Absent Fathers (2007)
by Jasna Koteska
The text has been published as a column in the Macedonian political magazine Globus
One of the most important elements of the pop culture today is the picture of the “absent” father as the “carrier of good”.
The father has to tell his children where the brutality of the system lies.
In Almodóvar’s new film “Volver” (2006) there are no men. Even more dramatically, there are no fathers. There is a scene at aunt’s funeral when there is a group of men standing petrified, silent and insignificant. As statues of a past time, when they used to have a role. However, they are useless now. “Volver” is a film about two sisters, a daughter and a mother. And some accompanying women from the neighbourhood who come to have their hairs done and make pies. They are the dough of Almodóvar’s world. The second scene in which there are men is again a mass scene. It is in the restaurant held by Penelope Kruz. They are a film crew that makes a movie there. The men come to have lunch, they make noise without sexual threats, they eat, drink, pay and go their own way. The only man profiled in “Volver” is Penelope Cruz's husband. He is preparing to commit an incest but he is killed in time and the child is saved.
This is the case with Almodóvar who makes movies about modern times. His poetics says that the harmonious world today is possible only with a radical absence of men. The world remains patriarchal. But the women in it feel good, only if they do not see men. With Almodóvar, the lines between the men’s and women’s world are fully drawn. There is no possibility for reconciliation between them.
Almodóvar is a symptom of an important line in the pop culture. I shall call it a culture of absent fathers. Do you remember the cult series for teenagers “Family Ties” by Golbderg in the early 1980-es? It was a story of a father, mother and their four children, the son Alex (played by Michael J. Fox), the sisters Mallory and Jenifer and the youngest brother Andy. It was the first really commercial family sitcom. It was successful after the producers had realized that the happy family image is possible only if the father is deprived of all status privileges. Steven Keaton was a complete opposite of the Freudian sadistic father of the past times. The father did not impose taste, values and principles. That is how he became the first real hero father. The family sitcoms that followed took over this image of the confused liberal father; another example of this kind was the Cosby Show.
The road from “Family Ties” to Almodóvar’s films was walked by another father. Benigni’s one from “La vita è bella” (1997). The father and the son are prisoners in the Nazi death camp. The father starts building an imaginary world to protect his child from the horrors of the reality. Benigni’s message was that the innocent humour can beat the radical evil. Which is not correct. What was good with Benigni’s father? Behind his polite mask, the father was hiding the endlessly brutal regime, not allowing his son to grow up. It would be a true horror for a child to have a psychotic father like Benigni, states Zizek. With his protective mask, this father does not guard his children from the sadism of the world. He only pulls up a mask with which he hides the excess of sadistic enjoyment, built in he patriarchate. The masks of Steven Keaton and Benigni finally led to the radical absence of the father with Almodóvar.
The representation of the fathers of the late 20th century has reached its “political” aim, which was a total paralysis of the resistance. This is one of the fundamental lessons of the psychoanalysis. Goldberg’s and Benigni’s fathers were building a world of false comfort. They wanted to hide the disastrous sexual, political and family relations of today with an imaginary world. While the everyday is radicalised to horrible sadism, the worst variant is to put on a mask of a seeming absence of trauma and feed it to the children.
The political lesson is the opposite. The father must not disappear. He must tell his children where the brutality of the system is. He must assume the responsibility to help his children see where the political evil lies. And in this way where the potentials for resistance are. Later, the child will know how to help himself. Both himself and those who need help.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska
Text available on: Blesok/Shine