The setting of the scene remains vivid in my mind: vodka martinis and cigars on the balcony of Morton’s, the one overlooking Connecticut Avenue in the District of Columbia. I had recently gotten engaged and was chatting with a friend of a friend; he congratulated me on the news, warning me that everything was about to change. Don’t worry about that too much, he said, as it would all change again when you had kids.
“I can’t watch movies anymore,” he confessed.
“Oh?” I asked, confused.
“There’s always a little kid getting killed – some (expletive deleted) writer with no kids using a dead one as a plot point. I hate it. I can’t watch things like that anymore. Makes me too angry.”
I nodded politely and filed away the conversation, sure that I would be impervious to such sentiments. I’m a professional, first off, and, after all, I had a dog and there’s nothing Hollywood loves to do more than sacrifice a pooch for some easy pathos. Surely it’d be the same.
Needless to say, it wasn’t. I received the most recent reminder of my new reality after a preview screening of “Arrival,” which has been sold to audiences as a cerebral sci-fi thriller, one with hints of international intrigue and a bit of action.
Now, “Arrival” is all of those things. But it’s so much more than that, a fact we glean in the film’s opening minutes when we watch what amounts to a short story showing us Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) relationship with her daughter – a relationship that is, unfortunately, altogether too brief. From baby to toddler to teen, the girl grows up before our eyes. However, that’s as far as she’ll grow, as the girl contracts, and dies from, a rare form of cancer. We see Banks bawling into the sheets of her little girl, yelling, her world torn asunder.
And then the titular event happens and the story moves on. Banks seems lonely but hardworking and excited to answer the call when the U.S. military shows up looking for help from a linguist to try to decode the aliens’ language. But we cannot grasp the enormity of what their appearance means for Banks – and for humanity in general – without experiencing the emotionally harrowing way in which Banks’ memories of her daughter intrude on her present predicament. By the end of the film, as Max Richter’s strings filled the theater for a second time, I had been reduced to a blubbering mess.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the initial instance of emotions intruding into my cinematic safe spaces. My second viewing of “Interstellar” marked the first time I had a funny filial feeling surface. I stress “second,” since I learned of my impending fatherhood between my first two viewings of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi flick. The first time through “Interstellar,” I had been impressed but not blown away. The second time around, though, all I could think was “Wait, the little girl is right — why aren’t you staying, Coop?” And it may or may not have gotten a little dusty in the theater when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) broke down in tears while watching the video messages from his son.
Indeed, fatherhood has radically altered the way I see Nolan’s recent run of non-Batman films. “Interstellar,” “Inception” and “The Prestige” are all, essentially, films about fathers trying to reconnect with their daughters. I know it is in critical fashion to write off Nolan as an intellectually cold filmmaker – a brilliant puzzle master more worried about structure than sensation – but this does a real disservice to the genuine feelings of love and loss that form the beating heart of his work.
“The Prestige” is a film about the sacrifices that are made for art, about the dangers of deforming one’s personal life for professional greatness. It’s a puzzle box, sure, but it’s one that rewards solving with a dazzling daughter’s smile, a happy little girl running into her thought-dead father’s arms. And you’re free to dismiss Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) children in “Inception” as little more than a Macguffin, but you’d be wrong. “Inception” is actually a Greek tragedy, one about a man who tampers with primal forces of human nature, his hubris (temporarily, at least) costing him everything he loves.
It’s not as though a film had never affected me before the birth of my daughter, of course: Throw on “Field of Dreams” and it’s Niagara Falls, Frankie Angel by the time Ray (Kevin Costner) asks his dad if he wants to have a catch. But my triggers have been rejiggered. And I’m reminded yet again just how personal one’s relationship to art is.