It’s Fathers Day [weekend], that one special occasion to give a few moments of our attention (at least) to the Dads in our lives and extend to them a few tokens of our thanks for the role they’ve had in making us the people that we are. As a father of four young adults myself, I’m grateful to be on this side of the equation, having seen each of them turn out to be pretty cool and impressive people on their own terms, if I can say so myself! Of course, some of the greatest films ever made have a lot to say about the functions and foibles of fatherhood. Here’s a list of ten fatherly archetypes that I’ve selected from my past year-and-a-half of watching Criterion DVDs:
1. Nanook of the North – The Primordial Father
When it comes to being a dad, there’s nothing more basic to the role than providing for your family’s basic sustenance. Putting food on the table, bringing home the bacon- or in this case, blubber – it’s what dads do! So what better place to start this list of Top Ten Criterion Dads with the oldest feature in the collection, Nanook of the North? Nanook shows the world how it’s done: he’s a hunter (though not much of a gatherer since there’s precious little to gather in that frozen wasteland they call home), a builder (whipping together a nice cozy igloo on a moment’s notice as the sun begins to set and a winter storm approaches) and a master at the art of packing up the family for a trip (you’ll be amazed at how he loads up his kayak!)
2. The Fatal Glass of Beer – The Lamenting Father
Dads often have to endure the bitter disappointment of seeing their children go astray, rejecting the lessons of their youth to go make their own foolish way in the world, only to come back flat broke, aimless and needy. Such was the case of Mr. Snavely, holed up in his sparse Yukon cabin with the good Mrs. Snavely, huddling together in blizzard conditions that “ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” After years of pining away, wondering what’s become of their dear son Chester, they finally get their chance to re-enact the story of the Prodigal Son – and fail! – yielding utterly hilarious results.
3. My Man Godfrey – The Slow-Burning Father
Speaking of hilarious, there’s nothing I find funnier than a frustrated, pent-up dad straining to manage the outburst of emotions that adversity of whatever sort stirs up. Despite his family’s great wealth and social prestige (or more likely, because of it), Alexander Bullock can barely contain his astonishment at the ludicrous antics of his over-indulged daughters, his dithering, perpetually distracted wife, or her parasitic protege’/boy-toy Carlo, who run roughshod over his upscale Park Avenue household while his financial holdings fall into ruin. Mr. Bullock finally snaps, chewing out his family and grabbing a tray full of cocktails from the butler Godfrey. About to leave the madhouse scene, he barks out one last order: “I’ll be in my room. You can repeat this order in thirty minutes!”
4. Mr. Arkadin – The Protecting Father
Dads who have the mixed blessing of parenting a beautiful-but-headstrong daughter understand the pressures that come with the territory, especially if the family is rich. In her impulsiveness and drive for independence, she’s as likely as anything to attract the wrong kind of guy, and if she has a bit of a rebellious streak in her, she might just find herself getting more deeply involved than we think she ought, merely to prove she can do things her way. With so much at risk, who can blame a father for taking extra measures to keep tabs on his little princess, just to make sure things don’t get too far out of hand? Gregory Arkadin serves as an extreme role model for the over-protective dad. He dispatches undercover spies to track his lovely daughter Raina as she zigzags all over Europe on her unlimited allowance, looking for kicks. Mr. Arkadin’s obsession with Raina winds up taking its toll on everyone, especially him, so I guess we have to see him as a dad who takes his “defender” role way too far.
5. Hobson’s Choice – The Exploitive Father
After spending a lifetime toiling and laboring to make sure everyone’s needs are met, and often being taken for granted along the way, who can really blame a dad for trying to eke out a little advantage for himself in his latter years? It seems like there should be a legitimate reward for raising one’s children well, and if that means a little feathering of one’s nest, a little rest and repose on Easy Street, who has a problem with that? Well, the kids, for starters, especially if Dad’s strategy involves willfully thwarting their offspring’s hopes and ambitions to secure his personal gain. Such is the case with Henry Hobson, a shoe store owner and widow who relies on his oldest daughter Maggie to manage the shop so that he can hang out at the corner pub with his cronies. Sadly, but necessarily, Hobson’s choice to manipulate Maggie winds up blowing up in his face, leading to some humorous debacles and eye-opening experiences for the lovable old drunkard.
6. Ordet – The Moralist Father
The burdens of traditional patriarchal cultures have imposed themselves on countless men over the ages, with mixed results, to say the least. Many men thrive in the assumed role of leader, community elder, stern authoritarian and arbiter of justice on the domestic level, and it’s certainly not my purpose here to slam dads who head their households with wisdom and lovingly teach their children to discern right from wrong. But there are a fair number of fathers who push their role as disciplinarian so hard that their children suffer and turn out messed up as a result. The dysfunctional family dynamics on display in the Borgen family lead the oldest son to outright rejection of the father Morten’s religious beliefs, drive the middle son into a state of lunatic dissociation in which he believes himself to be Jesus Christ, and leave the youngest son void of direction or ambition and on the brink of a marriage that neither set of parents feel they can support. Ordet’s amazingly tragic/miraculous conclusion reminds us dads that even when we screw up royally, forces beyond our control can still work to salvage the situation (but don’t count on it!)
7. A Story of Floating Weeds – The Absent Father
Sometimes circumstances in life compel dads to part ways with their children, leaving them to be raised by their mother and injecting a poignant note of loss and heartbreak into the relationships that can have a lifetime of ramifications. In Ozu’s first version of this story, we meet Kihachi, a traveling actor and leader of a troupe that makes regular visits to a certain rustic village in the northern mountains of Japan. His purposes for that particular stop include putting on a show, of course, but also include a visit to the home of Shinkichi, his supposed nephew who is, in reality, his son. Now that Shinkichi is nearing adulthood, Kihachi and Otsune (Shinkichi’s mother) wrestle with the decision of whether or not to tell the young man the truth about his parentage and dispel the illusion that his father died when he was very young. This predicament (with additional complications) reflects the anguish that almost all dads have to face at some point along the way in having to admit their own failures to their children. Few auteurs are able to match Ozu when it comes to portraying the complexities of familial crisis, and this early silent film demonstrates that Ozu had that skill even fairly early in his long and prolific career.
8. Ikiru – The Dying Father
The ultimate stress that settles in upon a dad is the knowledge that his health is failing and that his time in this world may soon draw to a close. That alarming realization is all the more difficult to handle if one realizes that a lot of mistakes and missed opportunities that took place over the years were never sufficiently dealt with. The knowledge that old conflicts, resentments and wounds may never get their chance to heal weighs heavily on a man when he knows that time is running out. Kanji Watanabe serves as our proxy in this story of a middle-aged bureaucrat diagnosed with stomach cancer (though never told so directly by his doctors.) The sorrow he feels over his imminent demise is only aggravated by the fact that his son Mitsuo fails to pick up on the change of heart he’s experienced and still regards the old man as little more than a nuisance that he needs to keep at arms length so he can pursue his own goals and satisfy his wife’s materialistic demands. Watanabe’s plight, though taking place in a specific postwar Japanese context, touches on universal themes that make Ikiru one of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve seen over the past year and a half of systematically combing through the Criterion Collection.
9. The Furies – The Going-for-Broke Father
When it comes to the qualities that make a man a “great dad,” a colorful, rambunctious, larger-than-life personality sure helps perpetuate a guy’s reputation in the memory of his children, friends and peers. T.C. Jeffords is one such individual, practically the epitome of the old Wild West cattle baron type. Always quick with a whip-cracking retort whenever his pride or manhood are challenged, Jeffords is a high-stakes gambler who’s ready to put all his chips on the table if need be, confident that he can rebuild from scratch if that’s the hand he’s dealt. As the proverbial self-made man, an archetype especially beloved by Americans who buy into the whole “rugged individualist” mythos, Jeffords is also a bit of a control freak as he has to deal with his own impetuous, hot-blooded daughter Vance (see Mr. Arkadin & Raina, above.) Jeffords lived large and grabbed life by the horns, literally, right up until the end, when he went out in a blaze of glory of sorts, shot in the back by a vengeance-seeking victim of one of his past sins. Despite the harsh, unanticipated exit, Jeffords left this world on his own terms, leaving a legacy of fierce independence that Vance would draw on for the rest of her life.
10. Bicycle Thieves – The Desperate Father
This list comes full circle in a way, starting and ending with a dad who’s main objective is simply to provide for his needy dependents. Antonio, drowning practically anonymously in a sea of poverty that’s overtaken thousands of ordinary men just like him, catches lucky breaks of both the good and the bad sort in a short amount of time – first offered a job when there’s hardly enough work to keep a tenth of the men around him employed, then seeing his means of doing that job stolen out from under him before he even has the chance to do a full day’s work. Choking back the shame and frustration that any of us would feel, especially in the presence of a young son who’s just coming to realize his father’s fallibility, Antonio wrestles through a series of choices that are both easy to find fault with but also highly understandable on an emotional and psychological level. There may not be any more evocative or heart-tugging portrayal of the pressures of fatherhood than the simple yet multi-dimensional dilemma that pushes some men to consider becoming Bicycle Thieves.