Monday, June 20, 2011

Father's Day at the Nerdery

Today was Father's Day here in the United States. Early in the twentieth century, Americans began celebrating Father's Day informally around the same time that Mother's Day gained support. But, while Mother's Day became an official national holiday in 1914, the holiday honoring fathers wasn't officially recognized until 1972. It's also the annual peak of collect calls every year, even though it is eclipsed by Mother's Day in terms of overall phone calls, gift giving, and trips to visit loved ones.

This is unacceptable.

My mother nurtured me and loved me, but it was my father who taught me the hard lessons. And I love the hard lessons. Things like how to stand tall when you're getting beaten down, when to fight back and when to back off, and--hardest lesson of them all--how to treat the opposite sex. I don't think I'm alone in owing this much to my father, either--I think most of you could say similar things. This isn't meant to be self-congratulatory, though. Today may be my first Father's Day as a parent, but I feel not even a fraction of the esteem for myself that beams from me to my dad. Mother's Day, to me, has always felt much more like a day to thank mothers for acute instances of love and nurturing--birth being foremost. But Father's Day seems to be more about giving a return to fathers for the investment of spirit they've given us all over the years. So no, today isn't a day to honor me, even if I happen to be a dad. I haven't earned it yet.

But I plan on earning it, and I enjoy getting some inspiration from the media around me.

I don't think most popular media holds to my views of Father's Day or the special impact of a good father in a child's life--especially a son's life. It doesn't seem like good fathers are easily found in the stories we share in our entertainment-soaked lives. They're tough to find, and tough to recognize once they are found.

That is something we shall have to remedy.

There are a few pieces of quality media that speak to the special influence a father can have in the life of his child. Being a male myself, I also gravitate towards the ones that show the bond of a father and son. So here are a few great inspirational stories of a father's impact on their son:

(Light spoilers throughout)

3:10 to Yuma (Own it)
The 2007 James Mangold version of 3:10 to Yuma is a picturesque film--perfectly shot, casted, and paced. Starring Christian Bale and Russel Crowe, it's a western that achieves a timeless classic feel that overshoots the fanciful westerns of the 1950s through 1990s and instead goes back to the grim veracity of the 1870s. And Alan Tudyk's in it, too. But the core of 3:10 to Yuma, the heart and soul that drives the railroad western to its tragic end, is a father-son relationship of heart-rending poignancy. Bale's character, Dan Evans, begins the film a ruin of a father figure. He's been rendered impotent in his home through circumstance and stubborn ethics, and the audience is pretty clearly told that he is not genuinely respected by his wife or his eldest son, William. When Dan takes on the job of escorting the notorious outlaw Ben Wade, everyone assumes it's either to escape his abject poverty or to assuage his strict ethics. But it's in the middle of the film's tear-spilling climax that he levels with the outlaw as to what drives him: a desire to fill his son with pride and respect. When you watch this film, pay close attention to the pained dynamic between Dan and William, and you'll see a father--who is all too aware of his own short-comings--trying to be a true hero to his son at an age where the cheap and the frivolous is all too appealing to the youth.

Run, Fatboy, Run (Need to own it--need to own it real bad)
You might not realize it, but David Schwimmer's comedy about a slacker baby-daddy in London trying to run the Thames marathon has a lot in common with 3:10 to Yuma. Starring the pitch-perfect Simon Pegg as the improbably lovable dissolute Dennis, Run, Fatboy, Run begins with a moment of acute failure on the lead's part: it depicts Dennis running out on his pregnant fiance on their wedding day. The movie's bulk takes place five years later, when Dennis lives in a tenuous equilibrium balancing his uninspired life as a feckless bachelor with his shining relationship with his adorable son. He also clearly still has feelings beyond guilt for his ex, as well, so when she gets engaged to a motivated, marathon-running self-starter, the petty and impetuous Dennis jumps into a pair of running shorts, too. This isn't a romance, though, as Dennis clearly admits that he has no hope to aspire beyond merely earning some respect from his love and his son. So, like the western above, this comedy is about a father tackling insurmountable odds in the name of being better for those who look to him for strength. The humor is a mix of American gross-out gags and British understatement, and the climax is an emotional string of endearing moments that are all too rare in comedies.

Battlestar Galactica (Own seasons one through three so far)
One of the core dynamics throughout the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series is the strained relationship between William Adama and his son Lee. Early on in the pilot mini-series, we see that Lee deeply resents the pressure and oppressive military legacy he felt overshadowed his and his dead brother's lives. They come to an uneasy truce, but the relationship becomes gold-platedly touching in the season one episode "Hand of God". Amidst the sterling sci-fi treat of the episode, the son--like many of us--flounders with doubt about his own abilities to accomplish the mission of the highest importance, and he tells his father as much in the flimsy hope of being let off the hook. Instead, father William Adama tells Lee that, as his son, he wouldn't have anyone else go out on the mission--because he's always had faith in his son to do the right thing. It's one of the first and best of the series' quiet, tender moments between the two, and when Lee returns home victorious, the look the two exchange adds to the military triumph with an emotional mastery that inspires you that any rocky relationship with a parent can be forged into something delicate and respectable.

Red Dead Redemption (Own it) SPOILERS WILL FLOW
Produced by Rockstar Games, I never expected Red Dead Redemption to be beautiful. But, between sweeping visuals, open pacing, and a plot that takes cues from Unforgiven, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Outlaw Josey Whales, it is just that: beautiful. Over the course of a long and violent quest for alleged government men, protagonist and former-outlaw John Marston kills off the rest of his former gang and returns home to his wife and teenage son, Jack. What makes the game achieve a level of narrative brilliance I never expected from the Grand Theft Auto creators, though, is that the last act of the game concerns itself with minor missions that give you some time to enjoy with your wife and son. During the understated missions, John is confronted with Jack's resentment over the additional hardships he's endured because of his father's mistakes. John also confides in his wife that they have a responsibility to put away their wild, free-willed ways in order to make a better life accessible for their son. After these moments and a few more like them, John gives up his life in order to give his wife and son a chance to escape. The tragic death is given the grand treatment that you'd expect from any of the above movies, and is afterward followed by one last mission as Jack Marston rides to avenge his father seven years later. Not only does the game illustrate the touching, pathetic power of a father's nobility and personal sacrifice, but it also outlines the flow of a father's sins upon his son's head.

Patriarch's Hope (Own it)
As the sixth book in the Seafort Saga, Patriarch's Hope presents the reader with a rich tapestry of characters as the children of the series become protagonists alongside the first generation. Not only does this make for a unique and gripping read, but it becomes a wonderful dissection of the trials of parenting and the power of guilt. The series' main character, Nicholas Seafort, spends the entire series haunted by the severe presence of his single father's regimented upbringing. Now, Nick Seafort is also being hounded by his own son's contrary idealism. The drama gets a little thick, as much of it revolves around futurist politics, but it is nonetheless a wonderfully affecting story about the bonds of fathers and sons, and the conflict they have in trying to define themselves independently from each other--which, in the end, is impossible.

Don't just go out and read, play or watch these tributes to fathers. Live them, honoring your father by being the man or woman he taught you to be--the one he wants you to be. And I hope you gave him a phone call, too. But not a collect call.

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