WHAT SHOULD ADULTS WATCH?: A COUNTER-LISTICLE
by Chris R. Morgan
Over at First Things, Mark Bauerlein, senior editor and father of a son on the verge of adolescence, has assembled a list of films and television shows meant to serve as a bulwark against the intrusions of modern commerce and culture that flank his son and other boys in all directions:
Every time he encounters a television screen (we don’t have one at home), hears a hip-hop song blasting out of a car creeping down the street, spots a billboard or posters peddling clothes, new movies, the NBA and NFL, or automobiles, or goes to the web and catches ads for the latest games and videos of scandals and embarrassments, he observes bad behavior and bad words and bad values.
His solution, then, is a steady diet of media, dating largely from the early-to-mid-20th century studio system, which reinforces proper masculine attributes and moral attitudes. That is, “courtliness, strong silent types, men of substance, or sprezzatura” as opposed to the current youth culture that encourages being “loud, sarcastic, effeminate, touchy, vain, smart-alecky, and raunchy.” To his credit, his selections don’t seem to evince much of the latter. 1939’s Jesse James is “short on history but long on character.” The List of Adrian Messenger shows “the resolute pursuit of a killer without all the lurid silliness of today’s murder mysteries.” Yul Brynner’s portrayal of the Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments “is a living lesson in the pitfalls of stubborn authority.” And so on.
Having only seen the very good Get Smart series I cannot quibble with the rest of its contents, though Dad Movie completists might be scratching their heads at the omission of Bridge Over the River Kwai or, say, Tender Mercies (which my own father claims is the greatest film ever made). That said, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a list of my own, because why not? As I am not a parent I’m not going to step in and tell other parents what their children should be watching. So I turned the concept on its head and developed a syllabus for adults.
“Adulthood” has become a confused term this day and age, as Bauerlein might agree, but I’ve decided to revel in that confusion a bit, embracing nuance in theme and time of release, finding examples which address different questions and instill different lessons. Some films depict the relationships between adults and children, some address society at large, and some are youthful TV shows that have stood the test of time. There is more than enough opportunity to point out my own omissions—It Follows, Rushmore, The Candidate, etc.—but hopefully these works are sufficient in their own ways. As with Bauerlein’s list, I offer them in no particular order.
Repo Man (1984) – I’m not sure if the greatness of this film can be attested by Alex Cox’s casting instincts or Emilio Estevez’s lack of range, perhaps a bit of both. While someone like Sean Penn or Patrick Swayze could finagle the role of the spiritually and materially bereft Otto into a second-coming-of-James Dean star turn, Estevez instead gave us the boorish, immature, awkward, clueless, and, therefore, most accurate portrayal of teen aimlessness in recent memory. This film is perhaps the most sympathetic to Bauerlein’s own argument, depicting southern California as a wasteland of apathy, sterility, greed, and burnouts. Also aliens. It moreover depicts how that aimlessness drifts into a dark, preemptive critique of mentor culture under Harry Dean Stanton and his band of blue-collar misanthropes (all named after cheap beers) at the repo lot.
The French Connection (1971) – I watch William Friedkin’s cop drama every Christmastime. I suspect because it prepares me for the brutal New York winter it renders with greater starkness than any violence. And it is a violent film, fumblingly and disastrously so. While its contemporary Dirty Harry depicted a central detective with the moral fervor of Martin Luther and the procedural scruples of a Jesuit, French Connection’s “Popeye” Doyle possessed even less of the latter and none of the former. Indeed, it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what Gene Hackman’s Doyle is after aside from chasing an obsession at the expense of property and life, let alone justice.
The Long Goodbye (1973) – In which Robert Altman takes Leigh Brackett’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s greatest novel and spins it into a kind of Rip Van Winkle tale. Phillip Marlowe embodies classic manhood and morality somehow adrift in a Los Angeles that is freer but also more brutal and corrupt than he seems able to comprehend. Elliott Gould’s proto-slacker portrayal is blackly comic as he stumbles in and out of danger as a pawn in entangled schemes with all the bewilderment of being on the outside of a cruel in-joke.
Hardcore (1979) – I never could get into Taxi Driver but I’ve always liked Paul Schrader’s voyeuristic, under-the-radar morality tales. George C. Scott is a Calvinist business owner in the Midwest whose daughter disappears into the porn industry, and who’s resolved to gain entry into its grimiest corners with a spiritualist sex worker sidekick, and extract her, come what may. That plot, a pornographic fantasy all its own, serves as a dressing for Scott’s descent from his bubble and seeing just how fallen the fallen world can be. It is a lot like The Long Goodbye, only Scott’s outsider has a safe place to escape.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Charles Laughton’s debut film was so despised upon its release that it became his only film. To be fair, it does make some sense that no one at that time would be chomping at the bit for an English outsider to turn the American countryside into an expressionist battleground between good and evil. But he did, and we are the richer for it. Good, in the guise of the pious Lillian Gish, triumphs of course, but not before getting the full measure of Robert Mitchum’s satanic Rev. Powell as he relentlessly pursues two children of an old cellmate unknowingly hiding a fortune. It is a story of innocence as well as a dualistic rendering of the wonder and mystery underlying America’s inseparable religiosity.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) – In the decade that brought us Kids and Doom Generation, it’s hard to imagine that those might not have been the darkest youth-themed films of the time. Not that it wasn’t for lack of trying. Though it contains no drugs or sex, and in fact presents itself like a harmless quirky teen comedy, Todd Solondz’s indie classic is wholly unrestrained and far more wrenching in its portrayal of the very painful and lonely trials of female adolescence. We follow Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener as she is ignored at home and tormented at school. Gawky, socially tactless, and generally unremarkable, Dawn seeks to overcome that common desire to be anyone other than who she is. Solondz offers her no respite, but no comic expense either, trading exploitation for empathy, which he would carry into subsequent films to pedophiles (Happiness, Life During Wartime), anti-abortion extremists (Palindromes), and the man-child archetype (Dark Horse).
The Last Days of Disco (1998) – While I’m happy that Whit Stillman finally achieved his dream of adapting an actual Jane Austen work with Love and Friendship, I’m of the opinion that he was at the peak of his powers with this film. The Last Days of Disco is Stillman at his most fun and most realized, and perhaps least off-putting to people who aren’t wealthy or naturally wry. Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny exude enviable chemistry as newly minted young urban professionals trying to maneuver early-1980s New York City with mixed success. It is a more mature and more lasting generational rejoinder to Reality Bites; indeed, it may be Stillman’s remarks to the graduating class of whenever.
The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1992-1996) Nickelodeon never seemed entirely sure of what it had with Pete and Pete. Outwardly, it is a kind of starter kit for cult obsession. It is the first show, at least among people of a certain age, to instill the notion that not only was it okay to be a bit weird but that almost everyone is. In fact Pete and Pete subverted Nickelodeon’s “kids rule” marketing of the time by portraying adults as well-meaning but misunderstood, whether it be parents, teachers, crossing guards, or the ice cream man. Airing just prior to the internet’s dawn, the show never gained a network post-cancellation, but fans always manage to find one another as if by some strange unseen tether. And it is a joy when they do.
Daria (1997-2001) – For a while, Daria was living in the shadow of the show from which it spun off: Beavis and Butthead. Daria now lives in the shadow of its own protagonist, by no fault of its own, of course. Coming in as fans of Pete and Pete—and Clarissa Explains It All for that matter—were entering high school, precocious teens with misanthropic but hyper-vulnerable streaks were few and far between on television in the late Clinton era. The Daria type is well known even to some who haven’t seen the show, and viewers can identify with it with some pride. But that is to overlook the depth of the show’s world, which like Pete and Pete found empathy and humanity in even its most vacuous characters. And it was not reluctant to call bullshit on Daria’s own cynical affectations.
The Innocents (1961) – Depending on who you talk to, this ambiguity rich Truman Capote adaptation of the already ambiguity rich Henry James short story “The Turn of the Screw” is either gothic horror or psychological thriller. It is either the story of a godly governess trying to protect her charges from the menace of two dead lovers or of Victorian repression embodied trying to wrap her head around the notions of sexual agency and children being sinister entirely of their own cognizance. I mean, it’s a masterpiece either way you split it.
The Go-Between (1971) – The final of three collaborations between Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter, The Go-Between seems to go hand-in-hand with The Innocents. Though ostensibly a period romance and a coming of age story, based on the L.P. Hartley novel, the film also functions as a kind of prelude to a ghost story. A boy of low social standing spends the summer at his much wealthier schoolmate’s family estate where he develops and infatuation with his friend’s older sister (Julie Christie) and befriends her lover, the rich but common neighbor (Alan Bates). The two use his naivety to coordinate their affair. That should end well. Anglophiles are welcome to savor the pitch-perfect aristocratic gentility provided they can withstand the slow burn of traumas being passed on and lingering without end.
Morvern Callar (2002) – Admittedly I could put any Lynne Ramsay film on this list, but Morvern Callar seems to me her signature achievement. Samantha Morton is a Scottish supermarket drone who finds an escape by replacing her dead boyfriend’s name on his novel manuscript with her own, road trips in southern Spain, and gets a £100,000 publishing advance. That’s about it, really. Lynne Ramsay is one of the best filmmakers working today; Morvern Callar establishes her mastery of visual lyricism. It also has an aces soundtrack. Think of it as the timeless and understated Other to the dated and garish Trainspotting.
The Brood (1979) – The Brood is not David Cronenberg’s best film, but it is his most personal, something uncommon for a filmmaker otherwise thought to be rather aloof. In addition to its satirical commentary on experimental therapy, The Brood is an illustration of the traumas of divorce and the perpetuation of patterns of abuse in that typically graphic Cronenbergian style, in which a father in a custody battle over his daughter must protect her from homicidal childlike creatures asexually birthed from his ex-wife as an embodiment of her rage. “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic,” Cronenberg said. Roger Ebert initially wrote off the film as an “el sleazo exploitation film,” but The Brood declare’s Cronenberg’s vision that the personal is every bit as horrific as the otherworldly, in fact more so.
Little Sister (2016) – Addison Timlin plays a nun in 2008 New York City on the verge of taking her first vows, who returns to North Carolina to face old family traumas, including a brother deformed by the Iraq War and a suicidal mother. I’m not sure the backdrop of Barack Obama’s election was necessary other than illustrating something that seems so long in the past, but the low-key indie film was a hopeful bright spot in the wastes of 2016. It demonstrates that depictions of family and faith need not be saccharine or cynical in SXSW cinema. It is also worth noting that it features Ally Sheedy as Timlin’s mother and Barbara Crampton as her Mother Superior.