Sunday, July 12, 2009

Love: The Gift Money Can't Buy

Citizen Kane
The Baron of Arizona
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Love: The condition of the heart that can bring so much joy and so much misery. And with all the people who misuse the word, you’d think that somewhere there would be a school or a teacher that can show us not only what the word really means, but also how to bring it into our lives. Well, actually, there are people who can show us how to attain – and maintain – it. Those people are our parents. Unfortunately, many of our parents never learned the lessons themselves – and what those badly educated parents taught us often falls woefully short of our expectations.

It is all too obvious that the result of some of their teachings have focused on hate – usually of themselves – and the lessons that were learned caused their students to do mean, violent and often deadly things. But that is not what I wish to talk about here. Rather, I would like to discuss how the good intentions of parents who love their children can fail to produce the desired result – the happiness and sense of fulfillment that love gives life. The movies selected for this posting are Citizen Kane, released in 1941 in black and white; The Baron of Arizona, 1950 in b&w; and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958 in color.

Charles Foster Kane, the title character in Citizen Kane (which I believe is the best movie ever made), was plucked from the love of a drunken father and an overbearing mother when she, thinking she was doing what was best for her son, decided to let a rich banker take charge of the child’s upbringing after the family struck it rich by finding a silver mine in the 19th-century American West. The mother apparently didn’t want her son to be the influenced by his father’s drinking. As far as we can tell from the movie, the child never saw his parents again.

“Charlie” Kane grew up to inherit a fortune and immediately began to use it in his search for love. He took over the management of a newspaper and used it, ostensibly, to defend the rights of the working class and the downtrodden. But in reality, as noted by Jedediah Leland, Kane’s “best friend” and employee of the newspaper, what Charlie really wanted was for his readers to love him.

Kane then marries Emily Monroe Norton, the niece of the president of the United States. They go on a whirlwind tour of Europe, where he begins buying all types of symbols of prosperity, with an emphasis on statues. But it becomes clear that this marriage provides a way to get a foot into the door of politics. So, he decides to run for governor – after all, winning an election could be seen as a sign that he is loved by the voters of the state. However, as most of us often feel at certain times in our lives, Kane comes to believe that he is so important that he has become invulnerable. His particular invulnerability, he believes, is to political scandal. But when on the eve of the election he is found in the apartment of a woman other that his wife, despite there being no indication of sexual dalliance between the two, he winds up destroying his political aspirations and his marriage.

In an attempt to demonstrate his love for the woman who wrecked his political career, a third-rate torch singer named Susan Alexander, he marries her. He then sets about the futile task of trying to mold her into a great opera singer. He even buys an opera house where she will make her professional debut. But she is a complete flop and when Leland, his newspaper’s music critic, falls asleep in the middle of writing the review of the performance after drinking himself into a stupor, Kane completes the article. And in an attempt to demonstrate his integrity, Kane sticks to Leland’s theme – that his wife gave a terrible performance. And of course, this strains their marriage.

Kane eventually buys a large estate called Xanadu, where he and his wife can be sheltered from a world hostile to them – him, in particular. They apparently never leave the grounds and constantly invite friends to visit them. But Susan, who spends hours upon hours putting together jigsaw puzzles, finally tires of the isolation and complains to her husband that all he has ever done was try to buy her love. Then, much to Charlie’s shock, she leaves him. Her departure sets off an emotional explosion where Kane destroys much of the furnishings in their living quarters. The destruction ends when Kane comes upon a snow globe that encases a tiny cabin – like the cabin he lived in with his parents. As he walks down the corridor holding the snow globe, he mutters the word “Rosebud.”

That utterance set off a journalistic search for what it meant to one of the most powerful men of his times. The journalists never find out – but the audience does. It turns out that Rosebud was the name of the sled he had as a child when he still lived with his parents.

The Baron of Arizona is based on a true story about a chapter of American history that I had never heard of before. It is about a forger, James Addison Reavis, who recruits the help of an old man, Pepito Alvarez, who is the guardian of a young girl, Sofia, to swindle the United States out of its claim to the territory of Arizona. Reavis tells Alvarez that Sofia is the long-lost descendant of a person named de Peralta who was given a land grant for the territory by the King of Spain several centuries earlier. But there never was a de Peralta, so Reavis has to forge the documents that would support his story.

Before beginning his quest to replace the original documents with forgeries Reavis hires a nanny, Loma Morales, for Sofia. He also carves a statement in stone that is designed to prove that de Peralta did lay claim to the territory. With these two things accomplished, Reavis travels to Spain and joins the monastery when documents involving Spain’s colonization of the New World are kept. He eventually manages to get assigned to the library where the documents are kept and completes his work there, but there is another hurdle to navigate – one of the king’s officials has a copy of the original in the library of his home in Madrid. Reavis makes his way to the new destination with the help of a band of gypsies, seduces the wife of the king’s official and sneaks into the library to alter the copy so that it matches the original.

This process took several years, and by the time Reavis reconnects with Sofia in Paris, she has grown into a beautiful woman. The two marry and return to the United States to claim their land. It must be pointed out that Sofia believes that she is the descendant of the de Peraltas, as does her nanny. Alvarez, on the other hand knows this is false because she knows that Sofia’s mother was a Native American who left Sofia with him before she died. He swore to never reveal that she was of Native America stock, so he willing played along with Reavis, who doesn’t find out about this until very late in the game.

The claim creates an uproar in the territory of Arizona and John Griff, a government agent who specializes in forgeries, is assigned to investigate the case. Eventually Griff gathers the evidence, but before he presents the evidence, Reavis confesses. But the citizens of Arizona are so angry they nearly hang Reavis, who manages to convice the mob that hanging him would actually hurt their claims to land that they had bought before Reavis showed up. The mob backs down and Reavis is sentenced to six years in prison.

Now to the part that relates to the theme of this posting: While we are not told anything about Reavis’ upbringing or his parents, we do learn what was missing from his life that led him to embark on his fraudulent endeavor. After Reavis confesses the forgery scheme to Sofia, she tells him that in spite of deception she still loves him and she is willing to suffer the punishment for his crime. He then replies, “I’ve finally figured out what I was looking for my whole life: a woman who would love me for myself.” From this statement, I deduced that Reavis’ childhood did not include parents who sufficiently reassured him that he was totally and unconditionally loved.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a pertinent story to this posting on many levels. It touches on the marital relationships; sibling rivalries; in-law rivalries; homosexuality, though not overtly; impending death; mendacity (which is my singularly favorite word in this movie); and most importantly for this discussion, parents’ love for their children. But instead of going through all of these subjects, I’m going to try to cut to the chase.

Brick Pollitt, who is married to “Maggie the cat,” comes from a wealthy Southern family whose patriarch, Big Daddy, is dying from cancer. However, Big Daddy’s condition is being kept from both him and his wife, Big Mama. Brick’s older brother, Goober, is a lawyer who is trying to get the estate settled before his father’s death and – goaded on by his wife, Mae, who is pregnant with their sixth child – is seeking to take over the family business. Brick, who once owned and quarterbacked a semi-professional football team cares little about taking over the business. He has become somewhat of a drunk, has a broken leg and suspects that Maggie once slept with his best friend, Skipper, who is hinted to be gay. This suspicion, which is apparently unfounded, contributes to the couple’s lack of intimacy – which is often brought up by Mae, who tells everyone that she cannot hear sounds of lovemaking through the thin walls that separate their bedrooms.

Big Daddy, who has returned home to celebrate his birthday, learns the truth about his condition from Brick – who in a pique of frustration lets it slip out. With the cat out of the bag, the family doctor provides Big Daddy with morphine to deal with the pain – and Goober and Mae approach Big Mama to discuss Big Daddy’s estate. But Big Mama doesn’t want to believe or talk about Big Daddy’s impending death and turns the discussion to her concern for Brick’s condition. As Maggie comforts her mother-in-law and Goober and Mae press their case, Brick goes down to the basement, where his father has retreated to after learning he doesn’t have long to live.

In the basement, Big Daddy rummages through the expensive mementos his has accumulated throughout his life while questioning Brick about the son’s problems. During the rummaging, Big Daddy comes across an old suitcase that belonged to his father, a drifter who took his son everywhere he went, often hopping freight trains to travel. Big Daddy called his father “that old bum.” Then, Big Daddy tells Brick that he (Big Daddy) has given his son (Brick) everything that a man could want. But Brick disagrees and tells Big Daddy that although he gave him lots of physical, expensive things, the only thing he (Brick) never felt he got from his father was love. Brick then points out that Big Daddy’s father left him more than just an old suitcase and hat – he left him fond memories of a parent who loved him. This statement brings Big Daddy out of his bout of self-pity and he goes up stairs and then goes for a walk with his wife, who he had described in scornful terms up to that point.

As the movie ends, Brick and Goober actually show affection for each other. Then Brick summons Maggie – who has lied about being pregnant and told her father-in-law that her pregnancy was her birthday gift to him (Big Daddy) – to go upstairs with him so they can make her lie become truth.

These stories tell us that the key to happiness is love and that the love shown by our parents often shapes our lives – for better or for worse. Sometimes, like the case of Charlie Kane, parents do what they think is best without realizing the harm they are doing to their child by removing the signs of their love from that child’s life. Other times, as Big Daddy demonstrated, a parent will misinterpret what he or she was taught and try to provide their child with the material things that the parent thought he or she missed out on during their own childhood. And while there is no “hard evidence” of Reavis’s treatment by his parents, I think it’s fair to say that if it had been made clear that he was loved as a child, he might not have felt the need to use his considerable skills in such a devious manner.

Additionally, the unmistakable link of between these three movies is the erroneous belief that money – lots and lots of money – will buy happiness. These films tell us that is not the case and suggest that had the people in these movies received demonstrable expressions of love from their parents – or understood those expressions when they did receive them – they might have lived happier lives.

Of course, you can always point to cases where overindulgence by a doting parent can be just as harmful to the child. But that’s for another posting. The lesson I am trying to share here is that we should always try to let our children know that they are loved – and that begins by telling them so.

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