Interesting bit of trivia. Two supporting roles, one in each of these films, were played by actors who went on to create relatively high-profile characters in the science fiction television world. Alice Krige, who plays Sybil Gordon in CHARIOTS OF FIRE, created the role of the Borg Queen on STAR TREK: VOYAGER. ORDINARY PEOPLE has a small supporting role played by none other than Adam Baldwin, who was Jayne Cobb on FIREFLY. Anyways…
Ordinary People (Best Picture, 1980)
I’ve been dreading watching ORDINARY PEOPLE. The prospect of a tightly-wound emotional drama about a family dealing with the death of a child… well, it didn’t appeal. But I’m not sorry to have seen it.
Like many of the movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, ORDINARY PEOPLE is not the kind of film that leaves you with warm fuzzy feelings of having spent a couple hours in pleasant entertainment. There’s something about it that grips, though, and it catches you up and draws you in. I suspect this is especially true of anyone in the audience who has dealt with the major thematic elements, either in themselves or in another person.
ORDINARY PEOPLE is, at heart, a story about dealing with emotion. The main character, Conrad, begins the film a month after leaving a psychiatric hospital he’d lived in for four months as a result of slitting his wrists. Before that, and only seen in flashback, is the boating accident involving both Conrad and his elder brother, Bucky. Conrad survived. Bucky didn’t, and Conrad blames himself. The parents have different approaches, too. The father, played by Donald Sutherland, devolves into a spiral of worrying about everything. He is the more sympathetic of the parents, for he is genuinely concerned about Conrad, almost to the point of hovering and being too encouraging about every small victory. The mother (Beth), played by Mary Tyler Moore in a departure from her best-known TV roles, retreats into a brittle cheer, chattering about inane nothings and refusing to either deal with emotions or make any special effort to help Conrad readjust to normal life. The more sensitive natures of the men in her family are an embarrassment to Beth.
Dealing with strong emotion is a challenge for the best of us, especially when it’s a negative emotion. Grief, guilt, and anger can be overwhelming and frightening. They have a way of becoming larger than ourselves and devouring us from within. In a piece of rather angsty teenage poetry, I once described grief as a “ravening monster.” I can chuckle at the memory of that thankfully-destroyed poem now, but I still think the description is apt. These emotions, if strong enough, have the power to destroy anything they touch. One of the most honest moments in ORDINARY PEOPLE is towards the end of the film, when Conrad is leaving a school swim meet, and gets in a brief fistfight with a former friend. Another friend follows Conrad to his car, gets into it, and tells Conrad that he misses Bucky too. He asks why Conrad is so determined to go through this alone. These strong negative emotions make us feel isolated, but also make us perversely insist on further isolation. We push people away, even when they’re offering to help us bear the load.
There’s a song that was featured on GREY’S ANATOMY’s musical episode called “How to Save a Life.” A recurring line, in that episode sung by a character going through the grieving process and finally realizing the damage she’s done to her surviving relationships, is “Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend somewhere along in the bitterness…”
ORDINARY PEOPLE doesn’t show that part of the story for Conrad, but there’s a taste of it in the disintegration of the parents’ marriage as expressed by Calvin, the father. Beth finds him weeping in the dark dining room, late at night, and is stunned when he explains that he was crying because he doesn’t know if he loves her anymore. He doesn’t know if she’s capable of love.
Conrad does seem to get better, but those of us who’ve gone through therapy know that one cathartic session does not a stable person make. He’s got a fight ahead of him, and so does Calvin, now seemingly separated from Beth. I can’t help but wonder if Conrad is able to repair some of those friendships lost in the bitterness of guilt, grief, and isolation. Even if he does, it’s never quite the same. Scars will remain.
Chariots of Fire (Best Picture, 1981)
CHARIOTS OF FIRE is one of those movies that has become so famous, so popular and well known that it is one of the most mockable in the world. The challenge, therefore (as with the GODFATHER films), is to try to shut out the way the film’s images, music, and themes have entered the vernacular.
CHARIOTS is massively inspirational, showing how faith and determination and conviction can help a person achieve his or her goals. It perfectly captures the spirit of sportsmanship that is what the Olympics are supposed to be about: athletes, the cream of the world’s crop, trying their hardest to outdo each other and outdo themselves, and rejoicing in each others’ successes.
One of my favorite characters is the fictional Lord Lindsay, created to replace a member of that Olympic team who declined to be included in the film. Lindsay is based loosely on Lord Burghley, but more than that he provides a Peter Wimsey-like note of goodnatured (if entitled) sunlight in the story. Indeed, the contrast of personalities is fascinating. Lindsay is all golden hair and loose-limbed readiness for fun. Montague is in the background, quietly observing and admiring, star-struck. Eric Liddell has a slightly dreamy quality to him, an otherworldly element that highlights his religious fervor. And Harold Abrahams is all dark intensity, driven to be the best to prove to all, including himself, that he can be both led to water and allowed to drink.
What else is there to say about this film? It’s been studied and admired and parodied endlessly. Critics remark on that famous musical theme, exclaiming over how the composer opted for a contemporary sound in his use of synthesizers and pianos, rather than a sweeping, period-appropriate orchestral score. They compare the events of the film to the real historical record of this British running team, pointing out what the film used and what it didn’t. I have nothing new to add except that this is a beautiful film with a relatively simple story, and it leaves me feeling uplifted and hopeful.
Perhaps to be iconic is to be mockable. It’s just nice when the mocking is good-natured.
Next Up: Gandhi (Best Picture, 1982) and Terms of Endearment (Best Picture, 1983)
In one of my classes last week, the lecture and discussion focused on the concepts of information anxiety and information avoidance. The scholars who study these concepts argue that people will avoid information that conflicts with the individual’s world view or that will force changes. This makes it sound trivial and petty, but it’s not. A lot of the literature on this topic uses medical examples – people refusing to get tested for genetic disorders or STDs, because the potential results will require drastic changes and important decisions the people are unwilling to face. There are of course less traumatic examples. One article we read used the example of a pretend study of physical attractiveness – do the participants want to know what the other (imaginary) participants said about their attractiveness?
Personally, I’d say no, but that gets into discussions of a favorite concept in social sciences and humanities scholarship: context. We learn from experience, and if experience shows that similar interactions went a certain way in the past, we use that information to make our decisions.
I’m an anxious person. I’m just wired that way. It’s hard for me to avoid worrying. I’m not talking the top ten phobias kind of worrying. I don’t LIKE spiders, but I don’t spend my day obsessing about whether there’s one behind the fridge. If I notice one in my apartment and I’m unable to catch-and-remove before it scuttles out of reach, then I get a little jumpy.
The thing about anxiety is it doesn’t feel rational. It may have logical reasons behind it, but the feeling itself, not to mention the state of mind it creates, relies on illogical emotions. Let’s face it: Anxiety is a kind of fear. When I’m anxious, the feeling can be as minor as a gnawing feeling in my gut, or as major as a full-blown anxiety attack, including nausea, uncontrollable shaking, and inability to focus or relax.
I do avoid some kinds of information, not so much because I think it will force change, but because I know it will trigger anxiety. One of the coping mechanisms for living as an anxious person is to learn what to avoid. I don’t read any newspaper articles that mention the word “pandemic.” I avoid announcements of what the newest OMGDEATHFLU is each year – I just go get the flu shot and hope fervently that it works.
Mostly, however, I prefer to rip the band-aid off, information-wise. Most of the time, I’d much rather know. When I’m anticipating information, the anxious part of my brain goes into catastrophe mode and starts imagining all kinds of terrible outcomes. Information avoidance, to me, is generally way worse than having the information. Yes, getting the diagnosis or hearing the news can create new things to worry about. Yes, it can be hard. But at least when I know, I can do something about it. I can create a plan and start working to solve the problem. I hate the articles on the West Coast that come out every year or two that talk about how the “Big One” (earthquake) could happen any time, that we’re overdue for a massive shake on the Hayward Fault, and look how things will fall apart when it happens. Those articles regularly give me a stomachache (not exaggerating). On the other hand, it makes me paranoid about checking my first aid kits, which is arguably a good thing.
I’m struggling with anxiety a lot right now, in large part because so many areas of my life are stuck in holding patterns. Finding a job, figuring out the health issues that plague me, dealing with social life, and so forth – it feels like a lot of things that are on hold until I figure out what happens after graduation. Obviously the job thing needs to happen, like, yesterday, but everything else seems to rely on that. Getting a job means getting health insurance (I hope), income, and hopefully a new social circle. It means moving to a new place and navigating this whole grown-up life thing.
On the one hand, anxiety is making me attack this, do something about it. I know I won’t feel better till I know what to expect from the next few months, and the rest of the year.
On the other hand, I kind of want to go back to bed and never leave that nice warm safe place.