Vol 7, Num 3 :: 2008.02.08 — 2008.02.22
For each year that we live, we inevitably experience a multitude of seasons. We both literally and metaphorically face a cyclical pattern of death and rebirth. In sequestering that notion of metaphor for a moment, I’ve been intrigued lately by the idea of intellectual seasons. By no means am I a horticulturist, but the process of seed being laid, cultivated and harvested applies very much to the sphere of knowledge. By knowledge I’m referring not merely to formal study but the lifelong pursuit of perspective. We read something and it intrigues us, turns us on to something else. We listen to something we’ve heard it a plethora of times but for some reason this time it grabbed our attention us like never before. Knowledge, whether it is cultivated via experience, education or aesthetic pleasure, will find us in a particular season.
Of late, I’ve been in a fall state of mind, harvest. I’ve been insatiable in my desire to consume new things; books, movies, music, art. This summer I was in a more winter frame of mind, a period of rest with not much consumption. Like meteorological seasons, intellectual life is always actively recycling itself.
Director Tamara Jenkins has given us an opportunity to look in on the lives of some peculiar individuals who are facing a winter that is physical, intellectual and spiritual. What do you do when you get that call? You know—that call when the onset of your father’s dementia has set in and he’s taken to creating wall murals with his own feces? Welcome to the new witty dark comedy from Jenkins, The Savages.
Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) are suddenly beckoned from their Manhattan and Buffalo digs to address the deteriorating health of their father. These two sibs are at opposing but complementary stages of life. Wendy is an aspiring playwright who manages to pay the bills and sleep with her married neighbor Larry (Peter Friedman). Her desperation leads her to some questionable decisions to say the least. But can you blame her? Her brother Jon is an accomplished writer and intellectual, a professor of theatre. Weighed down by the newfound stress of caring for their father, Jon and Wendy—one under the demand of a new book deadline (Brecht) and a breakup and the other with the ubiquitous guilt of a lack of accomplishment—must move their father back home to Buffalo. This is where we arrive at the genuine appeal of the film. In moving from the barren vistas of Sun City, Arizona to the morbid winter of Buffalo, we find both a visual and character-driven metaphor for the changes that are quickly permeating their already stress-laden lives.
The Savages is filled with moments of ambivalence, hilarity and sadness, but doesn’t succumb to trite or hackneyed sentimentalism. Jenkins exhibits the ability to coalesce drama with a mixture of life’s unexpected moments. She’s patient with quiet moments, not rushing us into the next plot point. The acting is superb, featuring Linney and Hoffman as well as gem moments from Gbenga Akinnagbe as the nursing home care-giver Jimmy and Philip Bosco as the crotchety father Lenny Savage. The Savages is a skillfully crafted film, well executed. Its double-take moments feature both sheer ridiculousness as well as apt humor, the kind that break the mold of conventional answers to life’s stolid realities. When it’s easy to merely convey characters, The Savages give us more. We get genuine portraits of everyday folk: a brother, a sister, a father, a lover, a son and a daughter.
Jenkins offers a deft script and the acting superbly orchestrates the pacing and affability of the film. The characters are delightfully flawed and they avoid, at all costs, ghastly contrivances. The moments are laughable because we like the characters—we’re invested in them as people, they’re well dispersed and aplenty—ranging from a hilarious clarification sequence of Jon’s doctoral credentials to anticipated funeral arrangements: “What do we do with you?” The Savages help us find those moments which in reality are quite painful. Yet they give us laughter and the freedom to vicariously garner some perspective.
Deep as many of us are now in the winter season, only God and those closest to us know what interior season we are experiencing. This winter, this change, this preparation for the next is always in motion, never satisfied to leave us content or complete. We are profoundly influenced by these moments, always looking ahead, wanting the greener grass, the full bloom. We forget they are but seasons and we tend to abandon the work necessary in the now in our unabashed hope for the future. We often sabotage our progress. Let us embrace, even if only in the lives of others, how this winter is forcefully preparing us for the next season.