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Unstrung Heroes

Unstrung Heroes

1995. Directed by Diane Keaton. With John Turturro, Andie McDowell, Michael Richards, Nathan Watt


This movie is full of "home-movie" footage. Characters make a kind of fetish of filming each other with a small camera, and we see lots of what they have presumably shot. In fact, we're introduced to the Lidz family with some jerky film that the Dad supposedly took to document some of his experiments (he's an inventor). And at the end, the family lines up in front of a tripod, and we last see them waving at us in black-and-white, culminating in a freeze-frame, no less. (The story takes place in the 1960s.)

This generous use of films-within-the-film should probably be seen as part of the movie's reliance on the precious and the nostalgic. It's not simple nostalgia, though; it's what we might call complex nostalgia.

In Unstrung Heroes, a boy recalls the year in which his mother got sick and died. The extent to which he idolizes this lost mother is conveyed by the movie's frequently showing her in flickering black-and-white (awfully well lit and photographed for home movies) like a movie goddess? In the sequence at the end where Steven sits in the synagogue watching silent old movies of his beautiful mother, he looks like an adoring film fan at a Greta Garbo festival. This is memory, highly romanticized, and the one form of immortality every viewer recognizes.

Come to think of it, Steven's mother is a fantasy even when she's alive. She's hardly a flesh and blood mother at all. I don't know if it's just the casting or if the character is written this way (I think this was a novel first), but she is one of the most abstract, least nurturing mothers I can recall. Andie McDowell looks about as much like a Selma Lidz as I look like an Ingrid Petersson. She doesn't even try to play a maternal character. She has a flat, self-absorbed, somewhat out-of-it way about her, and she keep lapsing into a honeyed southern accent. McDowell hasn't the acting talent to make us believe that she has been married to the John Turturro character for a long time and has a history with his large family of brothers and sisters. And of course she dies an attractive movie death (from lung cancer!).

So if you wanted to make a movie about how a child who loses a Mother at an early age turns her, in his memory, into a fleshless divinity, this would be a clever way to do it. Cast an ethereal beauty, have her avoid any "motherly" activities like cooking or scolding, and arrange to film her in Golden-Age-of-Hollywood black-and-white as often as possible. Is this more interpretation than the material can bear?

(10/9/1996)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein