Posted on Friday, May 25th, 2012 by Jordan Hoffman
Tell me if you had a similar experience. Every year when I was a kid my father would wait until I was having the most fun during Memorial Day weekend – I’d either be mid-chomp on a hot dog or about to leap off a diving board – when he’d remind me that, “this weekend isn’t just about having fun, it’s about honoring the dead!”
He was right, of course, and this no doubt could inspire me to guilt you into watching more movies about brave soldiers dying so you can enjoy your freedoms. I thought, however, I’d widen the margin and use this week’s TBMYPHS to discuss cinematic portrayals of grieving.
There, I’ve done it – I’ve out-downered my own father. Have a gloomy, depressing weekend, everyone!
Last Tango in Paris (1972); Bernardo Bertolucci, director.
Here’s a movie absolutely everyone has heard of, but I’m guessing not all of you have seen. (I’d love to be proven wrong about this.)
While its blunt portrayal of sexuality is still shocking by today’s standards (the farts of a dying pig? what?) this is not, in my opinion, a movie about romance or lust or pushing boundaries. It uses the loosening of morals during the sexual revolution to go deep inside the psyche of a man shattered by grief.
It took me a while to realize this. I sneakily rented this VHS when I was way too young because I heard it was dirty. (You kids and your broadband really don’t know what we once went through.) While there was nudity, there was also a lot of angry, weird talking in an empty apartment. Now that I’m older, those are the moments of the film that most resonate with me.
Lantana (2001); Ray Lawrence, director.
The late 1990s was a time of large-scale movies with a million characters all interconnected in unexpected ways. While Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts are probably the most well remembered, I feel like this mini-subgenre reached its end point with this little seen Australian film.
The energy source of Lantana’s drama is grief. In the case of Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey’s characters it is literal – they have lost their daughter. In the case of Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong, they are grieving over the fact that their marriage is dying. What’s nice about Lantana is that all the psychological chaos is dished out amidst a well-crafted murder mystery. (The film is based on a play.) Maybe it is immoral to derive a juicy entertainment out of other peoples’ suffering but, hey, I didn’t make the movie.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997); Atom Egoyan, director.
What should you do when a whole town is grieving? Well, for starters, don’t let in any lawyers.
Atom Egoyan’s best film (and that’s saying something) is a tour-de-force starring Ian Holm as an ambulance-chasing lawyer that is either an avenging angel or a demonic pied piper. Or both.
Elegantly weaving from “before” and “after” a fatal school-bus accident, the fate of the town’s financial (and, now, emotional) future lays in the damaged hands of the lone survivor played by Sarah Polley. How she chooses to cope will effect the lives of everyone.
Enemies, A Love Story (1989); Paul Mazursky, director.
Have you ever noticed that at funerals and wakes everyone is laughing and telling jokes? (Inevitably someone will also add “Aunt Mary would’ve loved seeing everybody,” which will ricochet back and make everyone cry harder in the car ride home.) Humor is an essential part of the grieving process and, in my opinion, that is the fundamental truth behind this marvelous film.
Making this an even odder selection is that the crux of this story is how someone thought to be dead actually isn’t. But the grief on display isn’t wholly about individuals, but an entire community and way of life that was ripped apart by the Holocaust. When Primo Levy committed suicide in 1987 Elie Wiesel was quoted as saying that, no, he had actually died at Auschwitz forty years earlier. (If you don’t know those names, please, for the love of everything, Google them.)
This movie dabbles a bit in the zany, but its zaniness masks not just a sorrow but a blinding rage.