Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

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.

Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams smoking pot in POLTERGEIST

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 in his produced (and maybe partly directed) film 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 in their reestablishing their bonds 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 their most relaxed inside voices. Goldsmith might get overwrought in a few places, but he knows when to play it cool. 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 mickey-mousing (i.e. the third act's sea shanty variations).


Poltergeist 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 a great example of superlative parenting because dad is not diminishing Robbie's concerns, not admonishing him for an overactive imagination, not rolling his eyes and asking wearily if he needs to call Dr. Scherzinger again. He's taking his son's worry seriously but elevating the sense of magical thinking into the proper pronoid direction. (My great 70s dad, for example, took my monster in the closet fear seriously by taping up a sign on the door, "No Monsters Permitted" or something, and I was fine from then on).


But all in 70s dad land --the 80s are looming. soon Steve is at wit's end, besieged by ghostly manifestations he actually becomes more scoffing and rude to those who want to help them. 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 and snipe at the hands that try to help.


A subtle moment of this slipping occurs when Diane 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. Her tone carries just the hint of belittling condescension (the equivalent of saying "this little lady deserves a big hand"). His acting out shows how slippery the slope is - treat him like a child and he can't help but act that way in protest. When the psychic medium (Zelda Rubenstein) comes over, he makes cracks, referencing 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! Besides, just because a psychic can pick up spirit energy doesn't mean she can read thoughts. It's not all part and parcel, like if you can see dead people you should also be able to explode heads and start fires with your mind.


Losing his daughter to the void clearly throws Steve for a loop and for the rest of the film (until the big climax), he broods, seated, in shadows, his masculine force drained. The ghost hunting is in the realm of the feminine here; the older, flask-sipping lady first, and then the psychic Zelda. We see many shots of him sitting in shadow while the women stand above him, indicating his reduced status as an authority figure. 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 nearby graveyard will have to be moved to make room for the new developments, he's gets especially 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) rather than just letting it freak the boss out, not unlike an abused spouse trying to mask her bruises to visiting police. He doesn't tell his neighbors about his experiences, especially once they initially deny anything's going wrong in their own houses (why there's not is never explained. Maybe it's that they fall asleep with their TV on a lot, enabling the ghosts to come through easier?)

Steve ends the movie homeless and unemployed... presumably he won't be either for long. He's also a whole lot wiser. But what has he lost, this complicated cool dude who smokes weed but reads Reagan biographies, this survivor of poltergeist attacks who scoffs at psychics, this real estate man of the living dead?  It's the 80s and the war against drugs is looming. Will Steve and Diane still be able to smoke pot to relax after the kids are asleep, or will Nancy Reagan's "just say no" campaign convince one of their own kids to report their pot use to the authorities? Will the loss of the house be blamed on Steve, for illegal building of a pool, or something?

In the 80s the free love grooviness drained like a swimming pool over a sinkhole. The threat of invisible ghosts, Russians, terrorists, drug dealers, you name it-- was keeping the Reagan-Bush dynasty in business. 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 5 AM static. Huge lawsuits and civil actions erupted; Satanic panic and pedophile ring hysteria 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 family pictures that included unclothed photos of their own infants. MADD's boosted drunk driving laws, amped-up drug searches, and the availability of uncensored films rented (in the beginning) at stereo and appliance stores, made Friday and Saturday nights into stay at home affairs. Bars became 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 then made her 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 left 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 is emblematic of this turn, from cool 70s dad to a sulking, defensive couch potato. We can see it 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 should go into the light to find Carol-Ann. Because of all the spirit traffic and wind it's too loud to hear well, and he panics; Zelda switches from talking to him to talking to the other 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 misinterpretation and subsequent abortive action indicates the way parental myopia becomes paranoia, and how America's Most Wanted, slasher movies and the advent of home video and Satanic panic turned us against our neighbors. People bunkered down for the long haul, cheering the draconian drug laws that trapped innocent pot and acidheads like fish in a net meant for coke heads and at-risk youth. Homosexuals, male daycare workers, and young drug-addled teens (like m'self) became pariahs. No one could go into the light anymore, period. It was dangerous, so it was illegal. Spirits had no choice now but 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 great 70s edition, 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 bad enough that swearing off having any kind of fun, at least in public, seemed at least some small comfort, like declaring you're going to quit drinking as a way to get your spouse off your back. 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 such things, except to get 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 conqueror--it defeated his good vibes, defied and destroyed his sense of self, made his free-wheeling rapport with his kids seem suspect. Men who were comfortable around their own kids now seemed suspect, evil; those who ignored them on the other hand, were neglectful, but clearly not monsters. This paranoia turned children against their fathers and fathers against themselves. Dad's only consolation prize: that 'sign off' national anthem and subsequent white noise static 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 dad needed to do now but wait it out, alone, unemployed, entertained, and shattered to the core by cable's endless aerobics.

4 comments:

  1. This is flat out brilliant.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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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