Norditorial - Why THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS Is The Best Father's Day Movie Of All Time
I've had a rough week, Dad.
Well, rough past couple of months, actually. Most of this is inside information, if you will, and I won't get into specifics, but I've been struggling with some health issues, some work issues, and some seriously crippling depression issues. It's hard to write when you're depressed, when every word feels like you're trudging through a swamp, and every step you take in the muck drags you back a little bit. You just want to sink in the mud and let it wash over your face, because no one gives a damn where you end up. As you may know, I don't write full-time; I have a day job and sometimes the grind of it wears me down. Again, no specifics, but I'm not doing what I want to be doing right now, and I don't know how to make that transition happen in a way that's fast enough or satisfying enough for me. Then, last week, I had a painful attack of the gall bladder; seems I have stones and I'm just going to have to live with the pain for a while until I can have surgery to remove it. Trouble is, I'm looking at my life and the calendar ahead of me and I can't find the time.
So I wake up this Father's Day and I have to think of my father, who's been gone for 27 years now. More than half my life. I wonder what my life would be like if he hadn't gotten cancer. If he hadn't been sick my entire senior year of high school, during some times when I really needed him to be there, and he couldn't be because he was unable to move. As with all our parents, there are aspects about my father that I loved and aspects I didn't, as I'm sure there are things about me that my daughter prefers over other things. My father was a taciturn man, not given to bursts of emotion, and the rare times he did were always cherished moments with me. I tend to be close-mouthed when things bother me, because as a father, it's my job to just pound through it with no complaint. Fathers don't bitch.
What does all this have to do with THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS? Well, I find myself thinking about this scene:
See, without the context of the movie, the scene doesn't have nearly the power that it does. Chas Tenenbaum is a man who has suffered a great loss. He has buried himself in routine and structure, because that's all he can depend on. He raises his sons rigorously, with no space for spontaneity or joy. Bad things in life happen when you leave them to random chance, so why risk it? Chas doesn't understand that there are many people in his life that are willing to share his burden with him, because he's so bound to his grief. At this point, Chas's grief defines him. Instead of his wife, her absence is what's driving him, as does his love for her.
As we all know, life doesn't work very well when you try to pin it down to a schedule or a rigid structure. Chas never learned this, because all the structure in his life was one that he had to create himself. He couldn't rely on his father, Royal, because Royal was about a lousy a parent as one could ever have - a self-centered, selfish, cruel man who never put anything, not even his own family, before himself. Chas, in particular, received poor treatment - shot in the hand with a BB gun, had his father steal money from him, and absent from his life when he needed him the most.
Royal, on the other hand, never treated life very seriously. It's almost as if he stumbled into fatherhood, and he certainly didn't have the skills to be a very good one. Worse, Royal never bothered to learn, leaving much of the work to his estranged wife, Etheline. She recognized (or forced through) her children's gifts and made them pay off, but even with their abilities they couldn't find joy. There was something missing. That something was Royal, but there was no way Royal could commit to such a task. He just wasn't equipped. "I don't think you're an asshole, Royal," says Henry Sherman, "I just think you're kind of a son-of-a-bitch." Assholes go out of their way to hurt people. Son-of-a-bitches think only of themselves, and they don't mean to hurt other people, but if it happens, it happens. Assholes are irredeemable. Son-of-a-bitches, though, aren't. Son-of-a-bitches can be made aware of how much they hurt people, and if you set a son-of-a-bitch to fixing a wrong that he's done, well, dammit, that wrong is going to get fixed.
So Royal sets out to repair the damage he's done - to his kids, to his wife, and to himself. No one can trust Royal because they've been hurt before, but Royal's intentions are good and he's going to do what he can while he can, because his family needs him. He knows his wife is a better person without him, and while it takes some time for Royal to figure that out, he eventually does. He doesn't understand his daughter, and he knows he probably never will, but they can come to some belief that even though they are alien to each other, they can still care for each other, and Margot knows that if she truly needs him, he'll be there. Royal realizes that Richie is perhaps the most fragile of them all, and will support any decision he makes, because Richie is his son.
But Chas... Chas, more than any of them, is closest to Royal. Royal recognizes that drive in Chas. He sees all the commonalities he has with him, and he sees the pitfalls that Chas is navigating. Royal knows he was a bad father; that he should have been there to help Chas and not to hinder or steal from him. Chas has built his structured life out of the refuse of his father's absence. And as an affirmed son-of-a-bitch, it's Royal's duty to fix it. He knows he can never entirely repair the damage. But dammit, he's going to try.
That's what fatherhood is to me. I'm going to spend the rest of my life making it up to my daughter. What have I done wrong? Well, I'm a father. I'm sure there's something. Good fathers spend their entire lives as parents making it up to their children. That's their job. We're all fuck ups in some way; maybe not to the level of Royal Tenenbaum, but we are. Half our lives we spend, like a bull in a china shop, smashing through everything, and the other half we spend trying to clean up and repair the damage we have caused as we pass. Some come to it later than others. Good fathers take the love we receive and turn it into fuel. Fuel to power the engines of our hearts, and to make the world a little bit better for our kids than when we got here. Royal reaches across that infinite gulf to his son, and together they find love and common pain. That moment of pure love, of pure understanding, can heal everything.
Royal Tenenbaum died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship. So did my dad. That's how all good fathers die. That's how I plan on going. To you and yours, a Happy Father's Day.
To Charles Edward Cerny, 1943-1987.
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