Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ordinary People

In 1980, Robert Redford' s adaptation of Judith Guest's novel Ordinary People beat out Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull and David Lynch's Elephant Man for the best picture Oscar, and it's widely regarded as one of the biggest blunders by the Academy Awards. Raging Bull is regarded as the greatest film of the decade while some of the shine has started to wear off Ordinary People. Well, I've never seen Ordinary People the movie, but I have read the book, so that's what I'm going to write about.

On the surface, the Jarretts have everything they need to live a happy, upper-middle class life. Calvin and Beth have been married for more than 20 years. He's a successful attorney, and she's a consummate homemaker. But tragedy has exposed the cracks in the family. Their eldest son Buck has drowned in boating accident, and their younger son Conrad, plagued by survivor's guilt and depression, attempted suicide. Now out of a mental health treatment center, Conrad is seeing a therapist, Dr. Berger.

Few events can shake the foundations of a family like the loss of one its members. The novel illustrates how the remaining members - father, mother, and brother - confront or don't front that harsh truth. Conrad, who always lived in Buck's shadow, is trying to readjust to normal life: high school, swim team, girls, etc. But he feels alienated from friends and family. He's most at odds with Beth, who he feels loved Buck more than him. Beth grows colder and more absorbed with her routine: vacations, bridge, the social circle of the neighborhood, and how the family appears to others. Calvin tries to play the peacemaker between Beth and Conrad, but he doesn't know the right thing to do or so. Ultimately, he feels completely powerless to help his family.

Ordinary People alternates each chapter between the viewpoints of Conrad and Calvin. There are very few physical descriptions of what the characters look like or what their surroundings are like. There are a few key points - i.e. the scars on Conrad's wrists - but for the most part, the plot and characterizations unfold through inner monologues and exterior conversations. The characters are so absorbed in their own internal dramas, the rest of the world almost feels unimportant. I thought it was a curious omission on Guest's part not to include any chapters from Beth's perspective, but considering she's presented as someone who doesn't reflect much on her own feelings, I suppose the novel's structure reinforces that aspect.

At its most basic, Ordinary People about its characters' emotions and how they come to grip with them. It's about ordinary people confronted by sheer trauma and trying to move on with their lives, and that's something I think everyone can relate to.

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