Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)

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I had a hankering to watch Ordinary People this past week. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was my never-ending love for Robert Redford. Or maybe it was something else, like the fact that it’s a perfect movie. Regardless, I yielded and, as is the case every time I watch this movie, I feel the need to schedule some therapy sessions with Judd Hirsch. He’s booked, though, so I have to write about it here.

Ordinary People, based on the novel by Judith Guest (which I also read for the first time in two sittings this past week…oops), tells the story of the Jarrett family–a wealthy family living in Lake Forest, Illinois, in a perfectly-manicured home. Calvin is a tax attorney, and everyone loves his wife, Beth, who is involved in community affairs, a great organizer. Their oldest son, Buck, recently died in a boating accident, and his younger brother Conrad, has just been released from the mental hospital after attempting suicide. Ordinary people.

Except for the whole our-oldest-son-died-and-then-our-younger-son-tried-to-commit-suicide-and-we’re-not-even-going-to-talk-about-it-because-we-are-ORDINARY-PEOPLE! bit.

It is a film saturated with and entirely dependent upon raw emotion–something Redford’s friend and frequent collaborator Sydney Pollack felt made the film a difficult directorial debut because it required great directing of the actors, of which Redford had no experience. Redford, though, had no doubts–about himself or the actors he assembled.

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To Redford, the heart of the piece is Beth Jarrett, the cold and seemingly unfeeling mother, played to perfection by Mary Tyler Moore. She has lived in this carefully constructed world where appearances are of the utmost importance–and then her beloved oldest son dies. And then her other son attempts suicide (and gets blood everywhere in the process). She is fragmented and seemingly has no love left to give to her surviving son. She has great composure, containing all emotion, which she feels is the only way she knows to keep her family together. She is desperate to maintain the front of being an ordinary person–to project the image that she and her family are fine, just fine. Yes, Conrad just got out of the hospital, but he is fine. Back in school. Back on the swim team. We don’t need to talk about it.

Conrad (Timothy Hutton), though, is just as desperate to talk about it. He initially tries half-heartedly to mirror his mother and put on the front of being ordinary. He’s back in school. Back on the swim team. Back on track. One morning, Conrad tells his father one of his friends is picking him up for school. “Oh, is he? Great,” his father tells him, absolutely beaming. “Why is it great?” Conrad asks, not in a smart-aleck-y way. He genuinely wants to know why it is great. He does not understand why it should be great that someone who was once a good friend but from whom he now feels alienated is picking him up for school. As the film progresses, however, Conrad begins to come to terms with and more open with his feelings–about himself, about his dead brother, about his parents–through his sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). And this bothers his mother, who believes her family should be able to solve their own problems in the privacy of their own home. When Calvin (Donald Sutherland) tells a friend at a party that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist, Beth is outraged, telling him that it is a violation of privacy. “Whose privacy?” Calvin asks.

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Beth’s ever-tightening constraint and Conrad’s increasing honesty begin to clash, effectively so in a scene where Conrad mentions a pigeon that once lived in their garage and how that was the closest their family ever came to having a pet. Beth engages with Conrad in the conversation until he mentions Buck and how Buck begged to have a dog. Her entire body tightens, and she begins rambling about a neighbor’s dog. Conrad continues talking about Buck’s wish to have a dog–a retriever–over his mother’s incessant rambling. Abruptly, he imitates the bark of a dog–a cry for his mother to hear him. In response, she simply tells him to put his jacket on (it’s cold), and she goes inside to set the table for dinner. Conrad follows her and awkwardly asks if he can help set the table. No, she tells him, but he can go clean out his closet (appearances!). Sensing he is still wanting to talk to her–perhaps about how he is truly feeling–she states, “It really is a mess.” And that’s that.

Conrad feels his mother hates him. He feels she’ll never forgive him for trying to kill himself–and getting the towels bloody in the process. After he quits the swim team, he fails to tell his parents, not wanting to upset them or worry about him and instead waits for the right moment to tell them, to let them down. When Beth finds out from a friend, she is angry. But the only reason she cares, is angry about it, according to Conrad, is that somebody else knew about it before she did. Appearances. A shouting match between mother and son ensues, with Conrad venting his anger about how his mother never visited the hospital, only cared about visiting Spain and Portugal, and how she would have visited the hospital if Buck had been there. “Buck never would have been in the hospital!” she screams.

Acting as a buffer between mother and son is Calvin, who is trying to understand and help his son. Berger helps Conrad realize he needs to forgive himself–for his part in his brother’s death–and his mother, for her limitations and shortcomings. Seeing how Berger is helping Conrad, Calvin visits Dr. Berger and begins to question his relationship with his wife–his love for her and, more importantly, her love for him and Conrad. When Calvin suggests to Beth that she, too, visit Dr. Berger, she refuses the suggestion and declares that they need to hang on to what they’ve got. That, Calvin tells her, is what he’s trying to do–by talking about their issues out in the open.

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One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is when Calvin and Beth have returned from a trip. Conrad comes downstairs to say goodnight and tell them how much he missed them and is glad they are back. He walks over to his mother and awkwardly gives her hug.  Calvin watches hopefully, waiting for Beth to express some emotion or affection for her younger son. She does not.

Later that night, Beth finds Calvin, sitting at the dining room table, crying. He asks her if she loves him, really loves him. She replies, “I’ve felt the way I’ve always felt about you.” A broad, noncommittal answer. She does not say she loves him, just as she did not say that she loved Conrad when Calvin told her how he felt she hated him. (“Mothers don’t hate their sons!”) And Calvin realizes that Beth is weak. She cannot handle mess. Calvin and Conrad have begun to change, to come to terms with their loss and grief, but Beth has not. And when Beth is confronted with this, she again chooses composure over honesty and communication. She packs a suitcase and leaves her family, leaving just Conrad and Calvin–and one of my favorite scenes in the film.

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Calvin tells Conrad his mother is going away for awhile but does not explicitly tell him why. Conrad states matter-of-factly, “I know why. It’s me.” Calvin angrily tells him, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that to yourself! It’s nobody’s fault! Things happen in this world and people don’t always have the answers for them, you know!” The air is so cold you can see his breath, his frustration. Conrad listens, nodding, clearly proud of his father and his true expression of his feelings–and tells him so when his father apologizes for yelling at him. Conrad tells his father how he has admired him, and Calvin advises him, “Don’t admire people too much. They’ll disappoint you sometimes.”

“I’m not disappointed,” Conrad says. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Ordinary People is a heart-wrenching, honest film. There is minimal use of a soundtrack to augment or establish the mood. (The only music heard in the film is Pachelbel’s “Cannon in D” to great effect.) Instead, the story is told through the dialogue, the characters, and the exceptional actors who bring them to life. Redford said the “point of contact for me with a script or story was always, Do I know these people?” He knew the people in Ordinary People–and he created a film in which he made their story identifiable, realistic, and rich with emotion. Anything but ordinary.

Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, 1969)

Robert Redford in Downhill Racer

Robert Redford asks himself, “Am I really more beautiful today than I was yesterday?” That is the eternal question. 

File under: films I have watched to merely gaze longingly at Robert Redford for 90 minutes or more. ‘Cos this film was pretty much a dud otherwise. A major dud.

The back cover of the Criterion DVD boasts: “Astonishing Alpine location photography and a young Robert Redford in one of his earliest starring roles are just two of the visual splendors of Michael Ritchie’s debut feature, Downhill Racer.”

I’m pretty sure those are the film’s only two splendors, visual or otherwise.

Downhill Racer is the story of cocksure and ruthless skier David Chappellet in his pursuit of a gold medal. Chappellet cares little–er, nothing–about his teammates, coach, or anyone else. He cares about himself. And winning. During a brief visit home, his father asks him why he skis. It isn’t bringing him any wealth. “I’ll be famous. I’ll be a champion,” Chappellet answers. His unimpressed father gruffly retorts, “World’s full of ’em.”

Redford’s character is unabashedly unlikable. He uses other people and when other people use him, he remains as callous as ever. There is no character growth. Downhill Racer is unsentimental and gritty, sparse and candid.

Downhill Racer

The film features handheld footage from the view of the skiers, a remarkable landmark in its time. 

The film adopts a documentary style, with minimal use of, well, everything. There is no swelling soundtrack to set the mood. One has to pay close attention to follow the threadbare plot. The characters say little–most of all Redford–and when they do begin to converse, the scene abruptly ends. As film critic Todd McCarthy writes in the DVD’s accompanying booklet: “Had Hemingway ever written about competitive skiing, this would have been the right style with which to handle the adaptation.”

Perhaps this minimalist, documentary approach makes the film an artistic gem to some, but it made for a frustrating, disappointing, and everso less entertaining than the three minutes and thirteen seconds the Beatles spent skiing in Help! viewing for me sadly. I probably won’t ever watch it again. Unless, y’know, I’m in the mood for a visual splendor named Robert Redford.

Robert Redford in Downhill Racer

Such a great actor. And such a pretty face. Le sigh.

Redford’s Fishing Movie: A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, 1992)

I have a confession to make: I love Robert Redford.

Correction: I really, really, really, really, really, really, reeeeeaaaally love Robert Redford.

Let me list the things I love more than Robert Redford:

  • My Mom
  • The Beatles
  • Chocolate cake

…That about covers it, I think.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a Redford film, I sense that I have a really stupid expression on my face. Like really stupid. Like mouth open, giddy schoolgirl stupid. I can’t help it. Watching a Robert Redford film just fills me with so much unbridled joy. A Redford film is like a cup of hot chocolate that infinitely replenishes itself with marshmallows, a bed with clean sheets, still warm from the dryer, the sound of a kitten purring, rubbing its wet little nose against the crevice of your chin. It is a beautiful experience.

I am now prepared to say, unequivocally, that A River Runs Through It is the most beautiful film I have ever seen (and it doesn’t even feature Robert Redford’s lovely face–just his voice and direction). And I will probably never, ever get over it. A series of therapy sessions with Judd Hirsch might help, but I doubt it.

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” 

The film tells the story of the Maclean family in Missoula, Montana. (Who knew that Montana was so beautiful? Not me.) The Reverend and Mrs. Maclean have two sons, one rebellious and carefree, the other level-headed and duteous. We see them grow up and lead lives that often intertwine and even more often conflict. Their love of fly fishing, instilled in them by their Presbyterian Minister father, however, always unites them.

Criticisms that this film is too long, too boring, that the fishing scenes lack drama and purpose are ridiculous. The fishing scenes are among the film’s most beautiful. Fishing–and by extension, nature–represents a spiritual experience for the Maclean men, but especially for Norman, the eldest son and the film’s narrator. It allows him to reflect on times spent with those were once closest to him, namely his father and younger brother, Paul. It is similar to Romantic Poet William Wordsworth’s religious relationship with nature (whose poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” is quoted by Norman and Reverend Maclean). In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth contemplates multiple visits to Tintern Abbey, with and without his “dearest friend,” his sister, and the beauty that comes from not only from nature but the memory of sharing that beauty with her.

Brad Pitt, A River Runs Through It (1992)

“At that moment, I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. My brother stood before us–not on a bank of the Big Blackfoot River–but suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art. And I knew just as surely and just as clearly that life is not a work of art and that the moment could not last.”

While the theme and symbolism of fly fishing is moving, the more poignant–and, I would argue, more signifcant–theme of the film is that of love, encapsulated in one of Reverend Maclean’s final sermons:

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question. ‘We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?’ For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely without complete understanding.”

The Maclean men had a common bond in fly fishing, but we constantly see their personalities and ways of life clash. We see Reverend Maclean fail to understand Norman’s uncertainty about which direction he wishes to pursue in life after six years of college. We see Norman fail to understand Paul’s resistance to accept help. And we see Paul fail to understand that you don’t always have to be toughest one. Yet they love one another completely, without complete understanding.

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Redford tried for years to gain the rights to Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella, even going so far as to promise Maclean that he could watch the film as it progressed and completely reject it if he didn’t like it. He died before the film was completed. I think, though, that he would have enjoyed it.

It is all too beautiful: the score, the cinematography (which won an Academy Award), the story, the acting, even Brad Pitt’s face–which I’ll begrudgingly (really begrudgingly) admit almost bares a slight resemblance to Redford when he smiles, but most of all the language. (I’m prompted to read the book, which was rejected by countless publishers because it had “too many trees.”)

Now excuse me while I wallow in this film’s beauty again and again and again.

(And yes, that is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perhaps best remembered as the devious David Collins in the 1991 reboot of Dark Shadows, as Young Norman.)