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.
Before John dies, Brickman gives Beth (brilliantly played by Jessica Lange) a privileged moment. Standing in the driveway of their beautiful, if unfinished house in suburban Maryland, she looks inside their kitchen window and sees Tom playing with their youngest son Matt (Charlie Korsmo), carrying him around on his shoulders. Beth and John had just had a mild row over something unimportant, a raunchy comedy John had taken Matt and his older brother Chris (Chris O’Donnell) to see, prompting Matt to ask his mother questions like, “What does it mean when a girl says, ‘I’m late’? I don’t get it. ‘I’m late.’” The dialogue by Brickman and co-writer Barbara Benedek (also the author
of the superb Immediate Family, directed by Jonathan Kaplan) is consistently witty.
Tom half-heartedly defends his cinematic taste to Beth: “There were prostitutes in this movie, but it wasn’t about prostitutes. It was about guys and coming of age and growing up…” Just parenthetically, I’ve sometimes thought that the movie Tom is talking about just might be Risky Business, which was written and directed by a fellow named Paul Brickman. At least one other critic, Edward Copeland, spotted the reference, too.
Yet all of this is quickly forgotten as Beth peacefully watches her husband and son through the glass, the wind gently displacing her hair. She seems aware of the terrible fragility of a happy life—and maybe even prepared, in a way, for what is to come.
That’s the thing: anyone could have predicted that their lives would fall apart without John, and that’s exactly what happens. The night of his father’s funeral, Chris sits next to Beth on a sofa and tells it like it is. “No one can run what he does,” he says earnestly. “It’s like he’s in charge of everything. He runs everything. How can you get by without him?”
A friend tells Beth, “Buy yourself something—something really expensive. You’d be surprised.” It isn’t terrible advice, actually, except that it doesn’t apply to Beth’s circumstances. She is bewildered by Tom’s substantial business debts. Who can blame her? As she rightly protests to Chris, “It’s all mine… The car, the truck, the house, the bills, the debt, you and Matt. He left it all to me.” In a moment as misguided as the one in Lost in America when Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty plot their future and find it consists of a motor home and a nest egg, Beth tells her sons that she thinks they should move so she can get a better job (she has been checking groceries to help with the bills).
She saves what she is careful to call “the best part” for last: “You know where I think we should move? Baltimore.” No one likes the idea, and no one likes the reality any better. The apartment is small. The water is brown. The bikes are stored in the living room,
along with everything else. (“Great box collection,” someone comments.) There are too many locks on the door. And B is as miserable in her new job as in her old one.
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.
We left Maryland soon enough, but the Macauleys are stuck in Baltimore forever. I don’t mean the city itself. Perhaps they will move. Perhaps things will turn out well enough so that they can get a better apartment or a house like the one they used to have. But they
will always be in Baltimore because Baltimore represents life without their husband and father. Baltimore is what life would have been like for Jamie Graham in Empire of the Sun if his parents hadn’t reappeared.
No other film shows the frustrations and depressions that accompany loss as well as this one. C.S. Lewis famously wrote about “the laziness of grief,” wherein “not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth?” Somewhere in the middle of Men Don’t Leave, Beth gets fired from her job and, with Chris and Matt drifting away from her, she loses heart. She stays in bed for five days, only rousing herself to prepare a peanut butter sandwich for Matt, served with a glass of water (their supplies of milk and juice have been exhausted).
C.S. Lewis would have loved the scene for its truthfulness. Of course, it is a particularly low point, and Beth does get better—but she and Chris and Matt are still in Baltimore.
Some people have wondered why Paul Brickman has not directed anything since making Men Don’t Leave in 1990. Dave Kehr—one of the few major critics to write appreciatively of the film when it came out—is one of them. “He just got disgusted with the whole system,” Kehr told The Village Voice recently, in response to a question about Brickman. “And there was some expression—I definitely remember some interviews with him saying he just can’t work in this system anymore, it’s just too stifling.” Or maybe after grappling with the enormous themes and tones of Men Don’t Leave, Brickman felt he had said it all.
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.