Sunday, June 14, 2015

Classics: A Cinematic Ode to Fathers By Lauren Ennis

Father’s Day was first celebrated in 1910 in Spokane Washington, two years after the first celebration of Mother’s Day. Like its predecessor, the event eventually went on to be observed by all fifty US states and is now considered a fully-fledged holiday that is promoted through national media. Ironically, the holiday’s greatest resistance has historically come from the very men it is meant to celebrate, who often dismissed the holiday as commercialism or sentimentality. This week, I’ll be honoring the fathers in our readership with three films that highlight the importance of fatherhood without resorting to gimmicks or clichés.

Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim...can't help lovin' that dad of mine

Finding Nemo: This 2003 Disney/Pixar film put the ‘family’ back into ‘family entertainment’. The story follows the parallel journeys of father and son clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Alexander Gould) as they struggle to find their independence while finding their way back to each other. The film begins with anxiety-ridden Marlin raising only child Nemo after the death of his wife, Coral (Elizabeth Perekins). Following the brutal death of Coral and their eggs, Marlin vows to protect his son at any cost; even if it means coddling Nemo to the point that their relationship verges on codependence. After Nemo is captured by scuba divers during a school field trip (his first real experience away from his father’s care) Marlin dives into action, and with the help of memory impaired blue tang, Dory (Ellen Degeneres), journeys across the Tasman Sea to Sydney to find his missing son. Father and son quickly learn about the dangers of life beyond their sheltered anemone home as Nemo is held captive in a dentist office aquarium and Marlin encounters fish-addicted sharks, deadly jellyfish, and a gluttonous whale. Through their trials they also learn, however, about all of the joys and thrills that they’ve been missing out on and all of the courage and resilience that they never realized they possessed. Over the course of both their journeys, Marlin and Nemo ultimately learn to see things from each other’s perspective as Nemo experiences firsthand the dangers that his father tried to warn him about, and Marlin finally learns that there is a time to hold a child’s hand and a time to finally let go. With its dazzling visuals that transport viewers to the vibrant world lying beneath the ocean surface, this film is a must see for fans of the art of animation as well as Disney and Pixar devotees. Through a sense of humor that appeals equally to adults and children and universal lessons that will resonate long after the cinema lights fade, Finding Nemo truly is entertainment of the highest order for the whole family.

Who needs movies with a one-man-show in the family?

Man of a Thousand Faces: Hollywood biographies, while prestige projects that often go on to become Oscar contenders, all too often fall into the trap of relaying recycled themes and familiar story arcs while trying to highlight the life of a unique individual. One biography that breaks this mold, however, is the 1957 biography Man of a Thousand Faces. Although the film does chronicle the early life, struggles, and eventual success of its protagonist, famed silent horror star Lon Chaney (James Cagney), the film emphasizes themes beyond the usual struggle, success, and redemption themes by focusing upon Chaney’s troubled home life and his greatest role of all as a dedicated father. The film begins with the recently married Chaney working in vaudeville alongside his actress wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), as the pair struggle to make names for themselves on the stage. The film then shifts its focus from his professional life to his complicated personal one when Cleva announces that she is pregnant and insists upon meeting Lon’s family before their baby is born. The painful reason behind his keeping his family hidden is revealed when Cleva meets Mr. and Mrs. Chaney (Nolan Leary and Celia Lovsky), both of whom are deaf and mute. Horrified by her in-laws disability and terrified that her child may be born with the same handicap, Cleva becomes furious with Lon for hiding his family’s secret and threatens to have an abortion. He eventually persuades her to have the baby, who is born perfectly healthy, but she proves ill-suited to motherhood and leaves the majority of the parenting duties to him. When their son, Creighton (played by four actors at varying ages), is still a toddler she insists upon returning to the stage, even though it means working as a second-rate singer in a sleazy nightclub, and leaves the boy backstage at Lon’s performances while she works nights and sleeps most of the day. The couple reach their breaking point when Lon learns of Cleva’s affair with a wealthy patron and Cleva suspects that Lon’s platonic friendship with sympathetic showgirl Hazel (Jane Greer) is something more. In an attempt to bring his wife home and save his failing marriage Lon asks Cleva’s boss to fire her. When she learns that her employment, and dream of fame, has been terminated she is unable to withstand the blow and wanders onstage during one of Lon’s performances where she attempts suicide by swallowing a bottle of acid. The incident ultimately ends their marriage as she disappears after recovering and the state deems that Lon is unfit to raise Creighton due to the fact that he is a single father working in the often unpredictable entertainment industry. The film then shifts its focus to Lon’s film career as he struggles to gain better roles not to achieve fame or fortune, but to gain the job and financial security necessary to win back custody of his son. After finally regaining custody of Creighton, Lon faces yet more adversity as Creighton adjusts to living with his father and Cleva reappears and tries to reclaim the boy. Father and son eventually overcome misunderstanding and estrangement, with Creighton going on to adopt the stage name ‘Lon Chaney Jr.’ and taking his place in his father’s business. Throughout the many ups and downs of his varied career and complicated personal life one constant remains; Lon’s love for his son. Whether arguing with Cleva for their son’s right to life, scrambling to revive their obviously failing marriage to provide a complete home, or working grueling hours in thankless roles to ensure that he regains custody, Lon consistently puts Creighton and his needs first. While an intriguing biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces best serves as a testament to parental sacrifice and the enduring bond between fathers and their children.

A little bit of pixie dust and a lot of love can go a long way

Finding Neverland: This 2004 film also provides an unusual twist on the biopic. Finding Neverland chronicles J.M. Barrie’s process creating his masterpiece Peter Pan and his relationship with the family who inspired him to write it. The story begins with Barrie (Johnny Depp) meeting his widowed neighbor, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), following the successful debut of his latest show. The film then follows the evolution of the pair’s relationship as they become deeply close friends and Barrie takes on the role of surrogate father to Sylvia’s four young sons (Freddie Highmore, Nick Roud, Joe Prospero, and Luke Spill). Despite protests from his suspicious wife (Radha Mitchell) and Sylvia’s skeptical mother (Julie Christie), Barrie continues to spend the majority of his time with the family, and begins to write a story based upon a fantasy version of their lives that will become Peter Pan. When Sylvia finally succumbs to lung cancer at the film’s close she makes a provision in her will naming Barrie and her mother as the boys’ co-guardians, a role that Barrie gratefully accepts and promises to fulfill to the best of his ability.  Like Man of a Thousand Faces, Finding Neverland takes the standard biopic tropes and moves beyond them to tell a truly original story that conveys both the transformative power of imagination and the importance of family. Although Barrie is not the boys’ father, over time he develops a bond with each of them that is nothing short of paternal as he shows genuine interest in their lives and teaches them about the importance of holding onto childhood and living life to the fullest, even in the face of loss. The film’s unconventional story sheds light on the ways in which parental figures can play just as crucial a role in children’s lives as their actual parents and shows that parental figures and role models can be found in the unlikeliest of places. 

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