Tag Archive | film

#10 Top Grief on Film: Six Feet Under

Last but by no means least on my top ten “Grief on Film”:

10) Six Feet Under

Even though this multi-award-winning drama about the Fishers, a Los Angeles family of funeral directors, was a television show and not a film, for me, it was, and remains, the most accurate, authentic, multifaceted and complete portrayal of grief ever filmed, particularly effective in its portrayal of death as part of life. Created by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, Six Feet Under ran for five seasons, from 2001 to 2005, and can still sometimes be seen on HBO on demand, or rented. It’s well worth it. On one level, Six Feet Under is a family drama that deals intelligently with such issues as relationships, sex, religion, infidelity, sibling rivalry, and mental illness, but its brilliance stems from quite another level, namely its bold and daring focus on death and grief and its willingness to employ an inventive array of fictional techniques to illuminate the subject. Psychologically sophisticated, often surreal, with a strong measure of irony and dark humor, Six Feet Under regularly brings the world of the living in contact with the dead in ways that show how people actually deal with loss, as the dead taunt and/or comfort, explain and/or question, frighten and/or anger, and illustrates its complex, authentic characters’ interior monologues and psychological issues by exposing them as external dialogues. This technique has enormous emotional, philosophical, and metaphorical payoffs; I employed a similar approach with the ghost in my 2000 novel, Saving Elijah, which was inspired by my own experience of losing my son. Each Six Feet Under episode begins with a death –anything from a heart attack, to SIDS, to old age, to murder, to a pool accident—and that death sets the tone for the drama to come as each of the characters live and reflect on their own lives with the introductory death and preparations for the funeral service as a backdrop. Six Feet Under stars Peter Krause as Nate, the older prodigal son who returns after his father’s death to reluctantly become a partner in the family funeral business; Michael Hall as the gay, younger son David; Lauren Ambrose as the artist rebel daughter Claire; Frances Conroy as bewildered, stymied matriarch Ruth; and Richard Jenkins as Nathanial, the patriarch killed in the first episode who regularly returns as a ghost. Smaller but no less powerful roles are played by Mathew St. Patrick as David’s boyfriend Keith; Lilly Taylor as Nate’s first wife; the wonderful Rachel Griffiths as Nate’s second wife, Brenda Chenowith; Jeremy Sisto as Brenda’s bipolar brother, and many others. The last episode in which each character ultimately embraces life and finally death left me (and every Six Feet Under fan I’ve ever met) deeply moved and weeping. So many scenes remain with me, but I have to say that the entire show is worth watching just so one can feel the full measure of the last amazing sequence as daughter Claire rides away from Los Angeles to meet her life and her fate, and each character in turn does the same. The ending is the perfect coda to all that came before it. True genius.

#5-9 top Grief on Film: Ordinary People, Door in the Floor, Sweet Hereafter, Big Chill

Here are numbers 5 through 9 of my top ten Grief on Film list, originally published at http://www.opentohope.com 

5.) Ordinary People

       Based on the moving novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People tells the heartbreaking, intensely real story of a seemingly happy upper class couple who have lost the older of their two sons in a boating accident. Grief is subterranean here, as it often is, and is complicated by long-standing familial dysfunction; these people cannot speak openly of their pain. Timothy Hutton plays the surviving teenage son, Conrad, who blames himself for his brother’s death and has attempted suicide. Mary Tyler More is extraordinary as the repressed mother, Beth, who always preferred Conrad’s brother and can’t support Conrad. And Donald Sutherland is deeply believable as the father, Calvin, trying to hold the family together. Only when Conrad begins to see a psychiatrist, played by Judd Hirsch, does the family’s carefully cultivated veneer of coping begin to crack. Ordinary People is an admirable and honest examination of how pretense yields to grief, and the complex and difficult emotions experienced by grief’s survivors.

6) The Door in the Floor

      This 2004 film is another that honestly examines a marriage breaking apart after child loss. Adapted from the first (and best) part of John Irving’s best-selling novel “A Widow for One Year,” the film is set in the affluent beach community of East Hampton, New York and takes place during one critical summer in the lives of famous children’s book author and artist Ted Cole, played by one of my all time favorite actors, Jeff Bridges, and his beautiful wife Marion, played quite effectively by Kim Basinger. The Cole’s once-sweet marriage has curdled in the aftermath of the tragedy of losing their twin teenage sons in a car accident, and their attempt to fill the void with a new child, now six-year-old Ruth, has been disastrous. Marion remains despondent and unable to mother the new child, and Ted has become a philandering alcoholic. Eddie O’Hare, a young man Ted hires to work as his summer assistant, becomes the couple’s pawn in the destructive game that has developed between them. I found this film deeply moving and devastating as a kind of cautionary tale, for its portrayal of the destructiveness that can occur in two people with no resources to cope with a tragedy of unbearable proportions. It’s hard to sympathize with these two, but I recognize in them the narcissism and self-absorption of grief, and when Marion takes all the photographs and negatives of their dead sons, I wept like a baby.

7) The Sweet Hereafter

      This somber, difficult film directed by Atom Egoyan, based on the 1991 novel by Russell Banks, is set in a small town in the aftermath of a school bus accident that has killed most of the town’s children.  Into this devastating scene descends a slick, big city, ambulance-chasing lawyer, played by Ian Holmes. He is a man pursued by the demons of losing his own daughter to drugs, and he visits each of the victims’ parents to stir up their anger and coax them to participa te in a class action lawsuit to profit from the tragedy. The case depends on the few surviving witnesses to say the right things in court, particularly Nicole, played by Sarah Polley (whose recent film Away from Her nearly made this list), who was sitting at the front of the bus and is now paralyzed. She accuses the driver of causing the accident, and all hope of receiving money vanishes. Everyone knows she’s lying, but only her father knows she is exacting revenge on him for having molested her.  With great performances against a bleak, somber landscape, the film isn’t for the faint of heart, but does a great job of depicting how grief searches for restitution, but can never really find it.

8) Under the Sand

     Francois Ozon’s “haunting” film Under the Sand stars the courageous British actress Charlotte Rampling, playing Marie, a professor of English Literature in a Paris university, happily married to Jean for twenty-five years.  When Jean disappears one day while the couple is sunbathing during their south of France vacation, Marie doesn’t know what happened to him, whether he left her for another woman, committed suicide, or drowned.  Unable to accept that he is gone, she still talks and thinks of him in the present tense. This beautiful, sad, languid film, in French with subtitles, makes artistic use of film language, camera angles, mirror doubles, and unforgettable ocean images, to help us understand Marie’s inner thoughts and feelings and depict the psychologically traumatizing effect of grief.  In its brutally honest portrayal of a woman confronting her identity, age, body, sexuality, emotions, and even her intellect, Under the Sand shows how grief forces total reexamination of the soul and spreads its tentacles into every aspect of a person’s life.

9.) The Big Chill

       Okay, so this 1983 film directed by Lawrence Kasdan is a quirky departure in the list of sober and difficult dramas I’ve compiled. Some may object to its inclusion over other more serious films, such as Polley’s Away from Her, Mark Foster’s Monster’s Ball, plus Reservation Road, Grace is Gone, Iris, Things We Lost in the Fire, One True Thing, Terms of Endearment, Iris, Night Mother and many more. I include it not only because it is one of my favorite films of all time, groundbreaking in its use of an ensemble cast, musical score, and many other ways, but mainly because it is that rare comedy that deals realistically with grief.  With a terrific cast including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Meg Tilly, and Jeff Goldblum, The Big Chill tells of a group of thirty-something former college friends who come together for a weekend of reconciliation and reflection after the shocking death of one of their own, Alex (Kevin Costner, in a role cut in the final take), who committed suicide in the home of physician Sarah and business executive Harold, where the weekend takes place. Alex had been living there with his young girlfriend, Chloë, while trying to figure out what to do with his life. Powerfully demonstrating the ripple effect of suicide on the survivors, the group turns to each other to try and figure out why Alex ended his life and explore what happened to the ideals of their youth.  Yes, the film doesn’t deal with “high grief” such as that with comes with the loss of a child, parent, or sibling, but The Big Chill beautifully demonstrates that friendship and humor can be healing, and the scene of Sarah crying alone in the shower, within the context of the rest of the film, is a potent reminder of the loneliness of grief.  


#3 & #4 Grief on Film: In the Bedroom and Sophie’s Choice

3) In the Bedroom

In the Bedroom is a terrific but brutally frank film about a marriage crumbling in the face of child loss, probably the most honest cinematic portrayal of the subject I have ever seen. This multi-award winning drama directed by Todd Field centers on an ordinary middle class couple in Maine called the Fowlers, Matt and Ruth, played with bravery by Tom Wilkenson and Sissy Spacek, whose son Frank is killed by the violent ex-husband of the older women he loves, played by Marissa Tomei.  The couple’s anger in this case is centered on the failure of the justice system to appropriately deal with the killer, but the film does a remarkable job of portraying how the self-absorption and anger of grief can erode the very foundations of a marriage, no matter what the circumstances.

4.) Sophie’s Choice

Based on William Styron’s magnificent novel of the same title, directed by Alan J. Paluka, Sophie’s Choice centers on a beautiful Polish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor named Sophie, played by Meryl Streep, and her mad, Auschwitz-obsessed lover Nathan, played by Kevin Kline.  They share a boarding house with Stingo, the film’s narrator, played by Peter MacNicol, a young writer from the south who travels to post-World War II Brooklyn and befriends the couple.  Through the course of the film, as Sophie reveals to Stingo pieces of her devastating history, Stingo falls in love with Sophie and in his earnest naïvety begins to believe he can save her. I include Sophie’s Choice in my list because while the film has a broad historical significance and is about much in addition to grief, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance as the inconsolable Sophie is so deep and accurate, nuanced and real, that the film’s power as an illuminator of grief cannot be denied.  So much of this film is indelibly embedded in my consciousness, but I particularly want to mention the final scene, during which Stingo reads from Nathan’s book of Emily Dickinson poems, “Ample Make this Bed.”   

Originally posted on http://www.opentohope.com

# 2 Grief on Film – The Visitor

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in this low key, but absorbing and powerful film.  Although “The Visitor” is humanistic and realistic, memories of the dead loom over the characters here like silent watchful ghosts. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, “The Visitor” explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, as well as immigration and other post 9/11 issues, but it primarily revolves around a bereaved economics professor named Walter Vale, played by Richard Jenkins, the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher father in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” Jenkins literally inhabits the character, and while the circumstances of the wife’s death are never specified, he carries the weight of grief in his hunched shoulders and furrowed brow, in his every moment, movement and nuance.

When circumstance forces Vale to present a paper at NYU, he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters at his long unused Village apartment, Tarek, a Syrian musician and his Senaglese girlfriend, Zainab.  He begins a kind of comeback, as a warm and paternal relationship develops between him and Tarek, and when Tarek introduces him to the New York City jazz scene. Particularly powerful is a scene in which this balding white man joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, and the scenes between Vale and Tarek’s mother, who arrives when Tarek is detained by the authorities.  This woman is also burdened by grief over the death of her government-murdered Syrian husband, and the relationship is believable and adult, the rare vision of an astute director who although young understands these two grieving people who reach out to each other.

“The Visitor” is memorable for its deep understanding that the journey back from grief is composed of small, often unexpected steps rather than a giant leap, but also for its remarkable embrace of life in all its complexity, ambiguity, and possibility. 

This post was originally published on http://www.opentohope.com

GRIEF ON FILM: My top ten films about grief

A few months ago, my husband and I saw Danny Boyle’s ingeniously plotted Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. It mesmerized and horrified me with its gritty, realistic portrayal of the plight of India’s slum orphans as seen through the eyes of eighteen year old Jamal, whose poverty stricken childhood provides him with the answers that help him win 20 million rupees on India’s version of ” Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” And then came the last fifteen minutes.  Now I like a Bollywood (or Hollywood) musical as much as the next person.  But in the context of this disturbing film, I found the end—a romantic wrap up and rousing dance number—strangely out of place.  This is how I usually react to feel-good endings tacked on stories purporting to be about grief.  We who’ve taken the grief journey know there can be light within it, but to suggest that it’s easily or quickly found, as many novels and films do, negates the potential for real human growth after tragedy, and contributes to the delegitimizing way we deal with other people’s bereavement. As I wrote in my novel, “Saving Elijah,” “The miracles (that come with grief) are of the deepest truest kind, because those miracles have to do with the giving and the cherishing of our blessings rather than the getting of them or the asking for them.  Miracles of friendship and forgiveness, hope and peace and faith, can always be found by those willing to search, can be found even in the darkest of packages.”

       With that in mind, I wrote a piece for www.opentohope.com on the ten films that I think best illuminate grief without stereotyping, sugarcoating or sentimentality and thus, like all true works of art, tell some real truth about the human condition.  Here’s the first one:

1) The Savages

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins,”The Savages”is a nuanced, closely observed film about a middle-aged brother and sister reckoning with their guilt, responsibility, and ambivalent feelings when their long estranged father develops vascular dementia and has to be placed in a nursing home.  Funny and tragic, with amazing performances by the gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings Jon and Wendy, with incredible work by Philip Bosco as their father, Lenny,The Savages lacks a single false moment. It fully and believably conveys complex characters and their tragic situation without trying to impose closure, false hope or catharsis. The film is particularly notable for its frank depiction of the messiness of grief, which itself springs from the complexity and messiness of human relationships. For all its tragedy, it manages to achieve real moments of grace in the only way grace can be achieved in such situations, in small moments of mercy and discovery, with bruising honesty, comedy, pathos, and irony.

More grief on film to come  

Movie Review: “Trumbo”

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening day of the new film, Trumbo, at the Plaza Cinema in Manhattan. I was invited by my friend, Alan Klingenstein, one of the film’s producers, and it was indeed a pleasure, if a disturbing one. Trumbo, directed by Peter Asken, is a documentary about the great Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was caught up in the early fifties in the hysteria of the anti-Communist era in America. Called before the demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Dalton Trumbo refused to name names and was consequently jailed and blacklisted by the Hollywood community. All this deprived him both of his place and his livelihood, but the greater psychological loss, I think, was his sense of betrayal by his friends and his country. He and his young family struggled for years afterward not only to survive, but with vicious ostracism. Trumbo did write a film here and there under assumed names, and he even won an Oscar for his work on “The Brave One,” but of course he couldn’t show up to claim the prize and it went unclaimed until the blacklist was finally lifted in 1960. I found the clips from the famous “I Am Spartacus!” scene in Spartacus, and also from The Brave One, The Sandpiper, Johnny Got His Gun and the Fixer among the most interesting parts of the film. How is art related to life? Here’s how. Into these films Trumbo inserted his beliefs about free speech, and themes of both betrayal and friendship. That these themes figured prominently in both his letters and his fiction shows how deeply he felt about them.

Trumbo was adapted from the play of the same name by son Christopher, and features emotional readings of letters written by the cantankerous, brilliant, witty Trumbo, many from jail, by a collection of extraordinary actor/celebrities including Liam Neeson, Paul Giametti, Nathan Lane, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Donald Sutherland, and David Straithairn. All this is intermixed with frightening but familiar archival footage of the “Hollywood Ten” hearings stage-managed by Senator McCarthy, touching Trumbo home movie footage, personal photographs, and interviews with Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi, along with Christopher and many others who knew the man. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that somehow manages to be both informational and dramatic, and provides not only a compelling window into the struggles of this man and his family and others caught up in the Committee’s net, but also demonstrates the danger that demagogues who pray on unbridled fear pose for this country. Over and over in history, we have seen eras in which demagogues like McCarthy take control and whip this country into a frenzy, from the Red Scare of the early last century, to the Vietnam War, to the tenure of our current disastrous Administration. Why does this happen in our democracy? Is it something gullible in the American character? The film ought to be required viewing in every high school in America.

Congratulations to Alan.  Also check Alan’s new film venture at www.filmcatcher.com.

Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.

“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.

It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)

We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.

But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading