All In The Family: A Movie List For Eve Tushnet
Eve Tushnet asks an interesting question:
I can think of several relatively recent really good movies which explore the suffering and shattering of identity caused by divorce (The Squid and the Whale) or adultery (Eyes Wide Shut, The Secret Lives of Dentists). But even in these movies, if I’m remembering them correctly, the couple or at best the nuclear family exists in a world of its own. That’s not a criticism–the claustrophobic or fever-dream nature of all three of those movies is part of their impact. But the role of friends and the broader society in creating and sustaining a marriage isn’t really portrayed. I’d be interested if any of you all can recommend recent, not-awful movies in which that role is explored. It doesn’t have to be an entirely positive view of society’s involvement in marriage–I think A Separation would count–just a view in which it’s not taken for granted that families or individuals are isolated in their time of crisis.
This is something I mentioned in my discussion of Sarah Polley’s film, “Take This Waltz.” It’s notable in that film that the Michelle Williams character – who leaves her husband – has no “people” of her own, while her husband, the Seth Rogan character, is surrounded by family and friends. Indeed, so far as we can tell, the Williams charter’s only friend is the Rogan character’s sister. In my view, this choice was dramatically necessary, because if the Williams character had told anyone that she was leaving her husband for a rickshaw driver, they would have tied her to a chair to stop her. But it did make for a suggestive contrast, the fact that the one who has no “people” flees the only “people” she has – her husband.
Anyway, it’s a good question, and I wonder whether movies aren’t the ideal medium for exploring this territory. Most movies are single-protagonist quest narratives of one sort or another. Not all, but most. And narratives like that don’t lend themselves to exploring the network of society’s fibers. A movie is more likely to pit a protagonist against society. There’s also the question of time scale. Most movies play out over a relatively short span of time. (Though, obviously, there are exceptions.) Exploring how a network of friends and family support – or pull apart – a marriage sounds like it would require a longer span to do right.
The first recent work of art that came to my mind that directly addresses Tushnet’s question is Donald Margulies’s excellent play, Dinner With Friends. It was made into a movie for television, but I haven’t seen it, and I hear it isn’t very good. But the play is a marvelous and complex exploration of the interaction between friendship and marriage.
A recent movie that comes to mind is Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” though I don’t know that that movie is about how the penumbra of friends and family affect this marriage so much as how this marriage manages largely to avoid being affected by the emotional storms that rage in that penumbra. That’s its weakness as a film – it comes off as smug, because a happy family surrounded by unhappy people inevitably comes off as smug. But it definitely is a “family and community” film.
In a very different way, The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” is also about a marriage embedded in a community. I paired it with “Tree of Life” because of the Job connection (got to get back to that pairing thing, by the way), but I could also have paired it with “The Godfather, Part II” for the family-community thing. The movie is a satire, but among the things its satirizing is precisely what Tushnet is interested in exploring.
“The Last Station” is supposedly about Tolstoy, man and phenomenon, but his ideas are treated so superficially by the movie that what it winds up being is a portrait of a marriage more than anything else. And the tensions that tear it apart have everything to do with the conflict between the husband’s extra-familial identity and his role within the family. The Tolstoyan “community” isn’t exactly what Tushnet is talking about, but I still think it squeezes in.
How about “Rachel Getting Married“? A movie that depicts a whole series of successfully healing marriages that nonetheless cannot heal the original nuclear family – indeed, that pull that family ever further apart, and away from the trauma that original broke it. A lot of people didn’t like this film, but I thought it was very powerful – and part of what made it powerful is that “family” is on both sides of the equation. It’s what provides comfort and solace to Rachel’s sister, mother and father. But what they are getting comfort and solace from is the pain that Rachel caused them – and she is also, inescapably, part of the family, even though the proliferation of families contributes to her progressive isolation.
Then there’s that book that begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s not out yet, so I don’t know whether the new movie version is any good. (The casting and director leave me skeptical.) But it certainly fits Tushnet’s bill.
And of course there’s the screenplay I’m currently marketing. Know any producers, Eve?