Families and Friends
The British novelist, scriptwriter and art critic John Berger mused, in his 1984 And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, that "romantic love, in the modern sense, is a love uniting or hoping to unite two displaced persons". For Berger, contemporary life – however and wherever it is lived – is haunted by a reigning zeitgeist of "displacement, homelessness, abandonment". Maybe we are all tempted to think of ourselves as lost, confused souls, in the grip of what film scholar Gilberto Perez (in his book The Material Ghost) calls "the sentimental homelessness of our time".
Culture – high art and popular culture alike – feeds these yearnings and anxieties. Perhaps even more powerful than those sensations of being constantly unmoored and uncertain is a feeling – a conviction, even – that we are all, fundamentally, orphans in the storm of the modern world. The harsh romance of being, for all intents and purposes, an orphaned loner comes at us from all angles these days – grunge novels, indie movies, post-punk ballads, even the outpourings of theory.
The field of intellectual endeavour known these days as Cultural Studies happily supports this prevalent feeling of orphaned homelessness. McKenzie Wark, one of Australia's best-known cultural theorists, has popularised a pithy slogan: "We no longer have roots, we have aerials; we no longer have origins, we have terminals". This formulation undoubtedly catches something profoundly true about our lives today: that we are sometimes likely to know an e-mail correspondent on the other side of the world better than our own neighbour.
But isn't there something a little screwy, in real-world terms, about this neo-romantic posture of no roots, no origins? Quite simply, one has to wonder: where did all the families go? Our parents and grandparents, nieces and nephews, our kids? Trendy cultural theory has little or no time for this quotidian reality: it's all too daggy. In fact, underwriting much current culture, and the theories explicating it, is more than a simple indifference towards the idea and actuality of family. Open hostility is more the name of the game.
Was it the 1960s that turned the nuclear family into such an obsessive object for channelling bad, radical vibes, such a dumping ground for all society's ills? Ang Lee's film The Ice Storm summed up thirty years of tortured cultural production in its sulky, morose depiction of an imploding, loveless home: the nuclear family as a small, hellish unit, disconnected from any wider, liberating, political consciousness. And this from the guy who previously made a popular movie overflowing with family warmth, The Wedding Banquet? The overrated but ever popular cinema of Sam Mendes, from American Beauty to Revolutionary Road, stokes the same loveless inferno.
For several decades, an influential line in sexual politics or (as it is today called) identity politics has preached that blood ties and gene pools are purely ideological, grossly sentimental, socially engineered forms of human intimacy and solidarity. What really matters (according to this doctrine) is not the family you were lumped with, but what queer theory calls chosen families. And these chosen families are, to some extent, what ‘extended families' have, in reality, always been: wayward accumulations over time of relatives, friends and neighbours, in which commitments and intimacies are formed through shared experience rather than through obedience or enslavement to an abstract principle of the happy family ...
But why on earth militate for an ideal of family that denigrates or denies the lineage of flesh and blood, the community that is formed by generational bonds, the evident sharing of personality traits between parent and child? Desire is the great mantra of so much contemporary theory: yet desire is fixed on the present, on immediate and near connection, on a romance of the ‘eternal present’ – anyhow, for as long as you can make that eternal present last.
I am my father's child, my mother's child: the moment at which a person can finally recognise this should, in good circumstances, trigger a feeling of acceptance, of connectedness, of belonging. In many current cultural manifestations, however, it is more likely to inaugurate a nightmare: in the movies Affliction and Erskineville Kings, for instance, men look into their souls to judge whether they have inherited the evil, the original sin of their bad, beastly Dads.
What motivates such anti-family feeling? A book by Rosamund Dalziell called Shameful Autobiographies deals with the idea of shame in contemporary Australian autobiographies and culture, from the memoirs of early settlers to Sally Morgan's famous novel My Place. It is about the kinds of shame that are forced upon people by the world around them, and sometimes also by their immediate family: shame over one's religion, nationality, skin colour, or lack of respectable social status. According to a review by Hilary McPhee, the book reaches the hopeful conclusion that "when the self has been shamed and that shame is shared, there can be a coming together in a larger narrative".
But there is another, less rational, more peevish, less integrative sort of shame – and it drives our collective culture as surely as its base cousins, envy, frustration and resentment. It is precisely the shame that cringing adolescents often feel in relation to their parents – the sort of embarrassment that makes teenagers want to hide their elders in a closet for a couple of years, so that none of their cool contemporaries will ever get to see or hear such blasts from the past. For a youngster in the grip of such shame, parents are irremediably uncomprehending, insensitive, conservative figures. If much modern culture seems – for better or worse – adolescent in spirit, that is because so much of it is driven by this irrational, peevish, obstinate kind of shame.
We would like to think that most people, in time, grow out of this phase, and learn to accept their parents as human beings, each blessed with their own mixed bag of fallibility, wisdom, prejudice and savvy. Cinema, however, shows us time and again how lasting – and how attractive – the aura of adolescent rage and shame can be. I'm not referring to whimsical, raucous, finally rather sweet teen movies like American Pie – which don't give much screen time to parents and other adult, authority figures, but don't completely exclude them from the fun, either. No, the evidence of shame is, paradoxically, to be found in some of the most acclaimed arthouse films.
In the loosely autobiographical Buffalo 66, for instance, gorgeous writer-director-star-rebel Vincent Gallo dumps mercilessly on his parents (played stridently by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston) – rubbing our noses in how loud, selfish, kitschy and unfeeling they supposedly are – all for the sake of of what one critic called a "fantasy of entitlement". The film is one big whine from a self-styled, poor victim of a typical American nuclear family, and its message is brutally clear: hey, nobody listened to me, nobody understood me when I was a kid, so now I am surely entitled to be King of the World. Impulsive desire – I want it, give it to me right now – is the motto and raison d’être of this Power Baby.
Insofar as Gallo counts as an avant-garde figure in current culture, his stance – that his youthful attitude stands as the absolute horizon of the contemporary moment, banishing the past and galvanizing the future, which is a common assumption among virtually all avant-gardes – prompts recollection of the fed-up disapproval of a very old but very wise man, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his essay “The Virtues of Patience” – directed against fifty years worth of ‘impatient’ thinkers inclined towards action, the glamour of violence, and a fundamental break with any ‘contemplative’ sense of the past and of the steady connections it sows – Levinas targeted this philosophical avant-garde:
The last life is the most lively and least reflective one, a life of youthful insolence, as though such youths had already resolved all the questions accumulated by successive generations by simple virtue of their wildness. The exception is worth more than the rule; conflict is greater than work. They glorify whatever is harsh and pitiless, adventurous and heroic, dangerous and intense. They flatter adolescents. (Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, p. 155, my emphasis)
The Australian movie Head On – another glamorous-youth-in-revolt movie – provides the queer-feminist variant on this shame-complex. Ana Kokkinos' film is less warm, less sympathetic than the Christos Tsiolkas novel, Loaded, on which it is based – and the most telling sign of this is the treatment of scenes involving the gay hero's family. Every time Papa dares show his face, a hyper-politicised, anti-patriarchal hysteria takes over the drama: this is the relentless nightmare of the father as abuser, as violent tyrant, as monster, throwback to the prehistoric, uncultured caveman. (The mothers in such stories, though less aggressive, tend to silently acquiesce in the perpetuation of this horror.) In stark contrast to Head On's propaganda against a nuclear family and its traditional, Greek values, I was recently moved by a statement made in conversation by a Greek-Australian friend: "If you criticise a member of my family, you criticise me". Such family loyalty – and the sense of connection, of bondedness it implies – is becoming scarce these days.
But the biggest offender of all, at least within the realm of culture, happens to be Woody Allen, the eternal adolescent. His movies are full of residual male fixations uncritically recycled: a good blow job from a whore is life's biggest thrill; love at first sight overturns all prior responsibilities and commitments. (No words are more chilling in his scripts than the announcement: "I met someone".) Worst of all, in his film Celebrity, Allen – not exactly a youngster himself at age 64 – includes a grotesque scene where his alter ego (played by Kenneth Branagh) sneers at all the old folks at a family gathering: they're just doing things like singing, eating and having a good time, but to Allen they are ugliness and dumbness incarnate.
Allen's characters zip through their lives like satellites: they disown their given families, and seem reluctant to start their own. Childless, rootless, boundless, no strings attached: entitlement is an upwardly mobile fantasy, more at home in the unreal worlds of showbiz or cyberspace than the mundane spaces of a loungeroom, a school hall or a crèche. In movies like these, disdain for family goes hand in glove with contempt for suburbia, for work, for anything which smacks of that unglamorous rut known as ordinary, everyday life.
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has a wiser line on these matters. His queer credentials are impeccable – not to mention the intensity of desire among his characters (one of his films is programmatically called Law of Desire). But his stories (like those of French filmmaker Philippe Garrel) get a fix on the gravity of decisions made on the basis of the most fleeting moment of raw desire: one reckless night can spell a lifetime of consequences in his universe!
Even more fundamentally, Almodóvar respects the drama and comedy of family attachment. In his profound work we see clearly the ultimate big issue: precisely the relation we choose to make today between blood families and chosen families – what it means to choose one over the other, and how we might try somehow to combine them.
Speaking about his movie All About My Mother, the filmmaker has said: "In the future, families will be just the people we love". Chosen families? Sure, except that Almodóvar's screen families eschew shame, and embrace everyone – including those homely souls who brought us into the world and connect us, inescapably, to a common humanity.
© Adrian Martin October 1999/January 2009