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And The Cat's In The Cradle...
by Simon Smithson

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And now, my son, I pass the kingdom of Bel Air to you.

And now, my son, I pass the kingdom of Bel Air to you.
It's an impossible task for any movie to bring the same kind of depth to personality that we see in the people around us in every day life. There just isn't the time in a hundred and twenty or so minutes to capture every single emotion, action, or thought that defines a person. So a few broad strokes have to do the job. A great actor is someone who can use those broad strokes to capture an entire character.

One of the most complex relationships in human life is the relationship between children and their parents. Parenthood and the challenges and triumphs that come along with it crop up time and time again in movies, precisely because it's such fertile ground for storytelling. The position of fathers, in particular, is one that's been investigated from every angle â€" good fathers, bad fathers, protective fathers, abusive fathers. The Jesuit saying of ‘Give me a child until he is seven and he is mine for life' is a testament to the power that our environment has over shaping us when we are young. The problem therein lies in the fact that if you're put into a flawed upbringing, you're behind the eight ball from the beginning.

The Will Smith film THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS was remarkable both for the film itself and for the fact that Smith's in-film son was played by his real-life son Jaden, who did justice to the part. Smith commented in interviews around the time of release that he found himself in new emotional territory while filming the scenes where his character, Chris Gardner, under attack from all sides, snaps and takes his frustrations out on his son. On the one hand, the scene had to be entirely believable, but, on the other hand, it's something of an ask to have a man abuse his own child on camera, movie though it may be.

Chris Gardner in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS is a good father in a very bad situation. His problem is money, or rather, the lack of it. Desperate to get back on his feet, and desperate to take care of his son, he gives up everything to claw his way out of the hole that life has put him in. But he's in very deep trouble, and he knows it. Only human, he struggles sometimes to keep his frustrations from boiling over, and unfortunately his son is usually the closest target.

Frustration played a part in Nicolas Cage's motivations in THE WEATHER MAN, another one of Cage's one-for-the-studio-one-for-me under the radar films. Cage plays Dave
Nic Cage's new discipline technique did wonders for long drives.

Nic Cage's new discipline technique did wonders for long drives.
Spritz, a man who is massively successful in his business life but only just scraping by in his personal life. He's divorced, unhappy, and struggling to be both a good father to his kids and a good son to his own father (Michael Caine, sporting an American accent that catches the viewer by surprise every time he opens his mouth). Cage discovers that there are crises to be dealt with on all fronts â€" both of his kids have serious problems to be dealt with and he believes himself to be a failure in his father's eyes. Not to mention he's being replaced in his previous role as father and husband by a man that he hates.

But, like Chris Gardner in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, Dave Spritz is determined to make things right. With no pre-drawn map to follow, and no idea of precisely what to do, he nevertheless pushes onwards, taking it upon himself to step in and watch his children's backs, and to prove himself to his own father. THE WEATHERMAN, at heart, is a movie that says that there is no guidebook to being a father, or, indeed, to life itself.

The lack of a father, or the loss of a father, can be something that pushes a man or a woman into a totally new direction in life. 1999's ARLINGTON ROAD was a movie about many things, not the least of which was Jeff Bridges doing a complete about-face from his performance as ‘The Dude' in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Tim Robbins's pleasant smile and secretive lifestyle concealed an entire life from the neighbourhood that he moves into, and as the film goes on, it's revealed that Robbins's entire life was brought into focus when he was a child and his father committed suicide after the banks decided that he was a bad investment.

Issues of fatherhood return throughout the movie; the opening scene is Bridges running with an injured boy to hospital, one that we soon find out is not his son but Robbins's. Later in the movie when Robbins says ‘You saved my son's life. I would very much like to return the favour,' he is striking at the heart of Bridges's vulnerability, his role as a father. At the end of the movie we are left wondering if the children of the two men will grow up to be shaped by the lives of their fathers, just as Robbins's character was by his.

That being said, sometimes a father is nothing but a negative presence. The New Zealand film ONCE WERE WARRIORS brought Temuera Morrison to the attention of the international community
Father/Son bonding... at its most literal.

Father/Son bonding... at its most literal.
with his role as Jake the Muss, a hard-drinking Maori who regularly beats his wife and provides no support for his children, one of whom joins a street gang, one who ends up in a juvenile justice centre, and one who commits suicide. The family life that could have been, that is hinted at in some of the happier scenes, is totally fractured by Jake's presence and the effect he has on the people who he, supposedly, loves.

ONCE WERE WARRIORS is a picture of how traditional ways of life have changed, leaving the people that were raised to them left adrift and unsure of their exact place in the world. Jake's response to this is to drink and to fight, to blot out and attack. He's a victim of cultural shift, but where he fails as a father is in the responsibility he has to his children to be concerned with more than himself, a responsibility that he lets slide.

Children grow up â€" it's what they do â€" and eventually become old enough to become responsible for themselves. But shifting the parent/child dynamic is more than a matter of the number of years on the clock. After all, a parent is always going to have some years on their children (barring a BACK TO THE FUTURE type situation). This was used to perfect effect with the team-up of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, a team-up that sadly will not be repeated for the upcoming film in the series.

For all of Indiana Jones's savoir-faire, street smarts, and two-fisted adventuring, he was reduced to a glowering schoolboy in the presence of his father, going off half-cocked at the mention of the name ‘Junior' and sinking into sullenness at a single disapproving look from his father. Even when gunning down Nazis he doesn't quite get the approval that he's looking for. As with all father/son relationships, it takes a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil in an old stone temple and the death of all the bad guys to finally make things right.

When a movie looks at the issues surrounding fatherhood the point is (if the movie is halfway decent, that is) that there is no special moment where a man snaps over from being a son to being a father and knows exactly how to do it. It's a learning process and, like any, it goes wrong from time to time. The reason that the movies are better than real life is that usually, when something goes wrong, it can be fixed in the space of an hour and a half.

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An in-depth look at the different kinds of characters that make the movies, how they've changed over time, and how they reflect the best and worst of us.


Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Soldier On

Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?

You Can't Spell Private Without I

All Columns


Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.


Contact
If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.


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