ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

imagesI read a book once that explained an interesting thing about the psychology of group dynamics. That is, to truly know someone in the context of a group, you must also know their relationship to everyone else in that group. It’s not enough to memorize a list of faces and characteristics. To really know your fellows, you have to also grasp their relationships to all others in your group; a task which becomes exponentially more difficult as more members are added. This explains, so the theory goes, why groups in hunter-gatherer societies tend to break off once they’ve reached a certain number of people, or why teams in research and development are optimal at similar numbers. There’s some food for thought in this theory, in the implication that even in our most intimate of groups- our immediate families- our relationships are defined largely by our loved ones relationships with one another. And what then, if by some tragic occurrence, this balance were to be upended?

The Jarretts, the ordinary people of the title, are an affluent family still grieving over the loss of older son Buck, who was killed in a boating accident several months before. The film centers largely on Conrad, who by surviving the tragic incident went from being “the other son” to “the other son, who didn’t die”. Home from a stay in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt, he attempts to resume his old life at school and relationship with his parents, Beth and Calvin. Unfortunately, his emotional detachment, punctuated by episodes of anger and frustration, prevents this.

It’s an emotional detachment that his mother seems to echo in her every move. I had a visceral reaction to the character of Beth in this film, played by Mary Tyler Moore. I’ll admit it – people who are emotionally withholding terrify me. I once had a friend tell me it’s whoever emotes the least, who shows as little as possible of cards held, that holds the most power. She’d regularly sit with people silently until they spoke, even when the two of them were having a disagreement. I hate this, I find myself revolting against this – and Beth’s character has this in spades. When Calvin, her husband, tries to bring up anything emotional or anything “messy,” as he eventually deems it, she balks. She claims he can’t move on. She seems to hate displays of weakness or shortcoming. We see her character shine in the socialite party scene – that is until she overhears her husband mention their son’s visits to a psychiatrist to a friend. It unravels her – and as a viewer, I wondered at this. Was it a reaction to what she honestly considered a violation of the family’s privacy, which in fact it was – or her own inability to deal with the blow her reputation might suffer as a result? One I could stand. The other I found appalling.

A key to characterization in the scene where a tipsy Calvin mentions that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist: Beth cites it as a violation of the family’s privacy, not Conrad’s specifically and doesn’t indicate any concern for his feelings. She doesn’t seem to have a means to cope with her son’s death other than keeping up appearances and resenting Conrad for being a living reminder of the son she’ll never have back. It’s like she’s sacrificing the family she has now in favor of the memory of the family she lost. There scenes where Conrad and Beth interact are excruciating, so far removed that it sounds like they’re reading dialogue from different scenes. When Calvin is in the scene, he is stuck playing the role of referee.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, deserves mention too. Though Conrad is at first adversarial toward him, Berger helps him manage his pain. Driven by the deteriorating state of his family, Calvin eventually sees Berger as well. At a crucial point, Calvin suggests to Beth that the three of them see Berger together. She refuses to consider this, favoring golf vacations (without Conrad) as a means to heal.

It did creep me out, though, that the psychiatrist at one point assures Conrad that he is his friend. He does so when Conrad comes to him desolate, in extreme crisis – but still, I know enough about boundaries to know that a mental health professional shouldn’t refer to themselves as your friend while hugging you. His character is critical to the plot development, though, and the viewer definitely comes to really like him.  He kind of reminded me of Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, with Conrad serving in a role similar to Matt Damon’s. Often we seek out the family we don’t get at birth in our mentors and adult role models – it seems Conrad certainly does. It is also heartening to see how much he grows to respect and appreciate the positive role therapy can play in his life.

In the end, Beth can’t stay – she no longer fits in the family, can’t cope with the loss of Buck, and returns to her childhood home in Texas. This is sad even if you don’t like her character – to see love fail due to blown capacity tugs at your heart. The final scene, though, shows Conrad and Calvin connecting and reaffirming their love. Its perseverance throughout this film underscores just what ordinary people go through and are capable of.

No, this is not a realistic depiction of therapy. But at least it’s not Freudian analysis and Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequences, which was probably closer to how a lot of people probably pictured the the field at the time.

Revisiting Ordinary People, I experienced the opposite effect as when I watch our last movie, Rain Man. When I first watched it, I was still an angry, brooding young man. And man, could I relate to Conrad. Now that age has mellowed me ever so slightly, and I’ve shed my youthful romanticization of intense sadness, I watch the movie just a little differently. Still, there’s quite a lot to like. It’s an affecting story, and the film really makes use of it’s location shooting to place that story in a hauntingly beautiful suburban autumn. The sparse incidental music only enhances the tone.

One thing I’m still trying to figure out is the title. Is it deliberately ironic? Maybe people who live in mansions and go sailboating for fun are considered ordinary in other towns, but not mine.

Next Film: GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)

*****

Before we finish this entry, we at Red Carpet Roulette would like to make note of the passing of Roger Ebert. While we are not film critics, a debt is owed nonetheless. I personally always enjoyed hearing what he had to say about movies. Reading the things he wrote (particularly his great article on Taxi Driver) taught me that the cinematic experience needn’t be a choice between joyless academic snobbery or two hours of simple diversion.

Rest in peace, Ebert. Try to get along with Siskel.

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