It’s All Relative: Family Dysfunction in the Post-Modern Movie

[15 May 2013]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

There’s an age old maxim that goes a little something like this: “you can pick your friends…you can’t pick your family” - and while that sentiment is indeed accurate, it’s still a bit specious. As a matter of fact, you can make a conscious decision to leave your legally linked biological others, and the only repercussion may be an innate sense of sadness (unless you really, really hate them) and the occasional odd look from those who don’t understand such distance. There’s also the instance where you “run out for cigarettes” and recreate a new communal brood out of the remnants of such an unexpected “break-up.” We ‘step’ through life like this all the time. So, in truth, you can pick your family—not in the literal sense (unless you have some sort of cosmic control on procreation)—but in the more flawed, figurative sense.

It’s at this point that the media usually steps in and adds their aesthetic two cents worth. Songs scorn the missing daddy or the brother traveling off to Spain (on a plane). Books become the confessional for everything from irritation to incest, most ending up like overlong diatribes against the party or parental parties who didn’t get them the Christmas 1968 holy grail they demanded. Sure, some come right out and call Mommie Dearest a monster, who highlight how a belt, or bag of oranges, can become a weapon of wanton discipline. And with the cyclical nature of cinema, we’ve had the heartwarming stories of unlikely couples coming together and bringing yours, mine and ours to the with six you get eggroll mix. Then we had demonic dads and ice queen Mary Tyler matriarchs.

Now, we’re balanced somewhere precariously in the middle, a little light dysfunction (addiction, adultery, amorality) adding “character” to the typical sibling on guardian beatdown. It’s become such a facet of filmmaking, especially in the mighty mumblecore arena of independent art, that’s it’s like a creative rite of passage. You’re not considered the next overrated “auteur” until you’ve taken that moldy old anecdote about your Uncle Al and his uncanny habit of sitting naked in front of your middle school and made it into the reason you’re an unsuccessful schmoe settling for life as an underpaid intern at (name current hipster company brand here). Of course, the black sheep can always win the day if they make the determination that the rest of their white bread suburban kin are crazy - or perhaps, more accurately, co-dependent. It’s the same on the urban side of the street as well - right Tyler Perry?

Into this movie mix comes someone like Charles Swan III, center of Roman Coppola’s passable paean to ‘70s excesses, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of… Based a bit on famed graphic designer Charles White III (who made album covers in the Me Decade look just as decadent as the times) and using star Charlie Sheen’s egotistical cultural morass as a major jumping off point, we get the typical portrait of an a-hole as an otherwise raging d-bag. Swan’s likeability is severely limited by his known indulgences, his lack of empathy, and a charisma born more out of not-caring than any real joie de vive. Working his aesthetic link to his father (Francis Ford) and best friend (Wes Anderson) to an ambitious fault, Coppola’s film barely coheres. What it does do, however, is offer the latest version of what Hollywood thinks is a perfectly ordinary, nuclear to near neutron family unit.

Like previous entries into this genre-jumping ideal, Swan is close to his understanding sister (a patient Patricia Arquette) while being a bit of a dick to everyone else, including close pal Kirby (Jason Schwartzman) and hound dog manager Saul (Bill Murray). In between bouts of hallucinogenic happenstance that only works in the movies, we try to connect with this man, only to see how shallow he really is. He’s no better than the self-centered Lester Burnham from Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, or his fallible ‘50s counterpart, Frank Wheeler of Revolutionary Road fame. He’s a man in despair with his own measure, a truth he cannot face in light of having a clan who claims a certain level of nonjudgmental devotion. Sure, they fuss and fight, but biology seems to trump such tantrums.

Like another Anderson homage, The Royal Tennenbaums, Swan’s story appears to be the direct result of a life lived in literature, not reality. There’s no normal - everything is like a novel. It’s Running with Scissors without the surreal psycho-sadism sex edge, or Happiness without Todd Solondz bad taste by way of a darker John Waters joking. Coppola, copping all he can from his pop art period, gives us connections that come by way of contrivance, not courting, and the end result makes better examples (The Squid and the Whale on the dramatic, Pink Flamingos on the funny) truly shine. This isn’t to say that the movie itself is bad, just beleaguered by central character who can’t and won’t connect to us. He’s a jerk, and last time anyone checked, cads are eviscerated, not embraced.

That’s the saving grace of many dysfunctional family films - finding the universality in the truly insular. If you father always wanted you to play a team sport, and yet you couldn’t excel at the level he demanded, The Great Santini seems like pure prescience. On the other hand, few have had a gay brother return home to mess up their already anarchic Thanksgiving (Home for the Holidays), or a son destined to be the spawn of Satan (well, he does shoot up a school and kill everyone but his Mom). Humor can also go a long way to elevating our genetic guilt. John Hughes made Uncle Buck a loveable loser because, sometimes, street smarts can overcome the calculating shiver of an inflexible family. Mock his man-cave conceits, but he’s a heck of a lot more appealing than his cipher of a brother. Or his white witch wife.

Or how about the Hoovers, who hope to help their precocious pre-Honey Boo Boo daughter Olive win a semi-prestigious beauty contest. From vows of silence to salty sailor tongues, this group wears its kindred quirks right out for the world to welcome. In fact, we love dysfunction. It’s a new brand, a tool to take away the complexity of our existence and chalk it up to a psychologically acceptable pretense. Sure, this means that most movies about the subject stray heavily into three (or four) handkerchief territory, but when they can make us laugh - like Little Miss Sunshine, or The Simpsons - we recognize such a calming catharsis. It’s the kind of relief that a character like Charlie Swan III requires. As essayed by another needy artiste, it becomes a bit too helpless and hollow. 

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/171503-its-all-relative-family-dysfunction-in-the-post-modern-movie/