Friday, 17 September 2010

Thickened Water

nWhile I was staying at my parent's home over the Idul Fitri holiday, my father and I engaged in the sort of armchair philosophy so typical of adults who have relatively few hardships directly affecting them. One comment made by my father captured my thoughts; likely because a similar train had already been lurking there for some time. He quoted someone (possibly a philosopher who actually had an office to work out of) who said something about life's best purpose being to reproduce. My father seemed to have some disdain for the notion that this is all there is and we had a brief debate on the subject, drinking tea, eating dates, my legs definitely being propped up on the furniture - they almost always are when I'm at home. My contention being that to nurture another human life, rather than to reproduce one, might possibly be the highest purpose there is. I have fewer than half the years my father has, but the advent of my son was a transformative episode in my life. Things being what they were, a great deal of his care giving was left to me. Our codependency has remained steadfast, and while I am happy for the odd break, it only takes a few days without him before my thoughts start to drift toward a strange pointlessness hanging in the air.

Mother and Child

My selection of new films to watch rarely has anything to do with being attracted to a certain type of story or genre, and usually has everything to do with the people involved in its production, most significantly directors, scriptwriters and actors. Last night I had the opportunity to sit down to the above title written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia and starring Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and a name only vaguely familiar to me; Kerry Washington. What had piqued my curiosity the most was Garcia's involvement, having sat with quiet fascination through the first season of HBO's In Treatment, an Israeli programme adapted for English speaking audiences by Garcia. The minimalist aspect of the show - each episode is simply the same psychoanalyst interviewing a different one of his patients - made its stealthy power all the more impressive, and I was surprised by how addictive it became.

The theme running through Mother and Child is adoption. I have a fixed opinion on this matter, that being that more people should adopt and that all the many expensive tools medical science now has at its disposal should only be considered after attempts to adopt have failed. And indeed, if a couple is not able to secure an adoption given the inexhaustible number of deserving cases out there, one wonders whether they are right for parenthood. However, I take it that in the developed world the terms of an adoption can be rigorous, so perhaps that last comment is unfair. Surprisingly, for myself, every adult whom I've ever broached the subject with has an opposing view to mine. This strong need to leave a genetic imprint lying around after you're gone, or have the family name carried on, is one whose reason escapes me. Nature versus nurture is something I'm not qualified to discuss, but I can't help think that the most important and rewarding part of child rearing is time spent together when you are able to impart your own flawed wisdom on another human being. Obviously I can't speak for all the women who say childbirth was the most joyous occasion of their lives, but any male friend I've spoken to, interested in starting a family, has also had this strange urge to create a miniature replica of himself. And such is the attitude of one of the male characters in the film in question.

What are the things we value the most in our increasingly global society? Knowledge, power, success, fame. Like precious metals, the more difficult something is to attain, the more we praise its worth, whereas to invest oneself in family has a mundane ring to it, despite the fact that there is almost always no small amount of hard work and sacrifice involved.

Two of the female leads in Mother and Child, as played by Bening and Watts, live lives that are defined by a single tragic act. Bening's character having given up Watts's for adoption at the age of fourteen. Neither women can live normal lives because of the mutual loss incurred. Neither of them have the ability to form lasting relationships, whereas Bening's character, now approaching middle age, is beginning to realize that hers is no way to live a life. Watts, on the other hand, is determined to be so independent as to be downright cruel to the innocent bystander who might attempt entry into her personal life. Maybe because they are both attractive and successful women, they are not short of men willing to take up the initially unrewarding challenge. Jimmy Smits plays one of Bening's coworkers who is remarkable in his kindness and patience towards her, and it would seem that he must have spotted something deeper lurking beneath her facade of anti-socialism to take such pains to learn more about her.

Washington is a mother desperately seeking to adopt, and one who deserves to be rewarded. This rich tableaux of characters as painted with dexterous elegance by Garcia also includes Samuel L. Jackson and Cherry Jones in pivotal roles. While this method of using a large number of characters whose lives overlap in one way or another can often be gimmicky, Garcia has managed to utilize every actor to good effect, and there doesn't appear to be a moment of wasted dialogue.

The film ostensibly has some of the hallmarks of a crowd-pleasing tearjerker, but it runs far deeper than that, observing the motives and ramifications of adoption. Instead of delivering easy answers, Garcia has stepped back a little from his characters to be non-judgmental; acknowledging them as regular people, warts and all. When the battered lives of all three women finally intersect, after much bitterness and false hope, what transpires is not a plot pay-off so to speak, although it may seem as though it steps outside the harsh reality which preceded it a little, possibly to offer a picture of what is possible when our societal boxes come in more adjustable sizes.

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