Someone Has Daddy Issues
In the days and weeks before my impromptu “Family Council” with my eight-year-old son, I hadn’t done everything right, but then again if life was perfect nobody would need Family Councils, would they? My shortcoming, in this case, was — and isn’t this the way it always goes — I simply had allowed myself to become spread a tad thin, and hadn’t allocated enough time for the boy. This was foreseen and unavoidable. But before I knew it, here was this boy who was my son, whom I hadn’t spent a night under my roof since before Christmas, and already we’re six days into the New Year. That’s two major holidays gone forever. So at ten o’clock I picked him up, and we made a day out of it. With nothing penned in on the calendar, and with a whole weekend in front of us in the dead of winter, what better thing to do than go to the movies?
So with one rug rat — just one — thirty-five clams go sailing out the window. We went to see the flagship of the family-movie-genre that is out right now, which happens to be “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” sequel to some other movie neither one of us had seen and about which neither one of us particularly cared. It was loaded with sight gags to provide amusement for the pre-teen set, and tastefully garnished with a couple of over-the-toe-head tidbits for the benefit of the parents.
Guess what? The really big problem of the story was the conflict raging between two dads. The daddy figures were messing up everything for everybody by actually behaving like dads, and it was up to the women and kids and dogs and mice to straighten ‘em out.
Gee whiz, how refreshing. I wonder where we’ve seen that before.
You know, I’m just chock full o’patience when it comes to watching the world spin all wobbly on its axis and waiting for it to straighten out, but underneath my roof the time had come for us to have a little bit of a father-son conference. Here we were with fairly insignificant personal foibles — a little too much time apart, right before the pinewood derby race. Hollywood was imposing on us its own “Daddy Issues,” which seem to be one notch shy of driving Hollywood up a water tower with a high-powered rifle. And just as frosting on the cake, Hollywood was playing amateur psychiatrist, lecturing to us how we needed to straighten out.
It’s enough to make one want to jump into the movie screen and yell at whoever’s on the other side “EXCUSE me, out here in real-world land we happen to like fathers who care enough about their kids to be involved, committed and concerned. We don’t see them as villains, problems, doofuses, dorks, comedy relief, stupid idiots, numbskulls, boneheads or bad guys.”
So we made a list. A list of movies with dorky dads. Just to make sure we covered everything, we went on FARK and enlisted the help of anyone there, to help flesh things out. The FARK community was pretty enthusiastic about this, many among the membership being dads themselves, who had noticed the issue and been wondering “Is It Just Me, Or…?” I set the goal of the list at a hundred movies, and volunteered “Cheaper by the Dozen 2″ for Slot #1 on the list. Man, FARK is great. What amazing energy.
Now as the list began to flesh out, two things happened, both in my living room and inside FARK. One, we both began to see the problem wasn’t quite so much doofus dads, it was something a little bit darker that required us to modify the criteria for the list. It seems you can’t move a story along in a movie, even in a light-hearted comedy movie, without a really, huge, glaring problem. The problem has got to be somewhat, or completely, out of control of everyone — at least out of control of the “good guys.” Without that you don’t have a plot. Our criteria gradually evolved to include any movie where The Problem depended upon the undesirable behavior of Dad — the protagonist’s dad, the central-character’s dad, the hero’s dad, or the dad of someone who is simply a marginal but sympathetic character.
Therein lies the problem, or at least, the subject matter that receives our focused interest. You have an umbra zone of movies that are family comedies, wherein Dysfunctional Dad is actually the star; and the plot is, Dad figures out he’s a stupid idiot jackass who is messing everything up. The credits roll after the happy ending, in which, at the insistence of Mom, his kids, maybe his own parents, and/or some magical woodland creatures, he figures out the only solution to the problem is to stop being Dad. Lighten up, be a pal, go away, or lighten-up-be-a-pal-go-away. After that, life is perfect and wonderful, Hatfields and McCoys hug, there are rainbows, mullahs and rabbis play jump rope and hopscotch in the street.
Then there is a penumbra zone involving different genres, some of them scary, with a bushy-hair-stranger running around carving people up. Or maybe the genre is the classic action/adventure, with helicopter crashes, cars falling off bridges, ninjas — sharks with freakin’ lasers on their heads. Or, it’s simply a family drama that isn’t even supposed to be funny. But there’s still a plot involving something going wrong, with a dysfunctional Dad messing up everything he touches, kind of a King Midas in reverse.
Both of these zones remain fairly restrictive. You would think it would be hard to find too much box office material falling within them. You would be wrong. Hollywood seems unable to turn out anything outside of them.
I began to wonder if we were making the wrong list. Maybe it would be quicker to make a list of movies that do not qualify.
The other thing that happened, was that I was pleasantly surprised at the mental resources my son was able to marshall toward this evolving project. He almost became a pest! “Dad! What about…” and then there would follow something of which I would never have thought, not in a thousand years. “Kicking and Screaming.” What is that? I had never seen it. He gave me a very thorough run-down of the plot, and oh, boy, did that ever sound like part of the problem. Okay, in it goes.
“Dad, you forgot The Great Santini!” Oh, calm down. We didn’t watch the whole movie, and even if we did it’s almost tame enough to show to an eight-year-old, by today’s standards. I became obliged to rent it after I described the cream-of-mushroom-soup scene at the beginning, and I’m glad I did. That’s comedy gold right there. But Bull Meecham is a Doofus Dad if ever there was one.
By the time we had trouble thinking of more things to add, I must say, I was a little bit creeped out. Something is going on here. What makes me wince with a little bit of discomfort, going over this mosaic, is the resurfacing again and again of certain patterns. Like, for example, can someone please tell me what in the hell is going on with Christmas? What’s up with Dad in the Christmas movies? Are we going after the “gotta visit the relatives for the holidays even though I don’t want to” movie market? Or has some executive anticipated that kids are just a little bit more bratty that time of year, and it’s the right season to drive a wedge?
Certain faces also bubble to the surface in this homemade movie stew, many more times than what would make me feel comfortable. The Governor of my state, for example, seems to have had some pressing need to churn out this kind of product, as does Chevy Chase. And…Steve Martin. And…Robin Williams. What’s going on with you guys? Did Dad take your car keys away one too many times? Take the door off your bedroom after he caught you smoking grass? By the time you’re in your fifties & sixties, you know…y’ever think about maybe getting over it, once and for all?
I mean, it’s not like your childhood issues are affecting much. Just a highly volatile, reliable-as-a-bouncing-football, bazillion-dollar-a-year career in the most lucrative occupation ever known to man.
Is it a political agenda? I doubt it. Or perhaps it is, but only in the sense that when kids panhandle money from their parents to go to the movies, it’s the nature of the mom to beef up the budget for this outing, and for the dads to ratchet it back down again. If that is the case, it would just make good business sense for Hollywood to get the word out, that Dad just isn’t cool. Help Mom win the argument. Hey, our liberals just love to remind us over and over again than when greedy, profiteering, private enterprises have too much control over our personal lives, bad things happen. They’re right. And I see no reason why Hollywood shouldn’t come under the umbrella of greedy, profiteering, private enteprrises. Not here.
But there is more than social engineering going on. There’s also the matter of telling a decent story. You can’t have a compelling plotline, even in a little kid’s movie, without some suspense, and the maintenance of authoritarian structure is the antithesis of suspense. So it just naturally follows that some kind of an attack will have to be engineered against authority, and the patriarch is the entity most closely associated with authority throughout human history.
And yes, there is political correctness. But think for a minute about the alternative. What if Momma is the one out-of-control, messing things up for everybody, either intentionally or not? See, unless you’re making a movie that is off-the-deep-end dark, that just doesn’t work. That would be “Mommy Dearest” (1981), suitable only as an “Other-People’s-Problems” movie, so popular during the early eighties, not so much now. Not a date movie. Definitely not a kid’s movie.
See, when Mom is out of control this way, you’re stuck with her. That is the REAL problem. When Dad does things you don’t want him to do, you can always get Mom to dump his sorry ass and get him replaced. So even though we all know Dad’s going to shape up before the final credits roll, and realize how wrong he had been all the way through, there never was a real problem because in Hollywood, fathers are accessories. Mommy is the engine, Daddy is like a windshield wiper or beverage holder or seat belt hook. You’ve got a real problem when something goes wrong with the engine. When an accessory acts up, off to the pick-n-pull you go. No big.
So it’s a kinda-sorta problem. An itty-bitty problem. A dull-roar-in-the-background pain-in-the-ass, not a major catastrophe. Just the perfect thing to provide the suspense and plot in a feel-good, family movie. Something has come loose and started to rattle around in an accessory, which, if it’s too bad of a problem — just keep this in the back of your mind — there is always a quick fix.
Then there is the matter of personal issues, both on the matter of the person making the film and the person going in to watch it. Moviemakers are human like anyone else. Walt Disney himself was said to have spent his childhood in a rural, farm setting, with strict parenting controls in place that tended to discourage his artistic leanings. The list churned out by my son and me, so much longer at the end of the project than it was at the beginning, has a disturbing strain of Disney movies popping up here and there throughout.
What of the audience? It has often been said that people go to movies to escape the exigencies of real life. Well, as stated above, Dad is a manifestation of authority, and certainly authority is one of those exigencies. Do people not want to escape Mom’s authority as well? There’s actually a timeless saying named after Mom, “time to cut the apron strings,” and another one, “cutting the cord.” It would fit…but there is one major problem. You don’t feel good about yourself when you’re trying to get away from your mother. Dumping Dad? It’s been a fantasy of literature since the time of the ancient Greeks. Zeus killed Cronus, and Cronus overthrew Uranus. You might say we’re genetically wired to displace our dads. But leave Mom’s nest? Aw…that might hurt her. We all have that voice going off somewhere in the back of our heads, “you never call, you never write.”
There may be a lot of other things going on here. Not all of them have to do with some insidious politically-correct plot to eradicate dads, and/or render their societal role irrelevant. But the point is, all these motivations have one thing in common: They are misguided. Where there are dysfunctional Dads, the motivations have very, very little to do with making him functional again.
Hey Hollywood. You make zillions of dollars through your creativity, while we slave away for our weekly bag o’peanuts, building up our reservoir of fatigue that is going to translate into more money in your pocket as soon as that Friday work whistle blows and we yell Yabba Dabba Doo. You are an oasis of creativity in our society that is a desert of drudge. How about, just to shake things up…being creative? For once?