Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
Superman and the Abandoned Woman
In 1920 Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) kills Don Fanucci in New York in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather II (1974). He then walks a few blocks and sits on the steps to his apartment with his wife and his three small children Sonny, Fredo, and Michael. He is a happy man. His wife is happy and safe. He has his family. And he is physically right there for his family. He has power—even if his domain is small.
Forty years later Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) says to Vito’s son Michael (Al Pacino): “We’re bigger than U S Steel.”
That may be, but in a way Michael has less power than Vito did sitting on those steps with his wife and three boys.
Michael: Tell me, when Pop had troubles . . . did he ever think, even to himself, that he had gone the wrong way; that maybe by trying to be strong and trying to protect his family, that he could . . . that he could . . . lose it instead?
Mama: You talk about the baby. She can have another baby.
Michael: No, I meant lose his family.
Mama: Your family? How can you ever lose your family?
Michael: But times are different . . . .
How did that happen? To all of us? For odd as it may seem Michael Corleone is every man in these times—these different times.
In this article I call attention to a serious problem that has been misunderstood. I use movies to help us see the problem more clearly, understand its true cause, and find a solution so we can move forward.
Superman arrived on the scene in the 1930s and was big in the 1940s and 1950s. The timing is I believe no accident.
Modern times created a radical new way of organizing labor—the first time in history on such a scale. Boys all across America awoke each day with something essential to their happiness and well-being missing: their fathers. The boys experienced a not-father, an emptiness, a desert, as more and more dads disappeared each day to be herded like sheep into the trains that took them far away to the canyons of New York and other cities to work for large corporations that had no real connection to the souls of these men or their families.
As America moved increasingly from farming the land to work in the cities, more and more boys no longer had the strong good father right there guiding them into the ways of the world.
So the boys felt lonely and lost and empty and did not know how to grow into men.
The boy happily sees “mild-mannered Clark Kent”—his dad in real life—remove his necktie (a symbolic noose) and magically become a super-dad in compensation for the hard sad reality of his father’s absence and impotence.
The name Clark Kent is code for: the clerk can’t.
Jim Stark (James Dean) cries out at his weak father in Rebel without a Cause (1955): “You can’t protect me!”
It gets even worse in the Sixties. Simon and Garfunkel in their song America express this well:
“Kathy, I’m lost” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why . . .”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
This is a cri de coeur from young men lost without their fathers, whom they are desperately searching for.
But being without fathers was “normal” and since there was no clear and present danger—no arrows or bullets—their suffering was mysterious. They were empty and aching and they didn’t know why.
This emptiness—this very loss of identity—is perfectly and lyrically expressed in Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten) (1974) by Wim Wenders. Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), a German writer on assignment in America, visits Angela (Edda Köchl) at her apartment in New York City. He describes his travels from New York to Florida.
Philip: It was a horrible trip. As soon as you leave New York nothing changes. It all looks the same. You can’t think any more, especially the thought that things could change. I completely lost my bearings. I thought it would go on forever. Some evenings I was sure I’d turn back next morning. But then I’d keep on going. And listening to that sickening radio. At night in a motel, which looked like all the others, I’d watch that inhuman TV. I lost touch with the world.
Angela: You did that long ago. You don’t have to travel across America for that. You lose touch when you lose your sense of identity. And that happened long ago. That’s why you always need proof—proof that you still exist. You treat your stories and experiences as if they were raw eggs. As if only you experience things. That’s why you keep taking these photos: for further proof that it was really you who saw something. That’s why you came here. So somebody would listen. Listen to you and the stories you’re really telling yourself. It isn’t enough in the long run.
Philip: That’s true. Taking Polaroids is a sort of proof. Waiting for a picture to develop I’d often feel strangely uneasy. I could hardly wait to compare the picture with reality. But the pictures never caught up with reality.
Angela: You can’t stay here.
Philip (not hearing her): I went on as if I were possessed . . .
Angela: You really are out of touch . . . . I don’t want you to stay!
Philip: What? Are you serious?
Angela: Yes, my friend. I can’t help you. I’d like to comfort you though.
Philip: I don’t get it.
Angela: I don’t know how to live, either. No one showed me how. In this city when you come to an intersection it’s like coming to a clearing in the woods.
Just as British sailors got scurvy but didn’t know that it was caused by the absence of vitamin C, boys by the sixties and seventies were getting emotionally lost and unhinged and angst-ridden but did not know that it was caused by the absence of their fathers. They had no path to becoming men in the world and no father to guide them on that path.
Angry at their fathers for abandoning them but not realizing that this was the reason, they lashed out in a rebellion that very quickly became destructive—both to themselves as well as the world around them. They embraced whatever was the opposite of bourgeois society no matter how pathological—and called it liberation. Particularly destructive was the widespread use of drugs—which are the opposite of true liberation as they destroy the mind and the body and the soul.
Pathological rebellion against mainstream bourgeois culture continues to this day and in fact has intensified because the cause—impotent absent fathers—has not been addressed. Of course it cannot be addressed until it is recognized as the cause.
Gaspar Noé shows us where that false path leads with his tour de force Enter the Void (2009). Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) lose their parents in a car crash. They end up in Tokyo. Oscar promises Linda he will keep the family alive. But he does the opposite. He takes lots of drugs. She becomes a stripper. He cannot protect his sister. The family is destroyed. All identity is lost. Drugs killing the last of his soul. Continual meaningless sex with strangers. A huge modern city in which they have no meaningful connection. This is a vision of the end point of the way of pathological rebellion. Oscar and Linda are in hell with no hope of escape. (This is a brilliant cautionary tale and I give it an A-)
Even more nightmarish is Holy Motors (2012) by Leos Carax. Both grotesque and surreal it tries to convince us that reality is illusory. At the end the main character—whose name is also Oscar (Denis Lavant)—returns to his “home” and his wife and child, who we discover are chimpanzees—the ultimate mocking of a real family. Good strong wise fathers and mothers are impossible here. Carax—like so many “artists” of our time—takes us on a cruel ride to a dead end. (Cynical and destructive this film gets an F-)
2 Husbands and Fathers
The husband and father is himself hit twice by his own absence from any center of strength. He is far from his family so his sense of identity and place is weak. And he is just a small part of a giant corporate machine.
When did the old order—that time when a man’s strength and his very identity was the land he walked on and his blood family—end? There is no one definitive point in history but the building of America’s railroads is one of the early engines of modernity.
Here is a scene from Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968), which takes place around 1870. As men labor by hand laying track, we see the meeting of Frank (Henry Fonda) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson):
Harmonica: So you found out you’re not a businessman after all.
Frank: Just a man.
Harmonica: An ancient race.
They can see it coming.
As can Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), who—even though he produces one of the very first automobiles—has this to say:
“I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls. I’m not sure. But automobiles have come. And almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but would have to agree with George that automobiles had no business to be invented.”
Fifty years later Tom Rath (Gregory Peck) in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) leaves his wife and three children in Westport Connecticut every morning and takes the 8:26 train to Grand Central Station along with hundreds of other men in gray flannel suits. It is fifty miles away—an extraordinary distance when you think about it. He returns every night to his wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones) and his three young children. But he has no more sense of identity and strength at home than he does at work.
He has just been hired by a public relations firm and he is working with several other men on an important speech that the president will give.
Tom: This has turned out to be a very tricky business, honey. And a lot of tricky angles to it.
Betsy: Well what’s that got to do with your telling them what you think about this speech?
Tom: Well one thing I’ve learned already is that you’ve got to protect yourself in the clinches. The thing to do is sort of feel your way along. I mean when they call you in to give a report like this, you begin with a lot of highly qualified contradictory statements and watch your man’s face to see which one pleases him. For instance you can begin: “I think there are some wonderful things in this speech.” Then you pause for a second or two. If that seems to make him happy, then you go on: “And I have only a few minor alterations to suggest.” But if he looks a little startled on the word wonderful, then you switch and say: “But on the whole I don’t think it quite comes off.” If you’ve been smart enough about it, you can wind up by telling him exactly what he wants to hear.
Betsy: But that’s not what you’re going to do is it?
Tom: I don’t know.
Betsy: You don’t know?
Tom: Well I’ve got to protect myself, haven’t I?
Betsy: Well I’ll tell you what I think about it. I think the whole idea is sickening.
3 Wives and Mothers
When the men disappeared the wives were abandoned.
This caused a great sadness and an insecurity in women because it is contra naturam.
It does not matter if her man makes a lot of money and provides a home in the suburbs. He is physically not there. She is alone. And she feels unprotected—even if the suburb is safe.
He used to go out riding fences with his sons—fences that were his and were on his property. He was running his own show. And he was near—so near he could have lunch with her and then go into the bedroom and make love to her. And then he would go out again with his sons and shoot rattlesnakes and interlopers if necessary. She felt his presence and his strength. Maybe the boys went to school. Maybe not. But in any event they had their dads to teach them the real things. They had a path to follow. (There was no ADHD: there can be no ADHD when you are riding horses and herding cattle.) The sons grew into men who—as a band of brothers—made her feel doubly safe.
Alfred Hitchcock understood this. This is what The Birds (1963) is really about. In a quiet scene Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) and Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron) talk to each other.
Lydia: I wish I were a stronger person. I lost my husband four years ago, you know. It’s odd how you depend on someone for strength, and then suddenly all the strength is gone, and you’re alone. I’d love to relax some time. I’d love to be able to sleep . . . . Do you think Cathy’s all right?
Melanie: Annie’s there. She’ll be all right.
Lydia: I’m not this way, you know. Not usually. I don’t fuss and fret over my children . . . . When Frank died . . . . You see, he knew the children, he really knew them. He had the knack of being able to enter into their world, of becoming a part of them. That’s a rare talent.
Lydia: I miss him . . . . You know, sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I think: “I have to make Frank’s breakfast,” and I . . . I get up and there’s a . . . a very good reason for getting out of bed until . . . until, of course, I remember . . . . I miss talking to him . . . . Cathy’s a child, you know, and Mitch . . . Mitch has his own life . . . . I’m glad he stayed here today. I feel safer with him here.
Melanie: Would you like to rest now, Mrs. Brenner?
Lydia: No. No . . . don’t go yet . . . . I feel as if I . . . I don’t understand you. And I want so much to understand.
Melanie: Why, Mrs. Brenner?
Lydia: Because my son is . . . My son seems to be fond of you . . . And I . . . I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. I really don’t know if I . . . like you or not.
Melanie: Is that so important, Mrs. Brenner? You liking me?
Lydia: Yes, I think so. My son is important to me. I want to like any girl he chooses.
Melanie: And if you don’t?
Lydia: Then I don’t suppose it’ll matter much to anyone but me.
Melanie: I think it might also matter to Mitch.
Lydia: Mitch has always done exactly what he wanted to do. . . . I’m not complaining. That’s the mark of a man. But . . . You see, I . . . I wouldn’t want to be. . . be left alone. I don’t think I could bear being left alone. I . . . forgive me. This business with the birds has me upset. I . . . I don’t know what I’d do if Mitch weren’t here.
Melanie: Why don’t you try to sleep now, Mrs. Brenner.
Lydia: I wish I were stronger . . . . Do you think she’s all right? Do you think she’s safe at the school?
Melanie: Would you like me to go for her?
Lydia: I couldn’t ask you to.
Melanie: I don’t mind, really.
Lydia: Would you? I’d feel so much better.
David Hare, the great British writer and director, seems—like Hitchcock—to understand this also. He wrote the screenplay for The Hours (2002), in which Laura (Julianne Moore) is married to Dan (John C. Reilly)—a kind, loving, good man. Each day he puts on his suit and tie and leaves for the city. She becomes increasingly sad and almost commits suicide. She does not kill herself but she feels she must leave her husband and young son. Unconsciously she must reject her man because he is in reality a non-man. He has—without meaning to—abandoned her and lost his strength. His kindness and love and goodness are not enough to fill something so primal as the woman’s need for her man to be right by her side protecting her—with his life if necessary.
Laura: How is Ray? I haven’t seen him in a while.
Kitty (Toni Collette): Ray’s fine. Mmmm . . . . These guys are something aren’t they?
Laura: Mmmm . . . you can say that again. They came home from the war. They deserved it, didn’t they? After what they’d been through.
Kitty: What . . . did they deserve?
Laura: I dunno . . . us I guess. All this.
Kitty: Hmmm . . . you’re reading a book.
Kitty: What’s this one about?
Laura: Oh it’s about this woman who’s incredibly . . . well she’s a hostess and she’s incredibly confident and she’s going to give a party and maybe because she’s confident everyone thinks she’s fine. But she isn’t.
1:55 to 2:45
When something is missing that we need to survive emotionally we fill that emptiness with either fantasy or a substitute form of power and protection. Ten-year-old boys can choose fantasy—Superman—but how is a woman to deal with this crisis?
Just as it was no accident that Superman arrived on the scene as fathers disappeared, likewise it was no accident that the women’s movement arose at the same time. Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949.
But the women’s movement arose not because of male oppression but because of male weakness and absence. No longer protected by men, the women realized they would have to do it themselves. They would have to get tough. The women’s movement was really women protecting women.
But while women are capable of getting tough if necessary, it is unstable because it is at odds with their nature and because it contradicts something primal in their relations with men.
Betsy’s angry and contemptuous words to her husband Tom—”I find the whole thing sickening”—is how a lot of women came to feel about their husbands.
But the anger and sadness and anxiety that the desolation of the no-man landscape caused in women could not be solved by a political movement.
Nor could it be solved by anti-depressants and other “medications”, because the women did not have a medical disease. In fact their reaction to the absence of masculine protection was completely natural and understandable.
No. This kind of deep unhappiness cannot be bought off with actions that are not based on the real cause. Such actions only make things worse.
Gladiator (2000) is set in Roman times but at its heart it is a tale of modern times. Maximus (Russell Crowe) wages battles far away from his home, leaving his wife and son alone for long periods of time. He is unable to protect them. She is raped and both she and their son are killed. And he becomes a slave. This movie expresses unconsciously our all too modern situation: the gelded and absent man and the vulnerable abandoned woman.
Here is a scene with Maximus and Lucilla (Connie Nielsen)—the sister of emperor Commodus.
Maximus: You risk too much.
Lucilla: I have much to pay for.
Maximus: You have nothing to pay for. You love your son. You are strong for him.
Lucilla: I am tired of being strong. My brother hates all the world. You, most of all.
Maximus: Because your father chose me.
Lucilla: No, because my father loved you. And because I loved you.
Maximus: A long time ago. (Maximus tenderly takes her hand and kisses it.)
Lucilla: Was I very different then?
Maximus (gently stroking her face): You laughed more.
Lucilla: I have felt alone all my life, except with you. I must go.
Maximus: Yes. (They exchange a long tender kiss.)
A girl whose father is weak and absent feels unprotected and unloved. As she becomes a young woman she has to provide her own armor—a job once carried out by fathers and brothers. But having to be tough is in direct contradiction to her natural inclination to be soft and feminine.
In The Godfather (1972) Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) are two young unmarried women in the late 1940s—one Sicilian and one American. The contrast between them makes the point clear.
After killing the men who tried to kill his father, Michael Corleone goes into hiding in Sicily. While in the mountainous countryside near the town of Corleone with his two bodyguards—Fabrizio and Calo—Michael sees a young woman walking with other young women and girls. Their eyes meet. It is clear they have been hit by a lightning bolt. One of the bodyguards cautions Michael: “In Sicily women are more dangerous than shotguns.”
A little later they reach a small village cafe and sit outside at a table. The owner Vitelli greets them. Fabrizio and Calo talk about the beautiful young woman and how it hit Michael like a thunderbolt. But Vitelli gets upset and walks away. Fabrizio, understanding, says to Michael: “Let’s go. It’s his daughter.” But Michael instead has Fabrizio go get Vitelli.
MIchael: I apologize if I offended you . . .
Fabrizio translates into Italian.
MIchael: I am a stranger in this country . . .
Michael: And I meant no disrespect to you, or your daughter . . .
Vitelli (in Italian): Who is this? He sounds American . . .
Michael: I am an American . . . hiding in Sicily . . .
Michael: My name is Michael Corleone . . .
Michael: There are people who’d pay a lot of money for that information . . .
Michael (after Vitelli nods): But then your daughter would lose a father . . .
Michael: . . . instead of gaining a husband.
Fabrizio hesitates, then translates after Michael gestures.
Michael: I wanna meet your daughter . . .
Michael: . . . with your permission . . .
Michael: . . . and under the supervision of your family.
Michael: With all respect.
Vitelli (in Italian): Come to my house on Sunday. My name is Vitelli . . .
Michael: Grazie e como se chiama, vostra figlia?
Fabrizio and Calo drive Michael to Vitelli’s home, where Michael is introduced to each of the relatives. Apollonia descends the steps and sits on the bench beside her mother. Vitelli introduces Michael and Apollonia to each other. She accepts Michael’s gift and looks at her mother, who nods giving her permission to open it. She unwraps a boxed necklace.
At a later time on a hilltop in the village Michael and Apollonia are walking and talking. Then we see behind them many female relatives. And then we see—walking behind the women—Fabrizio and Calo with their sawed-off shotguns.
Apollonia is protected by men.
Michael marries Apollonia but she is killed in a botched attempt on his life.
He returns to America, where he goes to see his old girlfriend Kay. What a contrast with Apollonia! We never see Kay’s mother or father or any relatives. She is in the city alone and unprotected. She has to fend for herself.
Not even Michael Corleone—the Godfather himself—could withstand the effects of modernity. And as I said at the beginning: Michael Corleone is every man in these times.
1908 saw the publication of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, in which we find the following passage:
“Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”
Forster—with the vision of a poetic soul—saw the perils ahead.
May love be equal to the task . . . indeed!
In The Black Windmill (1974), directed by Don Siegel, Maj. John Tarrant (Michael Caine) is a British spy whose son is kidnapped. He talks to his estranged wife Alex (Janet Suzman):
Alex: I’ve got to know what’s going to happen to David.
Tarrant: Nobody can tell you that for sure.
Alex: They are going to kill him, aren’t they?
Tarrant: No they are not going to kill him.
Alex: Aren’t they!
Alex: I married a soldier. I ended up with a spy. I just hate what this job’s done to you
Tarrant: Have I changed that much?
Alex: At least then I knew where you were . . . and who you were.
Tarrant: I love David very much. And if I had thought for one moment that my job might cause him harm, I would have resigned immediately.
Alex: He will be all right, won’t he.
Tarrant: If there are things about me that you hate, Alex, be grateful for them now . . . . They could be our last chance of seeing David alive again.
That scene expresses the crisis we face. And Tarrant’s response—strong and brave and filled with heart—offers us a reminder of the true solution. As do all films of the third way. (1)
The Japanese have a word for the third way: shinobu
I leave you with these scenes from Shinobugawa, the great film by Kei Kumai:
(1) see The Secret Life of Films
© Richard Hobby