“Now it’s just my luck to have the watch, with nothing left to do
But watch the deadly waters glide as we roll north to the ‘Soo,’
And wonder when they’ll turn again and pitch us to the rail
And whirl off one more youngster in the gale.”
–from Stan Roger’s “White Squall”
Bill Forsyth’s film Housekeeping (1987) raises one fundamental question: Can fools be parents? Let me rephrase that slightly: Can Fools be parents? That little capital “F” makes a world of difference. A small “f” fool is just a fool, acting spontaneously with utter disregard to consequence and for reasons which are randomly selfish or altruistic. A small “f” fool is a force of nature, and a child in such a fool’s hands is as likely to be tempest-toss’d as nature-nurtur’d. Self-preservation is no fool’s strongpoint. Now a Fool, on the other hand, is no fool. She (or he) is a professional. A Fool by choice. Companion to kings, and wiser than his or her master. Shakespearean Fools. Mirrors for others’ follies. No one is more loyal or more selfless or more honest. No truer friend than a Fool. A child in such hands would be cherished beyond all measure.
Housekeeping is about two children and a Fool. Or is it two children and a fool? The point of view you choose will make this either a moving, inspirational film or a tragedy of misguided love. Christine Lahti plays the central role of a young woman, Sylvie, whom fate entrusts with the upbringing of her two orphaned nieces. Never having known their father (whose very existence their mother would have denied had it not been a biological imperative), and having lost their mother under circumstances as utterly mystifying as they were heart-breaking, Lucille (twelve-year-old Andrea Burchill) and Ruth (fifteen-year-old Sara Walker) are hoping for a little stability in their present lives and some insight into their past. With Sylvie they get neither. And this may or may not be a good thing.
Sylvie’s a vagabond. Train timetables and discarded newspapers are the only sacred books she knows. Unlike most of us, she is capable of passionate action without purpose: obsessively collecting papers and tin cans, leaving marshmallows on branches for non-existent forest children, sitting silently for hours in a darkened house. As played by Lahti, Sylvie is an even more disturbingly ambiguous character than she is in the fine novel by Marilynne Robinson from which the screenplay was taken.
At times Sylvie seems to be a genuinely free spirit whose eccentricities are a needed tonic for spirits dulled by small-town conservatism. She’s not a rebel. You can’t rebel against constraints you don’t even know exist. Just as we first meet her bare-headed, gloveless, and bootless on a cold winter’s day, so she sails through daily life oblivious to the need to listen to any voices but her own. For one of the two girls in her keeping, Ruth, Sylvie’s Alice-in-Wonderland lifestyle is an affirmation. Ruth is shy, bored by school, uninterested in the options open to a young woman in the town of Fingerbone, Oregon, in the late 1950’s. Her aunt is living proof that there might be other role models than Betty Crocker or Blondie Bumstead. Why bother trying to conform when you can just find an unattended boat and spend your days (and nights) adrift on Kootenay Lake, or wandering the forest shores?
Kootenay Lake? You betcha. Housekeeping was shot entirely on location in & around Nelson, British Columbia. Some cities have all the luck. Nineteen eighty-seven was a very good year for Nelson. Steve Martin’s crew had barely wrapped up Roxanne when Bill Forsyth came into town. The two films demonstrate that Nelson itself is a fine actor. In Martin’s film its bright and elegant facades are a perfect backdrop for romantic comedy. In Housekeeping, it’s a mildly claustrophobic place, darker and colder, with Kootenay Lake a disquieting presence, lapping at the edges as if it might someday reclaim town and inhabitants the way the mythical lake near Fingerbone swallowed whole a locomotive and all its passengers (including Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather) one icy winter’s night. Both cinematographer Michael Coulter and production director Adrienne Atkinson deserve credit for translating Robinson’s spare, dreamlike prose to the screen.
Sylvie’s a free spirit, but she’s also a kindred spirit to that lake. As the intimacy between her and Ruth grows deeper, one feels uneasy. Will the winds shift suddenly? The spirit of a lake is without anger, but it is without mercy. One senses that Sylvie is completely self-sufficient unto herself. Isn’t the world she creates around herself infinitely more fascinating than anything outside of it, including Ruth and Lucille? The townspeople of Fingerbone see Sylvie as a threat to her charges. Their incomprehension and fear bring out their worst qualities: smugness, intolerance, patronage. These are decent people whom one almost comes to hate, and yet we perhaps have every reason to join them. When Sylvie leads Ruth out on that long train trestle at night, how strong is our faith that Sylvie really knows when the next train’s due?
Ruth’s sister, Lucille, has no such faith at all. As she hits the full stride of her teenage years, she becomes increasingly outraged at the thought that others might come to believe that she shares her aunt’s private, chaotic universe. For Lucille, Sylvie represents an inexplicable, insupportable solitude. A fool. At the first opportunity, she flees to a new home and a “real” family. There are no regrets. And this reviewer, despite his partiality for Fools, tends to believe she made the right choice.
What makes Housekeeping such a fine family film is that the ambiguities of the performances and the screenplay ensure that Lucille’s and Ruth’s confusions are played out in the audience that watches them. Housekeeping ends in the viewer’s head, not on the screen.
Sidebar #71e: Looking Back & Second Thoughts
One of the most extraordinary qualities of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping is its total lack of judgment in regards to its central characters. Usually, when those characters are outsiders, living on the margins of society or entirely isolated from it, the author is trying for some kind of emotional arc—either sympathy with the physical and psychological tolls exacted by that isolation, to the point where the outsiders may become a heroic figures; or distrust and fear of the potential damage that can be wreaked by individuals who have no ties to socials norms or to conventional morality. Sylvie and Ruth are outsiders in the truest sense of the word, yet Marilynne Robinson’s only agenda in presenting them to the reader seems to be to simply acknowledge that such people live amongst us and that their lives will sometimes intersect ours. Nor is there any judgment of Lucille, who ultimately chooses the norms of society over family, or at least society’s idea of family over the one into which she was born. In Ms. Robinson’s own words, one of the goals of artistic imagination is to acknowledge “the integrity and mystery of other lives.” The filmed version of her novel is faithful to that mystery, even though the medium itself naturally generates a stronger empathy with the characters we see on the screen than we might experience through the tone of the written text.
Below, I’ve included some extracts from both Housekeeping and When I Was a Child I Read Books. From the former you’ll get some sense of Ms. Robinson’s distancing in the service of mystery; from the latter her passionate faith in humanity and her anger at the rising tides of cynicism and intolerance.
“If I had been keeping a diary at that time….I would have perhaps recorded the discovery of a tattered twenty-dollar bill fastened with a safety pin to the underside of Sylvie’s left lapel. This did not disturb me much. It had probably always been there. Nevertheless, it was a reminder of her transient’s shifts and habits which distracted by attention from Lucille. It was now obvious that Lucille would soon be gone. She was intent up it. I watched her constantly—here was the mystery again, and this time slowed, dilated. Every day she prepared to leave—with what care!—and someday she would leave.”
“Looking out at the lake one could believe that the [Biblical] Flood had never ended. If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat. And below is always the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanish, which perishes and remains. If we imagine that Noah’s wife, when she was old, found somewhere a remnant of the Deluge, she might have walked into it till her widow’s dress floated above her head and the water loosened her plaited hair. And she would have left it o her sons to tell the tedious tale of generations. She was a nameless woman, and so at home among all those who were never found and never missed, who were uncommemorated, whose deaths where not remarked, nor their begettings.”
“The slow creaking made me think of a park by the water where my mother used to take Lucille and me. It had a swing built of wood, as high as a scaffold and loose in all its joints, and when my mother pushed me the scaffold leaned after me, and creaked. That was where she sat me on her shoulders so that I could paddle my hands in the chestnut leaves, so cool, and that was the day we bought hamburgers at a white cart for supper and sat on a green bench by the seawall feeding all the bread to the sea gulls and watching the ponderous ferries sail between sky and water so precisely the same electric blue that there was no horizon. The horns of the ferries made huge, delicate sounds, low cows lowing. They should have left a milky breath in the air. I thought they did, but that was just the sound lingering. My mother was happy that day, we did not know why. And if she was sad the next, we did not know why. And if she was gone the next, we did not know why. It was as if she righted herself continually against some current that never ceased to pull. She swayed continuously, like a thing in water, and it was graceful, a slow dance, a sad and heady dance.”
“And [my grandmother] saw her daughters’ faces not as they always were, or as other people’s were, and she was quiet and aloof and watchful, not to startle the strangeness away. She had never taught them to be kind to her.”
“Bernice brought our mother a thick letter. ‘Reginald Stone,’ she had said, taping the return address with a lavender claw. Helen gave her a cup of coffee and sat at the table picking idly at a loose corner of the postage stamp while Bernice whispered a scandalous tale of martial fracture and reconciliation involving a cocktail waitress Bernice knew very well. Apparently concluding at last that the letter would never be opened while she was there, Bernice finally left, and when she was gone Helen tore the envelope into fourths and dropped them in the trash. Glancing into our faces as if she suddenly remembered we were there, anticipating our questions, she said, ‘It’s best,’ and that was all we knew of our father.”
“After the mud [from the flood] had been shoveled away, school took up again….Because we were quiet we were considered docile, and because our work was not exceptionally good or bad we were left alone. Hours of tedium were relieved by occasional minor humiliations, as, for example, when our fingernails were checked for cleanliness. Once I was required to stand by my desk and recite ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.’ My cold, visceral dread of school I had learned to ignore. It was a discomfort that was not to be relieved, like an itch in an amputated limb.”
“I was content with Sylvie, so it was a surprise to me when I realized that Lucille had begun to regard other people with the calm, horizontal look of settled purpose with which, from a slowly sinking boat, she might have regarded a not-too-distant shore.”
“But I went to the woods for the woods’ own sake, while, increasingly, Lucille seemed to be enduring a banishment there.
When we did come home Sylvie would certainly be home, too, enjoying the evening, for so she described her habit of sitting in the dark. Evening was her special time of day. She gave the word three syllables, and indeed I think she liked it so well for its tendency to smooth, to soften. She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a worldful of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic. Lucille and I stepped through the door from sheer night to sheer night.”
From When I Was a Child I Read Books:
“What if we have ceased to aspire to Democracy, or even democracy? What if the words “Democracy” and “America” are severed, and no longer imply each other? It is not unusual now to hear that we have lost our values, that we have lost our way. In the desperations of the moment, justified or not, certain among us have turned on our heritage, the country that has emerged out of generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety, access to suffrage, equality under law. It turns out, by their reckoning, that the country they call the greatest on earth has spent most of its history acting against its own (great) nature, and that the enhancements of life it has provided for the generality of its people, or to phrase it more democratically, that the people have provided for themselves, have made its citizens weak and dependent. How the greatest nation on earth maintains this exalted status while burdened with a population these patriots do not like or respect is an interesting question, certainly. In any case, the return to traditional values seems to them to mean, together with a bracing and punitive severity toward the vulnerable among us, the establishment of a kind of religious monoculture we have never had and our institutions have never encouraged.”
“I know that there are numberless acts of generosity, moral as well as material, carried out among [America’s] people every hour of the day. But the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory. On both sides the sole motive force in our past is now said to have been capitalism. On both sides capitalism is understood as grasping materialism that has somehow or other yielded the comforts and liberties of modern life….The economics of the moment, is a corrosive influence, undermining everything it touches, from our industrial strength to our research capacity to the well-being of our children. I am not the first to suggest that it is undermining our politics as well.
What if good institutions were in fact the product of good intentions? What is the cynicism that is supposed to be rigor and the acquisitiveness that is supposed to be realism are making us forget the origins of the greatness we lay claim to—power and wealth as secondary consequences of the progress of freedom, or, as [Walt] Whitman would prefer, Democracy?”
“There are excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness. Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate these excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, or if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm. I think it is reasonable to wonder whether democracy can survive in this atmosphere. Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement….It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home….The great truth that we have too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”
“Austerity is the big word throughout the West these days, with the implicit claim that whatever the austerity managers take to be inessential is inessential indeed, and that whatever can be transformed from public wealth into private affluence is suddenly an insupportable public burden and should and must be put on the block….We in the West have created societies that, by historical standards, may be called humane. We have done this gradually, through the workings of our politics. Under the banner of necessity it can all be swept away….In the need of the focus that comes with having an alien and threatening government to contend against, a considerable number of Americans now choose to consider their own government alien and threatening, and, for good measure, Socialist. Again, this kind of thinking is eminently compatible with Austerity, since the redistributive activities of government are exactly what they choose to be austere about….There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.”