Retrospective Roundtable

Fathers in Film

Published on Father’s Day, this month’s retrospective complements last month’s Mothers in Film which we wrote to celebrate Mother’s Day. In Fathers in Film, we look back at a number of classic films and arthouse favorites that have a father as a prominent character and/or explore themes related to fatherhood. To any father reading this column, Happy Father’s Day!

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

By Ian Floodgate

The character of Atticus Finch is the type of person any father would aspire to be and any child would idolize. Even the legal profession holds him in high regard, though To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee took inspiration from her own father when writing Atticus’s character so we can only imagine her father was somewhat like Atticus.

Jean Louise Finch who is better known as Scout, the daughter of Atticus, tells the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout also has an older brother called Jeremy “Jem”, and the plot follows the family over a three-year period in 1930s Alabama.

The book and the film are mostly remembered for its take on racial prejudice because of the trial at the center of the story where Atticus defends a black male, Tom Robinson, against a rape charge of which he did not commit. At the start of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is a naïve six-year-old girl who does not understand racism. She witnesses her father be subjected to racially-charged slurs because of his defense of Tom and his belief that nobody is better than anyone else. Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson because Atticus says “I couldn’t hold up my head in town” and teach his children what is right and what is wrong if he did not take up the case.

Atticus not only helps his children to mature- he wants the community they live in to become a better place. His morals are those we should all aspire to adopt and as a father Atticus exhibits how we can nurture our own children to love and respect all people.

Hardcore (1979)

By Kevin Jones

After writing about Bunny Lake Is Missing for Mother’s Day, it seems appropriate to write about Paul Schrader’s Hardcore for Father’s Day. They are entirely different films, except at the core is a parent who is desperately searching for their child. Here, that is Jake Von Dorn (George C. Scott). He is a Calvinist pastor and deeply conservative. His daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) seems to fit the part until she goes missing on a Calvinist youth mission to California. Determined to find her, Jake leaves his entire life behind and travels to California. There, he learns from private detective Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) that Kristen has turned to a life in pornography.

While Schrader has many ideas in mind with Hardcore, Jake’s arc in not allowing his beliefs to hamper the love he has for Kristen is perhaps the most affecting. Jake is guilty of, at first, controlling Kristen’s life and she rebelled against him in the most direct way possible. As much as Jake and the excellent performance from George C. Scott shows about how far a parent will go to find their child, Hardcore speaks to that deep bond that cannot be broken. The pained look on Scott’s face as he tries to find the words to tell her to get her to understand that, no matter what she does, she is his world hits incredibly hard. Thus, while this is perhaps an odd choice for Father’s Day, the presentation of unconditional love and the desire to see one’s child safe and happy (even if not one’s idea of either) makes Hardcore a fitting film for the holiday.

Field of Dreams (1989)

By Matt Schlee

Though on its face Field of Dreams comes across as a movie about baseball, its heart and soul are rooted in the relationship between its protagonist Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and his late father. Most people know Field of Dreams for its famous opening line, “If you build it, he will come”. Furthermore, many think of the “he” in that sentence in terms of the famous “Shoeless Joe” Jackson (Ray Liotta), whose ghost shows up after a mysterious voice instructs Ray to build a baseball diamond in his corn field. However, the truth holds a much heftier emotional weight, and one which will deeply resonate with anyone who has ever played catch with their dad.

Field of Dreams does not only explore fatherhood through the eyes of Ray as the child, but also as the father. His relationship with his young daughter, while not the spotlight of the film, is an important element and is the centerpiece of the movie’s conclusion. The themes explore a strained fatherhood where the division between father and son is not blameless for either side and where the relationship is more complex than is painted in many movies about fathers and sons who do not quite get along.

Father and Son (2003)

By Alex Sitaras

Given my write-up on Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son in last month’s Mother’s Day retrospective, it only made sense to write about Sokurov’s Father and Son for this month’s retrospective. Like Mother and Son, Father and Son examines the dynamic between a loving parent and their child; however, the film is much less melancholy in tone. The inevitable separation that occurs between father (Andrei Shchetinin) and son, Aleksei (Aleksei Nejmyshev), comes about as the result of the son’s coming of age as opposed to the passing away of the parent.

In Father and Son, Sokurov explores the idea of oneness through the pair’s close relation as well as an opening scene that recalls Hiroshima mon Amour where the two are wrestling. At the crux of the film, Aleksei is set to be deployed in the military and is navigating his relationship with a new girlfriend. Aleksei’s reluctance to separate from his father, fearing for his father’s health and isolation, prevents him from growing up and becoming his own man, in work and in love. A series of dreams help progress the story in Father and Son and provide insight into the life shared between father and son as the two desire the best for each other, yet are forced to take separate paths in order for this to occur.

Broken Flowers (2005)

By George Morris

Playfully reflecting Bill Murray’s public persona back at him, Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers paints an intriguing image of fatherhood without children. As a Don Juan struggling to find his potential child, Murray brilliantly illustrates the desperation and loneliness of later life after partying. His regret at avoiding fatherhood as a life experience is plain to see throughout, and it’s heartbreaking to think of a life yearning for the connection that only close family can have.

Of course, as a film about fatherhood itself it lacks any real experience – apart from a tantalising cameo from Murray’s real-life son towards its end – but it’s a bittersweet and dryly humorous offering from a filmmaker attempting to tackle a subject from a different perspective.

The Descendants (2011)

By George Morris

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants manages to triumph off the back of an emotional script from him, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as well as a tour de force central performance from George Clooney. His portrayal of Matthew ‘Matt’ King puts his role as a father before anything else, after discovering that his recently-deceased wife was actually having an affair behind his back, Matt’s attentiveness and brilliant chemistry with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) makes this newfound extravagance in his monotonous life seem wholehearted instead of cold and plotted.

It doesn’t hurt that Clooney’s on top form throughout, and the film’s script manages to highlight the closeness of the family by having him depend on his offspring as much as they depend on him. In the wake of tragedy, the importance of family is often made most clear, and at the end of the day it’s difficult not to envision yourself having a family unit like them under the blistering Hawaiian sun.

The Tree of Life (2011)

By Ben McDonald

There comes a moment in every child’s life when one realizes their parents aren’t omniscient deities but fallible human beings, each with their own desires, strengths, and weaknesses alike. Somewhere along the bridge between innocence and adolescence, amidst the conflicting pulls of childhood and adulthood, one looks up at their mother and father and consciously recognizes them as an equal rather than an invincible presence. The psychological disturbance of this realization runs excitedly underneath every shot of Terrence Malick’s 2011 magnum opus, The Tree of Life, brought to life by the director’s shrewd understanding of the shifting states of a child’s mind and Brad Pitt’s outstanding performance. Pitt seems born to play the film’s role of a demanding father of the 1950s; it’s the kind of character and performance that swims with complexity, one that seems to defy our preconceived moral judgments every step of the way. At some points, Pitt’s character appears to be a good if not acceptably strict father, and yet certain scenes also paint him as a pitiful failure, a man whose career and life frustrations pathetically explode in rage at the slightest disobedience of his children. Whether he’s a good man or not, the tension with his sons is understated and richly profound, told as much by fleeting glances of hope and disappointment as by Malick’s characteristically cryptic voice-overs. Laced with the longing luster of nostalgia and told by the voice of memory, The Tree of Life is one of the most fascinating deconstructions of the father figure in cinema of this past decade.

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

By Matt Schlee

Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s Like Father, Like Son is one of the Palme d’Or winning director’s most well regarded works. With Ozu-esque sentimentality, Kore-eda explores traditionalism within the Japanese family structure. The film tells the story of two families who discover that their sons were switched at birth. Given the weight that Japanese culture places on bloodlines, the families feel inclined to meet and discuss whether they should switch back, despite the fact that the boys are old enough to have formed relationships and memories with their parents.

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is the film’s protagonist, a serious and severe man who raises his son with a firm hand. He views the father of his biological son, Yudai (Lily Franky), to be far too carefree and irresponsible. When Ryota begins to hatch a plan to bring both boys under his roof, the situation between the families becomes tense. The movie does not move in the expected direction and despite Ryota’s often detestable actions, Kore-eda finds a way to make him a sympathetic character and display great growth in his ability to relate to his son as a person.

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