Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Short reviews of some of the movies (relevant to mothering) that I've seen this year

Thank You for Smoking
I enjoyed this movie's celebration of rhetoric, even though I find a little tiresome its typical idealized portrayal of a parent who sacrifices everything because he is unable to stomach a little bit of hypocrisy and/or contradiction, which as Sara Ruddick writes (in Maternal Thinking, which I'm reading right now) is central to real parenting.

I really, really enjoyed this movie and would recommend it to anyone. First of all, it stars the ever-impressive Maggie Gyllenhaal. But it's a story of a formerly drug-addicted mother who gets out of prison motivated solely by her hopes for a close relationship with her daughter. She quickly discovers, though, that one cannot rely entirely on a child for one's sense of purpose - especially because children are often unpredictable. It's also a story of the many realities of our society that can keep a good person from always being good. And it's a story of a family who has essentially adopted this little girl and their legitimate concerns for her interests - and their own. I can empathize with both sides of this story, so I was ever-alert to any standard demonization of either the mother or the stepmother - but it really wasn't there. Neither character was perfect, and both were often sympathetic. The movie is an excellent exploration of the complications of parenting in the real world and how they simply cannot be simplified into "good" and "bad" or "right" and "wrong."

O Brother Where Art Thou
OK, George Clooney does not a convincing Odysseus make. In fact, the plot's resemblance to the original Odyssey is skeletal at best - and thus sometimes simply frustrating, so it would be better to watch it without that expectation. It is, then, somewhat amusing. Its all-too-typical demonization of the wife/mother - a horrible debasement of the original, honored Penelope - further hurts the flick in my eyes, though. I wouldn't recommend it.

Donnie Darko
A professor in my new department thinks the world of this movie and recommended it to me. It was too weird for Dennis, but I enjoyed it once I realized that it was basically magical reality, like Salman Rushdie's work - and it packs an incredible emotional punch. It also demonstrates an awareness of societal constructions of ideal motherhood - which in this case particularly involve appropriate mothering behaviors, such as complete devotion, and perfect results in the children themselves - and subtly challenges them. I'll probably watch it again to take closer note of all of its nuances.

Dead End
I watched this movie thinking that it would be relevant to my mother-sons work, but the daughter's relationship with her father turned out to be the real focus. It was an enjoyable movie too, especially once I realized that, despite the frequent creepiness, I wasn't going to see anything truly nightmarish. It was always just suggested - sometimes rather humorously. The surprise ending also reminded me a lot of that of Donnie Darko, since in both movies your entire understanding (or lack thereof) of what you've seen changes - and your confusion resolves itself - right in the last few moments of the action. To be honest, Dead End still leaves some questions in the viewer's mind - but I'd still recommend it.

Keeping Mum
With an all-star cast (including Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean fame; Kristen Scott Thomas; Patrick Swayze; and Maggie Smith, most recently known as Harry Potter's headmistress), this movie attempts to make what is quite serious - adultery, murder, and sermon-making - quite funny, with some success. If you take such things seriously, you might not be convinced, though. My husband certainly wasn't, and I had some trouble myself as well. It's also a little like Stella Dallas in that it shows how even a well-meaning mother can do best by her daughter by absenting herself from that daughter's life. I suppose that if it had been about a murderous mother of a philandering son instead of a murderous mother of an adulterous daughter, it wouldn't have been a comedy in the first place.

I've also watched most of The Inconvenient Truth and Sicko (discussed here) recently, and even though they're unapologetically liberal in orientation, what they both show is that mainstream American movies that present a viewpoint outside the mainstream 1) get that viewpoint honest consideration among the mainstream population and 2) do so much more successfully than do books, speaking tours, websites, or any other form of communication. That directly confirms my ultimate argument in my Master's thesis: that without positive visual representations (read: in movies) of feminist and so-called "nontraditional" approaches to mothering, even - and primarily - mothers themselves will be unable to take such approaches without worrying about their standard negative connotations in society and probably reacting to such worries. Such evidence makes me feel triumphant.