Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Housekeeping (1987)

“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.


From Housekeeping:

“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.”

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Bill Forsyth
Actors: Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill, Wayne Robson
Original Review: October 1997


The Enigma of Arrival: Time-Traveling from Lovecraft to La Jetée

This essay by David L. Pike from the Bright Lights Film Journal is a great reminder of the pleasures of long-form journalism.  In the course of exploring the science fiction themes of Arrival and of director Dennis Villeneuve’s films in general, David Pike weaves in discussions of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, Ted Chiang’s novella The Story of Your Life, Alan Moore’s Necronomicon, Chris Marker’s half-hour film La Jetée, and some St. Augustine for good measure.  You might want to grab a big cup of coffee or a more potent beverage before you sit down and immerse yourself in Pike’s critical narrative.  Here’s a guy who can actually get away with using “anagnoresis” in a film review.

Top five most unjust awards: Tales of Oscar outrages past

Fresh Guacamole by PES

Blind Vaysha

Philadelphia film critic Gary M. Kramer’s refreshingly upbeat smack-down on a few of the many times the Academy Awards not only missed the boat, but didn’t even make it to the dock.  The second link is to the animated film that Kramer says should have won in 2013.  It’s the shortest film ever nominated for an Academy Award (running time: 100 seconds).  The third & fourth links are to Canadian award-winning animated films by Theodore Ushev and Robert Valley.

Films Worth Talking About:

Radio Days, Throw Mama From the Train, Tin Men, Le Grand Chemin, Raising Arizona, Gardens of Stone, Barfly, The Dead, Wall Street, Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobregen), The Last Emperor, Lethal Weapon, Intervista, Under Satan’s Sun, Wings of Desire, Tampopo, Withnail and I, Robocop, Dirty Dancing, The Big Easy, Au revoir les enfants, Maurice, Long Live the Lady! (Lunga vita alla signora!), Hope and Glory, Fatal Attraction, Someone to Watch Over Me, Cry Freedom, Empire of the Sun, Wish You Were Here, Moonstruck, [Good Morning, Vietnam], Full Metal Jacket, Ishtar, Broadcast News, Personal Services, House of Games, The Lost Boys, Roxanne, Yeelen (Brightness), Bird, Family Viewing, The Untouchables

The Bigger Picture



Books:  Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, When I Was a Child I Read Books

The Word on the Street

“This is a film of a rare, intimate perception that is aimed with pinpoint precision at a few unusual characters and the places they inhabit. At first its subjects seem simple, but like many people do, these characters are merely shielding themselves, hesitant to reveal much of their real natures except as as rare gifts in intimate moments. It must have been tremendously challenging to create and portray natural introverts like these characters, but as an introvert myself (I assert that characteristic without any touch of self-disparagement), I found this story rewardingly resonant of my own experience, especially of childhood memories, although indeed my outward circumstances had little in common with this story.”  [David-HMB]

“great film, but probably the most misrepresentative ad campaign i’ve ever seen for a movie. this is NOT a comedy. Christine Lahti’s Sylvia is NOT a one dimensional free-spirit. she is disturbed, as is the entire family. this translates perfectly from the book, as does the film’s look and emotional atmosphere.
as for the opinion that Sylvia is a Pied Piper, that’s just wrong. she could care less if anyone follows in her path. it just so happens that her niece is seduced by virtue of what i would interpret as instinct. the family has a long history of breaking from the norm, much to its detriment. the niece is merely fulfilling her filial destiny.
to say that the story presents a polemic about nonconformity shortchanges the viewer from the complexity of emotions that it evokes. there is no argument. this is just the way things turn out for these folks. and in my opinion, the ending leaves us questioning, just as it does in the book, how much control we have over destiny.”  [garko-1]

“*Housekeeping* is easily one of my favorite films– haunting, poetic & deeply melancholy, the film is very much like the poetry of Mark Strand: principally concerned with longing for something & not knowing what, being restless, etc. Haunting Pacific Northwest scenery! Impeccable performances, moving sountrack.”  [jtrapp1]

As for Christine Lahti…wow. I really like her anyway and wish she did more movies of “quality.” She can even make a crappy Lifetime movie watchable! She was so subtle and perfect. Movies generally portray the “mentally ill” (debateable term!) as extremists, but not here. There’s never that middle ground where so many ordinary people drift along in. There is never any completely bizarre, crazy, off-the wall behavior here and I bet most people have known someone just like her. Someone who is able to function, but can be distracted by very strong, yet invisible or abstract forces. Lahti’s character clearly understands she doesn’t *fit,* which is especially clear when she is speaking with the church women or the police officer, but she never goes off on some tangent about how it’s them, not her or whatever. She’s like so many people who, for one moment you can connect with them and have a conversation, and the next you want to grab their shoulders and shake them because they are off in some other place.  [Lydia K]

There are gentle kindness, quiet sadness, the spirit of freedom and adventure, unspoken words, bitter disappointments, failures, search for love, for understanding and belonging in this movie. Christine Lahti is great – watching her reminded me of two remarkable movies, “Running On Empty” where Lahti played one of the main characters, the mother and wife in the family that had to be on the run and the devastating and profoundly moving “Vagabond” by Agnes Varda, the tragic search for absolute freedom.  [G-a-l-i-n-a]

“The film maintains a consistent sense of mystery about the nature of relationships and families and destinies, especially regarding women who do more than simply fit into a norm (although, inevitably, its sympathy ultimately seems with the path of non-conformity, whatever the risks): it’s also beautifully ambiguous about what relative values are being assigned to the various pathways on display here. It’s characteristic of the movie’s subtlety that the degree of Ruthie’s self-determination is never quite clear given the character’s extreme undemonstrativeness – the end may represent an (albeit innocent) form of coercion by Lahti. Even if so though, that’s still a manifestation of family and of the way structures arise and endure, and as such seems at peace with the film’s river-like tranquility and evocation of old myths (the train that went into the lake; the grandfather’s obsession with mountains); the movie is also good at creating present-day images that look like the stuff of FUTURE legend (the flooded house; the night they spend out on the lake). Lahti’s clever portrayal (unconventional, almost too honest at times even as she recedes as others) is perfectly suited to embodying the theme of a threat embodied by difference, regardless of its nature. This is surely Forsyth’s most accomplished film.”  [allyjack]