It may not even achieve a cease-fire. Unbeknownst to her, her peace-offering invitation, though accepted by her mother, is nonetheless treated with derision. Tim and Beth's biggest Thanksgiving challenge, their mother sneers, will be to hide their disgust for the horrible meal April will inevitably prepare.
WHAT'S REALLY SMART ABOUT THIS SET-UP IS how Hedges's script achieves a bracing holiday spirit without violating the established flaws of his characters. April doesn't know how to prepare a big family meal, and she doesn't go to extraordinary lengths to remediate her lack of culinary skills. She does, however, buy a cookbook and earnestly attempts to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The first problem is that she's always used her stove for storage and discovers far too late that it doesn't even work. So no sooner has the holiday turkey been washed and stuffed than April must begin knocking on the doors of her neighbors to beg a kitchen to cook it in.
Meanwhile, cross-cutting from April's series of encounters with her difficult neighbors, we accompany the Burns family on their long ride from the suburbs into the city. As Jim drives and Joy snipes, we realize how sick she is, both physically and spiritually. Constant vomiting suggests that her cancer is advanced and terminal. But rather than curry our sympathy for Joy, Hedges illustrates what a natively ugly person she's always been. For no particular purpose other than the bitter pleasure of meanness, she denigrates her husband and all of her children. Even her purported compliments are delivered with a poisoned pill of self-congratulatory condescension.
THE MIRACLE OF THIS FILM, THEN, IS THAT Hedges makes something so positive and hopeful out of ingredients so distasteful and unpromising. Nobody is quite the person she or he initially seems. April's decision to reach out to her mother isn't quite heroic, but it is admirable. We never discover what Bobby is up to, but we do see that his love for April is both genuine and self-sacrificing. Jim's failings are regrettable, but they are born of love. Beth's vicious sibling rivalry is despicable, but we come to see it as a lonely and desperate strategy for warming a cold maternal heart. And Joy's critical nature is a signpost only of a bad personality. She never becomes likable, but ultimately we understand a difference between the way she instinctively acts and the better emotions she seems largely to keep imprisoned in her troubled breast.
In the process of ineptly trying to prepare a meal that it's by no means certain her mother will eat, April calls upon the kindness of strangers, an initially hostile African-American couple, a single Anglo man, and an immigrant Asian family with whom she can only communicate in sign language. Two things emerge from these tortured contacts. In one, April tells the story of the first Thanksgiving to people who have never heard it. In the second a menagerie of people gather together for a holiday meal that celebrates our cross-cultural national holiday of gratitude in a spectacular way. And only the hardest-hearted viewer will manage to watch the closing passage of this picture with an empty heart and a dry eye.
L.P. Hartley wrote in his novel, The Go-Between, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." I believe the same must be true of heaven. In heaven those who love each other must be able to communicate with each other better than they do in this life, must be able to show love and not feel it only, must be able to accept love and not give it only. In the end, the parent/child characters in Big Fish and Pieces of April make a contact that I envy. I hope I can be with my father who art in heaven and that we can embrace each other in the next life in a way we never quite managed in this one.
Fredrick Barton is a professor of English at the University of New Orleans where he currently serves as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost. His fourth novel, A House Divided, won the William Faulkner Prize in fiction. His award-winning first novel, The El Cholo Feeling Passes, has just been re-released in a new trade paperback edition.