The Family Perspective

Sometimes re-examining films and fiction through a different lens opens up new interpretations and deepens appreciation. While looking for subtext, intentional and unintentional, may seem like a good deal of work for little pay-off, it can provoke surprising and worthwhile connections—or one might just end up with such trains of thought as: “Is Superman faster than The Flash?” or “Why can Goofy talk and not Pluto?”

For the sake of argument, let’s take a look at one  lens for examining contemporary film and fiction—the family—and see if we can get the ball rolling. Family and genre? For many the connection doesn’t immediately come to mind, but one  only has to recall Darth Vader’s proclamation, “Luke, I am your father!” and the stage is set.

So why the family?

First, we can all identify with the concept. Even if we come from a dysfunctional grouping, we can immediately empathize with the members of such a unit.

Consider Norman Bates and his mother, Norma. Before her untimely death, the woman attempted to shield her son from the outside world, especially from the corruption of women. Projecting onto all females her own failings, she instilled in her boy such a violent loathing that he was unable to resist giving into his mother’s personality when confronted with sexual urges. While no one will question the unhealthiness of this mother-son relationship, it immediately resonates with anyone who has ever felt smothered by a parent and shamed for urges outside that family’s acceptable system of values.

Another reason seeing genre from a family perspective is so useful is that the family is a breeding ground for conflict. Even the most  ideal unit has potential to explode.  It isn’t hard to imagine the perfect father rocking back and forth in his favorite chair, hands dripping with blood after snapping on a Sunday afternoon.

Look at the sisters in the undervalued horror film, Ginger Snaps. Ginger and Brenda are close in ways most would consider unhealthy, but their continued dependence is also a source of strength for these two outsiders, and admirable to an audience. We could argue the deepest horror in the film isn’t provided by the usual werewolf or horror film tropes, but by the threat the supernatural presents to the sisters’ relationship. The pain they inflict on one another is more profound than any other emotional goal set by the film makers.

Lastly, the family lens feels natural. We are by nature social animals and the family is our first grouping. We feel comfortable and safe within its bosom. It doesn’t matter what form a family takes. People of different ages and backgrounds  can come together and create a unit for self-validation.

If we stop and think about several of the most successful genre films in the last year or so, peering at them through the family filter, it opens up interesting discussion. Rethink the use of family relationships and the possible statements made, even those expressed unintentionally, in Paranormal Activity II, Let Me In, The Last Exorcism, and Avatar . Give pause to how each uses family dynamics to create tension and develop character and  theme.

It’s just a lens, just a way of experiencing literature and film. Maybe it’s a conceit. Or maybe looking beyond the initial impressions brings the reader and writer closer and  deepens the experience.

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