Tag Archives: mothers & sons

Conversaciones Con Mama (2004)

“Capitalism is making us all sick.”

Conversaciones Con Mama (Conversations with Mother), an Argentinean film from writer/director Santiago Carlos Oves is the story of a relationship between a middle-aged son and his elderly mother set against Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001.

Jamie (Eduardo Blanco) is an executive who suddenly finds himself without a job during the crisis. He has a middle-class lifestyle–a nice home, a wife and two children, and an elderly mother he supports. When the money crunch hits, Jamie’s wife, Dorita (Silvana Bosco) decides that the best course to take is to sell the apartment currently occupied by Jamie’s elderly mother (China Zorrilla), and then to help expenses, Jamie’s mother is supposed to move in to the now-disused maid’s room. Dorita and her mother pressure Jamie to approach his mother with the news.

When Jaime visits his mother, he finds her surprisingly stubborn on the issue of moving out. It’s not difficult to feel sympathy for Jaime. Played by actor Eduardo Blanco, he has one of those extremely flexible faces–a bit like Roberto Benigni, and it’s this very look that helps create empathy for Jamie–a man trapped on all sides by demanding women. Jamie’s mother is at first very elusive about any sort of move, and it’s difficult to tell just how much is dottiness and how much is avoidance. While she refuses to discuss the apartment, she focuses on the infrequency of Jamie’s visits, and the food she cooks for his visits that is wasted. It becomes clear that there’s no love between Jaime’s mother, Dorita and his mother-in-law. But the idea also appears that while Jaime’s life has gone on without his mother, her life has also developed. During their frequent conversations, she begins using words and phrases that catch Jamie’s attention, and then he discovers that she has a boyfriend.

When Jaime finally pins down his mother long enough to explain his financial dilemma, she refuses to move out of her apartment, citing the fact that her boyfriend, ‘retired anarchist’ Gregorio (Ulises Dumont), an elderly man who spends all day training and educating fellow seniors and protesting, is moving in with her. At first stunned by the news that his mother has a boyfriend, Jaime agrees to meet the new man in his mother’s life.

Argentina has produced a number of films illustrating the lives of individuals affected by the financial crisis, and most of these films concentrate on the minutiae of daily lives and the impact on relationships (Live-in Maid, Common Ground) . Conversaciones Con Mama is one of these films. It has its overly sentimental moments, but then it also has its largely understated scenes. At one point Jaime discovers that neither of his children are following the career paths planned by their parents. His son, for example, doesn’t want to a career in economics but instead he wants to be a tango dancer. At first, the response from the audience and from Jaime is skepticism, but then we see his son dance, and he’s really, really good. The idea seeps through the film that commodities aren’t what’s important–it’s people and their relationships that should be paramount consideration. This is an idea that becomes glaringly obvious to Jamie as he’s continually pressured by the status conscious Dorita to prise his mother out of her apartment. And this underscores the idea that due to the inauthenticity of capitalist values, independence is subsumed to materialism which then affects relationships and quality of life.

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The Spoils of Poynton (1970)

Henry James CollectionThis 1970 BBC version of the Henry James classic The Spoils of Poynton begins with houseguests Mrs Gereth (Pauline Jameson) and Fleda Vetch (Gemma Jones) meeting at Waterbath, the ostentatious home of Mrs Brigstock (June Ellis) and her daughter Mona (Diane Fletcher). The houseguests meet by accident as both women marvel at the bad taste of  the Brigstocks blatantly displayed through the various garish ornaments and stuffed birds that litter every corner of the house. Mrs Gereth tries to tease criticisms of the Brigstocks’ taste from Miss Vetch and confesses that she’s there to meet Mona, her son Owen’s (Ian Ogilvy) love interest.

Just as Mrs Gereth can’t stand the Brigstock’s decor, neither can she stand Mona, but the weak-willed Owen is too besotted with Mona to take any notice of his indomitable mother. The implication is that Owen would probably normally bend to his mother’s wishes, but in this instance he’s come under the spell of an equally formidable woman. Mrs Gereth is convinced that if Owen marries Mona, then Mona will ruin Poynton’s elegance by bringing her own appalling taste to the house.

Sensing that the delicate, introverted Miss Vetch has good taste, Mrs Gereth invites her to Poynton, one of two houses she owns, ostensibly to show her the house and its treasures. It’s soon clear that Miss Vetch loves Poynton and its contents with the same sort of reverence as Mrs Gereth–a woman who’s spent her lifetime collecting treasures for the house. But there’s another reason Mrs Gereth has invited Miss Vetch. Mrs Gereth acknowledges that when it comes to preserving Poynton she has a vicious streak, and her plan is to shove Miss Vetch  into Owen’s path and divert him from Mona.

The plan to sever Owen from Mona becomes an imperative after Mona’s visit to Poynton. Mona is there to visit before she gives Owen an answer to his recent marriage proposal, and this includes her assessment of Poynton as her possible future home.  While Mona makes suitable noises about Poynton’s grandeur she also lets slip plans for substantial change.

As the film’s title implies–a battle ensues over the Spoils of Poynton, and Owen’s affections become the battleground for Poynton and its contents. Owen’s desires fade into the background as his mother battles for ‘what’s best for Owen’ and that of course is coincidentally what’s best for her and will ensure that Poynton remains intact. Owen is like a ball tossed around by these three equally steely women–Mrs Gereth, Mona and even Miss Vetch although her mettle isn’t obvious until the plot develops.

This is a marvellous and sensitive story brought to life by an incredible screenplay and superb acting. All the subtle nuances of character and human motivation remain intact and at times as the struggle for power sways one way and then another, sympathies too shift. At first, Mrs Gereth seems just to be a selfish snob who places too much emphasis on possessions, but then it becomes clear that Poynton is a physical embodiment of the past life she shared with her husband. And this certainly explains why Poynton is more like a musuem than a home. Similarly, at first Mona is seen as just a loud-mouthed bossy woman who happens to have bad taste, and yet in her struggle for power and control of Owen, Mona is prepared to go just as far as necessary to win. And then there’s Miss Vetch–a woman who falls in love with a house but then seems strangely reticent when it comes to physical passion. Finally there’s Owen–a weak willed pliable man who remains largely confused and used by the passions, jealousy, steely moral decisions and seething desires of ownership that define the women in his life.

The Spoils of Poynton is part of the Henry James Collection.

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To See Paris and Die (1992)

“I don’t want to do it like humans.”

The iconic strong woman is a character often portrayed in Soviet & Russian cinema, and a strong woman is at the heart of Aleksandr Proshkin’s 1992 film To See Paris and Die.

Middle-aged, elegant and attractive Elena (Tatyana Vasilyeva) is an admirable, yet coldly driven character whose one ambition is to see her pianist son, Yuri (Dmitri Malikov) get to Paris. She will stop at nothing to achieve this, and is fully prepared to use whatever means she has at her disposal to achieve her ends.

While her son, Yuri attends the conservatory and spends endless hours practicing at a piano in their apartment, Elena plots his success, and she knows that talent alone isn’t going to get him to Paris. She works as a hostess in some swanky faux-ethnic restaurant in Moscow, and there dressed for the part, she shepherds important KGB officials and their guests as they enjoy lavish meals in a sumptuous setting. One of the restaurant’s frequent visitors is a young KGB officer who guides revolutionaries through Moscow, sleeping with them as part of the entertainment package. Another one of the restaurant patrons is a middle-aged bureaucrat who’s on a competition committee to select pianists for the Paris tour.

Elena plots her son’s success but she’s hampered by the arrival of a new neighbor, Evgeny. Crude, obnoxious and intrusive, Evgeny, a jockey, makes a sexual overture to Elena that is summarily rejected, and this sets a course of bitter revenge. Evgeny, however, is immediately popular with Elena’s other neighbour, and this division underscores Elena’s isolation and refinement. Elena’s struggle for Yuri’s success is also hampered by Yuri’s love for a young Jewish girl. While the girl is respectful of Elena and certainly doesn’t want to supplant her role of power and control, Elena is sure that the fact that her son wants to marry a Jew will bury his chances for Paris. Instead, Elena concocts ways to sabotage the romance and cultivates Yuri’s relationship with the KGB girl.

Elena’s character is revealed through her relationships with several men in her life. She prefers to be in control in these relationships–whether it’s her son, the accordion-playing bureaucrat, her shady ex-husband, or her former lover and artist Solodov. And while each of these men see a different side of Elena, there is never a hint of weakness.  Perhaps it is in her relationship with Solodov that Elena reveals more emotion and indecision. Even when Elena trades sex for favours, there’s never a hint that she’s humiliated or demeaned by men–it’s business, pure and simple. This all changes, however, with the arrival of the brutish Evgeny.

Some of the film’s best scenes occur in the cramped boarding house. Here, with a complete lack of privacy, neighbours are able to easily spy on each other, and Elena becomes convinced that Evgeny is a KGB spy. Elena is willing to use sex to further her goal, but it has to be on her terms, with her in control. She coldly metes out sexual favours, any hint of denigration is mollified by her total absence of emotional involvement. While Elena’s life is centered on her son’s success, she objectifies him, and drives him as hard as she drives herself, and in her treatment of Yuri she is merciless. In spite of her harshness, and her single-minded ambition to get Yuri to Paris, Elena is a sympathetic character. There are glimpses of humanity beneath her hard glittering exterior–her adoration of Edith Piaf for example. The film’s title: To See Paris and Die is significant. Elena’s ambition is to get Yuri to Paris, but she hasn’t planned beyond that. ‘Seeing Paris,’ is in many ways–at least to Elena–a symbolic, imaginative event. In her mind, she envisions Yuri there, and this vision leads to her destruction.

While the film is set in the 60s, two of the male characters, Yuri and the artist Solodov both have very 80s haircuts for some reason. I had to remind myself that this was the 60s in a couple of places. It isn’t easy to find a copy of this film, but if you are at all interested in Russian film, or the work of Proshkin, it’s well worth tracking down the excellent To See Paris and Die.

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Poor White Trash (2000)

 “You’re hotter than doughnut grease.”

The premise of the very funny comedy film Poor White Trash is that poor people have to resort to crime in order to maintain that American dream of sending their children to college. It’s a “Robin Hood kind of thing” with the have-nots taking from a corrupt society that includes the embezzling manager of a retirement home and a nasty fast food restaurant.

poor-white-trashCollege bound Michael Bronco (Tony Denman) and his nefarious chum Lenny Lake (Jacob Tierney) are caught stealing a six-pack of Near Beer from the local mini-mart, and as a result, Michael’s college plans seem destined for the toilet. An inept Public Defender bungles the case, and the lads realize they need a lawyer to get them out of the mess they’ve created. Lenny’s brilliant plan is to get his Uncle Ron (William Devane)–who owns the Land O’Law to represent them ‘pro-bono’ (Lenny says this is Spanish for ‘half-price’). Uncle Ron, “the best lawyer in town since he got out of jail” isn’t cheap, and so Michael and Lenny burglarize a neighbour’s trailer as a quick way to get cash. Soon the lads embark on a crime spree, and Michael’s mum, Linda (a deliciously cast Sean Young) forms an inept gang with Michael, Lenny, and Brian Ross (Jason London)–the son of the local sheriff (and Linda’s one-night stand).

Linda Bronco just wants to be a “normal mother,” but that’s not in the cards for this latter-day Ma Barker. In fact, there’s nothing normal in the entire film. Everyone lives in a trailer–even Uncle Ron–the legal eagle–who has made a formidable beer can sculpture garden to enhance his trailer’s attractiveness. And Uncle Ron has a pool–not quite the traditional idea of a pool–but a pool, nonetheless.

It’s the perfectly drawn characters in this film that make it so hilarious. Michael’s desire to be a psychologist runs as a standing joke, and Lenny treats his friend’s ideals with respect while noting “psychology causes people to have mental problems.” Michael’s dad is a pro-wrestler hoping for the cash to get a false eye–this is the one roadblock in scheduling a grudge match with an opponent. William Devane as sleazy lawyer Ron Lake plays the role to perfection–the clothes, the swagger, the jewelry–and don’t forget his t-shirt slogans–all add up to the lawyer who practices law with the intent of getting away with what he can. Ron Lake’s nymphette wife–the manipulative and grasping Sandy (Jaime Pressly) is the perfect complement to Ron.

But my favourite character of all the great characters in this film has to be Lenny Lake. His one-liners, antics, and faulty logic–along with the looks he casts–simply make this film one of my all-time favourite comedies. Poor White Trash is crude at times, has no socially redeeming values, and no moral message, but the film doesn’t compromise on laughs. The script is deceptively clever and moves along rapidly from the first hilarious scene at the mini-mart right up to the finale. From director Michael Addis.

Favourite lines:
“It ain’t your job to execute shoplifters.”

“I am not robbing some place with my mother.”

“For your information, my life is in the toilet.”

“You’re grounded–with the exception of your trial.”

“If you use the word angst in prison, you’ll have a five car pile up on your Hershey highway.”

“Sometimes the best way to deal with depression is to drink.”

“Disrespect me, and I’ll break it off and beat you with it.”

“Anyone fucks with us, they’ll be eating hot rifle grease.”

“Mikie, I’m a bad mother. Go to college, get good grades and write to me in jail.”

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Spanking the Monkey (1994)

“This is the most disorganized household.”

Pre-med student, Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies), comes home during the summer for a few days. He’s due to go onto Washington for a prestigious internship at the Surgeon General’s office. When he arrives home, his dad–a traveling salesman–abruptly tells Raymond that he has to stay home and nurse his mother. She has a compound fracture and is bed-bound. Raymond’s protests fall on deaf ears. Raymond’s selfish and controlling father seems to think that Raymond can just pick up the internship another time. So Raymond is stuck at home with his mother while his dad hits the road.

The film Spanking the Monkey is a perfect example of Tolstoy’s quote from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Aibelli family–to use a well-worn phrase–is a dysfunctional family. On the outside, they seem quite rather average, but in the confines of their home ….

Raymond’s father is free of his family while he takes these extended sales trips. He has freedom of movement, but he also dumps the whole ‘family man’ routine. His wife, on the other hand, is literally stuck in bed, and Raymond is stuck taking care of her. But the situation is far worse than that–both Raymond and his mother are prisoners of the rules laid down for them–these rules include strict use of the car and regulations regarding the dog’s exercise. Why both the mother and the son obey such intricate and pointless rules is a testament to the family dynamic they are engaged in. No one rocks the boat–no one frankly disobeys, and as a result, they all suffer.

On top of Raymond’s dashed dreams of the internship (and his sacrifice is largely ignored), he struggles with questions about his masculinity from former high school friends, and even the 16 year-old daughter of a neighbouring psychiatrist questions Raymond’s feelings towards girls.

Spanking the Monkey deals with issues of independence–all three members of the Aibelli family view each other as roles–rather than as individuals, and they each fail to see each other’s unhappiness. While the father maintains some sort of rogue male status, both Raymond’s mother and Raymond are cast into roles that deny individual need. It’s no real shock that Raymond’s selfish father should imagine that he rates above everyone else, but Raymond and his mother also fail to accept each other as individuals. For this summer, Raymond exists to nurse his mother, and she exists as a weight around his neck. There’s virtually no privacy, and they are stuck in trapped intimacy. Spanking the Monkey is the biggest argument I’ve seen for why children need space of their own. The film may sound bleak and depressing, but the dilemmas faced by the characters are laced with irony and black humour, and the film, ultimately is engaging and insightful. If you haven’t seen the film and are interested in the subject matter, I recommend it highly. From writer/director David O. Russell.

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