Bright Lights Film Journal

Who are Parents? Parents are the ones who are ALWAYS there

I’ve written a lot about the decline of the “Father” in genre film–from tough WW2 vet to tough but loving 70s hedonist to needy, emasculated single dad of the 21st century, but nothing could have prepared me for the delightful KNOWING (2009) wherein Nicolas Cage plays perhaps the most unbearably clingy single father since, well, Greg Kinnear in the equally awful and contrived GODSEND (2004). Like so much great bad sci fi and horror, in adhering in the most blindly dogmatic faithfulness to shopworn conventions they illuminate far more than they perhaps consciously mean to, offering a sly critique of over-protective parenting couched in the cliche’d trappings of the horror genre, the very staleness of the exposition serving as a kind of moral proof against the folly of playing things too “safe.”

Growing up in the 1970s, my generation saw what was perhaps the last gasp of unbridled hedonism and permissiveness, shut down in early 1980 by a backlash tidal wave that included AIDS and a barrage of outrage and parent group action surrounding children and molestation, drunk drivers, sexual harassment in the workplace, date rape, and bannin smoking at work or in grocery stores (I learned to smoke at my first job, H&R Block, at 16! In the office ! With my mom right there! Can you believe it??) .

In the wake of all that, parenthood went from something everyone did and forgot about, no big deal, to a huge albatross/cross/lodestone of responsibility and fear. In cinema we can see the key linchpin of this change in the figure of Richard Dreyfuss in Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), practically shoving kids out of the way in order to be first in line for the saucer ride and culminating in the over-protective hysterics of Nicolas Cage in KNOWING. Playing one of the most unbelievable MIT professors in cinema history, Cage is so out of it his science classes consist of elementary film school plot exposition like “Sharon, what can you tell me about the sun?” Still grieving the loss of his wife some years before, he drinks like a fish and won’t let his son have any friends because he’s the only friend his son needs even as he ignores him or misunderstands him continually.

Able through an elaborate and rather labored series of plot devices to predict future disasters, Cage runs hither and yon, yelling at SWAT teams like they’re incompetent student aids, and chasing possible terrorists around on subway platforms. This is a guy who probably cries and freaks out over every single death he sees on the news. You can imagine him calling up Haiti and demanding something be done about the earthquake, the guy who has to butt into every accident he passes on the highway in case me misses a chance to cradle a dying child’s head in his lap and scream “Noooo!” in pitch-shifted slow motion. He’s the kind of navel-centric nutjob that the SIMPSONS parodies by having Mrs. Lovejoy scream “Won’t somebody think of the children!”

Being in my 40s and childless in NYC, most of what I can gather about fatherhood comes from horror, action and sci fi movies, where it’s the ultimate guilt/fear trip; you’re suddenly “responsible” not only for a kid’s health and safety, but for keeping them completely in the dark about the looming dangers of Satanic cults, kidnappers and 2012. I’ve seen and heard about this effect from my new father friends, and frankly it sounds terrifying. Most fathers manage to sidestep the suffocation tactics employed by parents in movies these days, so please remember I’m not attacking real parents here (each one different as a snowflake!) I’m attacking the parents of our alternate cinematic reality, our warped mirror double. All I “know” is if the dad played by Nicolas Cage in KNOWING showed up in the 1960s, the Jaycees would have beaten the crap out of him.

Here’s what I wrote about GODSEND, back in 2004! I really thought the “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?” genre was running out of gas, but apparently as long as there are worried parents there will be these movies to capitalize on the repressed anxieties that come from all the extra parental pressure society’s been building up since the early 1980s:

By the “privileged grief” I am referring to the movies wherein “average” parents must deal with the kidnapping, murder, or disappearance of their child/children. They tend to damn it all to hell, drinking, cursing out the FBI agent in their living room, and ultimately taking matters into their own hands. Of course Arnolds can always go psycho when losing a toddler, as in Extreme Measures, but unlike the standard Revenge flick, the typical “privileged grief” entry focuses more on martyring the suffering than celebrating the vengeance. “You can’t know what it feels like to lose a kid,” is their rallying cry. And no, the FBI agent can’t, and subsequently we in the theater are also put in the inferior position of “not knowing what it’s like” (unless of course we’ve lost kids of our own). Thus we have to let the privileged grieving parent rant and rave, unable to judge or stop or comfort them due to the fact that we are shut out of their private temple of grief, unable to “know” their pain. As with Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2003) we must kneel and watch in reverent awe as they squirm under the lash of loss. Acidemic 04)

And now, here comes Mel Gibson with yet another “You can’t know what it’s like to lose a child” film, EDGE OF DARKNESS! Want to bet he drinks a lot and watches videotapes of his child (or dead wife) playing and smiling at the camera, over and over again? HOW DARE I JUDGE HIM!!!?!?

NOTE: The title of this piece is taken from the song “Who are Parents
by the Shaggs, as sad and classic a tale of VIRGIN SUICIDES-style parental suffocation as one could as for (read their bio here).
My ’05 Acidemic piece on Spielberg and Infantile Fathers here.
The contrast, Great Dad’s of the 1970s, here