Saturday, January 16, 2010

Introspection and Repression

In the one corner sits psychological repression. In the other corner we have introspection. Both forces can tug at us throughout our lives, depending on the situation we must face, and both have consequences for our long term well being. As I was watching the 1980 film 'Ordinary People' again recently, it struck me how well this 30-year-old movie presents both sides, without degenerating into mawkishness or self parody.

Some of my readers may know the film, but others not. The story concerns a well off family in suburban Chicago facing the death of a son and brother. Donald Sutherland plays the father dumbfounded by the sad event of his eldest son's death in a boating accident and the resulting suicide attempt by his youngest son, played superbly by a young Timothy Hutton. Hutton's character Conrad is wracked with guilt over his brother's death. The movie begins just after Conrad has come home from a stay in hospital. In a bit of casting genius, Mary Tyler Moore plays the emotionally distant mother Beth. At the time, Moore was known as a comedienne, having recently completed the seven-season run of her hit sitcom. To cast her as the uptight suburban mother seemed risky in 1980, which is what made her tour de force performance all the more satisfying.

Ordinary People was Robert Redford's directorial debut, and in my mind he has never equalled the skill he shows in this film. There isn't a single throwaway scene or camera angle. The entire film maintains its focus on the issue of coming to grips with a personal tragedy and never lets go of this focus. Other movies turn suburban American stories into social commentaries about the idle rich or seek to reveal the 'obvious' underbelly of such a milieu. Ordinary People avoids the pontificating and cheap shots and shines its light on the Jarrett family's troubles. It neither derides them for their affluence nor snickers at their very real difficulties. It is, in my opinion, the most honest view of a family I have ever seen.

Some people may think of the film as a naturalistic slice of life. After all, there are no big heroes or monumental life-and-death struggles. Similarly, there is no obvious villain. It is a quiet and slow moving story - and a sombre one at that. Despite the apparent lack of an epic and gripping tale, in its own way it is epic. In the space of two hours, it deals with the issue of psychological health and at the close of the film has provided a subtle conclusion about which side it favours.

I first saw the movie at age 14 with my parents, when it was released in cinemas. At the time I didn't think twice about seeing such a difficult movie with my parents, but in the 30 years since, I have often thanked my parents for taking me to see it. It's quite something to sit in a dark cinema watching a family come apart at the seams, with a teenage son telling his mother to f*** off - and having my parents next to me no less! At that age, I surely didn't grasp the subtlety of the dialogue or the quiet intensity of the interplay between the characters. What I did know was this family had an awful truth to swallow and the two opposing characters of Beth and her son Conrad illustrated the theme of the film in stark frankness. To this day, the pivotal scenes at the end of the movie move me to tears.

30 years later, the movie still resonates with me because I always chose the path of introspection to resolve my difficulties. I don't credit Ordinary People with teaching me this lesson, but I do turn to it to highlight the importance of dealing with one's problems head on, regardless of how difficult it may be. Judd Hirsch, who plays the character of the wise Dr Berger, Conrad's psychiatrist, has an especially good line: 'A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle'. To me, this sums up the theme of the story. To deal with one's emotions isn't always pleasant, but it is a necessary step along the road to psychological health.

In the ruthless pursuit of values, the best gift one can give oneself is to introspect constantly and without regret. Anything less to me is to live incompletely. It's a choice we must all face on a daily basis: to think or to evade. I have picked the former and it has served me well in more than four decades of living.

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