Fish Stories, Building a House, and Fatherhood


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Fish Stories, Building a House, and Fatherhood
By Bobby Neal Winters

It is tempting to blame Freud for the notion, alive and well in the movies, that fathers are to blame for everything wrong in the family today. We are either abusive brutes or absent altogether.

There is enough truth in that idea to make it uncomfortable. There are men who "conceive and leave", never being fathers in any way but biologically, there are also fathers who abandon their families emotionally, leaving the parenting to the mother while they give themselves over totally to their careers, and there are fathers who are out-and-out brutes.

Somewhere in the middle, there are the vast bulk of fathers who are just doing the best they can, trying to put beans on the table and a roof over their children's heads. They can't always be there to wipe noses and kiss booboos, but they do what they can.

This weekend I've watched a pair of movies about fathers and father/son relationships. The first of these was Big Fish and the second was My Life as a House. They are both available on DVD.

Those of you who've seen Big Fish know the father/son relationship is only one thread in a much larger tapestry. One might even say this film is about the soul.

Albert Finney plays Edward Bloom, a salesman who tells tall stories. His son Will, played by Billy Crudup, is alienated by his father's self-centering manner and the two are estranged for three years, neither speaking to the other. This estrangement ends when the son learns of his father's being stricken with cancer.

Having seen a broad panorama of the different sort of pain fathers can inflict upon sons, I have difficulty understanding this son's complaints about his own father that are centered around his father being gone a lot and telling colorful stories.

Fathers are gone a lot. When I was growing up, this was called making a living. If a father is around too much, his children might be able to rightfully complain about being hungry and naked. Perhaps there is just no winning.

As for telling colorful stories that strain credibility, this is called being entertaining. As Big Fish is set in Alabama, this character is by no means in tension with the local culture. The American south has always had a lively oral tradition.

I'd best be careful, because I don't want you to think I disliked this movie. I liked it very much. People whom we know and sometimes find laughable might be in possession of a huge soul.

My Life as a House is very much a different sort of movie. While Big Fish is awash in an ocean of metaphor, My Life as a House risks being scuttled on the crags of hyperrealism.

Kevin Kline plays the divorced father of a sixteen-year-old who is on the verge of being a juvenile delinquent. Kline's character discovers he has cancer, and this sets the stage for reconciliation as he decides tough-love is the best way to get his wayward son back on track. This is where the similarity between the two movies ends, however.

Without ever telling his son of his terminal illness, Kline's character attempts to lure and then to force his son into tearing down an old house and putting up a new one. This is a very nice metaphor that is not oversold. But while I am a long time fan of the idea of men bonding through work and fathers passing the virtue of manual labor along to their sons, that is not all there is to ­My Life as a House. Someone decided that working in a few scenes based on letters to the editor of Penthouse would be a good idea. Be warned that watching this with your children might be embarrassing.

We are offered an interesting portrayal of the emotionally distant man driven by his career in Kline's ex-wife's new husband. (One day there will be a single word for that phrase, I'm afraid.) This is a narrow boundary that a man whose self-image is tied-up in the role of breadwinner has to walk. Near the end, we are offered a hint that this man may have repented his cold ways.

If you can get past the scenes that this prude found objectionable, you will be rewarded with a final scene that tells what this movie is really about: atonement.

Atonement is a thing fathers are sorely in need of. We are a dying breed. The art of fathering is passed from father to son, even between those who didn't get along. We copy what we liked, and we seek to improve what we didn't. In the end, they are our only measure of ourselves.

(Editor's note: Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, writer, and speaker. You may contact him at