Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Prince of Tides

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 1991 film is a fitting follow-up to last week’s Rain Man, since this movie, too, deals with people who are emotionally cut off from their feelings, which, in turn, prevents connecting with others on other than a superficial level. In the case of this story, the inability to deal with traumatic memories causes the crippling psychological effects experienced by members of a southern family.

The main character of the film, and its narrator, is Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte in an Oscar-nominated performance). At the start of the movie, we see a beautiful vista of the tidal land where he lived with his brother and sister in South Carolina. Tom’s mother, Lila (Kate Nelligan), is a beautiful woman, who, Tom says, instilled a love of language and an appreciation of nature. His father was a hard-working shrimp fisherman. However, Tom quickly dispels notions of an ideal childhood when he says his father was a violent man, and admits that, although once thinking his mother was extraordinary, “I wasn’t the first son to be wrong about his mother.” He says that he wasn’t sure when his parents “began their war against each other. But, I do know the only prisoners they took were their children.”  His mother thought herself a remarkable woman who deserved a better life than that provided by her husband, and planned on rising above her poor economic standing in the community.

We see the young Tom with his sister Savannah, and his brother Luke as youngsters as they jump into the water together to escape an angry fight between their mother and father. Tom says they submerged themselves to hide from what they feared above on the surface. He says, “We found a silent, soothing world, where there was no pain. A world without mothers or fathers. We would make a circle bound by flesh and blood and water.” Here the liquid world almost symbolizes the amniotic desire to return to the safety of the womb, before having to be born into a world of torment. The circle they formed shows a comforting unity not only with themselves but with nature and, what Tom later calls, its biological clocks ticking all around them. But, this desire to escape the harshness of reality becomes a submersion into the river Lethe, where some of them buried their bad memories. As Tom says of this time that it was all long ago, before he decided not to have a memory.
We first see the adult Tom at his home, but he still carries the childhood scars inflicted by his mother’s disappointment of her family’s lot in life. He still feels the hurt of his mother’s disapproval of his only becoming a coach and a teacher. One can see his point when the first words out of Lila’s mouth when entering her son’s home are, “The shrubs need water.” This insecurity has carried over into his relationship with his wife, Sally (Blythe Danner). She is a doctor, and when she comments about having a hard day, he says it’s tough work “being a saint.” From this line we see his sensitivity to what he has made out of his life. The death of his brother has added an extra sorrow to his world and probably led to his recently losing his job, which makes him feel even more like a failure.

However, instead of openly confronting his problems, Tom hides behind an unfeeling shied of glib remarks. When his wife wants to talk about how distant he has become, that he hasn’t touched her in a long time, he quips that before any discussion involving their relationship, he needs, “a stiff drink,” which stresses the desire to escape emotional confrontation. She says she doesn’t know what he’s thinking, because he doesn’t want to delve into his deepest thoughts. When Sally says she doesn’t know how he feels about her, he jokingly dismisses the problem by saying that she shouldn’t take it seriously since he doesn’t know how he feels about anything. This line emphasizes his way of evading painful thoughts, which then prevents meaningful communication and connecting with someone important in his life.
A visit from Lila interrupts the couple’s discussion when she brings news that Tom’s sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillon), an acclaimed poet living in New York city, has tried to commit suicide again. Tom goes to New York with a feeling of dread because he hates all the things about the city that Savannah loved: the bag ladies; the muggers; the noise; the winos. The author of the novel and screenwriter, Pat Conroy, presents a love-hate relationship with the northern city. While he exposes the prejudicial snobbery of New Yorkers toward southerners, he also says that the city forces one to want to mentally improve oneself. It is also the place where Tom must travel to become whole again. Savannah went to New York because it was the opposite of her life in South Carolina, which she wanted to leave behind. That abandonment entailed blotting out memories, which her psychiatrist, Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand, who should have received an Oscar nomination for her directing here), wants to retrieve. (Interesting that two songs made famous by Streisand deal with memories – “The Way We Were” and “Memory” from the musical Cats). Ironically, she wants Tom to fill in the blanks by being his sister’s “memory,” a difficult task for a person who has tried to forget the ugly events of the past.
Tom is resistant to talk about Savannah’s suicide attempts and is angry that psychiatrists have not been able to help her. Of course, much of that failure has to do with not sharing the Wingo secrets. Savannah’s recent suicide attempt followed the death of Luke. We later find out that he had been fighting a war with the government over wanting to keep some family land. He became violent and was eventually shot by the authorities. In his usual attempt at dealing with emotional trauma, Tom is glib, saying Savannah “had a few bad days about it,” referring to her brother’s death. In order to help his sister, Tom eventually relents and begins to tell family stories. Lowenstein discovers the depth of this family’s dysfunction. His father, Henry (Brad Sullivan), berated Tom as a child about not crying, which instilled an inhibition to show feelings. He was violent with his whole family, but Luke would stand up to him, at one point shooting out the TV so his father would stop watching it and participate in a birthday party. Lila had a stillborn baby, which she said died because the family was “bad,” this statement placing guilt on her children for the loss. Henry, perversely, wrapped it up and placed it in the freezer. Tom found Savannah during the night holding the dead child, rocking it, and saying, “You’re the lucky one.” Lila burned Savannah’s journals because they exposed the family’s ugliness, so the daughter became a poet to put her stories in code. Lila told the psychiatrist that she thus raised her daughter to become a writer. Tom knows that this is a ridiculous credit to take, and points out that his mother raised “a schizophrenic,” and that she should have raised cobras, not children.

Tom illustrates how his parents don’t deal with unsettling feelings. His father didn’t reply to Lowenstein’s telegrams because he felt these types of communication only bring bad news. His mother didn’t come to New York because she was planning a birthday celebration for her second husband, again avoiding the negative situation, although she told Tom that Savannah would probably not want her around.  Tom says it’s the Southern way that when things get too painful, “we either avoid them or we laugh.” As to times when it is appropriate to cry, Tom says, “We don’t.” Lowenstein asks Tom if he cried when Luke died. He says no, it wouldn’t bring him back. She says, “No, but it might bring you back,” emphasizing his need to be made whole again by accessing his emotional side.

Tom discovers a children’s book under a pseudonym that he knows his sister wrote because, even though it is an allegory about the Jewish holocaust, it is based on his family. He angrily confronts Lowenstein because she did not tell him about the book. He then talks about how she along with his wife, who has admitted to having an affair, are like other women, who betray the men in their lives. Lowenstein correctly points out that he feels betrayed by his mother, and that is why he is laying blame on other women. In order to achieve the social advancement she felt she deserved, Lila actually married the wealthy man who once hit Tom for fighting with his son while saying a Wingo was too lowly a person to lay a hand on his child. But, Tom admits that it is hypocritical of him calling women devious, since he was the king of keeping secrets.
Lowenstein’s probings force Tom to confront his past and its associated emotions. At one point Lowenstein says bad memories act like an infected splinter which must come out in order for health to be restored. In addition, Tom’s estrangement from his family provides an incentive to see if dealing with his problems can help him solve his inability to connect with others. Sally sums up Tom’s deficiency when she says she chose the other man she became involved with, “Because he knows how he feels about me.” Lowenstein wants to know why in her children’s book, Savannah chose to depict herself as a holocaust survivor. What horror did she have to survive? When Savannah came out of her attempted suicidal coma, she mentioned the word “Callanwolde.” Tom originally denied knowing what it meant. But, he now tells Lowenstein the horror which led to his sister’s mental illness. The word refers to a prison from which three convicts escaped and subsequently invaded the Wingo home. The father was away, and two of the men raped Savannah and Lila. Tom still tries to hide what happened to him, but Lowenstein gets him to admit that the third convict raped him. Luke was able to get a rifle and killed two of the convicts, while Lila grabbed a knife and killed the other. Lila then compounded the horror by making her children promise not to tell anyone about the attack and forget that it ever happened. They cleaned and buried the bodies, attempting to bury the terror associated with them. This denial of traumatic attacks just surfaces in deranged ways. Trying too hard to make things seem sane when they are not is a type of insanity. A few days later Savannah tried to kill herself for the first time. After telling the story, Tom tries to brush off the impact of the violence by singing, “And that’s what I like about the South.” But, Lowenstein says that he has become so good at hiding his pain, but that little boy inside of him is still hurting. He finally cries in her arms, the tears acting like a cleansing purification of his psychological aching. He considers himself a weak failure in comparison to his sister and brother. But Lowenstein reminds him that his brother was killed and his sister was suicidal and in a hospital. He is alive and unharmed, so she says he must be doing something right. He is Savannah’s twin. It may be that this fact points to the possibility that he could have gone the self-destructive way of his sister, but somehow he had the strength to forge his own way and survive.

He returns home to South Carolina for his child’s birthday (there are several of these celebrations mentioned in the story, perhaps suggesting the possibility of personal resurrection from life’s attempts to destroy us). Tom is now able to admit to Sally that he can be a “closed, defensive son of a bitch.” She seems relieved to see him realize this fact. But, he needs more help working on his issues. He gets it by becoming romantically entangled with Lowenstein. She herself has been in denial about her sad relationship with her husband, Herbert Woodruff (Jaroen Krabbe), a pompous, condescending violin maestro, who is having an affair with his piano accompanist. Tom has helped coach Lowenstein’s son, Bernard (Jason Gould, Streisand’s son), a promising musician, play football. Herbert sees Tom as a Southern hillbilly who is a bad influence on the boy. He humiliates Tom and his wife at a dinner party at their home. Tom gets back at him, making him apologize when he threatens to destroy his Stradivarius. After this event, Lowenstein and Tom have a passionate affair. In an emotional way, they save each other. But, as she says, she loves him because he is the type of man who will return to his wife. When Sally needs him again, he returns to the South, and finds his place in the world as a coach, English teacher, husband and father. The bridge he travels over each day symbolizes how he has been able to connect the different parts of his life into a working whole.
Before he leaves New York, Tom talks to his sister who has been released from the hospital after significant improvement in her condition. She says she is writing a new book to be entitled, The Prince of Tides. She is going to dedicate it to her brother, Tom, her memory. Although it can be painful, dealing with the past allows for healing.

The next film is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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