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SDG

Tender Mercies (1983)

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Tender Mercies vs. Places in the Heart
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"Why me?" and "Where is God?" are questions that people often ask when bad things happen. When good things happen, many people still wonder "Why me?" Because of course, good things and bad things are both happening all the time, only to different people. So why have things turned out so well for me, and so badly for that other person?

It's almost a kind of survivor guilt. That person's life got made a mess of, and mine didn't. It's not that I'm better than that other person, that's for sure. And it makes me acutely aware of the possibility that all this happiness of mine could be taken away tomorrow. "I don't trust happiness, I never well," says Max Sledge at the end of this film.

Mac makes some good choices. He buys a bottle of liquor, but he doesn't drink it. He plays a meaningful role in his own redemption. Yet he and his daughter's husband were both mean drunks, and one of them survived an unhappy marriage without killing his wife, and the other didn't. Mac could easily have been that other man, and he would have been even more culpable, since he actually tried to kill his wife. Yet there he is at the end playing football with his stepson.

These are the thoughts rattling around in my head since seeing this film for the first time last night. Anyone else have any comments? (Ron, I see this is your favorite film of all time?)

Any thoughts about the significance of Mac's baptism?

Any thoughts about the fact that Mac finds redemption in a third marriage?

Discuss.

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SPOILERS

Yes, it's my absolute favourite. Saw it in its initial limited release in Westwood while I was at CalArts, knew nothing about it except that it had Robert Duvall. Was absolutely floored, for a million objective and two million subjective reasons.

Saw it one time since, also back in the eighties, then got a copy and couldn't bring myself to watch it again in case it didn't live up to my impossibly high memories / expectations. But last fall I put it on the curriculum for a course I taught, and found myself in a position where I simply had to view it again. First ten or twenty minutes I was thinking, "Yeah, it's good, but isn't measuring up." Then it grabbed me again, and I was enthralled, devastated, blessed, churned up.

Quick thoughts. What I most value about screenwriter Horton Foote's masterpiece of understatement is not only the fact that most of the events that would comprise a normal film are elided - they happen off-screen, are skipped over, assumed, a very precise American parallel to Chekhov - but also the way he repeatedly sets us up with expectations of where the plot will go next, only to subvert those expectations. The guys driving into the gas station, country music blaring, knocking back beers - one prime example. I also marvel at the way the story takes us to precisely the point of tension you talk about in your questions, and then plays it out not with plot developments or an on-the-nose monologue, but with a game of catch.

Not sure what you're wondering about with regard to Mac's baptism. Doesn't it just mean he's given his life to Jesus? I love the detail that the first time we see Mac in church, he's singing a hymn without looking at the hymn book. Not his first time in the pews.

Thoughts about his finding redemption in a third marriage? Only this: ain't grace wonderful?

Ever seen a proposal scene like that? I often refer acting students to that scene as an extraordinary model of subtext, of how much is going on in the actors compared to the bald simplicity of the lines. Another Chekhov resonance.

Horton Foote absolutely knows these people, doesn't he? Part of the personal resonance of the story is that these Texans are made of the same stuff as the Albertans I grew up with. The film gives me such a profound sense of home: these are my people. I understand their silences, their stoicism, the tension between their directness and all that's unspoken.

I also know what it's like to be in love with a songwriter, to hear them sing a love song, and not to know if it's for you or not. Yet another extraordinary subtlety of the film that many miss. How I admire Horton Foote for filling a story with such moments, and never feeling any desire to telegraph what he's doing.

I love the fact that an Australian director could so perfectly tell a Texan story that could so deeply resonate with an Albertan. Outback, panhandle, prairie - something universal there.

I love the fact that Beresford knew he wouldn't have much say in the editing, so he only shot the final garden conversation in a a master shot, provided no close-ups or filler to give the editors room to cut or mess around. He guaranteed that the film would end (or nearly end) with a non-manipulative, respectful distance, and the truth of two actors talking to each other: no bogus react shots, no emotion-pushing close-ups, just the scene.

I consider Foote a writer of complete integrity. There's no artistic or spiritual or personal compromise anywhere in his work. Foote writes what's true, and nothing more. Makes many self-proclaimed radicals look like crowd-pleasing sell-outs.

I consider Duvall's undervalued, masterful work in OPEN RANGE to be the two-decades-later continuation of his work in TENDER MERCIES. Not that he's playing the same character, or "using the same tricks" - I'll beat up on anyone who even suggests the latter. But it's glorious to see him revisit that territory again, with another twenty years of weathered experience to bring to the work.

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Ron, thank goodness you responded. I was beginning to wonder whether we had a film on our Top 100 that nobody had actually seen, and had been slipped into our list by nefarious gremlins.

Now, of course, it's perfectly obvious what happened. It's your favorite film, and evidently you're the only one who's both seen it and feels strongly enough about it to go to bat for it. And, "coincidentally," you were also the driving force behind the Top 100 list. You're so busted, man!

Seriously, I appreciate your quick thoughts. Some of these go to the film's artistry rather than its spiritual depth, though of course I'm interested in both, and anyway there's some overlap.

Can you say more about the fact that "the story takes us to precisely the point of tension I talk about in your questions, and then plays it out not with plot developments or an on-the-nose monologue, but with a game of catch"? What do you make of this? Why is it so powerful to you?

Regarding Mac's baptism, obviously its theological meaning is that he has given his life to Jesus, but is there anything else we can say about its dramatic function in the film?

Here, this may spice things up. There are some rather skeptical reviews out there for this film. Here's a typical example from the often astute, stylish scribe behind Nick's Flick Picks:

Look, I'm sorry. Well, not that sorry. I am sure there are people who love this movie, as it is the sort of movie that exists to be loved, probably by a doting coterie who will guard it like a pet or a child. It doesn't make a single loud or large gesture. It barely moves. It just breathes. And yes, because there is such a slag heap of loud, large, breathless junk ever-present in American cinemas and video stores, a movie that's as quiet and fawn-like as Tender Mercies is bound to be appreciated for

Edited by SDG

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I've seen the film (more than once), I just don't have strong feelings about it.

Thank you. Of course, in that case I doubt if you would have helped put it over onto the Top 100, so it's a moot point.

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Mark tried to post his TENDER MERCIES thoughts to the thread, but it kept rejecting him. So he PM'ed the stuff to me, and I'll now take the liberty of posting it here.

I can't do more than that at the moment, much as I'd love to enter into the ongoing discussion. Time and other demands don't allow.

But here's Mark...

*

...since Tender Mercies tops my own list, and since I put my pedestrian thoughts to paper in college on the movie's significance, I'll give it a try.

QUOTE(SDG @ May 11 2005, 02:51 PM)

Regarding Mac's baptism, obviously its theological meaning is that he has given his life to Jesus, but is there anything else we can say about its dramatic function in the film?

Maybe this is simplistic, but aren't Mac's conversion and baptism representative of his sincere effort to slough off a lifetime of sh--ty choices? If not for his decision to give his life to Christ, would he have chosen to (and this is the power of the story - that Mac struggles to make these choices) remain sober, attempt a reconciliation with his daughter (and to a lesser extent, his ex-wife), face the blow of a failed comeback attempt, and been able to deal with other subsequent tragedies?

QUOTE(SDG @ May 11 2005, 02:51 PM)

Several scenes are so wispy they're barely there, and character interactions are so polite that you might even get a little cranky, wondering why these people know so little about each other, and why they are circling each other with such trepidation. No one's going to bite, folks!

This makes no sense to me at all, and makes me wonder if this guy was awake during the same movie I watched. Which character interactions, specifically, are overly polite? (SDG, I realize these aren't necessarily your thoughts, but if you know what this guy is talking about, please elaborate.) Mac and his ex despise each other; no politeness there. The trepidation between Mac and Rosa Lee - well, what's conveyed in those scenes, in my mind, is reluctance among two people who have seen the ugly side of life and have learned to dance around happiness - fearing, exactly as Mac expresses, that happiness is going to dance away from them. Same with the scenes between Mac and his daughter, and Mac and Rosa Lee's son - they've all known abandonment and deep, deep pain - true, no one is going to bite - but life IS going to bite, and has. It's a testament to Beresford's understated direction and some beautiful performances that this comes through.

QUOTE(SDG @ May 11 2005, 02:51 PM)

...but the formula is so familiar by now--father and son learn to express their feelings while the screenplay neatly shunts mom aside--that it's probably beyond redemption. Australian director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant) shoots in the somber, leaden "prestige" style, holding each of his static shots for an eternity and compacting the Texas landscape into arty compositions via space-flattening telephoto lenses. His cold, unstressed treatment of the highly charged material is regrettably typical of melodrama in the 80s--it's a film about emotion that's afraid to communicate emotion.

Again, I wonder if he saw the same film I did. How does the script "shunt mom aside"? Her faith and love for Mac are a centerpiece of the movie - just as the relationship between Mac and the boy IS NOT a centerpiece of the movie. It's one part of Mac's journey, one part of his redemption - an attempt on his part to play the father role he shucked years ago.

As for "a film about emotion that's afraid to communicate emotion" - boy, even an idiot like me knows when emotion is communicated in film by means other than histrionics. Yup, TM could have been a four-hanky bathos-fest - instead, the emotion is quietly conveyed, as in that heartbreaking (it broke my heart, anyway) final scene where Rosa Lee recedes into the house, watching Mac as he sings a hymn in the face of the worst tragedy a man can face.

SDG, you mention "survivor guilt" in your initial post, the feeling that "it could've been me" but for the grace of God. Just curious - how do you see that relating to Mac's journey? From where I sit, Mac knows he could be that other man - and for that reason, fights to make the good choices.

As for redemption in a third marriage - well, call me a cynic, but since Mac was a drunk for a couple or four decades, he probably wasn't open to the Holy Spirit when he chose his first two wives! Quoting Ron: "Ain't grace wonderful?"

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About the baptism: It's been a few years since I've seen it, so I can't place it's location in the film, but as I recall, it serves to dramatize the very things that credo-baptism and immersion dramatize, i.e., death to the old life and resurrection as a new person.

Am I right in remembering that he's baptized the same time as Rosa Lee's son? I wonder if there are some comparisons for us to draw.

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Am I right in remembering that he's baptized the same time as Rosa Lee's son? I wonder if there are some comparisons for us to draw.

Yes, one after the other. Then there's a scene in which Mac and Sonny discuss

whether they feel any different now.

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My wife and I watched this for the first time last night. It's a beautiful, understated film. Of course, it's always a treat to see Duvall acting; after all those years of hearing (what I assume is) his true voice, it was a shock to hear a Texas twang emanating from him.

I have to agree with Mark's response to the critics - there's tons of emotion in this film, it's merely subdued. I love how so much is conveyed in so few words or even a glance - the aforementioned scene where Mac is singing without glancing at the hymnbook, while Sonny looks longingly and questionly at him; so much is expressed (the longing of the boy for a dad in his life, for one thing), so subtly.

Rosa Lee is quite a fount of strength - her faith in God, her love for the 2 guys in her life, her willingness to put aside the damaged emotions of being Mac's third wife and reach out compassionately to Mac's daughter - isn't she? On the other hand, Mac seems quite fragile, after all of the buffetting he's received from life and his crummy choices.

I loved the bit of symbolism in the motel's name, as 'Mariposa' is Spanish for 'butterfly.'

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Yes, Andrew, I would have guessed you'd appreciate this one.

Rosa Lee is quite a fount of strength -

Isn't she? Extraordinary, yet utterly believable. A great portrayal of simple goodness.

I loved the bit of symbolism in the motel's name, as 'Mariposa' is Spanish for 'butterfly.'

Fabulous! I had no idea. Thanks for that.

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TM is going to be one of my rare uses of film as part of sermon this week. Rom. 6:1b-11 - baptism as life altering experience. The discussion with Mac and Sonny "Do you feel different?" I think it will preach.

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Thread bump.

And a thanks to everyone who voted for Tender Mercies, a film I probably wouldn't have watched otherwise. That makes it three weekends in a row that a movie has made me cry.

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I just have such a hard time putting this at the top of the queue. Isn't there a guy with a cowboy hat? And the film's title alone. <<shiver>>

PS Edit: yep.

tender-mercies.jpg

And the shiver shiver title is in really bad cursive, too!

Edited by Persona

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Stef, if you give Tender Mercies a shot, resist the urge to judge it until you're at least 40 minutes in. The first act is even more rushed than the beginning of Babette's Feast. ;) I suspect you'll really like it -- if for no other reason than, like me, you were a kid in the early '80s and haven't watched a good film from that era in a long time. I didn't grow up anywhere near a small Texas town like this one, but something about this movie made me really nostalgic.

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Stef, if you give Tender Mercies a shot, resist the urge to judge it until you're at least 40 minutes in. The first act is even more rushed than the beginning of Babette's Feast. ;) I suspect you'll really like it -- if for no other reason than, like me, you were a kid in the early '80s and haven't watched a good film from that era in a long time. I didn't grow up anywhere near a small Texas town like this one, but something about this movie made me really nostalgic.

Beautiful redemption story in the midst of real life heat. Here's a guy who wants to change, hard to even say why. Most probably he is, as they say in AA, "sick of being sick." And somehow, he tapers off and really does find a way out of his own personal hell.

But that's not going to change the way life works. Sometimes you're going to get hit. Sometimes you're going to get hit hard. One of the greater testimonies of Mac post-baptism is that when he takes a direct hit, he doesn't return to that hell. He doesn't drag that hell into his new family's home. He continues to work things out, perhaps in fear and trembling, in some confusion over how and why God's rule and reign works -- and as he does so he is committed to bringing peace, with or without happiness, to his home.

Just wonderful. Between this and last week's viewing of The Apostle, I am begging for Get Low to be out on DVD soon.

This will definitely be getting my strongest vote to go UP the Top 100 list.

Edited by Persona

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For those in the LA area:

 

Landmark Theatres' Anniversary Classics Series returns to The Landmark on Thursday, November 21 at 7:00pm with TENDER MERCIES, celebrating the film's 30th Anniversary, with in person guest Tess Harper.

 

TENDER MERCIES was nominated for five Academy Awards in 1983, including Best Picture, and won two.  Robert Duvall was named Best Actor for his poignant portrayal of a washed-up country singer trying to start a new life with a widow and her young son.  Master playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Horton Foote also won the Oscar for his lean, eloquent screenplay about the fragility of family ties and a broken man’s search for redemption. Cast members include Betty Buckley, Ellen Barkin, and Wilford Brimley. We will have a special Q & A with co-star Tess Harper, whose many other credits include Silkwood, Crimes of the Heart (which earned her an Oscar nomination), No Country for Old Men, and the acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad.

 

Advance tickets for TENDER MERCIES 30th Anniversary event are now on sale for $13.

The Landmark is located at 10850 West Pico at Westwood Blvd. in West Los Angeles

Showtimes and Information: (310) 470-0492 or http://www.landmarktheatres.com        

Direct link to ticket purchase:

https://tickets.landmarktheatres.com/Ticketing.aspx?ShowDate=11/21/2013&TheatreID=267

 

For more information, visit the Anniversary Classics Series page on the Landmark Theatres web site:

http://www.landmarktheatres.com/events/anniversary_series.htm

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I am sure that I see at least 100 films a year, and this one continues to stand out from the pack.

 

I often find myself wondering about great Thanksgiving films. The only two I ever think of are Pieces of April and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

 

(huh. I wonder whether the latter has been nominated for the new Top 25... I guess I'll have to look into that.)

 

Anyway, Landmark's timing on their screening makes me think this might be a brilliant Thanksgiving film, though I don't think Thanksgiving is mentioned anywhere in the actual movie.

 

edit: Lookie Here, LOL.

Edited by Persona

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