Home for the Holidays

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By Craig Joseph

I’ve seen Home for the Holidays at least ten times, and yet, this Thanksgiving-dinner-with-the-family-gone awry still makes me wince.  It’s hard to watch because it’s so real; rarely have characters been this raw, blemished and authentic on screen – and that’s why I love it (and them).

Sure, the movie is rife with outlandish comic moments: Aunt Glady’s flatulence and drunkenness, Tommy’s Polaroid violations and poor Joanne’s encounter with the turkey.  But almost every time it inspires laughter, the movie turns on a dime, quickly eliciting gasps, heart pangs and knots in the throat.

This happens in large part because, despite all of their flaws, the Larsons are a truthful bunch.  There’s very little sugar coating as they call things like they see them.

A tense exchange between two sisters:

“You don’t know the first thing about me.”

“Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.”

“Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”

A mother, sad that her son has hidden his gay marriage from her, is silenced:

“Enough, Ma! You’re a pain in my ass. You have bad hair. But I like you a lot.”

“Well, you know me. I can’t change.”

“Believe me, neither can I, Ma.”

“Even as a little boy, you didn’t want us too close.”

The more we become acquainted with the family, the more we’re inclined to agree with their assertions about one another.  Joanne and Claudia probably never will be friends.  Tommy does use humor to avoid painful encounters in life.  Adele is a nag from hell, but her hurt is real and legitimate.  And over the course of two hours, others truths become apparent: Mother’s beauty is fading.  Dad’s wondering if he wasted his life.  The unloved spinster aunt has been treasuring an ancient memory in her heart.  The oldest sister, desperate after being fired, acted crazily.  And so on.  I know these people.  I am these people.

But what also rings true – as evidenced in the film’s final montage – is that these folks who struggle and contend with one another have also managed to preserve – somewhere – moments of love and affection.  They’ve all created “family” a little differently – some within the confines of their biological relatives and some moving outside that circle.  But they have experienced that connection somehow – even fleetingly.

I’ve certainly had seasons where my family of origin – as with Tommy – felt like the place where I was least known and understood.  And I constructed a new support system accordingly.  Like Joanne, I, at times, have practiced a slavish devotion to my family that resulted in bitterness and resentment.  At my best moments, I’ve been able – like Claudia – to love my family in toto – flaws and messiness included – and to appreciate that – for better or worse – we love each other as best we can.

But I’ve been wondering lately what my family will look like.  Yes, I understand that actually going on some dates will be involved, and my non-committal self is working up to that, but I’ve thought about it.  How will my spouse and I love one another?  What will thrill us about each other, and how will we drive each other crazy?  How will we love our kids individually – in the way that each of them needs to be loved?  Will they care for one another?  When we age, will they care for us, and will we die confident that they’ll then stay connected to one another?

I actually think these things as I lay awake in bed at night.  And, you know what?  If Mrs. Robinson can pull it off, so can I.

Reaction to Breaking Away

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By Craig Joseph

My immediate thought after watching Breaking Away for the first time was, “I wonder how far Tim and I have come on this movie-watching journey we’ve started?”  It’s not that the film didn’t engage me, but a little OCD part of me that’s always counting, calculating and tabulating – the part that figures probabilities, watching the odometer and clock on road trips – wondered if we were far enough along to start making some general observations.  After all, one of the purposes behind watching each other’s favorite movies was to perhaps gain some insight into a long-distance friend.

So I can say this, right?  “Coming of age movies sure loom large on Timothy’s list.”

Which is interesting, on one hand, because I know he hates transition, and all his favorite heroes (Dave, Largeman, Luke Skywalker, even the former addict-turned-goalie) are smack dab in the middle of it.  One of the ironies of our friendship is that Tim’s cool, calm, collected exterior belies a psyche more tightly wound than a yoyo on crack where change is concerned.  Meanwhile, I – with my hyper-scheduled, anal-retentive, overly-organized life – thrive, nonetheless, on new experiences.  It’s nothing for me to quit a job, dump a friend, move to a new city, wear a new hair-do; I jones for novelty.  Too much.

So why these flicks, Barlow?  Maybe they’re instructive.  Perhaps watching someone navigate a sea of change emboldens you to walk on shifting sands in real life.  Could it be nostalgia?  The post-college years seem to have been formative ones for you; do these movies remind you that you got through transition then and convince you that you can now?  Or maybe it’s a “misery loves company” proposition: a character’s ennui legitimates your own.

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I’m dangerously close to psychoanalysis here, so let me come to a point.  What I enjoyed about the film was the way it captured the importance of place – for the transitionphobe and change addict alike.  From Cyril’s early exclamation that a rock overlooking the quarry is precisely “where [he] lost all interest in life,” we’re clued into the fact that specific locales – that Bloomington itself – has formed these guys.  The town gives Dave and his pals their dubious identity as townies and sons of rock cutters.  It’s at least part of what has Mike feeling trapped in life, and probably has cocooned Cyril into a state of perpetual adolescence.  On the flip side, though, it provides Moocher – in Nancy – with a compatriot in moving forward and doing something with his life.  And it’s easy to argue that limpid small town mentalities and mores actually propel Dave’s flights of imagination toward all things Italian and bicycling.  So far, in fact, that his dreams carry him past his father’s own obstinance, his failure with the girl, personal injury, and even disillusionment with the Italian cyclists.  One could argue that Bloomington is the fifth member – the most influential one – of this little gang.

It seems that when confronted with the question of “where am I going?” we’d do well to also ask “where have I been?” and “where am I now?” because, whether we’re aware or not, our physical geography asserts an influence – maybe malign, maybe benevolent – and is, I think, at least partially responsible for how we respond to change that comes our way.

And for the record, where we’re at is 24 movies into the 60 on our list.

And yes, someone can point out that I’m obsessed with dysfunctional family films.  Have at it.  Home for the Holidays is coming up.

 

Guest Post – Breaking Away

Editors Note: we’re thrilled to have a post from the talented David Blake Fischer on the blog.  If you like it, you can check out more of his writing at his blog, here.

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By David Blake Fischer

Dear Dave, (Mike, Cyril, and Moocher)

Look, I know how you feel. I know what it’s like to lack direction, to feel unmotivated and not know what do with your life. You’ve got a father who doesn’t understand, who forgets your name and refuses to acknowledge your overseas accent. And you live in Indiana—Bloomington, a post-industrial-has-been. Trust me. I know. In Flint, Michigan we too once made things. Great things. And now what’s left? Just abandoned, vacant lots and concrete slabs—gravestones like your cliffs and cavernous holes. So, yeah, believe me, I’ve walked that trail that leads to Clear Creek, out among the hardwoods, high above Empire quarry.

            “Hey, come on in, Dave.”

            “Nah, I read where this Italian coach said its no good to go swimmin’ right after a race.”

            “Who’s swimmin’? I’m takin’ a leak.”

We could talk about your parents, about I.U., and dick guys like Rod. We could talk about sports, Italian cycling and the Little 500. But the thing I want to mention, the thing I want to go back to, is that hole. You know, some of the world’s best stone was cut from that quarry. It built the Empire State Building, the Washington National Cathedral, the Pentagon, and 35 of 50 state capital buildings. Back then quarrying was an art form. Your father was an artist.

            “I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that’s all.”

Glass and metal were cheaper. The stone companies left and RCA moved in. It came to Bloomington for the cheap labor—for your parents, for you. Then, twenty years later, by 1962, by the time of the movie, by the time you’re nineteen, everyone’s working at RCA. They’re building the SelectaVision, a vinyl record that brings color video to your television. That carries the past to the present. And but what of the future?

            “Doesn’t look that bad to me… “ [Looking at Dave’s beat up bike]

            “That’s cause you don’t have to ride it!”

            “Well, you know, you don’t have to ride it either, Dave. We’re not gonna beg you.”

            “We may plead, but we would never beg!”

You might have fifteen years, Dave. Twenty if you’re lucky. You’ll fall asleep in your clothes one night, wake up, and be 35. But already SelectaVision will be dead because, even at its inception, superior technology was emerging—VCRs and home videotape. But the suits will turn a blind eye to it. They’ll double down on SelectaVision. RCA will lose $600 million. And Bloomington will be left with another hole.

            “You know what?

            “No, what?”

            “I’m leaving home, that’s what.”

            “What? Where are you going?”

            “About 5 blocks south.”

 General Electric, Thompson Electronics—all of them will leave. You’ll stick around. And the city, the Limestone capital of the world, the color TV capital of the world, the pride of the people of Bloomington will become what?

            “A cartoon of some kind. You know, like when they get hit in the head with a frying pan or something, and their head looks like the frying pan, with the handle and everything? They just go BOING! But then their head comes back to normal? Wouldn’t that be great?

Your job will move to Juarez. And RCA will give you a gift. A commemorative CED called Memories of the VideoDisc. A few years will pass. And then, one evening you’ll sit in your father’s old chair and watch it, but no one else will, because nobody bought a SelectaVision.

You’ll feel restless that evening. You’ll feel 35 and 19 and 50. You’ll leave the house and walk that path among the hardwoods, back to Empire Quarry. That time of night, no one will be out there. You’ll take off your badly worn shoes, your thin shirt, and pants. You’ll curl your toes over that limestone edge and stare down those sheer walls into the aperture. And, standing there, peering beneath those diaphanous waters, you’ll see it: the old machinery, the abandoned cars and quarry equipment, the concentric layers of rocks and rusted rail, the bending reflection of your father and his father’s face. You’ll stand there for a while, thinking of this, and other things, and nothing. And then, when you’re good and ready, you’ll jump, lurching into that hole like only the locals do—arms out, eyes open, feet first to break your fall.

 

Breaking Away

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By Tim Barlow

During the autumn of my discontent, around the same time I saw Garden State by myself in the theater (see here), that fall after I had graduated and moved back home instead of heading back to school for the first time in 16yrs, I decided to go and visit my alma mater.  I drove up on a beautiful early September morning.  The roads were clear, the sun was rising, and I was filled with the sense that in a few hours I would be back in a safe environment that made sense.  The younger classman would recognize me from last year and think it was pretty cool that I came back to check in on them.  Maybe the guys would give me a high five, while the women admitted their crushes – there’s nothing quite like a college campus on a beautiful fall morning.  But my excitement faded as I walked around trying desperately to recapture it all, I realized this place didn’t know me anymore, I wasn’t welcome here. There was someone else sitting in my usual seat, and the worst part was not that they were there, but that they had no idea that I used to be.  I had felt okay up until that point with my lack of a job or plan for the future because I thought I still had something better waiting for me here, but this campus had moved on.

I love the scene in Breaking Away, where Mike and friends have driven onto Indiana’s campus and are watching the football team practice; he laments:

Here I am, I gotta live in this stinkin’ town, and I gotta read in the papers about some hotshot kid, new star of the college team, and every year it’s gonna be a new one, and every year it’s never gonna be me.  I’m just gonna be Mike, twenty year old, Mike, thirty year old, Mike, old mean old man, Mike.  These college kids are never gonna get old, or outta shape, cause new ones come along every year.

Mike, Dave, Moocher, and Cyril, have graduated from high school but not gone on to college, opting instead (or feeling they didn’t have another choice) to stay in town.  And now, as they sit and watch others who belong, those who are still on “the track”, they all begin to process their situation.  You can fight it like Mike, you can escape (mentally) like Dave, you can basically just float on / give up like Cyril, or you can settle on moving forward with your new path like Moocher.

I admire Dave and his Italian infatuation, his ability to completely lose himself in the new and better world he’s creating around him.  I admire Dave, but instead see a lot of Mike’s character in myself.  Someone who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, into change.  I recognized his frustration and doubling-down on the status quo, to think that everyone else is the one with the problem.

Since my little post-college, quarter-life crisis there have been new moments of wondering what’s next and feeling a little lost in the inbetween.  Getting married, career changes, first homes, deciding whether to have children, life has continued to happen, and every time, my inner-Mike comes along to protest the change. The trick I’ve come to realize is to surround yourself with friends, family, a spouse who can be those other responses to change.  My wife Ash is a little more like Dave, an idealist, a dreamer.  She encourages me to break away from my status quo, to see that there is nothing to be afraid of, and to embrace change.  I don’t always like this, but deep down, I know it’s good for me.

Breaking Away may be a lot of things including a sports movie and a coming of age story, but first and foremost, it’s a lesson on the true role and importance of your closest relationships.

Guest post – The Godfather: Part II

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By Melissa Brobeck

5 Life Lesson Learned from Kay Corleone

Warning: This post contains spoilers. If you’re old enough to vote and still haven’t seen The Godfather Part I & II (and Part III, only if you have time), go fix that right now because you’re missing about half of all pop culture references. You’re welcome.

The last two times I tried to watch The Godfather Part II I missed it. The first time I was making a lasagna for the recent Godfather marathon I had with Craig and my husband, Brian, and then I totally fell asleep before Vito even got to America the second time because I had to wait until my children went to bed. Oops. This is how I do now that I have kids. So here’s to the mothers of the Corleone family, especially to Kay Corleone, played by the ever-fabulous Diane Keaton. Kay has taught me a lot about life, and I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned with you.

1. Never believe anyone’s five-year plan. Your husband tells you that the family business will be completely legit in five years – it’s been seven. Oh, girl, you’re so pretty. Come on now, you’ve got to know that there is no way he’s giving up this gig. No. Way. So, if someone tells you his five-year plan, smile, nod, and accept that it might just be total BS.

2.  Don’t forget to close the drapes before getting in bed. Not only is this a good way to keep nosy neighbors from sneaking a peek of you in your jammies, it’s a good way to keep those pesky enemies from shooting you up while you’re sleeping. Also, in the event of a shoot out, remember to stop, drop, and roll. Your man got you out of this one. Next time, you may not be so lucky. (Bulletproof vest optional.)

3. A hat is always a good idea. All the attention is on your husband at his Senate hearing, but you can draw a few eyes your way with a hat, especially a super small pillbox hat. It says, “I’m a supportive wife, but I’m not afraid to take risks.” This pairs nicely with your anachronistic 1970s hairstyle. Yes, Jackie O. did little hats first, but you’re kind of a big deal too, so go for it.

4. Go big or go home. Sometimes you try to leave your mafia boss husband, and he says no. You try to get him to listen to the words that are coming out of your mouth, but he just won’t. This is the time to play your trump card. Take note of Kay’s balls-to-the-wall approach and make it a good one.

5. Make friends with your sister-in-law, no matter how crazy she is. After your husband declares you dead to him, making nice with your sister-in-law is the only way you’ll ever get a chance to see your children. This is sad, but true. Sisters before misters, girls.

Thanks again, Kay. You’re fierce.

Reaction to The Godfather: Part II

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By Tim Barlow

In The Godfather: Part II, the character of Michael, cuts a tragic, pitiable figure.  He tries to be good, to do right by those whom he is closest, but he can never quite turn that corner.  He can’t simultaneously grow the family business while trying to uphold his pledge to turn legitimate and law-abiding.  He can’t have his cake and eat it too.  Even when his conscience, personified in Tom, the family’s consigliere, attempts to finally intervene towards the end, asking Michael, if it’s worth it to go on, Michael can’t let go yet, or even consider it, and he rebukes Tom.  There’s always one more thing in his way, one last thing to accomplish, to finish up.  In the end, he is the villain, despite his best efforts.

I can relate.  Sometimes I wonder if despite my best efforts to do good, in the end, I’m just a villain too.  There is always one more thing to buy, or one last word in an argument, or one more rung to climb, one more raise to get, and each and every time, I’ll have managed to convince myself that after this last time it will be enough.  I’ll be satisfied.  Then I can focus on what really matters.  But if you’re playing the game, even with the best intentions, it’s never enough.

I first saw the Godfathers several years ago, and what stood out to me about Part II was the tragedy of Michael’s crumbling morality, culminating in the ordering of Fredo’s murder, his own brother…his family.  Michael’s story brings the audience front and center to a man eroding as his empire is under attack.  This downfall is only further punctuated by the juxtaposed flashback scenes focused on his father, Vito’s, rise to power as a Mafia Don.  Everything from the cinematography and lighting down to the score treats Michael’s plight as tragic while his father’s is heroic, and after this first viewing I was sure there must be something in Michael’s ways that differed from his father’s, and which could serve as a barometer for my own daily struggle with wanting more; a trait, a way he operated, something, anything I could use to make sure that my own refusal to fully let go stayed under control and below Michael’s tragic levels.

During this week’s viewing though, I focused more on the role of Vito and I gradually realized that both father and son intimidated, and stole, and murdered.  Both also tried to do what was right when they could, and treat those who were loyal justly and with some grace.  In the end, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a lot separating these two men, except for the cold hard fact that one was on the rise and the other was in decline.  For Vito it was morning in Rome and for Michael the sun was setting.

But that still doesn’t change the fact that Michael’s is a tragic figure.  While Vito is safely tucked away in the past, and his reputation can rest on the empire he built and passed along to his son, Michael is burdened with that weight in the future.  Maybe Vito’s inheritance was a curse, a fall, sin.  The tragedy of Michael’s story is not that he squandered the family business, in fact quite the opposite, he massively grew the empire.  The real tragedy for Michael is that he was his father’s son.  And not just Michael, but his brother, Fredo, and his sister Connie as well.  All of the living Corleone children continued to live under the shadow of their father’s moral downfall.  They looked back and thought they saw greatness, and they tried their best to measure up, but were all missing the truth: like Adam to Cain, the weight of Vito’s broken nature had trickled down.

The Godfather: Part II

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By Craig Joseph

A few Saturdays ago, I got together with my friends, Brian and Melissa, to undertake a monumental task: introduce Brian to The Godfather trilogy by watching all three films in one sitting.  A daunting endeavor, to be sure, and we were so emotionally exhausted after the first two installments that we couldn’t suffer through Sofia Coppola’s abysmal acting in the third.  But the day did confirm one thing for me.

This is the greatest movie sequel of all time.

It’s got fantastic acting.  A killer screenplay.  DeNiro and Pacino together.  A story of ascendancy and another of decline being told in tandem.  A seminal score.  This list goes on and on.  It’s better, I think, than the first.  And the only other time that’s happened is when The Empire struck back.

But it took watching this in community with three very different people to appreciate the film’s finest attribute: its ability to generate (and support) a wide multiplicity of readings and meanings.  For Brian (the father of two young children, upsetting the current balance of his family’s life to head to med school), Part Two was about how present-day Michael destroys the family for which past-tense Vito struggled and provided.  Melissa (his wife) saw everything (in the first two films, in fact) building to the climactic moment when Kay confesses and likens her marriage to the abortion she’s recently had; the closed door motif breaks down and – for the first time in the series – a woman’s voice must be heard.  What I saw this time around terrified me.

Myself.

To be sure, I won’t be hacking up a prostitute any time soon in an effort to blackmail a Canton city councilman into allowing gambling in my gallery.  But I am capable of fervently pursuing a misguided course of action, despite the warnings of others and means that don’t justify the ends, if I can fool myself into thinking my motives are pure and honorable.  And that’s what was chilling about Pacino’s performance for me this time around: he actually thinks he’s protecting his family – even if it means killing his brother, imprisoning his wife and driving an old-time associate to suicide.

But isn’t that the truth about humanity?  Very few of us are just evil, wicked and cruel.  But all of us are prone to self-deception and, at our worst, we’re delusional.  And that’s what makes us (and movies) fascinating to watch.  Say what you want to about Dubya and oil and greed; I think that somewhere – in his heart of hearts – that guy actually believed that we were fighting a life and death battle against terrorism – and that he needed to play hero.  Remember Oral Roberts and his shenanigans?  You’d never behave that audaciously unless you actually believed that God had given you a divine mandate.

I cite some extreme cases, but I don’t know that I’m that far off.  The desire to be proven right and vindicated runs so strong in my blood that it’s a rare day when I’ll abandon a conviction that I’ve passionately held – even if it’s going disastrous.  And so, even though I’m not ordering assassinations, surrounded by henchman, I’m starting to view The Godfather, not as the chronicle of a Mafia boss unlike me, but as a sort of Everyman who has a few things warnings to dole out.