I am by virtue of my years (age fifty-five) and a life with long periods of somewhat parlous financial circumstances, someone who came to the world of cable television well into my fourth decade on this planet. I think that the relative lateness of my introduction to the idea of a home entertainment world with more than five channels available, has allowed me to appreciate some things about cable t.v. that a normal human being would have stopped thinking about by now. The two characteristics I find myself ruminating on most frequently are the twenty-four hour/day nature of the service and the undeniable fact that if you have access to cable in this country you are never more than nineteen minutes away from some form of Law and Order programming or a rerun of one of the Godfather sagas. A few weeks back I ended up in a sleepless state at the post-nightlife, pre-Amish hour of three thirty on a Wednesday morning watching Michael Corleone come to the agonizing realization that his brother, Fredo, is the betrayer in his inner circle. Aside from reinforcing the above mentioned thoughts, I couldn’t help but ponder the ironic nature of the use of family as a thematic element in the Godfather II. There is no single motivating factor, for either Michael or his father, that looms larger than the protection of their family. And yet family is at the root of most of their suffering. Along with Fredo’s Judas act in the second movie, Connie’s husband Carlo sells Sonny out in the first film. Tessio, a man that is a clan member in all but blood, sets Michael up to be assassinated. This doesn’t seem like much of a revelation now, but under the circumstances it must have been distracting enough to let me drift off to sleep, as my next clear memory is of watching the local early morning news. When I ended up struggling with insomnia some ten days later I turned on the tube hoping to drop back into the story. No such luck. But not without it’s rewards. In my fruitless search for the Corleone family I came across a movie I hadn’t seen in years, The Outlaw Josie Wales.
Set largely in post civil war Kansas, The Outlaw Josie Wales is, amongst other things, a study of a man of undeniably solitary nature as he reluctantly assembles a second family to take the place of his first one. Wales, a Missouri farmer when the story opens, loses his wife and son to a group of pro-union partisans. Their brutal murders leave him un-anchored and consumed by a need for revenge which he satiates by joining a group of Confederate guerrillas. At the war’s end these men are promised amnesty in return for their surrender. In actuality those that comply are slaughtered. Only Wales and one other man from his company survive. Not long after they escape the other man dies, leaving Wales alone in his quest for vengeance. As he moves on, he slowly accumulates an entourage that is varied in age, ethnicity and sex. Consisting of an old Cherokee man, young Navajo woman, and an elderly white lady from Kansas who is travelling with her granddaughter in search of her son, they form a genuine bond with each other. As they pass through the town of Santa Rio they acquire two more ranch hands. When they arrive at the abandoned farm of the old woman’s missing son, they decide put down roots. Wanting to secure their safety with the local Comanches, Wales rides out to make peace with the tribal chief. Eventually they find themselves under attack; first from hostile natives, then from bounty hunters who’ve been tipped off to Wales presence. It is during these separate battles that the group’s morphing into a family unit is most obvious. When defending themselves from attacking Indians the older woman from Kansas enthusiastically exhorts them to take it to the “red skins”. Realizing her Cherokee friend is within earshot she adds, “no offense”. He earnestly replies “none taken”. Later in the movie they are beset by above mentioned white bounty hunters. They share a similar exchange in which the roles are reversed with the Cherokee man referencing “palefaces” and she assuring him it’s no insult to her. In those moments their bond is well defined. They are a priority to each other to the exclusion of a more superficial identity. As touching as the fundamental story is, what sets it apart for me is the unremarkable nature of most of the characters when viewed in contemporaneous context. The American west of the late 1860’s was awash in farmers, indigenous tribesmen, homesteaders and ranchers, with a certain independence being requisite to their being there to begin with. The people we meet in this film are in no way atypical of the era. What makes them special is their willingness to step past whatever parochial restraints they may have been raised with to create a place for themselves, and a connection to each other so that they might better be able to make it work. They haven’t placed themselves outside any societal norms. Happenstance has put them in a situation where their best play is to learn to rely on each other. They are a group of fairly standard archetypes who, when thrown together, constitute a genuinely unusual but no less authentic extended family. The next film I thought of takes a somewhat different path to a familiar destination.
Released in October 1997, Boogie Nights is a cautionary tale set in the porn industry in 70’s L.A. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie I can understand how it might be difficult to reconcile the previous description with the theme of this piece. Stay with me, it’ll work out. The film has a deep cast of characters with an attendant number of plot lines but virtually all of the people in the movie that exist inside of or are at least tangentially attached to the adult movie business, have a more than a few areas of overlap. No small number of them abuse a variety of drugs. Some of them come from obviously damaged backgrounds, either at home or in their social environment. Within the course of the story a few characters act in a way that is, even considering the looser parameters of what constitutes acceptable behavior for them, sad and occasionally appalling in it’s lack of loyalty to the people in their lives. Some cross the line from the merely shady to the undeniably criminal in their activities. For the most part the roles are not neatly divided, and many of them bounce from one kind of questionable action to another. The single most common element I can think of is the persistent, if not always consciously acknowledged, need for the security and sustenance that having a family provides. The protagonist, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), moves into the home of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) who has “discovered” him in order to escape the constant verbal abuse of his mother. Already living there are Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) two women that have each found an escape from their own troubled lives. The former is a woman about to lose custody of her child to her ex-husband, the latter is trying to leave behind a social life in which she is the subject of constant harassment by her classmates. I could write thousands more words without fully documenting the backstory of everybody in the movie. Suffice it to say, almost everyone we meet has a large hole in their lives which they have tried to fill by connecting with and supporting each other, albeit in a strikingly unorthodox manner. Although only overtly stated once- Horner refers to Amber as “mother to them all”- the extended family structure, and the fealty to it that is expected is present almost from the moment the movie begins. Perhaps most compelling in it’s reinforcement of the dynamic is an instance of forgiveness and reconciliation. As we approach the end of the film Dirk is in a pretty bad place. Chronic cocaine use has left him, at best, sporadically impotent. He has burned bridges with Horner. His delusional pursuit of a music career has dead ended, and his desperation has led him to a place of outright criminality. Humiliated, beaten, rapidly moving towards a very real point of no return, he goes back to Horner, admitting his sins and pleading for another chance. And in the spirit of Robert Frost (” home is the place, where when you have to go there, they have to take you in”) he is given one.
In closing I thought I’d work with a film that, relative to the idea of a typical families, had some things in common with the first two movies but also had some individuating points of its own. Released in 2017, IT is the second adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. Although not a perfect point by point recounting of the book, the film captures the emotional heart of the written work quite well and as someone who has re-read the more than eleven hundred page tome on a few occasions, I have to say that I found this version of significantly greater weight and impact than the television mini-series of 1990. In both The Outlaw Josie Wales and Boogie Nights the characters find themselves in unusual family groupings, but for pretty standard reasons. Love, acceptance, support are all the sort of things any of us might put on a list of things we get as members of a family. In IT, the central group (the Losers Club) checks off all of the normal boxes, and one very unusual one, as well. Their physical existence is at stake. I realize that the Westerners in The Outlaw Josie Wales are also bound together by a shared peril, but they have choices. They are all adults who, if necessary can find a different place to be, with a correlating drop in risk. In IT, the Losers Club is comprised entirely of children. Their location and movements are at the mercy of their parents whims. They are drawn slowly together by the threatening nature of their world, both in terms of the mundane if still dangerous guise of violent schoolmates and parents, and more horrifyingly in the form a supernatural menace in the form of malefic clown named Pennywise. Pennywise’s appearance as a clown is not much more than a masquerade. It is really an amoral predator that feeds on the kids of the town (Derry). No adults are cognizant of it; at least not in the way that the children are. The ugliness of the world around them brings them into proximity of each other. The unimaginable horror, and their ability to confront and defeat it as a team, is what binds them at an almost molecular level. These are not people that have found something in each other. These are people who have found that they are each other’s only hope for survival. They love each other, certainly, because they like each other. But also because their lives depend on it. Which is, now that think of it, so much of what friendship feels like as a child. If only it lasted.
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