So it’s probably no secret if you’ve ever asked me about Ordinary People, but here it is: I always cry at some point in the film, and yet I always find different moments. Admittedly this last weekend it was no different. I can try to cover up my vulnerability and say: hey uh you know it was um, a tough weekend and uh, you know I had other stuff going on and oh man, you know, just some of my own insecurities were coming to a head, and like I was projecting, you know it was more me and some of my own issues. Still it was really none that, and yet the eyes welled up again. Seriously every time.
I guess I always had it in my mind that everyone I know is at some point the embodiment of Conrad Jarrett, probably more than any other literary character. Feeling lost, ignored and the worthlessness of life; but we are pretty intellectual about it and we balance our angst with affably distancing commentaries and jokes. We are in a constant state of battle for what we think are deserved amounts of recognition we need from those that we admire. Maybe we will learn more than we think from Donald Sutherland about admiration and disappointments. There are moments inside us that happen while watching Robert Redford’s Ordinary People that feels close to home in any, no, in every American home. It’s unlike almost every other movie, the tag-line is like a challenge to the audience to just try to disassociate with the film. “there are some movies your watch, others you feel.” It’s honestly not our fault that we become part of the Jarretts’ emotional plight. We are try so hard with them, emotionally squirming, repositioning on our couch; and like a little kid again, playing a video game using our body to will Mario safely over the flying turtles, press B to jump while our heads nod up and back down in synchronization. We try to will the on-screen relationships to back to life with the same intensity of those little childlike squirms and nods.
It’s kind of an odd sensation to grow and connect with a film differently based on different points in your life. Sure you may watch Seinfeld now and you get way more of the jokes than when you were in high school, but to me this is different from that, I can honestly make the following statement without a stammer or stutter. Ordinary People is so personal and touching that I have grown emotionally and actually feel more human and closer to people because of it, not once, but multiple times.
When I saw the movie the first time I was probably about 19, and my emotional experience at that time was tied to two things. First, the intensity of Conrad and Dr. Bergers’ therapy sessions. This was a first for me to see something so emotionally strong and simple like this in a film. Now after multiple watches, Judd Hirsch’s performance feels more and more like a sitcom therapist, but these moments are filmed in such a personal way, as with most of the film, to almost try to make the audience feel intrusive on these lives. More so my connection as a 19 year old, was to the distance and desire for love and approval Conrad felt with his mom, and the similarities I felt with her incessant need to keep up appearances. So yeah I guess like any 19 year old, I was having some mother issues.
When I was was about 24, the connection had changed. I understood the distance and inability to move on after losing a family member. I understood not knowing how to go about life again. My father had died about a year before to esophageal cancer. It happened so fast it was like it wasn’t happening. We had bits of hope then things got worse and then smaller bits of hope and even worse and then all again. Even though this was merely weeks not years, I had felt so relieved about him moving from what his life had become, that I didn’t even think to worry or care about what pains I was going to have to now deal with. So after Buck dies in the boating accident, the way the family was portrayed as a group all falling into different stages of grief, so far so, that they fall apart from each other so completely, felt so devastating and honest that it was like it was written for everyone who goes through this to learn from.
“Anyway,” I’ve been working on that transition for a while now. Last weekend as my wife and I watched Ordinary People, I was struck more by Donald Sutherland’s character. His determination, they way he holds it all together despite his feelings of helplessness. His son Buck is gone, his other son Conrad is a mess and just needs a love he can’t give, and he can’t understand why his wife won’t give that attention to Conrad. He stays so strong and wise and easy about it all, he tries so hard and is the heart of the failing mother-father-son dynamic. And then, Does it matter what shirt you wear to your sons funeral?
We would have been all right if there hadn’t been any mess.