Period films focus on the home front

Dramas tackle topics touchy for their times

Revolutionary Road” isn’t the only film, nor the ’50s the only era, in which the family — and what it means — was deconstructed, disassembled or debunked by the year’s higher-profile movies, particularly those in contention for best picture.

The dysfunctional, ad-hoc or accidental family unit was as commonplace as the raunchy teen comedy. And it didn’t really need to be American either: The Indian children of “Slumdog Millionaire” are perhaps the best example of family-under-duress, a description that works two ways: The “Slumdog” kids connect with each other because they own nothing but their shared desperation. Other clans bring the anxiety on themselves.

“Rachel Getting Married,” for instance, fits a kind of contemporary template for the family feature — a unit whose seeming normality is a thin skin over a boil of outrage. It’s what Robert Altman did with “A Wedding,” which featured groups of relatives with more skeletons than the Harvard Medical School. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” went there, too, albeit in a more comic vein, while Frank Oz’s recent “Death at a Funeral” — weddings and funerals being interchangeable because the same people show up at both — took the whole thing over the top.

But the period film provides a perspective that a present-day story such as “Rachel” can’t. And some eras do it better than others. Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” for instance, positions modern-day supermom Angelina Jolie as a steadfast single mother intent on finding her missing son. Though based on a true story, that situation is hardly a typical depiction of home life in the late 1920s, whereas today’s audiences would hardly give a second thought to a working mom like the one Melissa Leo plays in “Frozen River.”

Ever since the ’60s, the decade of the 1950s — the era of Eisenhower, Elvis and Beaver Cleaver — has been seen as the golden age of the “normal” American family. Virtue meant Conformity; corruption meant Communism. And while the A-bomb ticked away in the background, movies and TV reflected a domestic dream in which Father knew best, Mom was umbilically attached to her apron, and kids said the darnedest things.

Since then, the moral landscape of the ’50s has become the autopsy table of introspective American cinema, most notably this past year with “Revolutionary Road,” which is based on Richard Yates’ scathing novel about suburban stasis and convention. “Revolutionary Road” has its antecedents, of course — “Far From Heaven,” for instance (whose own inspiration, Douglas Sirk, took swipes at moral hypocrisy), and more recently AMC’s “Mad Men.”

All have picked the sociological scabs off a decade that was capable of lionizing both James Dean and Donna Reed and, in the case of “Revolutionary Road,” candidly addresses such issues as extramarital sex, mental illness and abortion that were taboo for their time. As for the kids, you hardly even see them. And by the end of things, Mom and Dad don’t want to see much of each other either.

Nonstandard units

But these films were about units that were, in genetic terms, “real” families. What about the others?

Hollywood has had a long lingering love affair with the clergy, especially Catholic, whose rectories and convents have been portrayed as glorious domestic sanctuaries, without the sex. Not so “Doubt.” In John Patrick Shanley’s drama, life among the religious is portrayed as either debauched (the priests) or suffocating (the nuns). And in contrast to the Bing Crosby/Barry Fitzgerald/ Ingrid Bergman dynamic of “Going My Way” or “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” the interfamilial warfare of “Doubt” makes “King Lear” seem like “The Brady Bunch.”

The backdrop to “Doubt” is Vatican II, the revolutionary Catholic council that reordered church doctrine but had no immediate effect on the movies: “The Trouble With Angels” (1966), starring Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior and Hayley Mills as her most difficult student, was probably the first major nun film to come out after that convocation (1962-65) and showed no signs of ill effect. It did, however, continue to promote the concept of the church as refuge and, ergo, ersatz family, for the likes of Mills and her fellow problem children.

In a way, the community of thieves run by Fagin in “Oliver Twist” or even the families of convenience in “Gran Torino” serve the same function: The image of community is a comfort, even when it’s a community of last resort or when the members are society’s outcasts.

Which brings us to “Milk.” If “Doubt” is a film that reflects awesome societal change, “Milk” is immersed in it. When Harvey Milk arrived in San Francisco in 1972, moviegoers could see “Deep Throat,” “Deliverance” and “The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie.” But they were also treated to one of the more famous family films of all time: “The Godfather,” in which those old-time values, however perverted, still held fast. Not so for Milk and the rest of the city’s gay community, who were joining an all-new kind of family — after, in many cases, being thrown out of their own.

The way that movies and TV have portrayed the family has long been viewed as unrealistic, and even anxiety-producing for those whose circumstances don’t meet the ideal. But this seems to be a phenomenon exclusive to visual media. The rest of American fiction has never had a problem with nontraditional families — see “Huckleberry Finn,” for example, whose hero is the motherless son of a drunken bum who is adopted by spinsters and prefers to be homeless. Who’s more Huck Finnish this year than Benjamin Button, who is abandoned as a baby, raised by people not of his race, grows up (or down, depending on how you look at it) in a home for old people and spends his life largely on water? As an American metaphor, Benjamin Button is as apt as any character in fiction because he never stops moving, never quite settles down and, like most modern inhabitants of this country, has a serious problem with aging. And, of course, family.

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