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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Five Movies With Big Time Mommy Issues

Psycho: the classic "go to" movie for mommy issues...and, no, it's not on this list.


I had a film teacher once who used to say that all great directors, as some time or another, return to their childhood via their films. It is a theme that can be seen in all the great directors of cinema history: Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles, Pedro Almodóvar, Akira Kurosawa and, of course, the man who practically turned revisiting his childhood into a genre unto itself, Steven Spielberg.

These filmmakers, and many others like them, return to their juvenile past in any number of ways:  through narrative, symbolism, flashbacks, or, most importantly, through some form of cinematic recreation of their memories of their own mothers.

Once you start looking at the maternal images and themes in many of these films, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that these guys must have had some pretty rough childhoods. All great directors had traumatic childhoods, it seems, for which they apparently believe their mothers were responsible.

Examples are all over cinema history. As a pointed out with my post on movie crucifixion scenes, I could run a post a week on the subject and still not cover all the examples out there in cinema history. In this case, I could go on for years.

Keeping that in mind, here are five films that I find to be fascinating instances of movies with Big Time Mommy Issues...




Notorious
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
1946


Legendary British born Hollywood thriller director, Alfred Hitchcock, practically owns the concept of movies with Big Time Mommy Issues. Few directors have had the word "Freudian" connected to them more often than Mr.Hitchcock. This is so largely on account of the fact that it is true.

It might seem like Hitchcock's 1960 slasher horror thriller classic, Psycho, would be the obvious choice when it comes to flushing out the director's cinematic maternal issues. The key wold there is "obvious".  As amazing as Psycho is, there are numerous other and more subtle examples of maternal themes that run throughout Hitch's work.

For instance, there's Cary Grant simultaneously escaping his own domineering mother yet at the same time seeking maternal protection from Eva Marie Saint while on the run in North by Northwest. The theme is even present in Hitch's quasi-apocalyptic thriller, The Birds (not the least of which is central conflict with Mother Nature, herself).  However, one of the most interesting displays of Hitch's mommy issues comes into play in one of Hitchcock's most purely cinematic films, the 1946 thriller, Notorious.

The plot of Notorious involves US government agent Cary Grant attempting to flush out some escaped Nazis in post World War II Brazil. To carry out his mission, he turns to Ingrid Bergman, the American daughter of convicted Nazi spy. While romancing Bergman in some of the most steamy Hollywood love scenes of the era, Grant manages to recruit her. She is to go to Brazil and resume the acquaintanceship of suspected Nazi operative Claude Rains. The somehow totally not suspicious Rains fall in love with Bergman. He asks her to marry him, which, as it turns out, plays nicely into the whole infiltrate the ring of Nazi spies plan.
 


It's the rare thriller director, then or now, who would bring a mother into this kind of a story. With Hitch, of course, such a thing is almost expected.

Despite being a suave elegant middle-aged man and an accomplished Nazi operative, Rains has got this really domineering mother who continues to play a very influential role in her son's life. He reports to her at the end of her bed each day. The story goes that these scenes were lifted from Hitch's real life in which his domineering mother required him to report the activities of his day to her in a similar manner. Some biographers report that this practice continued into Hitch's adult life right up to 1940, the year he relocated to Hollywood to further his film making career.

Whatever the exact particular inspiration, the scenes between Rains and his mother (played by veteran Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantinare) are some of the most interesting dialogue scenes in Notorious. Rains is constantly facing his mother's continued disapproval, even as he attempts to break free of her influence by asserting his independence and marrying Bergman ( it's all part of the plan, as far as she and Grant are concerned, though). Rains finally figures out that he has, in fact, married an American agent. Before sharing the revelation with anyone else, he goes to his mother. Now Hitchcock's Freudian Mom is totally in her element. Not only is he is able to scold her son over his poor choice of a wife, but she is also able to regain power over his life. She concocts a clever plot to kill Bergman via slow acting poison. She  oversees the plan. She is often seen sitting or lying down; the maternal monster's power is such that she can exact control even from an apparently passive position.


 

Domineering control and manipulation to the point of attempting to murder Hitch,  don't know how to say this but you got a few issues there, buddy.



Alien
Directed by Ridley Scott 
1979




On the surface, perhaps not a movie one might immediately associate with maternal issues. But, then again, there are those alien eggs...

Original Alien designs by HR Giger: See what I mean?
Besides some more subtle, underlying maternal themes, sexual imagery abounds in Alien. The alien monster with the big shiny phallushead and vagina dentata mouth, for example. Even the so-called "face hugger" aliens contain subtle phallic and vaginal imagery.

How does sexual imagery fit into discussion of maternal symbolism?  Duh. Aside from adoption, artificial insemination, surrogate and other clever means of sidestepping the course of nature, what's the number one major prerequisite for all moms everywhere?

Along with all the sexual imagery, images and themes of fertility, impregnation and maternity permeate Alien as well. Yet the presence of these images and themes is very much a perverse one.

An egg is often seen as a traditional image of fertility. This may be so but the egg is literally alien as well as  enigmatic, ominous and ultimately deadly. As the humans approach the alien egg for the first time, they shine flashlights through it. Murky fetal shadows appear inside the egg. There is life inside but it is dark and unknown. The egg then suddenly opens with of its own accord with a slowness that is both purposeful and potentially sinister. As the human astronaut approaches it, an alien being springs out. It quickly wraps itself around its victim's face, inserting a tentacle down the victim's throat. More sexual imagery. This time it is of a both invasive and aggressive nature. The alien "face hugger" then both feeds off of and at the same time keeps its host alive. Later, it impregnates it's human victim turned host. Finally, after it has gestated for a sufficient amount of time inside the human, a new alien being violently and bloodily bursts out of  its host's stomach, leaving the host dead. The whole sequence of events is a twisted and horrific vision of fertility, impregnation and childbirth.

In Alien, even the spacecraft itself has maternal overtones. The computer that runs the ship, the Nostromo, is, without much subtlety, named Mother. Mother, the computer, runs the ship when the crew is in cryogenic sleep. Mother also knows things the crew does not. It awakens them and sends them on their mission to investigate an unknown alien transmission.  In fact, Mother is operating on her own hidden agenda that remains unknown to the crew for much of the film. Mother may know best but just what the hell is she up to?

Mother's womb-like main computer access room 
The opening sequence of the film shows the ships crew being awakened from cryogenic sleep. The long sleep is a state that requires the nurturing care of  Mother, the computer. The scene where they crew quietly and delicately awakes from their long slumber is another birth image. Only this one is more positive than other such visual analogies seen in the film.


Even in the midst of all the death and fear that surrounds the crew, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley rarely loses her cool. She remains focused and driven by the vital task at had, get rid of the murderous alien creature. She is even cool and calm as she engages the ship to self destruct, the only truly reliable means of killing the alien creature. However, when Ripley discovers that the alien is blocking her route to the escape shuttle, she attempts to shut the self destruct sequence off. It being too late in the process, Mother will not cooperate. When this happens, Ripley has one of her most outwardly emotional displays seen in the film. In a rare moment of cathartic release, she screams and throws things at the computer, yelling out one simple word: "Mother!".


 





Nixon
Directed by Oliver Stone 
1995




Oliver Stone is quite the director. Often Over-the-top and highly Stylized, Stone's films are built around complex themes and characters that are, even in their complexity, boiled down to their most simplistic elements. And, oh yeah, it is often the case that, in an Oliver Stone picture, everything almost always comes back to the mother's. This is most especially true in his bio-pics.

In Alexander, legendary ancient Greek warrior's thirst for conquest was drilled into him by his mother, mostly through the use of Angelina Jolie's uber-stylized accent along with the off kilter angles with which she was shot. In W., President George W. Bush's, as portrayed by Josh Brolin, political foibles and miscalculations (as Stone's film classifies them to be) were in no small part created by the judgments and disapproval of his dad, James Cromwell,in the role of Bush 41. Though, in subtle shots and cinematic allusions, Stone implies that the George Sr. did so as the screws were being put to him by matriarchal Barbara Bush, as portrayed by Ellen Burstyn.

Nixon, Oliver Stone's 1995 biopic of Richard M. Nixon,  the only US President to resign, throws many thematic and stylistic concepts into he mix. Not the least of those ideas are the influences that Nixon's mom, Hannah Nixon, had on the future president. In real life, Nixon did, in fact, reference his mom in his last day on the job speech as President before leaving the White House forever. So it's not surprising that Stone chose to include her in his pastiche of Nixon's personal and professional life.

Nixon is portrayed by the unlikely Anthony Hopkins. His mother is portrayed, with just the appropriate amount coldness and distance, by Mary Steenburgen. Hopkins, though, never actually appears on screen with Steenbergen. In those scenes, Nixon is played by actors portraying the younger versions of Nixon. In one scene memorable scene, 12 year old Nixon (as played by Corey Carrier, the 10 year old Indy from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) is caught with a cigarette. Shot in that classic dark moody black and white cinematography that often constitutes a flashback in a Stone film, the scene depicts Steenburgen attempting to get a confession out the young Nixon. Hanna Nixon was a Quaker so, in the film, the maternal Nixon uses the pronoun "thee" towards her son. Just that, in of itself, suggests a constant sense of both emotional distance and judgement. Nixon finally confesses to possessing the cigarette but his mother promises not to tell his stern father about the incident. She states that it is "our little secret".

Hmmm...I wonder which part of Nixon's later life Stone is implying that story from his childhood may have informed.





Historically accurate or not, the intent of the scene is pretty clear.

Nixon's mom turns up in various other flashbacks throughout the film and, in all instances, displays a powerful sense of emotional distance coupled with a domineering demeanor towards her son.

Joan Allen plays Pat, Nixon's wife. Stone very strong suggests, both visually and textually, that Pat is Nixon's maternal substitute. Many of Allen and Hopkins's scenes involve Nixon crying on his wife's shoulder and/or confiding in her in a way in which, the film suggests, Nixon was never able to do with his mother.

The most powerful of the dark maternal images in Nixon turn up when the film supposedly recreates an interview conducted with Hannah Nixon shortly before her death in 1967. An aged version of Steenbergen appears once again in black and white, though this time it is much more grainy than in previous scenes, while sitting in a nursing home. The interviewer asks what Mrs. Nixon thinks of the fact that her son may well run for President in the next year. On the surface, her answers are all positive and supportive of her son. She even flashes the occasional smile when referring to him. However, to the great credit of her performance, Steenbergen delivers the seemingly nice answers with a subtle yet strong sense of cold emotional dissonance that lurks behind even her smiles.



It's hard not to draw the conclusion that, as far as Oliver Stone is concerned, all of the Nixon's characters flaws and his ultimate political fate all go right back to his mother.

Seriously? The carpet bombing of Hanoi? US backed regime change in Chile? Watergate? You wanna put all that on the guy's mother?


Braindead
Directed by Peter Jackson 
1992





Before The Lovely Bones, King Kong, Lord of the Rings, The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson made a some pretty fucked up movies. Very entertaining....but fucked up.

Bad Taste, his first feature made back in 1987, is about aliens that come to earth in order to turn people into food. It is very much what they like to call now a "splatter" movie. In 1989, he made Meet The Feebles, a darkly twisted satirical movie about a group of Muppet-like puppets. Of this period of Jackson's work, 1992's Braindead takes the proverbial gory cake.

Known as Dead Alive in its North American release, Braindead, in addition to its absurdly extreme amount of gore, contains some of the most over-the-top Mommy issues ever put on film. On account of a Sumatran Rat Monkey (pretty sure that's fictional) that ends up in a New Zealand zoo, there is an outbreak of zombieism in Wellington. Long story short, the films's protagonist, Lionel Cosgrove (played by Timothy Balme) must fight off a most of his recently zombiefied neighbourhood.  To add the tension, his mom, played by Elizabeth Moody, also succumbs to the zombie epidemic. Even before she was infected, though, Lionel's mom was not exactly portrayed as a saint. Often shot from close, unflattering angles, she is yet another mom that is domineering and unlikable. She even goes so far as to make disparaging remarks regarding Lionel's Italian girlfriend.



In what is already a pretty damned ramped up film to begin with, Braindead ends with some of the biggest mother issues ever put on film...literally.

Before we get to that point, though, there is a lot of incredibly gory dismembering, disturbingly relentless attacks by a zombie baby, a kung fu fighting priest, and a scene  involving a lawnmower and room full of zombies that features one of the greatest slayfests this side of the Evil Dead movies.

After all that, Lionel's mom re-appears. She has now become the biggest-assed zombie ever (seriously -check out the scene). Proclaiming that she will keep and protect her son forever, giant zombie mom grabs Lionel and literally  sticks Lionel "back" into her gigantic womb. Our hero then must cut himself out in an absurdly over-the-top Freudian celebration of gore and rebirth.

While there is very strong sense of wry humour, satire and slapstick in Braindead, I still can't help but think, "What in the hell did Peter Jackson's mom do to him?".

In case you haven't already, Take a look. (the clip is in German but more than likely you will get the gist of it)

See what I mean? That scene puts the Big in Big Time Mommy Issues...




The Mummy
Directed by Karl Freund 
1932



HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!


Happy Mother's Day!


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