Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ordinary People

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I know film critics went into rage mode when Ordinary People took the Academy Award for Best Picture for the year 1980 over Raging Bull. Where do you stand on this argument? In my opinion, it was a worthy winner. The acting and the directing, by first time helmer Robert Redford, hit artistic marks with Oscar caliber ammunition. The theme about the tension between the desire for control and limitations on behavior and thoughts and the conflicting need to break rules and boundaries has always been a subject of interest to me.

The very first scene lets you know where this film is heading. We see a placid lake with a hovering bird, both representing calm and peace. We then view reassuring vistas of autumnal trees and a safe, affluent suburban setting as the ordered, hypnotic sounds of Pachebel's Canon in D wash over us. We zoom in on the youthful choir singing words accompanying the music. Then, almost brutally, there is a cut to the main character, a sweat soaked Conrad (Timothy Hutton), waking up from nightmare. Thus, the conflict has been immediately presented to us between order on the surface and caged chaos raging beneath the controlled world above.

The water references above are intentional. Conrad survived, at least physically, a boating accident, in which the only other member of the crew was his older brother, Buck, who drowned. Conrad is psychologically underwater now, suffocating from guilt, not only for what happened to his brother, but because he attempted suicide by cutting his wrists in the bathroom, which, of course is associated with water. He is a member of the high school swim team, which symbolizes how he is unable to get out of the mental ocean threatening to swallow him up because of his "faults." When he finds out that a friend at the psychiatric hospital committed suicide, the first thing he does is throw water on his face, revealing his scarred wrists, implying that he feels guilty that he could not help her. Eventually his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) makes him realize that he has to let himself off the “hook” (fishing reference) about saving himself in the boating accident. And, that he has to forgive his mother for her limitations. He tells his patient that he is not big on "control" which stifles feeling. Conrad's independence is illustrated when he quits the swim team.

His control obsessed mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), cannot cope with the upheavals in her family and deals with the problems by going on as if nothing has happened, submerging all attempts to openly deal with the pain suffered by her son and her husband, Cal (Donald Sutherland). Conrad states that his mother will not forgive him, that it was almost impossible to wash out the blood stains in the bathroom after his suicide attempt. Water is also used as a symbol showing the desire to clean up a mess similar to trying to wipe the memory clean of disturbing thoughts. Beth immediately shoves Conrad's breakfast down the garbage disposal when he says he is not hungry one morning. She tries to stifle her husband from mentioning that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist, because this would acknowledge that a problem exists. She heatedly rebuffs Cal at lunch after he suggests that they all get things out in the open by seeing the psychiatrist. Then she quickly shuts up and puts on a happy face when the waitress approaches their table. Outward conforming appearances are what matter to her. If things look okay, then things must be okay. When they do a get-away to Texas, she and Cal argue over including Conrad in a future trip. He says that all her son wants is to let him know she doesn't hate him. She says, "Mothers don't hate their sons." She says it like it's a rule she is reciting from the Good Mother’s Handbook. She doesn't make it personal by saying that she cares for Conrad.

In the end, Cal gives a concise assessment of his wife. He says that everything would have been fine it there hadn't been any "mess." That she cannot deal with mess. This fact means that she is not really strong. This conclusion is the crux of why someone rigidly adheres to rules and accepted behaviors. They are crutches for the weak, who cannot face anything without supports to prop them up along life’s paths. People like Beth are not willing to let themselves test their inner strength by facing reality with an open, inviting mind.

There is so much layered in this movie, I think a thorough discussion can go on much longer. The performances by Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch are pitched perfectly. And Timothy Hutton, in his Oscar-winning role, hits every note, except maybe when he tries to sing. And blame Redford for the overuse of the Pachebel Canon at so many weddings.

Next week's movie is Tootsie.

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