ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

"This is About Adam!"

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Godsend and the The Sanctity of Parental Grief
 
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by Erich Kuersten

Signalling the tail end (hopefully) of the "You can’t bring my son back!" genre,  Godsend (2004) offers a damning critique of parently love. By the "privileged grief" of the title, I am referring to the movies wherein “average” parents must deal with the kidnapping, murder, or disappearance of their child/children. They tend to damn it all to hell, drinking, cursing out the FBI agent in their living room, and ultimately taking matters into their own hands. Of course Arnolds can always go psycho when losing a toddler, as in Extreme Measures, but unlike the standard Revenge flick, the typical "privileged grief" entry focuses more on martyring the suffering than celebrating the vengeance. "You can't know what it feels like to lose a kid," is their rallying cry. And no, the FBI agent can't, and subsequently we in the theater are also put in the inferior position of "not knowing what it's like" (unless of course we've lost kids of our own). Thus we have to let the privileged grieving parent rant and rave, unable to judge or stop or comfort them due to the fact that we are shut out of their private temple of grief, unable to "know" their pain. As with Gibson's Passion of the Christ (2003) we must kneel and watch in reverent awe as they squirm under the lash of loss.
 
 This phenomenon in horror commenced with The Exorcist (1973), but that film and the many "demon children" movies that followed differ from the arc of the privileged grief saga. Yes, we were afraid for little Linda Blair, kidnapped inside her own body by the devil, but the figure of a demon child was itself scary. Kids could be seen as evil in those earthy, pre-Aids days. Now within the context of the privileged grief genre, children are always little angels, even if they are possessed by evil, their innocence remains intact. It's as if the entire nation was saying "not my kid-my kid doesn't do those things."
 
 Meanwhile in Japan the "haunted child" has made a huge comeback with films like Ringu, The Eye, Suicide Club, Stacy, to name a few, but in these films it is children themselves who are scary; not "my child" in particular, but the entire generation. The Japanese perhaps lack our capacity for "sanctifying" their roles as parents and children. Perhaps they are more open to disobeying the unspoken contract of silence between parents and adults, and so don't have to deny the dark side with the same demented rigor. Also, there is more "sanctification" and privileging in their culture to begin with, they don't have to go looking for it. Americans are conditioned to reimagine their childhoods as Steven Spielberg movies, replete with cotton candy and rollercoasters, and it all becomes canonized for sainthood, the theme park souvenirs are to be honored and cherished as museum works. The dark underside is denied until it becomes a matter of suicide or rehab. Thus if we are all saints, parenthood is next to godliness and there is surely no shorter way out of your own personal morass than to bear some kids. The search for self gets canceled in favor of championing the child who is then denied the right to "be" his/her true, complex, evil, murky, ambivalent self because that’s not what it said in the commercial and there is no refund.
 
 The refrain throughout the beginning of Godsend, heard time and again in self-sacrificing tones, is: "This is about Adam." Neither of the parents' enjoyment of life can come before their son's; he is their excuse for not enjoying life outside of the parental context. The movie begins with Adam having his eight-year old birthday party in the cluttered inner-city apartment he shares with his parents, self-sacrificing high school teacher Paul (Greg Kinnear) and career-sacrificing photographer Jessie (Rebecca Romjin). We learn what a "difference" Paul makes to troubled inner city youth when he's spared a mugging due to one of his old students recognizing him. Of course Paul and Jessie have thought about moving out of their bad neighborhood, but Paul feels he's needed by these ghetto youth. He's willing to sacrifice his and her personal happiness "for the kids," but Jessie reminds him "this is about Adam" who could benefit from some time in the country. So even within the constricted parameters of his selflessness, Paul has choices: does he sacrifice Adam for the ghetto youth, or the ghetto youth for Adam?  He's high on the martyr horse, as is his wife. For her, the sacrifice comes more in the form of "not" doing. She's a photographer but keeps her photos locked up in boxes. Embodied by the beautiful Rebecca Romjin, she wears dumpy "mom" clothes, purposely dimming the wattage of her super model sex appeal in a willing enslavement to family drudgery, not unlike Veronica Lake renouncing her powers to keep Frederic March in I Married a Witch.

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 Assuming the audience has some idea of the plot in advance (dead kid gets cloned), a better film would probably have started with Adam's funeral and progressed with the occasional flashback. The way the scenes of Adam's birthday party play out are so precursory and perfect they seem like a commercial selling you on the gravity of Paul and Jessie's future grief. The gift Paul was rushing home through dangerous neighborhoods in the rain to bring Adam turns out to be a stuffed stegosaurus, and since we see Adam talk about how much he likes it, we may rest assured it will later turn up in the re-animated Adam's possession. Why else would it in fact be in the script? When Jessie takes Adam to buy sneakers the morning after his party, we know it is outside of the sneaker shop he will die, because otherwise why would they be going to get sneakers in the first place, other than for some product placement? Wouldn't you know it, he gets hit by a car while she's paying for his shoes with a well-respected credit card.

 But it would be a crime to dismiss this movie on the very grounds which its subtly critiquing. Also, it is without a doubt one of the best “so bad it’s great” films of the year. Indeed, once Paul is dead the whole thing takes on the dreamy illogic of the best trash classics. His funeral for example plays out like Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), with the mourners exiting the small door of the church one by one until at the very end, Jessie and Paul come out, unattended, high as hogs in their self-righteous mourning gear. It's raining and outside not a single funeral-goer has lingered to offer solace. Then through the rain, Robert Deniro as Dr. Richard Welles approaches with his Faustian bargain. He will give them a big mansion in the country near his remote clinic upstate, find Paul a posh teaching job, and best of all, clone their beloved Adam. In return, all they have to do is promise not to tell anyone about his unethical activities, and cut off all ties with family and friends so as not to arouse suspicion, which, based on the total lack of loved ones around them, won't be too hard. Soon they are eating dinner in a restaurant together, vainly trying to create a believable rapport. But of course all Paul can do is snivel about how "nothing, nothing will ever bring our son back." As a character Paul begins to grow self-righteously repulsive from this moment on, while Jessie becomes more sympathetic. Of course it is the audience of Dr. Welles for their displays of privileged grief that has lured them to this restaurant in the first place. Again, in what alterna-reality would a crowded funeral just disperse immediately afterwards, leaving the grieving parents alone with a clone doctor. He is already their closest thing to a friend, and therefore the sole person in a position to pay them the reverence they expect from the world now that they have been allowed access to the coveted "privileged grief" position.

 Of course, "this is about Adam" and all the DNA in the world won't change that. To show you this is not an easy choice for our martyred couple to make, many scenes follow of them watching old videos, poring through photographs, trying to put away that stegosaurus. But it would be a mistake to simply dismiss all this as more privileging of their unarguable status as bereaved parents.  In fact, the film works as a sly critique of this mourning period, which in its way is the only time that "good" parents in the movies are ever permitted to act like real parents, i.e. once you've lost your son, wife, daughter or some combination thereof it becomes acceptable movie behavior to smash furniture, drink to excess, cry, and watch the same videos over and over. One must ask: have they become alcoholics because of loss, or did the loss permit them to finally drink as they always wished to? In either case, the loss is what prevents us as an audience from being allowed to judge as we would like; we instead must become the enabler, lured into a co-dependent relationship with the tortured leads, constantly confessing our inadequacies in the realm of parental grief.

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 In middle America to be suddenly without children or spouse is to be set adrift in a sterile suburban sea. Without the "audience" of the family unit to harass, harangue, yell, compete for attention, etc., does one even continue exist? Now that Jessie and Paul are alone in their apartment they have no one to "perform" their shows of grief to, no cops left to scream at, no relatives to cry on. They both create magnificent tableaux of suffering for the other to witness (crying over the stegosaurus and unpacked boxes, or in front of the TV) but as both are in the same privileged sphere of mourning there is no one to validate their positions as "higher than" average; no one to sit in the seats below their lofty stage and "not have any idea what it's like to lose a son." Thus, their acceptance of Dr. Welles' offer becomes their chance to "take the show on the road" and brood around a well-staffed clinic. Welles gives them back their boy, and the boy gets back his stegosaurus… and Paul's guilty dream of moving out of the city and teaching at an all-white school and living in a posh house (replete with Hitchcockian spiral staircase) is realized, all due to the fact that he "allows" his wife to be impregnated with Welles' modified DNA.

This surrendering of his wife's womb will have symbolic ramifications for Paul, who begins to realize that in giving up his grief and his role as impregnator, he has essentially played out every measly card in his hand. He's been cuckolded by science!

Furthering Paul's alienation is his sanctimonious hippie style resentment of suddenly being on the good side of the class/race barrier. Under Welles' moneyed wing, Paul and Jessie move up into the country club atmosphere of his Godsend community, but at what cost? At what cost, doctor?! As Paul did not "earn" his way into that world, he becomes even further emasculated, and so attempts to devalue the trappings provided by Welles as meaningless compared to his own stalwart "ethics."

It's really all signified in the neo-Adam's new (expensive) haircut. While the old cut was long and shaggy and unkempt, leading us to presume Jessie cut it herself after school, the new Adam's haircut is short and very, very trendy.  He doesn't mention it but it's obvious that the haircut's short neat slickness is a mockery of Paul's old shaggy professor value system-- he is being edged out of the family photo. "Dad, I don't like you any more," neo-Adam says in a "good night son" scene, cradling his stegosaurus as Paul is almost out of the room. All color drains out of Paul's face, and it's a truly pathetic sight, as if Adam's love is the one thing that keeps Paul validated as a person. Luckily, neo-Adam was "only kidding." The relief Paul allows his son to see is a fatal mistake as a parent. To make a kid feel he is responsible for an adult's sense of self-esteem is to rip childhood right out from under him, leading to eating disorders, suicide, alcoholism and so forth. Paul has officially thrown his last shred of adult male dignity out the door. From here on in he becomes more juvenile and dysfunctional than even his own cloned son.

As Neo-Adam passes his eighth birthday-moving beyond the age he was killed in his former life, he has visions straight out of Audrey Rose or The Sixth Sense. He sees himself burning alive, ghost children pressed up against the attic window; he hears footsteps in the bathroom. The question seems to arise, maybe Adam died at eight for a reason, maybe he was about to lose his sanity and become a lil' serial killer.

 Alas, this hypothesis gets passed over much too quickly. Hypothesis number two becomes a sort of Lacanian take on the "stain" of denied, unprocessed grief. As the mourning period of Paul and Jessie was cut short by the cloning, Adam's visions may be the manifestation of this "return of the repressed." Is the ghost of Paul I trying to reach out to his parents and have them "bury" him in the proper way, with all the tears and pain he's due? If so, the now totally self-castrated Paul is not up to the task. His strategy is one of complete denial. The semi-aware Adam even asks him at one point, "Dad, did I die?" and Paul shrugs it off saying: "Of course not, you've been right here with us." This wimp-ass retort carries several ominous connotations: one, the whole family died the same time Adam did and this all a dream; two, science will wsoon be able to eliminate death altogether and thus children will be kept tied to their parents beyond death-- Imagine the disappointment for a young kid who commits suicide in an effort to escape his parent's suffocation or abuse, only to be brought back again and again! The implication goes even deeper: medical science may one day render the Freudian unconscious invalid. The return of the repressed will have to be so violent as to rip through tons of medical machinery, and it just may finally fail at the task. Hell by any other name would be twice as sweet!

 The actual answer to the riddle, when it finally comes, is quite a let down. Spoiler Alert! It turns out Dr. Welles mixed some of his own long-dead pyromaniac son Zachary's DNA into Adam. See, because Zachary burnt himself up along with his elementary school, he didn't leave any complete DNA strands behind for daddy to mess with. 

It takes a lot of investigation and shouting by the emasculated Paul to finally get this out of Welles; he has to almost burn down a church to do it. One can only assume that the moment Paul realizes this horrible truth is the moment he is supposed to get his balls back, so to speak, but Kinnear just doesn't seem to have enough gravitas to convince us that Paul has somehow become "strong" in any way. Instead he self-righteously tells Welles "You experimented with human life!" as if denying his own complicity in the scheme. Welles replies: "You can't just open Pandora's Box and close it again."
 
De Niro lets himself go in these big climactic scenes, ranting with the glint of the mad scientists of old in his eye; even his name implies an Orsonian gravity and oomph that little bitchy Paul just lacks. In fact it's tough to know who to root for since Paul is such an ineffectual screamer, the wife's an easily led doormat, and the kid a sweet-faced cipher. 

 Indeed, the film's end is kept ambiguous, to its immense credit. Paul becomes the typical terrified mother, dragging his possibly still demonically possessed son from town to town, ever trying to keep one jump ahead of the ghosts of the past. "Trust me, this going to be great for us-it's a place we can start all over" becomes his rallying cry. Again, it's a uniquely American concept, the "geographic" as it's called in drug rehab centers-- the constant moving in an effort to avoid your demon self. Once you start running from your pain it's hard to stop. Paul's initial Faustian bargain with Welles thus reads as the decision to "run from grief" with the catch that now he can never, ever stop. As an American horror film then, Godsend shines a flashlight into the dark basement of child/parent relations which we've too long repressed under mountains of E.T.  tapes and Easter baskets. For as in the days of the "cracker factory" when 1970's housewives went nuts trying to shrink their souls to fit into the suburban American archetype, so now are the rehabs and mental hospitals filled to overflowing with young kids whose natural, messy, evil selves have been repressed by a hysterical, suffocating, over-protective parents. Forced to be the adult by insecure, needy parents who expect their kid to protect the family from loneliness.  With childhood elevated to a saintly state, and parental grief the ultimate nightmare, how then  could a child ever be so selfish as to want to die? 

 
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C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244