Camera Lucida: The Power of Home

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Arlene Keizer

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE white middle-class family these days; if you’re entering the movie theater to watch a “family drama,” consider them armed and dangerous.

Vigilante justice — or the terrible wrath of prehistoric beasts — wins the day in these films released in the past couple of years. “The Deep End,” “In the Bedroom,” and “Jurassic Park III” all feature middle-class, nuclear families threatened by the transgressive sexualities of mothers or sons.

In these and numerous other films like them (e.g. Adrian’s Lyne’s “Unfaithful”), the adult male’s disaffection from the traditional family structure, certainly at least one catalyst for the continuing breakdown of one ideal of family life, is rendered virtually invisible. Rather, the families in these films unravel because of the sexual curiosity or waywardness of women and teenage boys.

“Jurassic Park”’s subplot of family reunification is the most heavy-handed and provides the goriest scene of recrimination against a sexually adventurous woman outside of the horror genre.

Paul Kirby (William H. Macy) and ex-wife Amanda (Ta Leoni) convince the paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to accompany them on a flight over Isla Sorna, where the dinosaurs created in the first and second films rule the roost.

Once they land on the island and end up stranded, Grant learns that the divorced couple is actually in search of their son Eric (Trevor Morgan), who disappeared while parasailing nearby with Amanda’s new boyfriend Ben Hildebrand (Mark Harelik). Certain that Eric is alive, they set out across the island to look for him.

They come across a parasailing rig stuck in a tree, and nearby the mother’s video camera, on which they can see footage of Ben and their son. When Grant and his assistant Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola) take down the parasail for future use, Ben’s body, now a skeleton still strapped into its harness, falls into Amanda’s arms.

She flails hysterically in the ghoulish embrace of her dead lover. The loss of her son and a close encounter with a corpse are the consequences of seeking a new life with a man younger and more adventurous than her husband.

Sacrifice and Redemption

After this incident, the couple shares an honest and supportive embrace for the first time in the film, taking the initial steps back toward married life. Later, Paul rescues his wife from one dinosaur’s clutches through an uncharacteristic act of physical bravery, and this brings them even closer.

As in “The Deep End” (discussed below), others must be sacrificed so that this family unit can be preserved. Since JP III is part of the adventure genre, the Black man is one of the first to die! No suspense there!

(I pity the fool who thought this crew member would make it through the first encounter with the dinosaurs. This convention has been commented upon and parodied so often that I would have thought filmmakers would be embarrassed to continue to use it. There’s a subject for another column!)

Eventually, through the trial of looking for and finding the son who clearly wants them back together, the two recognize their love for one another and the family is reconstituted.

The film’s final words are a dialogue between Amanda and Paul. Upon seeing the pterodactyls leaving the island with the Navy helicopters (part of the fleet that’s come to their rescue), Amanda says “I dare them to nest in Enid, OK.” Paul laughs and says, “Let’s go home.”

Even the dinosaurs know better than to mess with the U.S. Navy and the Marines, who storm the beach as if their rescue mission were the Battle of Normandy.

Family/Military Values

The link between the U.S. military and the protection or reconstitution of the white middle-class family is introduced in much more subtle fashion in “In the Bedroom” and “The Deep End.”

Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom” (based on Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings”) begins with a scene of playful, pastoral lovemaking between Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) and Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl).

We soon learn that she is a working-class women with two young children who is separated from her controlling and abusive husband. He is a middle-class young man about to go off to college.

The film’s governing metaphor comes from the “bedroom” of a lobster trap; Frank’s father Matt (Tom Wilkinson) tells Natalie’s older son Jason (Camden Munson) that, in the bedroom, two’s company and three’s a crowd. A mother lobster nurturing her young can “take out” two males easily.

Through reading this metaphor into the film’s plot as a whole, we can recognize the ways in which the film does hold the young woman responsible for the conflict that ends tragically.

Frank’s failure to maintain class allegiance is a critical element of the plot. Though he initially tells his mother that he and Natalie aren’t serious and that “it’s a summer thing,” Frank begins to consider postponing college for a year or taking up lobster-fishing rather than immediately pursuing his dream of being an architect.

Ruth (Sissy Spacek) hounds him about giving up his relationship with Natalie, both because of her concern for her son’s career and her fear of Natalie’s husband Richard Strout (William Mapother). Her fears turn out to be warranted, and Frank is killed as he attempts to protect Natalie and the children from Richard’s rage.

The contrast between the orderly, loving upper-middle-class family and the chaotic, violent, lower-class one could not be more pronounced. After becoming aware that their son’s killer may face only manslaughter charges and as few as five years in prison, and after the bitter battle scene that stopped viewers and critics dead in their tracks because of its ferocity and verisimilitude, Matt and Ruth take up the way of the gun.

A couple of shots establish the military theme that becomes more pronounced as the film moves to its close. Matt drives to the house where his son was killed, and the camera zeroes in on his veteran’s license plate. Judging from his age, he’s probably a Vietnam vet.

Immediately after Matt and Ruth’s reconciliation, the camera pans across medals and photographs from someone’s tour of duty in Asia; it turns out to be a display in his friend Willis’ (William Wise) den.

Matt and friend have a conversation about how little time Richard will serve and how intolerable it is for the Fowlers to have to see him day and day out.

Humane vs. Inhuman Murder

When next we see Matt, he leaves an outdoor concert in his doctor’s blazer and slacks and then reappears wearing his L.L. Bean field coat like a flak jacket.

His gloved hands show that he doesn’t intend to leave any evidence of his presence in Richard’s vicinity. Inexorably, he carries out his campaign to kill Richard and make it appear as if he jumped bail, despite the evidence he sees that Richard may really love his estranged wife and children.

Matt and Willis drive back into a town cleared of the enemy’s presence. The landscape has been defamiliarized by their act; the streets and stores appear slightly strange in the very early dawn light. The film ends with a series of shots, beginning with Matt’s face as he huddles on his side in bed, clearly meditating upon what he’s done.

The next shot is a full side view of house, then several wider perspectives of the town from various angles, then the bay, then a black screen. It is as if the camera wants to remind us that this microcosm of the United States is what Matt has killed for.

A different film might have created a greater moral equivalence between the two murders and murderers, but “In the Bedroom” largely works against this logic.

Despite the fact that both men acted with murderous intent, from a revenge motive, Richard is made to appear both an idiot and a monster. His terrible dye-job marks him from the beginning of the film as somewhat laughable (as well as working-class), and his violence, especially towards his wife and in front of his children makes him a virtually unredeemable character.

Furthermore, his utterly insensitive, whining comments to Matt — attempts to justify his murder of Matt’s son! — give the audience every reason to cheer his death. Matt, on the other hand, is depicted as a humane and rational killer, one sensitive enough to feel haunted by the life he’s taken in exchange for his son’s.

Off The Deep End

Of the three films, “The Deep End” tells the most interesting, complex tale of the bourgeois family and the threats that surround it. The action of the film is framed by the father’s two phone calls home from the ship on which he’s stationed. (Oddly enough, that ship is the USS Constellation, the same one upon which Willis, in “In the Bedroom,” served.)

The first call comes in the middle of a heated argument between mother and son over the older club owner, Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), whom Beau has been seeing. Not long before the film begins, Beau and Reese were in a serious car accident after drinking at Reese’s bar, The Deep End.

The blue-lit interior of the bar is clearly marked as the scene of decadence, and Reese drives a Corvette that’s the same color, with a license plate that reads “6 FT BLO.” In the film’s vivid, meaningful palette, where else could Reese end up except at the bottom of the other deep end in Tahoe? The advocate of the “6 FT BLO” ends up six feet under.

Reese visits Beau one night at the family’s home, the same day that Beau’s mother Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) has gone to “The Deep End” to ask him to stop seeing her son. The two men fight in the family’s small boathouse, partly over the fact that Reese has offered to stay away from Beau in exchange for money from his mother.

Beau leaves Reese on the dock, where, in his drunken state, he falls through the handrail and is impaled on an anchor. Margaret, out for an early-morning walk, sees the broken handrail and finds Reese’s body.

Assuming that Beau is responsible, she leaps into action, pulling the anchor out of the body, lifting body and anchor into the dinghy, traveling out into Lake Tahoe and dumping them in an area where her actions are hidden by large rocks.

This is the first moment at which we see what all the nervous energy coiled inside this character can do. Swinton, playing against type with a vengeance, is the edgiest, most alert, most resourceful housewife on film.

Upon her return to the house, she sees Reese’s car and realizes that she has to get rid of that as well. She takes the boat back out to the spot where she’s hidden the body, strips down to her underwear, and dives into the lake to recover the car keys.

She then returns to the house, drives the car to a parking lot in downtown Lake Tahoe, and walks home — all before breakfast! How can keeping track of her children’s soccer games and dance lessons possibly be satisfying to a woman capable of this level of independent, albeit criminal, action?

Covering Everything Up

Despite the fact that she isn’t reconciled to her son’s homosexuality, which he himself denies when he speaks to her, Margaret will do anything to protect Beau, including keeping his father, Captain Tom Hall, in the dark.

The film shows her repeatedly coming up against the problems of her husband’s absence. This is highlighted by the presence of Tom’s father Jack; he’s a jovial but clueless (and thus ineffectual) adult man.

In the midst of the crisis surrounding Reese’s death, Jack suffers a heart attack brought on by his insistence on carrying enormous jugs of water into the house. The adult men in the family are clearly well-meaning but either missing or unable to help.

In this sense, the film does gesture toward the threat to the family from the patriarch’s disappearance, without registering that absence as willful or selfish. Tom Hall’s commitment to his family is only abrogated by his commitment to his country.

Not long after Reese’s body washes up on the Tahoe shore, Alek Spero (Goran Visnjic) appears at the Halls’ door and attempts to blackmail them with a videotape Darby Reese made of himself and Beau having sex.

One of the most unusual and agonizing moments in the film occurs when Alek plays the tape for Margaret. She doesn’t respond dramatically, but the tension in her face increases and after just a few moments, she says tersely, “Please turn it off.”

Few parents want evidence of their children’s sexual lives, let alone video footage, but Margaret takes it in without hysteria and, if anything, it increases her desire to shield her son from harm. Though later it’s clear that she cannot use the word “gay” to describe him (her sentence trails off instead), she does accept the reality of his sexual life, and immediately begins her desperate search for $50,000 in hush money.

When she returns home after fruitless attempts to get a home equity loan without the husband’s signature, an exquisite shot encapsulates the disruption of her world: her body is reflected, upside-down and in miniature, in a drop of water from the kitchen faucet.

New Love

What makes “The Deep End” so compelling is the romantic subplot that develops between Margaret and Alek, the blackmailer. It quickly becomes clear that Alek is acting under pressure from his boss, Carlie Nagle (Raymond Barry), a very violent, sleazy character who has a mysterious hold over the younger man, who appears to be a Greek or Eastern European immigrant.

After Margaret misses the first meeting to drop off the money, Alek returns to the Halls’ home, just as Margaret is trying to give Jack CPR. He takes over and saves Jack’s life. Once the family has gone off to the hospital, he wanders around their house, his expression reflecting nostalgia, respect, and sadness as he examines the trappings of their everyday life.

We never know exactly what Alek has left behind, but his fundamental sympathy for the family life of the Halls transforms his relationship with Margaret. He begins to fall in love with her, and shifts his demands for money on this basis.

Writing off his share of the money, he halves the amount required for the destruction of the tape. When she can only muster $12,000, he tells her that their position as blackmailers has been undercut by the arrest of a suspect in Darby Reese’s murder.

When Nagle decides to go after Margaret himself, Alek intervenes and kills his partner in the ensuing struggle.

One of the film’s achievements is to show a mother and son’s recognition and acceptance of each other’s sexuality. Beau has begun to suspect that his mother is having an affair with Alek.

In order to implement their hastily agreed plan for disposing of Nagle’s body, Margaret must follow Alek in his car. She gets into his red Nova SS and realizes that she can’t drive it because it has a manual transmission. She is thus forced to call upon her son for help.

Together, they come upon the crash scene, and it’s clear that Alek has sacrificed himself to protect Margaret and her family. Despite the fact that they’ve never even kissed, she weeps over his crushed body and their lips almost touch as she listens to his last words.

Hidden Passions

Later, when Margaret and Beau return home, she continues to cry uncontrollably. He is able and willing to hold her and comfort her without requiring an explanation.

The camera pulls back from this scene to hover outside the window. We hear the phone ring and the daughter Paige’s voice (Tamara Hope) saying, “Mom, it’s Dad. Can you pick up?”

The family circle is made whole again, but we are left with an image of the passions that suburban life must keep below the surface, the passions that the father cannot or will not see.

With the exception of “Jurassic Park III,” these films are well-crafted, engaging, and suspenseful; “The Deep End” is extraordinary. However, their participation in the culture’s attempt to reglamorize the traditional home and women’s position as happy homemakers who will sacrifice anything for their families is profoundly disturbing.

The turn back toward full-time homemaking among upper-middle-class, educated women is a strange and fascinating trend, both status symbol and sign of anxiety about child-care providers who are not family members.

The nostalgia for the domestic which, throughout the 1990s, was responsible for an explosion in the marketing of furniture and home accessories, is being further intensified by national anxieties in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 bombings. These films, released in 2001, already register a circle-the-wagons mentality, always at the expense of women’s autonomy.

Though I am not suggesting that they consciously promote a right-wing program, they certainly support the anxieties and instinctive responses that make that program appealing to many; in other words, they participate in the “cultural logic” of the moment, to borrow Fredric Jameson’s phrase.

In the face of the radical agenda being pursued by this country’s right wing, which aims to sharply curtail reproductive choice, to limit the mandate of Title IX, to bring an end to affirmative action, to impoverish the many for the benefit of the few, and to secure access to oil in the Middle East at any cost, we need more and more an art that keeps us open to the world outside the borders of the nuclear family and the nation.

Within the context of shrinking civil liberties for everyone, we need reminders of the possibilities that arise from political and social freedom, beyond the right to a tranquil domestic life. What is freedom for, anyway?