Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Movies anticipate the possible future enforcement of filial responsibility laws

I’ve noted on some other blogs, particularly the “Bill Retires” blog (see my profile for the links) the likelihood that filial responsibility is ultimately going to become a serious political and social issue, driven by demographics. I had talked about this theme in the movies on this blog on Aug. 24, 2007, but mainly in conjunction with films where people are suddenly called upon to raise other people’s (like deceased siblings’) children.

As noted on that entry, the most important of these films in recent years was probably the 1998 film from Universal, “One True Thing,” directed by Carl Franklin, based on a novel by Anna Quindlen, with the screenplay by Karen Croner. I saw this in September 1998 at the Mall of America, about one year after moving to Minnesota for a job transfer, and just as I was beginning to realize how serious a problem this could become for me at some time in the future. Eventually it did. The movie was painful to watch. When the mother Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep, in one of her most powerful roles) is stricken by aggressive breast cancer with big time chemotherapy, her college professor husband (William Hurt) “conscripts” their daughter (Renee Zellweger) to give up her career and boyfriend in the big city and come back to take care of Mom and “live her mother’s life.” Of course, the husband’s motives come under moral scrutiny, as does everyone’s at the end with the mother’s final passing.

Another eldercare film with a political byte comes from Germany, “Good Bye Lenin!”, in 2003 (from Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Wolfgang Becker). A woman (Katrin Sass) who teaches Marxism in East Berlin collapses with a heart attack when she sees her son (Daniel Bruhl, who is most appealing) arrested and carted away while protesting for freedom. He has to pretend to sympathize with Communism to help her recover. After all, “she’s your Mother.”

A small film from Spain, "Solas" (Samuel Goldwyn, 2000, dir. Benito Zambrano), set in a grimy looking Seville, has a girl moving to the city to get away from her father’s authoritarianism, and then he gets sick and needs an operation. I saw this at the University of Minnesota Bell Auditorium during an international film festival.

Another important film, often shown in high school science classes, is "October Sky" (1999, Universal, dir. Joe Johnston) where Homer Hickum dreams of becoming a rocket scientist but his coal miner father resents his walking away from the family. When the father gets hurt, Homer has to drop out of school and support the family, although the older brother says that it is really "his responsibility." Yet the film is usually shown to kids, for the physics it shows, not for the sociology lesson.

The big film on this problem in the 2007 Oscar race ought to be "The Savages," directed and written by Tamara Jenkins, from Fox Searchlight and Lone Star Pictures. A middle aged brother and sister (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) struggle to share the responsibility for their demented father when the family he was living with in Arizona kicks him out. They place him in a nursing home in Buffalo, NY and it appears that Medicaid covers it, but in some states, filial responsibility laws could have forced the adult children to pay, even if these laws are rarely enforced yet. The siblings (whether they have spouses themselves does not come into consideration) fight among each other as to whose life is more “valid” and who should have to “sacrifice.” The professor has a “real job” where as the sister is an “amateur” playwright, so far, but she wants to get her chance to break in.

The other biggie this year is Lions Gate ‘s “Away from Her,” directed by Sarah Polley, story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro, set in Ontario under Canadian law, which still does not pay for custodial care. But here the problem is simply spousal loyalty. The husband (Gordon Pinset) must put his wife (Julie Christie – “Dr. Zhivago”) into assisted living and then a nursing home, as her personality deteriorates to the eventual likelihood that she will not recognize him. Instead, she falls in love with a mute man who doesn’t “confuse” her. But the issue her is not involuntary filial loyalty of adult children, it is just the bond of a marriage of 44 years.

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