First I’d like to thank the Producers for choosing three films that together created an important and coherent theme for our February discussion. Their incredible, to me, breadth and depth of knowledge of film enhances the fun and learning that I get by belonging to the Tacoma Film Club. We owe them a “thanks” that we sometimes don’t express often enough.
Having praised the Producers though, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the Wednesday night discussion of these films. My critique of this discussion is reflected in the ratings of the films that Ron posted. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit just edged out Far From Heaven for first, both averaging close to 4.1, while Revolutionary Road came in a poor third with a rating of 3.6. Remembering the discussion I believe these ratings are appropriately reflective of the TFC’s judgment of the overall quality of the films, including the acting, screenplays, cinematography, music, etc. all those things that go into making a good film and making a film good. So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that how we as a film club should be rating films? Well, maybe and maybe not.
What I don’t think the ratings reflect, and what I think received short shrift in our discussions, is how faithfully each film reflected the realities of life in the suburbs in the 50s. A film with great acting, cinematography, etc. that mis-represents its subject should not get a high rating.
(I should point out those these films seem particularly hard to rate on a numerical scale. The reviewers for Rotten Tomatoes (accessed 3-16-2009) gave them these percentages of positive reviews: Far From Heaven 91%; Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 83%; and Revolutionary Road 71%. But the members of IMDB (accessed 3-16-2009) rated Revolutionary Road the highest at 7.8/10, Far From Heaven second with a 7.5, and Man in the Gray Flannel Suit third with a 7.2. I’ll give my own ratings, based on the criterion I define later.)
Before going on I need to state my qualifications, and my biases, that lead me to my own evaluations. My father was in the Navy during WWII, and after he came back my parents moved from Greenwich Village in New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey so that their children could enjoy the benefits of life in the newly forming suburbs and avoid the disadvantages of life in the big city. I have two older sisters who were born during the war, while I was born in New Jersey in 1946. I was raised in the Jersey suburbs, moving as my father became more successful in his job, to progressively richer and more prestigious suburban towns. The town, Tenafly, in which I lived from when I was 5 until I went to college, was very much like the suburbs in Connecticut depicted in the films. The physical distance between them is only about 30 miles (1 hour drive) but the cultural differences are less than that. When my parents moved to the suburbs my mother quit her job as a social worker to raise us children, my father took the train to work every day, and my mother and I picked him up each night at the little station in the small town center. Each of the films depicted, albeit in minor ways, a boy who was probably just my age. So I know something of the culture these films attempt to depict. Those are my qualifications to talk about the suburbs of the 50, but since they are based on my personal experience as a child and adolescent, I have to acknowledge that my experience is just my experience and therefore limited and probably biased in ways that I don’t understand.
Now it doesn’t make any sense to have a criterion for rating films that evaluates them based on how faithfully they depict life in the suburbs of the 50s, without giving at least some reasonably clear picture of what life in the suburbs of the 50s was like. One could say that life in that place at that time was one of happiness and security as was symbolized by the spacious houses and large and well landscaped grounds to which people had escaped from the dirt and overcrowding of the city. One could say, that that life was really all about providing and caring for children so that they would not have to suffer the impacts of economic depressions and wars that had so severely impacted their parents. There is certainly truth in both these statements; having lived there I can attest to that. I think these pictures characterize the outward intentions of the parents who settled in those suburbs. The popular television shows of the time: “Ozzie and Harriett” (I went to high school with the nephews of the Nelsons), “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” can be regarded as pictures of these ideals, or statements of the myths that underlay the society of the suburban 50s. At the very least we need to give (most) of those who lived there the benefit of good intentions.
But, in hindsight, history has placed a harsher judgment on the quality of life in those towns in those times. I believe that harsher judgment is justified, and I will base my criterion for evaluating these films on that judgment.
On the surface conformity was the central issue of the 50s, and that has been the basis for the harsh judgments of that time. But I believe conformity was not the proximate cause of the human pain we saw in these movies. Beyond simple conformity there was pressure to actually believe that “life is good” and the necessary flip slide of that, to fully deny the existence of the real problems. Thus an internal conflict was established: problems did exist within individuals and within families, but the culture demanded that one must “believe” that those problems didn’t exist – that is to deny them. This fierce struggle between the reality of life and the internal feelings regarding that reality led to psychological distress. And here is the coup de grace of the times: there was an appalling lack (by our standards today) of support systems, in particular modern mental health care, to help individuals and families cope with this psychological stress.
Interestingly all three movies explicitly portray the situation regarding psychological stress and the lack of availability of systems to deal with it. The psychological “care” provided to Frank Whitaker (the husband in Far From Heaven) consists of regarding homosexuality as a disease that must be cured. In The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, the husband, Tom Rath (played by Gregory Peck) is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yet it goes unrecognized and untreated. This movie emphasizes this point by having Rath’s Madison Avenue boss attempting to start a campaign for the development of a system of mental health hospitals. Rath’s job is to write the key speech that will serve as the kick off for the campaign. In Revolutionary Road we see an example of the mental health care available in the character of John Givings, the crazed math professor. Further, the internal conflict between April Wheeler’s (played by Kate Winslet) vision for self-actualization and the reality of her life lead her to perform an abortion procedure on herself that she knew to be unsafe. She was alone with her severe internal conflicts and seeking care for them was not even raised as an option because at those times good options were virtually non-existent.
So the criterion I will use to evaluate these films is how well they portray the reality of this triple whammy of life in the 50s in the suburbs of New York City. I will state this succinctly as:
1) we must conform, 2) we must deny the problems that exist and further actually believe that they don’t exist, and 3) we can’t get any, or at least any proper, mental health care for the psychological stress that results.
With this background I will give my own ratings of the three films, based only on this criterion. To those who object to this criterion I’ll admit that these ratings are probably more relevant to a club that studies psychology or sociology than a film club, but this is the criterion I choose to use. My ratings: Revolutionary Road 4.1, The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, 3.8, and Far From Heaven 2.9. (Thus we have four sets of ratings none of which agree – each film was ranked first at least once and last at least once. So much for evaluating films using numerical ratings.)
Let’s first discuss Far From Heaven (2002). This is certainly a movie lover’s movie. The consensus of the reviews I read is that it was thoroughly researched and beautifully filmed with especially striking and effective use of color. I gave it a low rating, because it stressed external sources of conflict (racial equality and gay rights) that were more highly topical to when it was made than to the period it portrayed.
I have to be careful here. There is no doubt that, based on a reading of history, or on my own personal experience, racism and homophobia were deep seated in the New York suburbs of the 50s. Further the film effectively shows how strongly the society of those suburbs denied the reality of those prejudices, and the harmful effect of that denial on the Whittaker family. However, the height of the civil rights campaigns and the struggle for gay rights came later in history; they existed in the 50s but they were not the central struggles of the 50s, certainly not in suburban New York. (If the film were about Arkansas or Mississippi I couldn’t make this last statement.)
I don’t think one could accurately say that Far From Heaven addressed the core internal psychological conflicts that existed in the 50s. Frank Whittaker finds a partner but stays in the closet, while Cathy Whittaker is separated from the one person who is capable of giving her understanding. We end up feeling fortunate that we live in the 21st century, which is a more enlightened society where gays have come out of the closet and where inter-racial couples and marriage are (largely) accepted.
Let’s turn to The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. I give it a rating of 3.6. Certainly this film clearly portrays the effects of PTSD, how it causes stress in families, and especially how it was not recognized in the 50s. My complaint about the film, and the reason for my lower rating, is in how the issues that arise from the PTSD are resolved. Barbara Rath essentially says to her husband “buck up dear, toughen up, and work it out yourself” (this is the John Wayne approach to mental health.) And in fact Tom Rath does just that – successfully – whereas generally that approach is quite ineffective. In the end the movie tells us that if one behaves honestly in their job and in their families then everything will work out: they end up in the big house with a solid marriage and realize the dream of prosperity and security that were the promise of the suburbs in the 50s. To be fair, I should give The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit credit for depicting accurately that in the suburbs in the 50s people really believed in this solution. Given that it is a product of those times this is to be expected. It presents a true representation of the denial so prevalent at those times. We only see differently with 20-20 hindsight.
Finally let’s turn to Revolutionary Road to which I give a 4.1 rating for accurately depicting the personal struggles caused by the social expectations of the 50s. In spite of an Oscar-winning performance by Michael Shannon, and a Golden Globe best actress performance by Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road did not fare well in the ratings of the Tacoma Film Club, nor by the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes (the aficionados on IMDB ranked it best of the three however.)
But with respect to the criterion I chose to use, Revolutionary Road fares quite well. Indeed (perhaps “in fact” would be a better choice of words) the two major award winning roles both depicted people who cracked under the pressures I have described. The character John Givings is a math professor who we see on a couple of short-term leaves from the local mental institution. His role in the film is to speak the truth to the Wheelers about their life and the life of the society in which they live. I don’t know how his message could be clearer or more consistent with the criterion I have chosen to use, or with my description of life in the suburban 50s. Through him the film is making the statement: “only someone crazy would dare speak the truth about life in that setting;” or “if one does not do what is expected by denying the realities of that life, it will drive them crazy.”
While John Givings provides the explicit statement of the effect of suburban life on mental health, April Wheeler’s life is the implicit embodiment of the same condition. From the first scene in the film we see that she lives as much in a dream world as in reality. She responds flirtatiously to the cute fellow who doesn’t know who he is or what he wants. She dreams of becoming a stage actress – how many young people in New York have the same dream? We next find out that she does not really have acting talent (although she would like to blame the failure of the play on her fellow performers.) And we see that the romantic dreamy fellow from the party has become a less than ideal husband.
But April won’t stop dreaming, and soon comes to believe that she and Frank will find fulfillment if they move to Paris where she will support him while he finally has the chance to find himself. Alas, reality intervenes again when she finds out she is pregnant – a reality that will keep her in Connecticut in a life that is driving her crazy. It seems that April has no control over her life and her attempt to regain control through a self-administered abortion is thwarted when her husband won’t go along. She spirals down in spirit and sanity, performing the abortion on herself after the 12-week period in which it can be done safely.
She dies; an unfortunate accident or a cloaked suicide?
When I was about the age of the children in Revolutionary Road one of my mother’s best friends, a neighbor in fact, died of cancer. We didn’t talk about it much then, I was young and it was the 50s. About 30 years later I learned that she had had definite early warning symptoms of the cancer but had put off seeing the doctor for years. She had waited too long and by then the cancer was untreatable.
She died; an unfortunate accident or a cloaked suicide?
I don’t know the answer in either April’s or my neighbor’s case, but the person who told me about my neighbor said that it was not uncommon for women, isolated in beautiful houses with beautiful children, and unable to get adequate treatment for their depression, to have “accidents” like this. Maybe they chose the “cure” that was most available and socially acceptable.
Recall the criterion that I stated earlier, that I would rank the movies by how faithfully they described the reality of the suburban 50s: “1) we must conform, 2) we must deny problems and actually believe they don’t exist, and 3) we can’t get any, or at least any proper, mental health care for the psychological stress that results.”
I think Revolutionary Road described this reality fully, not softening it as the other two films did. That reality was much harsher than pictured in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit and Far From Heaven. To see this, think ahead 30 years and imagine the lives of the characters in these three films. Tom and Betsy Rath, from The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, will undoubtedly be rewarded for being good people and totally honest with each other and at work. When the weather is warm, they will live in the tastefully remodeled mansion in Connecticut near their grandkids, and they will be happy snowbirds in the winter. Thirty years after the end of Far From Heaven, after the sensitive Raymond left on the train, he, and their “romance” will be a pleasant memory to Cathy Whittaker who will be married to another successful businessman; and by then, Frank Whittaker will have come out of the closet and be living openly with his partner on Christopher Street back in the city, in the Village. But in 30 years John Givings will be living in am under-funded halfway house. In 30 years April Wheeler will still be dead. She will be just a distant memory, ambiguous and painful, to her husband and her children, at those rare times when she is remembered at all. Revolutionary Road reminds us of the deepest cruelty that lay hidden in those Connecticut suburbs. We need this film so we won’t forget.