Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spare a little change: Junebug, coming home, and the eerie effects of the parental gaze

So I’m sitting by the window in this café and the proprietor who I’m friendly with sits besides me and starts telling me about this guy across the street who used to date his sister in high school and was always talking and talking, and there he is now, across the street, 20 years later, and still he’s just talking and talking at someone as though not a moment’s gone by. “If there’s one thing I know about life,” the proprietor announces with absolute conviction, “it’s that people never change.” I ask him why he feels so strongly. He tells me he’s got three kids and that no matter what they do or say as they grow up he saw it all in them from the day they were born. I ask him if perhaps the reason they’ll always seem to the same to him isn’t that they never change but rather that, being his children, he’ll never be able to see them any differently. The proprietor considers this for a good moment and then, quite graciously, concedes that I might have a point.

I told this story to my colleague David Berry and he confessed that he more or less agreed with the café proprietor. People change in little ways, David said, but our essential selves stay the same. But I wonder how many little things need to change to constitute essential change; how much about who we were needs to change before something has changed right down there in that indefinable essence?

When I first left home at 18 and moved to another city, every time I returned felt this involuntary regression. I’m back in the house where I was raised, trying to feel at ease with my family and their habits, yet within minutes we all slip into precisely the same dynamic we’ve always had, the same presumptions and alliances, the same grievances and useless responses. I truly believed that I’d changed, significantly, yet once I entered that house it was as though everything was frozen in time and only physical escape could break the curse of stasis. It took me some years to shake off the frustration that accompanied these reunions. With the holidays here and many of us returning to our families, perhaps for uncomfortably long visits, it got me to thinking about movies that illustrate this scenario.

I thought of
The Godfather (1972), how Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone comes back home a war hero, college educated and well-spoken, so different from his siblings, all of whom seem to be easing into their assigned roles within the family’s ethnic tribalism and business of organized crime, and yet by the time the story closes Michael has assumed the position his father once held, as though fate, as it did with Oedipus, were simply meandering on its way to delivering his proscribed sentence. I thought too about Five Easy Pieces (70), which I wrote about last week, how Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea pathologically seeks to reinvent himself as someone from not only a different sort of family but a different class, how he winds up just as unhappy playing the role of a California roughneck as that of a gifted Oregon concert pianist, and how after returning home to find no resolution has no other choice but to keep on running from everything in order to stave off his incessant sense of vacancy. I thought about Brand Upon the Brain! (06) and Guy Maddin’s hero returning to the lighthouse orphanage of his childhood to somnambulistically paint its walls, and about My Own Private Idaho (91), where Keanu Reeves’ male hustler embodies the role of Prince Hal. I also thought about Dogtooth (09) and what happens when the children never leave home. Literally. But that's another story.

The movie that finally struck me as being most emblematic of the experience that had been on my mind was
Junebug (05), the debut of director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan. After years away, living in Chicago, George (Alessandro Nivola) returns to his rural North Carolina home with Madeline (Embeth Davidtz), his new wife. What’s especially interesting about this homecoming is how George initially recedes from the central storyline upon arriving home. While Madeline awkwardly attempts to ingratiate herself to her in-laws, George seems to be constantly passing out on the sofa, exploring empty rooms or going out. It’s only when he’s called upon by the local pastor to sing a hymn that George breaks the spell and instantly seems to change before Madeline’s eyes into the homey, family-loving Christian his parents raised him to be. “Ye who are weary… Jesus is calling, o sinner, come home,” George sings in a voice so pure it could’ve come from a boy.

Morrison subtly emphasizes the role home and place play in George’s transformation through still, often unpopulated, almost painterly shots of houses, rooms, vast lawns, and churches with immense parking lots. Madeline is a diplomat’s daughter, born in Japan and raised between South Africa and DC—a person without roots, as far as George’s mother’s concerned—and no matter how hard she tries she’ll always stick out everywhere she goes in George’s town, while George, after only a short time there, virtually disappears—from Madeline’s view—right into the town’s tapestry. Then a crisis emerges, George helps his sister-in-law through the crisis, and when he emerges from the event he’s suddenly anxious to leave. In what is perhaps the movie’s boldest move, George and Madeline depart and the story ends with George callously expressing his relief at getting out of that place.

Yet we’re not meant to take this as a simplistic finale, nor as disrespect for George's family on the part of the filmmakers. I think we’re to intuit that George’s family will go on with their lives and George will go on with his and both paths involve some irreducible mixture of free will and stubborn changelessness. It’s only when returning home for a few hours, a few days, maybe a few weeks (!), we are all, or at least most of us, susceptible to this eerie magic that renders us a child once more, unable to assert our individuality and wondering how we ever made it out of the driveway on our own. Until of course we do make it out, and repeat the experience all over.

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