Gilbey on Film: meet the step-parents

"Cyrus" shows that fractured families are a rich source for movie makers.

Films are our fairytales, but few of them are as explicit in their allegiance to this form as the kinky comedy Cyrus, which opens on Friday. It belongs to a comparatively recent cinematic sub-genre which takes as its subject the tensions that arise from the fluidity of modern domestic life; let's call it "step-family entertainment".

When this particular fairytale begins, you're not quite sure who the ogre is. The likeliest candidate appears to be John (John C Reilly), who is first seen with pants-down and buttocks out. He even likens himself to Shrek when he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). Could she be the beautiful princess who falls for the ogre? Well, sort of.

But that ship has sailed. She is in love, unconsummated love, with another ogre -- her obese adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who doesn't take kindly to her having male friends, or being away from the house. (That house, on a featureless Los Angeles street, demonstrates the importance of good location scouting: mounted on a hillside, it seems to float above pavement level in what must be a nod to the tower in which Rapunzel is imprisoned.)

On those occasions when Molly sleeps with John at his apartment, she makes sure to steal away in order to get home before Cyrus wakes in the morning and, presumably, something or someone gets turned into a pumpkin. There's another allusion to Cinderella in some important monkey business involving shoes. When John stays over at Molly's house, his trainers are gone in the morning, and he has to pad to work in his stocking feet; their disappearance goes gradually from sticking-point to crisis-point, an escalation not untypical of family life.

What's fascinating about Cyrus is how it shifts cruelty and treachery away from the step-parent (as seen in Snow White or Hansel and Gretel) and onto the potential step-child. The original purpose of the wicked step-mother figure, as anyone who knows their Bruno Bettelheim will recall, was to help the child rationalise and segregate its mother's pleasure-denying or disciplinarian tendencies: by dividing the mother in this way, the child is able to keep intact the mother's loving, nurturing side. With time and emotional maturity, we come to realise that it's all the same: it's all mother. If we don't, we may turn into that victim who clings to the attractive side of his or her partner by insisting that "(s)he only hits me when (s)he is drunk/depressed/skint."

For all the creepy and inappropriate comments made by young Cyrus, perhaps the one which terrifies John the most is when the lad says "It's great to finally have a new Dad", mere hours after their first meeting. Jonah Hill's age and girth makes the mental image conjured by this line even more unsettling.

I think that's part of what lies beneath the dread in Cyrus. Fear of commitment is one thing. But what if someone wants more than anything to commit, as John does, only for there to be another adult who makes that impossible? Like any decent analysis of family, the picture is a study of the forces of control floundering in the face of chaos.

It's worth noting too that Reilly starred in another recent example of step-family entertainment, the curious 2008 comedy Step Brothers, in which he and Will Ferrell played grown-up but infantilised children whose single parents marry, making resentful step-siblings of these middle-aged morons. Like Cyrus, it shows the family unit in free-fall: if you can acquire siblings in your forties (or, in Cyrus, a son who is to all intents and purposes a walking, Godzilla-sized Oedipus complex) then anything might feasibly happen. All bets are off.

My own favourite "step"-movie remains the impossibly tense thriller The Stepfather (the 1987 original, not the recent remake, dummy). It's a highly intelligent study of the fissures caused not just by the jigsaw-puzzle of step-family life, but by the entire concept of family. The unattainable ideal of domestic bliss drives Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) to first insinuate himself with a widow and her children, and then to slaughter them when they fall short of his impossible expectations.

Perhaps the filmmakers' choicest decision was to open with Jerry calmly vacating the scene of one massacre before moving on to the next unsuspecting, fatherless clan. The movie is a nasty, clever little cracker that won't lose its pertinence until we outlaw family life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era