Fathers in Film

I’m not sure if it’s because many writers have rocky relationships with their parents, but it seems like a lot of books and movies involve a father figure who is a negative character — distant, aloof, mean-spirited — or a villain like Darth Vadar.

Even when they are the hero, they are usually flawed. Since Father’s Day is coming up, I thought this would be a good week to mention a hodge podge of movies I’ve seen recently that present different views of dads that lie somewhere between good guy and authoritarian soul-crushers.

An animated feature I really liked was FANTASTIC MR. FOX, adapted from the Roald Dahl book. Voiced by George Clooney, the father fox is a great character because of his internal and external conflicts. In this fantasy, animals are quite civilized for the most part (they do chow down like ravenous beasts, however). His day job is newspaper columnist. But his real passion is stealing and killing chickens. Why? Because he’s a fox, dammit!

Yet his foxy wife wants him to be a good role model for their son, who lacks the smarts and natural athletic skills of his cousin. Dad can’t resist the lure of breaking into the neighboring farms to kill some chickens though, which sets off an unfortunate chain of events for all the animals. He tries to rally the animals and keep the family together while admitting his faults. It’s really more for adults than kids and will appeal to those with a droll sense of humor. Worth adding to your Netflix queue!

A very different take on dads in a foreign culture is offered in TOKYO SONATA. Yet there are similarities to MR. FOX too. In this Japanese film, the father loses his job — which is his identity, even though he’s little more than a drone or a replaceable cog in the company. Instead of telling his family, he continues to get dressed for work and leaves for the office each day, pretending nothing is wrong. At home, he clashes with his sons when they rebel against his conformist values. The older boy joins the military to fight alongside Americans in Iraq instead of going to college. The younger son wants to take up music, which dad thinks is a waste of time and money.

TOKYO SONATA is a sad portrayal of fathers in any culture, who perceive work as life. Take away their job, you take away their sense of purpose and reason for being. How many American dads seem lost once they get laid off or retire from the workforce? Not sure I’d recommend this movie though, unless you’re into dysfunctional family dramas and have an interest in modern day Japan. I have enough dysfunction in my own family to deal with.

The antithesis of authoritarian fathers would be the MIA dads, such as the one in PIRATE RADIO. Based somewhat on the true story of renegade rock DJs who broadcast from a ship anchored off the coast of England in the 60s, the story centers on a teenage boy sent to the boat by his mom after he gets kicked out of school. Turns out that one of the DJs (his mum won’t say who) is actually the father he never got to know while growing up. Much silliness ensues and the two are eventually reunited in a ridiculous climax that has unfortunate echoes of the Titanic sinking. But the music is great, so it’s a half thumbs up for me.

Lastly, we have the reality category with the documentary, WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE: A FILM ABOUT THE DOORS. It’s mostly about lead singer, alcoholic poet Jim Morrison, and if you like the Doors, it’s worth watching. What I found fascinating though was Jim’s relationship with his father — a Navy admiral. Talk about rigid role models to rebel against! In the film, Johnny Depp (the narrator) reads a letter to Jim from his dad in which he tells his son that he should quit music because he has no talent and will never amount to anything…

For every artist, musician and writer who has heard the same thing from their father or mother at some point in their life — myself included — those words sting and cut to the bone. Isn’t parental approval something we all want, even after we’ve grown up and made our own lives? On the other hand, would many of us even be writers or artists if we grew up in loving, supportive families? I don’t know the answer to that. If I was a happy, well-adjusted person, I’d probably have less desire or need to write… I wouldn’t need an audience.

The Doors documentary does end with Depp saying after Jim died, his father issued a statement about his unique talent. Too bad he didn’t say that while his son was still alive.

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