EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to the series, Pictures of Loss: Introduction, click here. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: The Darjeeling Limited, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, click here.-- Matt Zoller Seitz
It would seem that what I want are movies about the art of losing, as Elizabeth Bishop might say. But some of those same movies are also about the art of finding.
Take Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a film that made a deep impression on me when I first saw it at the precocious age of eight. While young Jamie Graham is separated from his mother and father in Shanghai during World War II, in the end the family is brought back together. The loss is temporary. The loss is remedied. When he sees his mother for the first time since he let go unthinkingly let go of her hand on the fateful day, he almost can’t believe it. He reaches for her face and hands, as if to verify the miracle that she is back. (For some reason, it always struck me that Jamie’s mother wore red nail polish when they were separated, but she doesn’t when they are reunited—after a war, everyone looks worse for the wear, not just Jamie.)
What I am trying to say is that the reunion stays in the mind far longer than the separation.
That isn’t the case in Paul Brickman’s Men Don’t Leave. In Bishop’s parlance, the actual losing is skipped—we don’t see the accident that kills John Macauley, wife to Beth, father to Chris and Matt—and, of course, there is no finding to be had. Unlike Jamie’s parents, John doesn’t—can’t—return.
Dorothy Parker’s line feels appropriate: “What fresh hell is this?”
I hope native Baltimoreans will forgive me if I can empathize with the Macauleys’ dismay. I never lived in Baltimore, but for about 10 months I lived in a suburb in Montgomery County, Maryland, somewhere not too far from Baltimore. We had been in Ohio for some years when my father was offered a position in Washington, D.C., that took us there, but the minute we crossed the state line I was childishly homesick. I felt the way Matt must when he naively suggests to his mother that maybe she can make so much money at her new job in Baltimore that they can return to their old house.
I was game at first, as Beth is when she talks herself into a job at a gourmet food shop. “I
am interested in food. I love food. I know food,” she says to her disinterested prospective
boss, played with aplomb by Kathy Bates. Yet forced enthusiasm only got me so far. Everything seemed to go wrong in Maryland, even the most basic of things, like trying to see a movie. The first time we went out to do so, we ended up getting lost in the side streets of Georgetown. When I learned that our arrival coincided with that of swarms of cicadas—emerging for the first time in the area in 17 years!—I could only think that it was fitting.
When the running of the Preakness Stakes is shown on TV each spring, my first instinct
is to change the channel when the song “Maryland, My Maryland” is played.
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.
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