Sunday, September 5, 2010

Loved The Godfather - Hated Animal Kingdom

My mother was a movie lover back in the Golden Age of American Cinema. During the 1930s and 1940s, often for as little as a nickel, my mother went from single-screen theater to theater to see, as she puts it, “great movies every time.” Imagine going to the movies in 1939 and seeing Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, and Goodbye Mr. Chips - only to name a few. Movie heaven!

But at 88, with excellent health other than a little high blood pressure, my mother, avid moviegoer and voracious reader, has been dealt one of life’s cruel ironies in the form of macular degeneration. She lives on her own – in the house where I grew up in San Mateo, California – by means of peripheral vision, but everything else is a blur. She can’t distinguish faces. She differentiates between people by identifying clothing, especially shoes. She can’t read books. She can’t write letters. In a region with limited public transportation, she can’t drive.

“Watching” Larry King on CNN is a favorite pastime. All she has to do is listen. She has also listened to many books on CD, but for someone who was never very techno-savvy when her vision was perfect, operating her little portable CD player is an on-going challenge. If you’re experienced with a particular machine, you can probably do it blindfolded. As an experiment, I blindfolded myself and inserted and played a DVD successfully after some initial fumbling. But for someone who never manipulated technology, a CD player and a DVD player are nightmares. She runs through countless batteries because she forgets to turn off the CD player. After much coaching, she always forgets to press play when the DVD menu appears. “It keeps playing the theme to Lawrence of Arabia over and over again. I think something’s wrong with the tape… I mean the CD… I mean the DVD.”

Even though playing DVDs is a major source of frustration, my mother still tries. My wife patiently renews her Netflix account after each time my mother gives up on DVDs and says the struggle isn’t worth the five dollars per month. But my mother has enjoyed some movies on Netflix: North Face (subtitled in English but she understands German) and The Young Victoria (she loves historical epics).

Going to the movies is a problem. She loved March of the Penguins because she could see the penguins: mostly black against the white Antarctic. (Actually, I closed my eyes and snoozed during that movie and I could still see penguins.) She has to sit up front, and she can’t see anything if the scene is dark. But for the most part, it’s not worth the effort for her because there’s nothing out there that delivers the satisfaction she got from the Hollywood classics or David Lean epics she loves.

Nevertheless, when I went to California for two weeks this summer, I decided to try taking her to the movies.

The Aussie indie Animal Kingdom, directed by David Michôd, had just opened at the Sundance Cinema in San Francisco, and so I thought we’d give it a try. Animal Kingdom is about a gangster family in 1980s Australia, and she loved The Godfather, and so I thought…

I loved this gritty portrait of a bank-robbing, drug-dealing family, an examination of how fear leads to crumbling alliances, violence, and betrayal. When friend and leader Barry (Joel Edgerton) is shot down by the police, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) and his brothers Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford) want revenge, embroiling young J (James Frecherville), a teenager thrust into this crime family after the death of his mother. Artful camerawork and wonderful acting build the suspense. How far will J go in his involvement? How far will the cold-blooded Pope go to keep out of prison? Mendelsohn distinguishes himself as the sleazy, self-centered criminal whose fear ensures that he will not shy away from the deepest depravity. (Mendelsohn bears a striking resemblance to Sam Rockwell.) Especially riveting is the performance of Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody, called “Grandma Smurf,” the matriarch of the family.

“So what did you think?” I asked my mother as I guided her out of the dark cinema. “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it was a 10.” “Oh, why?” “It was so…” “Gritty and realistic?” “Yes. It was disgusting.” Well, as the film unfolded, I was predicting she would say that. We went on to talk about how she loved The Godfather for its colorful depiction of an historical period and a Mafia family. The members of the Corleone family are killers, but the film's handsome actors, its historical sweep, its colorful cinematography, and its mournful but romantic musical score are appealing to my mother, whereas the minimalism and stark realism of Animal Kingdom leave her cold. I enjoyed The Godfather, but I felt the realism of Animal Kingdom more.

In Animal Kingdom nothing is romanticized. In one scene, the homicide detective (Guy Pearce in a wonderful performance) points out that the ways of animals in the bush are different from the ways of other creatures. The members of Grandma’s family are definitely beasts of the bush, and if you aren’t originally a beast from the bush, like the passive and impressionable J, you may well become one. In The Godfather you observe the sweeping history of family men engaged in cold-blooded business dealings, and you might be shocked by that paradox, but in Animal Kingdom there are no glamourous actors or colorful settings to accompany the reality of the fear and heartlessness.

I had thought my mother might like the character of Janine Cody, the insidiously sweet-talking head of the clan who kisses her kin smack on the lips as a token of her acceptance of what her bad boys do, and also as a clear message that any family member who betrays the bond will face the cruelest of consequences. But the chilling creepiness of a beast like Grandma was perhaps too disquieting for her. For someone who idealizes the virtues of motherhood, it's hard for her to enjoy the portrayal of a mother who is a devious monster.

Granted, my mother had poor vision stacked against a full appreciation of this film. Nevertheless, she lost interest. She didn’t care for the realism. We’re different. I am always gripped by the verisimilitude – no matter how disquieting - that can be achieved by images captured on film.

I guess, for my mother, going to the movies in the 1930s wasn’t about art and reality. It was about story and glamour and emotion. A happy ending was important too. Escapism was imperative. I love that too. In fact, my mother’s enthusiastic comments about the classics she had seen encouraged me to watch them on television when I could find them, thus helping to jump-start a burning passion for film.

After the movie, over a bowl of won-ton soup in a restaurant on Clement Street, we agreed that it was not worthwhile for my mother to go to the movies anymore. She would watch Amelia, her recent Netflix pick. I had no intention of taking her to the movies again, unless a future preview promises “an historical epic with the visual sweep of David Lean’s greatest films.”

For a woman who, as a girl, had sneaked out to see King Kong, which her parents had forbidden her to see; for a woman who saw Gone With the Wind when it was first released, her movie-going days were over. Yet, part of the power of cinema is that our memory hangs on tenaciously to what we see on the big screen. Clark Gable. Spencer Tracy. Gary Cooper. Bette Davis. Tyrone Power. Errol Flynn. Katharine Hepburn. John Wayne. King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building. Scarlett O’Hara swearing she will never go hungry again. Ethan Edwards picking up Debbie Edwards in one smooth sweep. Old age can’t take those images away from you.


The Film Doctor said...

I hadn't heard of Animal Kingdom. Thanks for pointing out its strengths. Your mother was an avid viewer at a key moment in movie history. Wasn't 1939 one of the most successful (in more ways than one) years in Hollywood history?

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, FilmDr. Yes, I think 1939 is definitely the Golden Year as far as the quality of the films released and how many of them became classics, but apparently the years between 1940 and 1947 were the most successful financially and "two thirds of the population went to the movies every week." So, the Great Depression was great for drawing moviegoers to escapism, but World War II was an even stronger impetus. The 30s and 40s prospered before the arrival of competition in the form of TV. (We can blame the 3D gimmick on TV.) Then it was all downhill - VCRs, DVDs, Blockbuster, Netflix, Pay-per-View, laptops, iPhones. But the big screen still holds a big thrill for me.

Daniel said...

What a terrific piece, Hokahey! I love when people are able to review a film within the context of a personal experience. You've said everything that needs to be said about Animal Kingdom (of course I agree with your praise), while also conveying fascinating insights about your mother's relationship to the movies.

I hope this isn't the last movie she goes to, physical difficulties aside. Hollywood owes her at least one more pleasant experience, for old time's sake.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the praise, Daniel. I think you're right. I think Hollywood owes her one last great movie experience. That's why I was imagining a film in the tradition of David Lean's epics. She LOVES Doctor Zhivago!

Fletch said...

As with Daniel, I love the personal history woven into this review. My recently deceased grandfather also suffered from macular degeneration, so this hit me a bit harder than it probably should have. It is indeed a cruel irony that those that are still sharp mentally are the ones that get their senses taking away - on the flipside, I have a father-in-law that's pretty damn good, health-wise, but with Alzheimer's. You just can't win either way.

It doesn't surprise me either, though, that she didn't take to Animal Kingdom - it's like the inverse of my reactions towards the movies that she loves. I want my stories told with gritty realism instead of sweeping fantasy - especially crime stories like this one. Lucky are the ones that can appreciate both, I suppose.

Richard Bellamy said...

Fletch, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, it's hard to see family members decline mentally or physically. It makes you appreciate life and drives you to get as much out of it as possible.

Although I love the sentimental 30s classics and the sweeping historical epics, I'm glad I can enjoy many kinds of movies. I love powerful movies - so I had no trouble with the starkness of Animal Kingdom.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'd been saving this until I saw Animal Kingdom. What a terrific read. As others have said, you've done a great job of weaving the personal into this -- related to the specific film and to moviegoing as a whole. Nice job.

Animal Kingdom is as you described it, but I found it only moving in spaces and not on the whole. I'm not quite sure what I disliked about it, to be honest, it just didn't grab me -- except when it did. You know what I mean.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment, Jason, and I can see how Animal Kingdom is "only moving in spaces." I only felt moved in spaces as well, but the other times I was gripped by the grittiness of the realism and the character of Pope, who gets more and more sinister as the story evolves. If I have a reservation about this film, it is the performance of (James Frecherville) as J. I can see how he was supposed to be passive and mumbly, but sometimes I wished he had a little more oomph to his character.

Anonymous said...

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Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. Glad you liked it.