Child Deaths? What About Parent Deaths?

The Year in Movies

Child Deaths? What About Parent Deaths?

The Year in Movies

Child Deaths? What About Parent Deaths?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2004 9:23 AM

The Year in Movies

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Thanks, Manohla, for invoking Rules of the Game—there should be a rule that someone has to. (Anybody care to compare it to the most recent Robert Altman film?)

I'm on jury duty, and the scales of justice are weighing heavily. Sarah's observations about emotional manipulation seem particularly relevant: The death of a child was a subject of pathos in the 19th century, when so many infants (and women) died in childbirth or soon after. Contemporary movies, particularly those set in a suburban safe haven, exploit the death of a child as the most dreadful thing that can befall a happy middle-class family. These movies are not Greek tragedies (for that, albeit in ironically diminished form, you need my widely disliked cause célèbre Spider).

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For me, there's a pornographic quality to 21 Grams—although less so, I think, than in González Iñárritu's first movie. The problem for filmmakers is how to terrify the audience and still achieve the comfy cliché of closure. This is why the granola Death Wish of In the Bedroom strikes me as such a crock. Closer to real tragedy, Mystic River at least acknowledges its vigilante pandering. The Son is one of the few movies that truly address the loss of a child; to this nonbeliever, it seems a religious parable about Christian forgiveness. The Lovely Bones promises to be the worst. (The most American thing about the recent poll that reports something like 94 percent of us believes in heaven was that only 1 percent thinks they're going to hell.) Elephant at least has the grace to show that heaven on earth.

The death of a parent is, of course, a near-universal experience. For middle-aged filmmakers this provides an exercise in self-actualization: the ludicrous New Age Big Fish or the smugly self-congratulatory The Barbarian Invasions with its feel-good cancer death. (The only thing I can say for the latter is its implicit humanist argument to provide terminal patients with heroin and hospice care.) Elephants, spiders, fish, barbarians—it's really the carnival of the animals! I'm saving the donkey for last. Speaking of justice, Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar had its belated opening in New York this year, and even The Son seems a bit trivial by comparison. Although I'm neither a Christian nor an animal-lover, the grandeur and absurdity of Balthazar's death never fails to move me to tears. But that's filmmaking at its most exalted.

Well, it's off to Foley Square; if I'm cast for the Martha Stewart jury, you'll be the first to know.

Jim