Saturday, July 8, 2023

Divorce, Family and Memory in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3"

(A few spoilers within.)

     I recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, and as a divorced man I had an interesting, personal reaction to the plight of Peter Quill.  

     The question of what constitutes a family is at the heart of the first two "volumes" in the Guardians of the Galaxy series.  Peter Quill, Starlord, is abducted from his dying mother to go live with his demi-god father, but he eventually realizes the ravager Nandu, who raised him, was a true father to him.  Drax's family was murdered in one of Thanos' wars.  Nebula and Gamora are both daughters (in Gamora's case, "adopted") of the brutal Thanos.  Rocket seems to have no family background at all.  (His story is at the heart of Volume 3.  I won't discuss it here, but let's just say he's an orphan.)  He and Groot make up a family of two, solidified by Rocket's ability, alone, to understand Groot's language.  Mantis joins the group after we discover she's something of a half-sister to Peter, also orphaned after the death of their demi-god dad.   

     Through mutual struggle, these characters all find a family together.  Gamora and Nebula overcome their sibling hatred; Peter finds a sister; and Peter and Gamora begin a relationship - they are something of the "mom and dad" of the group.  The end of the second film finds them all happily belonging to a supportive, loving ad-hoc family.

     But then Thanos messes it all up.  In the Avengers films, he kills Gamora in order to get the Soul Stone.  When she returns from an alternate timeline, as part of the Time Heist, she's an "earlier version" of herself, one who hasn't experienced all the struggles with Peter and the rest of the Guardians.  When she meets Peter, she doesn't "remember" him.  His attempts to reconcile with her make up an important part of the plot, and theme, of Volume 3.

     I deeply commiserated with Peter's relationship with Gamora.  Someone he dearly loved and with whom shared many big and small experiences doesn't return his affection.  Her inability to remember is similar to a divorced spouse simply not wanting to share those memories.  And her lack of desire to "fix" their relationship is also common.  She isn't the person he thought he knew.  

     This leaves Peter a broken man.  He seems "incomplete."  He's not only broken hearted.  He's also lost someone he "went through things" with.  Someone he saved the universe with!  He can share some stories and memories with his best friends, but it's different when you lose your loving partner.  My ex and I "went through" a lot of things - both as a couple, and as parents.  We spent ten years as a couple working, taking trips, being best friends.  Then we built a family together.  Bought a house, created a home.  We were partners in life, I thought.  (That's another story.)  We were together twenty years.  That's a lot of living!

     I often share memories with my kids about places and events from the "nuclear family" period of our lives.  I'll remind them of parties thrown and trips taken.  I'll occasionally find myself sharing anecdotes involving their mother.  They don't remember much.  And I think many of these memories just remind me of what I lost.  We share stories as part of belonging.  When the person you share those memories with no longer can, or wishes to, share them anymore, it's a big loss.  I also have to think, now, that her memories are different than mine.  Our experiences were different.

     I also think sometimes about not just what my ex and I shared together with our immediate family, but also time spent with our parents, and grandparents, or times spent with new babies, or old friends.  I knew my ex's grandfather, and she mine.  She knew my dad.  They are gone now, and I miss being able to share my memories of them with her.  And with friends, we can't talk about the vacations taken together, or kid's birthday parties, the same way.  I don't even speak with all of our mutual friends much, and I certainly don't speak much with her family.  

     I think this hurts me especially because of how much I valued our family, and how much I try to keep the past alive with traditions and story telling.  I've had to repress much of my desire to remember or retell our past.  I'm not trying to forget!  But I don't want to spend as much time remembering.

     A few months after my ex moved out, after we ended counselling and we were starting to mediate our separation, I took my three boys camping.  We went with a few other close families as we had done in the past.  People with whom we shared (and continue to share) a history. I had some big emotional ups and downs that trip.  One evening I called (or texted, I don't remember) my ex and asked her, didn't she miss these trips?  Didn't she miss the memories?  She replied that it was "time for new memories."  

     And she was right, sort of.  I understood then that she no longer would value what we had shared together the way I did.  It didn't mean I had to throw it all away, but I did have to start looking forward.  And I did.  I'm still in the house that we raised the boys in.  I've kept it much the way we had it, but have started redecorating in small ways, making it more my own.  The boys like living here, still.  I think it will be their home as long as we stay here.  But I also know that the time will come when I will have to make a new home for them.  Maybe alone, maybe with someone else.  And I'm ready for it. 

     Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3, continues to examine "what constitutes a family."  At the end of the film the group looks much different, as they all try and find where they might ultimately belong.  The family "breaks up" in a way, but then is rebuilt with some new members.  Just like life - people come and go.  Kids grow up and move out.  People pass away.  And Peter must accept that the Gamora he knew is also gone. It's a sad ending, but also hopeful, especially as Peter tries to reconnect with his own, now fairly distant, past.  I can relate.


Monday, June 12, 2023

"Lifeboat" and "Sahara"

     I was recently on a camping trip with my kids, and I took my two younger sons, the 11 year old twins, on a hike.  I knew it would be between three and four miles, and I had a good sized bottle of water for us to share, but about half way through I realized the entire endeavor was more strenuous than I anticipated.  I was worried we would run out of water and the boys would become unbearably cranky.  Our lives weren't at risk, but our enjoyment of the hike - through prairie, around a lake, and up a steep, narrow hill to a secluded cave - was in jeopardy.
     So I told the boys we would ration water.  Only take sips at certain mile markers.  It worked.  I managed to keep us hydrated, and happy, for the entirety of the walk.  To help distract them, and also put our "plight" into context.  I told the boys two stories from films I remembered about other thirsty travelers.  "Lifeboat," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, from 1944; and "Sahara," from 1943, starring Humphrey Bogart.  
     "Lifeboat," I explained, was about a group of survivors of a merchant marine ship sunk by a German U-boat (submarine) during World War Two.  The entire film take place on the small lifeboat.  Initially there is only one passenger, a beautiful socialite reporter, but she is soon joined by a laborer from the engine room; a radio operator; a nurse; an African-American steward (waiter and general servant); a wealthy industrialist; a woman holding desperately to her dead baby; and a German survivor of the U-boat, which gets sunk in the battle.  

     My kids were fascinated by the different conflicts that the small location creates.  Who should be in charge?  Is the German - who may or may not have been the captain of the U-boat - helping them, or sabotaging them?  He hides a compass, he sneaks energy pills and water, and he even convinces one of the survivors to jump overboard!  How well do the rich and working class people get along?  When things get tough, and they run out of water, what will they do to survive?  It's a wonderful, tense film, very stressful.  Everything is at stake for the characters.  And I think the ultimate message - that we all need to stand up and fight together (rich and poor, black and white), against fascism (in the form of the German sailor) to survive - is still compelling today.

     "Sahara" has a similar message.  An American tank crew, after surviving a vicious battle, heads deep into the desert as part of a retreat.  The three man crew, led by Humphrey Bogart, is "flying blind."  They only have a rough idea of where to go, and they have limited water, oil, and fuel.  They pick up a rag-tag group of British soldiers, an African Sudanese with a captured Italian soldier, and eventually a German pilot they shoot down after he strafes their tank. (After much debate they decide they can't leave prisoners, either benign like the Italian or possibly dangerous like the Nazi pilot - to die in the desert!)  The Sudanese soldier leads them to an old fort they hope has a well, but that only has a trickle of water flowing, but it's enough to sate their thirsts.  

     As they are about to leave, they capture some German scouts who reveal there are 500 German soldiers nearby, dying of thirst.  The small allied group decides to lure them to the fort with the promise of water, then trap them while they send one of their own men - one of the Americans, in the captured German scout car - for help.  After all, what's their 10 or so lives compared to the 500 German soldiers they might kill or capture?  And isn't the goal to win the war?

     When we got back from the trip, we watched both of the films.  My boys liked "Lifeboat."  They were appalled by the nastiness of the German U-boat captain, and how he manipulates the survivors.  They liked the interesting cinematography - and the way the setting affected and reflected the action (storms rising when things got tense!).  But they liked "Sahara" more.  They enjoyed the way the group of allies made it seem like they had much more water than they did when they were being attacked by the Germans.  And sadly they felt it when, one by one, the small group of men defending the fort were killed by the advancing enemy.  They also liked the race against time element - will the man sent to get help return in time across the harsh desert?  Or will he also die of thirst?

    There are many, many older films that might be appealing to kids.  I think existential crises are good - so are films that express a clear moral stand against evil.  And relating the films to their own experiences helps!