Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Don't go in the light, no wait, go into the light! - The Last of the Great 70s Dads, First Bad 80s: Craig T. Nelson in POLTERGEIST (1982)

The year of 1982 was, as we cineastes know, the great year of American science fiction and fantasy. Not only did we get enduring faves like THE ROAD WARRIOR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, BLADE RUNNER and THE THING, there were two movies from the Spielberg camp, ET, and POLTERGEIST. Like a capstone to the great 70s, 1982 was a time to regroup on issues of masculinity, fatherhood and the outsider relation to the social order. A dad was notoriously absent from the ET family unit, and figures like Mad Max and Conan (and the entire cast of THE THING) stood firmly on the outside of any sort of social order or role model status, avoiding even feral kids as passengers; Deckard in BLADE RUNNER was a part of the order, a cop, but over the course of the film began to become more and more the bad guy, shooting 'replicants' guilty of little more than self-defense as they searched for a home on a planet beyond saving. In other '82 offerings, like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, there were no parents of any sort. So what happened to the 70s dads?

One was left: POLTERGEIST, a rare glimpse into a 'cool' family with a hip, playful, relaxed good provider father, brilliantly played by Craig T. Nelson as a more domesticated version of Harrison Ford; his dry, knowing delivery made him seem fun and employable at the same time. During the opening 20 minutes of POLTERGEIST we get to know him and his family, including hip wife JoBeth Williams and we like them. There is, among other things, a whole great early scene with them smoking dope after the kids are in their beds.

The scenes show the dad shirltless in PJs, his arms or body stretching to the edges of the frame, at ease, a master of his domain yet not a tyrant. He jumps on the bed to demonstrate a high dive to soothe wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) over concerns about their daughter drowning in their under-construction pool. Diane mocks him: "your diving days are over." He barely deigns to acknowledge her remark: arms outstretched, demonstrating form on the high dive, noting with great mock solemnity, "we're talking about the Olympics here, Diane."

Imagine such a scene today in a horror film and you can't. Imagine Tom Cruise playing a dad this mellow, or Nicolas Cage a dad this unencumbered by free-floating anxiety. The wife would never let him jump up on the bed - those are 400 thread-count sheets!

And when the son, Robbie, comes in unannounced, they don't treat him with condescension, or anger he's intruded on their quiet time; they're not ashamed or embarrassed to be caught smoking weed either; they don't fall on some stock response like 'there is no bogey man go back to bed!" or some snide lecture about growing up, some excuse why it smells funny in their room while they bat away the smoke.  They merely deftly put their stash away, and look at him with some concern, but not sappily. "Hey, sport," they say in greeting. They wait for him to tell them what's going on.... they treat him like a person, like a guest, deserving of a straightforwardly respectful response, rather than belittle his fears in some rote, borderline hysteric bid at perfect parenting.

Spielberg's first big breakout film, JAWS had the premiero uno great 70s dad, so it's only natural this guy should close out the decade by starting this cool. Instead of "gimme a kiss... I need it," we have him inviting the son to jump on his back, noting "I am the wind and you are the feather," clearly this is some kind of inside joke between them stretching back to his infanthood. There's no sickly warm strings like there would be if John Williams was scoring. He's not, thankfully. Jerry Goldsmith is, so there is no music at all --just the crash of the thunder outside, allowing people to talk in inside voices; he might get overwrought in a few places, but he knows not to over-orchestrate and when to hold back. Conjuring a 'safe' kind of menace where applicable, and hanging back in other parts to let the horror build on its own, Goldsmith rocks in ways way beyond the ken of Williams and his overwrought attention-grabbing .

Dad Steve also has an appreciation for nature and the mysteries of the beyond. Robbie is freaked about the tree outside the window, feeling as if it's spying on him. "It knows about us, doesn't it?" he asks.

"It knows everything about us," replies his dad with utmost whispered seriousness. "That's why I built this house right next to it, Rob, so it could protect us. ... It's a very wise old tree." This is superlative parenting because Steve's not diminishing Robbie's concerns, not admonishing him for an overactive imagination. He's taking his son's worry seriously and elevating the sense of magical thinking into the proper pronoid direction.

But all is not well for long. He's humbled and at wit's end over ghosties when he recruits the paranormal research group, and during their at-home investigation, Steve's sense of powerlessness over the events begins to diminish his sense of confidence and self-worth. He starts to act like a sulky child, feeling his mastery of his domain slipping away, he can only sulk over his own powerlessness.

A subtle moment of this slipping occurs when JoBeth Williams reaches over to him at the family table, telling the team, "He's been wonderful, really," as if boasting of some reformed wayward child to his parole officer. JoBeth's tone carries just the hint of condescension, like Dad tries really hard, but he just can't protect them from this thing. When the dwarf psychic medium (Zelda Rubenstein) comes over, he makes cracks, referencing THE WIZARD OF OZ and snickering under his breath, even 'mentally' signaling to Zelda, refusing to answer her verbally since he reasons she should be able to pick up his answers if she's so damned psychic. Very insulting, Steven!

 Losing his daughter to the void clearly throws Steve for a loop. He broods, seated, in shadows, his masculine force drained. The ghost hunting is in the realm of the feminine here; the older drinker lady first, and then the psychic dwarf. We see many shots of him sitting in shadow while the women stand above him, indicating his reduced status as an authority. Not even a promotion from his boss (who's worried he's missed so much work because he's looking for a better job), can allay his surliness). When he sees the graveyard will have to be moved to make room for the new developments he's uneasy. Earlier when his boss was inside Steve's house he'd made clear attempts to hide the paranormal activity going on (such as an organ flying across the room); in other words he's attempting to create a facade of normality. He doesn't tell his neighbors, once they initially deny anything's going wrong in their own houses. He's isolated in these events for reasons never fully explained. (Maybe it's that they fall asleep with their TV on a lot, enabling the ghosts to come through easier? Or that their kids aren't fat and ugly like the neigbor's, hence more worth stealing?)

Steve ends the movie homeless and unemployed... presumably neither for long, but also a whole lot wiser. The issue is, is that a good thing? What has he lost, this reader of books about Reagan who smokes week, this survivor of poltergeist attacks who scoffs at psychics, this real estate man of the living dead, aside from his innocence? Are he and his wife still going to smoke pot to relax after the kids are asleep, or will Nancy Reagan's "just say no" campaign convince one of the kids to report their pot use to their teacher and have the kids taken away to social services? Will the disaster of the house be blamed on him, for illegal building of a pool or something?

He's certainly treading a thin line, paying a stiff price for this disillusionment. The threat of invisible ghosts, Russians, terrorists, drug dealers, you name it-- was keeping the Reagan-Bush dynasty in business; the fun freewheeling 70s were over. Ghosts, slashers, and bogeymen were making their way to every home in America via the arrival of cable TV -which had no American flag sign-off or static. Meanwhile everywhere huge lawsuits and civil actions erupted: hysteria over child molestations at day care centers led to massive firings of male childcare workers just to be 'safe;' - moms were thrown to the ground in handcuffs when they went to the Fotomat to pick up pictures of their daughters in bathing suits; MADD boosted laws and public awareness so Saturday nights became home affairs- bars hotbeds of paranoid moderation; no one wanted to drive to any party even at a friends house a few blocks away, unless their spouse was going to be the designated driver, which itself was a total buzzkill --who wants to drink in front of a judgmental, sober spouse? And god forbid you had a joint in your purse or something when they pulled you over on the way home: you might still be in jail even now.

 Oh yeah, and hysteria over AIDS leaving it open season on firing anyone who happened to be gay, or even sound gay, lest they somehow contaminate our children. Plastic gloves, condoms, fear of inappropriate touching, all led to a great turning away from the social sphere.

The withdrawal of Nelson's Steve Freeling into an embittered dad, prone to panic, sulking and defensively snickering, is implicitly linked to this national parenting sea change. It's emblematic in the way he pulls the rope too early during the rescue of Carol Ann because his myopic dismissiveness misinterprets what Zelda is saying. The psychic is continually reversing whether or not Diane and Carol-Ann should go into the light, and it's too loud to hear well, but he panics at the moment she's talking to the trapped spirits who are caught in the crossfire between the demon and the Freelings. She's telling them--the innocent, trapped ghosts-- to go into the light, but Steve thinks he's telling Diane to go into the light and so freaks out, pulling the rope too early.

For me, this misinterpreting indicates the way myopia becomes paranoia, and how America's Most Wanted made us all suspicious of our neighbors. People bunkered down for the long haul, drinking at home so they didn't get arrested by MADD, cheering the draconian drug laws that trapped innocent pot and acidheads like fish in a net meant for coke heads and at-risk youth. Gay people and men in elementary school jobs became pariahs for no reason. No one could go into the light anymore, period. And spirits had to just stay trapped in the plowed-over graveyard maze called suburbia.

These sorts of drastic measures can seem very sane, comforting even, to someone who is very, very afraid of what's happening to their neighborhood. Maybe it was Indian immigrants, or blacks or hispanics, instead of ghosts moving in, but the resulting drive to retreat and fortify defenses was the same. The bad 80s dad had replaced the carefree 70s version, and for no clear reason other than media suggestion. It was just our time to withdraw, as a family, from the social sphere; the hangover for the 70s boondoggle was bad enough that swearing off having any kind of fun, at least in public, seemed at least some small comfort. Beaten down and emasculated by supernatural forces, Steve's final act of defiance, kicking the TV out of the hotel room, seems foolish and short-sighted. You can't shoot the messenger, and more than likely that TV would be stolen before morning and he'd get charged on his bill. One just doesn't do that, except for a relief-laugh after the lengthy suspense and family-friendly horror of the rest of the night.

Steve is right in one thing: the TV is the 70s dad's mortal enemy --it defeated his good vibes, defied and destroyed his sense of self, made his close easy bond and free-wheeling play with his kids seem suspect. Men who loved their children were evil and those who ignored them neglectful; it made hostile strangers of neighbors and turned children against their fathers and fathers against themselves. Dad's only consolation prize: that 'sign off' national anthem and subsequent white noise static in the wee wee hours on arial TV was gone forever. As if quietly correcting the problem for future families, now the screens would never go blank. Now channels were always, always running programs. There was nothing to do now but wait it out, alone, unemployed, entertained, and shattered to the core by cable's endlessly rerun phantom menace.


  1. This is flat out brilliant.

  2. Awesome article man, really liked it. The 70's dad vs. the 80's Dad...great stuff, I always loved Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist. His sense of humor kills me. Like when the Indian says to Nelson "Your car is angry" Craig T. Nelson replies: "Angry? That car is PISSED!" One of the things I enjoyed about al Poltergeist films is that they are all about the family unit and how hard it can be to protect it.

  3. jervaise brooke hamster02 March, 2013

    Erich, dont you understand that the ONLY reason people watch the Poltergeist movies now is to see Heather O`Rourke ! ! !. They dont give a toss about Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Zelda Rubinstein, or indeed anyone else who appeared in those 3 movies, THEY JUST WANT TO SEE HEATHER ! ! !. I think its important that a film acidemic like yourself should realise that.

  4. I dig this blog. Reagan loved to invoke the Pilgrims who saw America as a "City on a Hill." I always say Poltergeist is all about what's buried beneath the hill.


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