Wakefield – A story of a patriarch

 

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Wakefield (Robin Swicord, 2017)

It’s unclear what the motive behind the movie Wakefield is. Not just the characters or the world they exist within, or the film’s “message”, but the reason for its existence. Why did director Robin Swicord, who gained fame for her literary adaptations such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Memoirs of a Geisha, feel the need to write and make this movie? I have a few thoughts, but I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m asking for the purpose behind a film’s creation. Frankly, it’s a question we should ask Hollywood films more often, and more often than not the reason is money. But that’s clearly not the case here because, besides me, I don’t know another human being who has seen this Bryan Cranston starrer which released three weeks ago. Yeah, did you know Bryan Cranston acted in a movie that released three weeks ago? Money could not have been part of the equation. The real reason behind my curiosity is the actual plot and story of the film….

Adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorrow which in itself is a reimagining of the same story originally written by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Wakefield is about a family man with a city job who comes home late one night after being stuck on a malfunctioning train and follows a racoon loitering through his garbage into what seems like a storage area above his garage… and (take a breath)…. decides to just live there and spy on his family for a whole year.

“What the fuck?” – you right now, probably

Bryan Cranston plays the titular character, Howard Wakefield, a man disillusioned from his monotonous day to life-cycle of wife, kids, and job. He lives in a very upper-class WASP neighborhood, decked with picket fenced McMansions, luxury cars (Wakefield owns a Mercedes), fine china, private-school going children, and Joseph Aboud tailored suits. The need to cutting lose from a daily lifestyle is something a lot of people experience, particularly at Wakefield’s mid-life crisis age. However, instead of the expected trope of blowing off money on expensive things, Wakefield’s crisis takes him into a faux-“survivalist” lifestyle. I say faux- because he technically has food and shelter at his disposal at all times. He’s not ever in any real danger through this whole ordeal.

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But the way he enters into this commitment away from his family seems preposterous. Coming home late one night, he notices a raccoon scavenging in the bins on his driveway. In an attempt to shoo the rascal away, he instead sends it up the stairwell in his garage into a storage floor. There, Wakefield notices his wife and kids finishing up dinner without him and… decides to just spend the night. Over the course of a week, he argues with himself over what time would be appropriate to re-introduce himself into his family without it being a gigantic ordeal. Clearly, he supposes, his wife will assume he has been cheating. It’s such a strangely evolved concept that it not only challenges us into identifying with a clearly unlikeable person but also in the idea of what the hell the story is getting at.

Going through E.L. Doctorrow’s short story, written first-person, a marked distinction from Hawthorne’s original which is told as a third-person account, much of the actions Wakefield executes are hardly explained beyond a mere “unknown circumstances” or “can’t imagine why”-s. It’s almost as if this man doesn’t have any control over his mind or body, that he believes fully that his several months in that attic were a literal out of body experience as much as an out of lifestyle experience.

Is Wakefield clinically insane? He talks about the events towards the beginning of the story as having a Doppler effect, or a string of occurrences which seem to prophesize on the collapse of human civilization. He mentions his actions had a snowball effect of irrationality from the first night he spent in the storage area to the following several months. But his constant acknowledgment of his irrational behavior rules that out.

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The most logical interpretation of the film’s underlying social themes, in my eyes, is that Wakefield is engaging in a despicable patriarchal power move. One with an heir of complete self-importance in regards to his family. By removing himself from the family, and watching their struggles he finds a sort of sick joy in knowing they can’t handle life without him. He is not so much insane as he is sociopathic. The evidence of this is obvious in several instances where his wife is getting help from a friend on finances, and Wakefield chuckles knowing there’s no way she can afford her lifestyle without his paycheck let alone manage all the monetary budgeting that he and he alone does for the household. Given Swicord’s talent in translating fiction into a visual portrait of multi-dimensional individuals for the screen (her best work, in my opinion, Matilda, takes many moments of a whimsical child’s life and breaths soul-crushing emotional heft into them, quite daring for a children’s movie), her taking a short story to feature length with such a difficult to handle premise was not something I was particularly worried about… but the end result showed that stretching Wakefield as a character leads to many wrong turns and confusingly contradictory portraits of who he is, and why we should accept him as believable.

Much of the second half of the film, a swift turn from the first half, Swicord concentrates on humanizing Wakefield into a compassionate, humble character who ultimately has a self-realizing epiphany. It’s the classic case of a film which steers away from difficult, murky territory of seeing a truly depraved person eaten by his own mind and into a story of glorious self-fulfillment, that too, at the detriment of everyone around him. It’s strange coming from Swicord, who’s writing sensibilities clearly lean towards a feminist reading of the material. Why would she have us believe in this man’s motives as being anything less than a narcissistic act of neglecting three women in his life on a whim? That he is actually capable of learning a lesson and that is what catalyzes his return to society, and not that he is so egotistical, so emotionally distanced from his family as humans with wants and needs, he feels he can waltz back in just like that.

The film would have us believe that by removing himself from everything Wakefield has gained an appreciation for it all… one of the most tired and uninspiring Hollywood lessons. It’s like an American Dad episode written and directed with a straight face.

Out of Memory and Time: The Cinema of Victor Erice

 

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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?

Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.

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In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.

Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).

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As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

 

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El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.

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Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.