The Savages and the Theatre of Estrangement
January 2, 2008
With apologies to our saladeer-in-chief I, Dr. Haverstam, will be making my return by way of yet another review of a picture show. Thankfully, however, we will make mention of Weimar culture (Gott zu dank) and I will make a New Year’s resolution to return to my twice-a-week form (b’li neder).
The Savages is a family drama about two estranged siblings, Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who reconnect in order to provide for their father who has come down with dementia. We never really learn their back story, nor do we really know exactly how and why their father was abusive and their mother (not in the picture) neglectful. And yet all of the baggage between Wendy and Jon (and between each of them and their father) is palpable, fleshed out by the way in which the two lapse into old roles and destructive behavior in the present. They undermine one another, seek love where it is not forthcoming, and are ultimately failing emotionally as well as financially. Ultimately, we know much about the Savage family history because of two superb performances by two incredibly talented actors and a judicious use of dialogue.
Like many disaffected and abused, both Wendy and Jon (is there a Peter Pan reference here?) are deeply engaged in the world of theater – Jon is a comparative literature professor who teaches courses on drama and is rushing to publish a new book on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy is a failed playwright who fears her work is whiny, middle class, and bourgeois. She uses a temp job to steal office supplies and apply for the Guggenheim and other such grants. Both are emotionally insecure and unhealthy. Jon’s Polish girlfriend is forced to return to Poland because her visa is expiring and Jon, at 42, cannot commit to marrying her. Wendy, at 39, is having an affair with a middle-aged married man who lives in her building. She takes anti-depressants and loves her cat and her lover’s dog more than anyone or anything else. An animal’s love is unconditional and easily earned.
On the one hand the movie is a salient look at the graying of America and the politics and economics of caring for elders. Jon and Wendy cannot afford to pay for luxury assisted living facilities and must come to terms with the more basic services provided by a nursing home in Buffalo. But what we know and feel about Lenny Savage, the father, is ultimately made ambiguous by his dementia and is unimportant. The death of the elder is much like the manicured grounds of the upscale assisted living facility Wendy attempts to scam her father into – both are really about the child and what it does to/for them.
In the end this is no family drama in the conventional sense. Both Jon and Tamara Jenkins, the film’s writer/director, are students of Bertolt Brecht, the German pioneer of modernist drama. Brecht (1898-1956) pioneered the so-called verfremdungseffekt or theater of alienation. The audience is never allowed to become overly involved with the characters emotionally, but rather is forced to remain removed and thus able to rationally judge their behavior. There is no dramatic climax, no catharsis and no real denouement to speak of. In the wake of their father’s death both Jon and Wendy take certain positive steps in making progress both emotionally and professionally, but certain behaviors are too entrenched to simply be overturned. There is an emotional realism to the family dynamic as it is portrayed here that is incredibly compelling.
At the very moment when Jon receives the call that his father is back in the hospital for what will be the last time he is teaching his class about the difference between dramatic theater and Brecht’s method. He hangs up the phone and takes a question from a student who asks him if he can explain the difference between plot, listed on the side of conventional drama, and narrative, listed under Brecht’s epic theater. The film, as one critic aptly put it, could well give you the answer. When all is said and done the strength of such a method is its weakness as well. What the movie lacks in story it makes up for in character development. What we lack in empathy for the Savages is what allows us to judge them appropriately. Is this a good movie? It all depends on where you hang your hat.