First I must make reference to this fantastic piece written with reference to but perhaps not particularly ‘about’ the film in question by Lisa Rosman at indiewire.
As fortune or confirmation bias would have it – I stumbled upon another instance of what I would classify as an ‘anti-black comedy’ just as I was wondering which film I was going to write about next. All of the hallmarks are here – an abandonment of narrative threading, an examination of the need for uncomplicated human compassion either because of or regardless of the complexities thrust upon people, and the exhibition of several examples of acts of unconditional love. The idea that such a simple concept could not only be of primary importance is not revelatory by any means, but this film both depicts the troubles of allowing the relatively unfulfilling complexities of the world to overwhelm the importance of the simple elements and dissipates the tension of a dramatic suicide through contrast of compassionate interactions transcending the fleeting importance of a set of material properties whose liquidation is personally welcomed by the bereaved family. It is fascinating to me that this relatively explicit renunciation of success and property was made by the romantic partner of Olivier Assayas, the director of a film in Summer Hours that thoroughly confused me as to its tone on these same issues. Was it a straight-faced lamentation of the importance of material property to individuals which the masses can never properly understand or was it a satire of those same values? I couldn’t say, although I sympathize with the latter and felt the film’s tone tended toward the former. Perhaps it was simply an investigation of the ambivalences and incongruities between private and public ownership, valuation and pricing, familial ties to possessions and to each other, and any number of other ideas – but the presentation’s sentimentalism seemed totally bizarre to me (although, at the same time, I face these sorts of bizarre ambivalences myself even when I feel that I should know better). Whatever the case, if one were to approach The Father of My Children as a parody of youthful ignorance of the value of material possessions I cannot think of a less successful example in all of the films I have viewed. Comparing the absolute ruin wrought from an inordinate focus on financial troubles to the compassionate unity of a family faced with the loss of one of its pillars doesn’t bode well for the value of the 'material', in my mind. Transposing the perspective gained from The Father of My Children onto Summer Hours simply shows how wasteful the latter film’s depicted family is in terms of both effort and time wasted on those things which fail to bring them together, serve to divide them, and are simply laughed at once lost. This is the beauty of the anti-black comedy – that it renders so many ambivalences trivial in the face of simple truths, especially when those ambivalences are treated as anything but trivial.
I read something leading up to this film claiming that its first half started strong and it dissipated in its second half – but what could that even mean? The film depicts strains and secrets which could sustain a lengthy film full of drama – but to what end? Tension, sure, and perhaps a realistic depiction of the ways people interact; an ant’s eye view of the anthill we live in. This sort of thing rarely intrigues me, although it seems to be the predominant mode of modern drama (and the type seemingly craved for by the aforementioned long-forgotten writer). Taking these same stylistic elements, though, and transposing them with a situation beyond the typical, providing some perspective beyond the anthill, The Father of My Children trivializes the dramatics, implicitly parodies the prevailing standards of drama, and provokes reflection which seems to me to lead naturally to introspection, to a reconsideration of one’s perspective. This film is perfect for displaying the implicit method of the anti-black comedy: once the father dies at the halfway point there can be no resolution of the film’s problem. The problem is impossible to fix, and all ‘resolutions’ are simply trivial logistical details which caused what would have been a more ‘dramatic’ film’s central tragedy to become an immutable tragedy in this film. There is nothing purely or partly dramatic or funny about the film’s second half – something which would have seemed impossible to the family’s patriarch before his suicide. Tragedies have a way of forcing their survivors to reevaluate their priorities, to take a new perspective on the things they long took for granted, but this sort of shift can be difficult to generate while trapped in the everyday continuum of a life. Going a step further, imagine if the suicide had been a murder – would anything really change? I think not, as the family would lose no more depending on the method and would gain no more by gaining vengeance, and yet the ‘revenge drama’ is an exceedingly popular dramatic framework these days (to my great disgust and astonishment). It is important to note that these revenge dramas tend to end with the climactic resolution of the film’s revenge – but what comes afterward? If these films’ climaxes came halfway through I am sure that their second halves would necessarily resemble the second half of The Father of My Children because these events are simply trivial complexities which don’t actually fill the void that a death leaves. Thus, it is clear that the film’s structure is pivotal to its function, to its perspective, and to its value to me – and all of its value to me is contained outside the drama, outside the typical, outside those things which I can already see clearly, and perhaps fostering the shift in perspective from that which I am used to into that which will foster the most compassion and least drama in my own life.
Speaking of the way the film’s structure provides a shift in perspective it makes sense to me to comment on the way the film’s social commentary or simple representation relates to the importance of the film’s atypical form. As a man working more hours than ever before and having fewer hours to spend time with those I care about, to watch films which provoke introspection and tantalize my imagination, and to think and write and think about what I write about these films it is made all the more clear how difficult it is to maintain a consistent, comprehensive, and healthy perspective on one’s life. As such, it is extremely useful to me to see beyond the mere depiction of potential troubles (these can be found in propaganda and public service announcements) but to see beyond that life which I can so easily get wrapped up in. If it is a controversial statement to say that narrow-minded self-absorption (through egoism, ignorance, force of habit, or any other innumerable combinations of forces) is a cause of the majority of familial, marital, and personal problems then, well, I’d like to posit it anyway - and if it’s common sense then you’ll have to excuse me for belaboring the point. Still, it is rare to find a film which depicts a problem and simultaneously provides the possibility of a direct route to its solution. That propaganda often achieves this same purpose should not reflect poorly on the film in question, as propaganda is a brilliant and often alarmingly effective tool, but I do believe this film may be subtler and more useful, thus raising the importance of fostering mindstates which open up the possibility for the film to have a positive effect on people, and in that my writing is only second rate propaganda. My writing is a direct form of propaganda for myself, though, and for that I thank myself to whatever degree it is that I help myself more than I delude myself. It is for good reason, I think, that I prefer the encouraging sublimity of another’s compassionate contribution to my own, and for that I have the team behind The Father of My Children to thank. That is startlingly sincere, I must say. I’ll try to keep that sort of thing under wraps from here on out.