Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Phyllis and Harold

Harold, a phlegmatic blob of dazed resignation, spends his days ensconced in a Lazy Boy in the living room of his Long Island subdivision. Having played by the rules for seven decades, he's attained everything he was ever taught to aim for: the suburban house, the glamorous wife, the successful career, the kids ushered through higher education. He delivered all that was expected of him with flying colors, yet, in his final days, Harold finds himself aimlessly pissing his time away, unable to please his resentful, distant wife. She's pecked him half to death, but even this he's made peace with, shielding himself behind mountains of blubber and a few remaining pieces of the "King of the House" play they'd performed for years - a charade that's the only social structure he'd ever known. Blessed with little capacity for introspection, Harold insists, almost convincingly, that he's got it made...yet one senses beyond his unblinking facade a certain existential dread, much buried, crying out to ask "What the hell happened?!"*

Meanwhile, Harold's wife, Phyllis, a withdrawn, narcissistic creature who secretly deems herself a free-spirited romantic, exists in a state of crestfallen pique. She, too, has played by the rules, and attained everything she was ever taught to shoot for: she's got the rich dentist husband and the suburban house, she cooked, sewed and (sort of) raised the children, she looked good and maintained her figure. Model housewife. But now she's suffocated by a dead-ended life with her phlegmatic blob of a husband, and pines for what might have been. Unlike Harold, though, Phyllis hasn't always played by the rules. Her little breakouts, over the years, were the sole moments when she felt truly alive. Harold, by contrast, wouldn't know "alive" if it smacked him in the face.

Each finds the other domineering and emotionally frozen. Each has become infantilized in the realms in which they've respectively been dominated, and each resents but also fuels the other's distance. It is a stalemate. It is hell. Or...is it balance? Hey, after 55 years, they're still together. And, aside from all the hatred and resentment, they appear to be a more smoothly functioning yin/yang unit than either realizes. But Phyllis longs for more. And her husband is slowly slipping away along with his increasingly irrelevant circa 1951 playbook.

Harold's "king of the house" shtick was an expression of conformity, not tyranny. He lacked the creativity to do anything but diligently follow custom, into which he'd unrealizingly frozen. If Phyllis had done likewise, perhaps she'd have managed to bury her feelings as thoroughly as he had, and Harold could have had the retirement he'd dreamed of, with the ground firmly beneath his feet. 1951 forever! Phyllis, trapped, grimly observes the impasse with the most jaundiced of eyes.

Phyllis and Harold is a new documentary directed by the happy couple's daughter, Cindy Kleine, who somehow manages to keep the film's sympathies poised on a razor's edge, never taking sides. Both behind and before the camera, Kleine appears to have extricated herself from the mountain of family luggage, and, from this point of remove, she lets her parents tell their respective stories, crafting and framing it all with a smart but unobtrusive hand. The result could be viewed, superficially, as a zany family movie. But, really, it's a uniquely touching and transcendent work of art.

One of this film's magic tricks is that it conveys these heavy emotional issues with a surprisingly light touch. The tale is so darkly operatic - complete with tears, rages, broken hearts, and angst galore (plus a gristly yet darkly humorous demise for Harold, who choked on a baby lamb chop) - that I can't understand how I managed to leave the theater with a feeling of buoyancy.

If you're of my generation, these characters seem familiar: they're normal parents, that's all. Phyllis and Harold, with their buttoned-up emotions, narrow-minded conformity, and dangling threads of stifled yearning are so thoroughly in synch with their era that it's hard for people my age to think of "parents" in any other way. But of course, each generation is unique. For the generation of Phyllis and Harold, "parents" meant unknowable, highly detached beings for whom life was nothing but toil, self-denial, and sacrifice on behalf of The Children. That was a whole other world of repression and conformity.

So what about us, now? For young people today, "parents" are, perhaps, stunted adolescents who imagine the bongs hidden in their closets to be secret. If that description sounds cartoonish, it's because no one has yet fully grasped my generation, because we're still in charge. Our 1981 vintage playbook remains fully in play. We can't know who we are yet, because patterns of conformity and repression are never fully conscious at the time.

And so we must wither and grow quaint before the next generation can paint us as precisely as Cindy Kleine has done for our parents. At that point, our grown children, viewing us with horror and revelation, will resolve to avoid our unique quagmires, just as "Phyllis and Harold" fills us today with chagrined recognition and determination.

Phyllis and Harold is currently playing at Manhattan's Cinema Village, and opens April 9th in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle's Town Center 5 in Encino

Here are two previous film-related Slog entries:
Ten Terrific Films You've Never Heard Of and Indie Filmmakers Won't Let Me See Their Films. Here's my weirdo DVD collection (blurbs are not written by me).

* - I may be more introspective than Harold, but I, too, am starting to vaguely wonder what the hell's happening. After seeing "Phyllis and Harold", I recognize this to be a harbinger, and hope it all settles into clarity before I choke on some baby lamb chop of my own.

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