Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Delicate Art of Turning Your Parents Into Content

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In 1974, Martin Scorsese was a year removed from his breakthrough film—the semi-autobiographical “Mean Streets,” about a young man in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood who is sinking into the quicksand of Mafia life—when he presented a companion piece of sorts: a documentary featurette about a pair of second-generation Sicilian-Americans who also happened to be his mother and father. “Italianamerican,” which premièred at the New York Film Festival and later aired on PBS, sits at home with Catherine and Charles Scorsese on their plastic-covered sofa and at their dining table, and, for a spell, peers over Catherine’s shoulder as she stands at her stove, preparing her famous meatballs and tomato sauce, wiping surfaces as she goes. (Her recipe is included in the end credits.)

For the most part, the movie simply lets the couple talk—and interrupt and speak over each other and finish each other’s sentences—about their own parents’ difficult journeys to America from Sicily, about impossible numbers of people crammed into tenement apartments, about the technical nuances of at-home winemaking. “Italianamerican” is as homey and unglamorous as “Mean Streets” is kinetic and mercurial; what they share is a thrilling intimacy, an unmistakable rooting in place, and the confidence of an epochal young filmmaker announcing where he came from. Years later, Scorsese asked his mother to return to the dining table for an immortal and largely improvised scene in “Goodfellas.”

Today, one might say that Scorsese was turning his parents into content. This has become something of a family tradition—his daughter Francesca is TikTok-famous for doing much the same. But where “Italianamerican” asserts that two retirement-age Garment District laborers are as worthy of an elevating closeup as any Hollywood star, Francesca’s ebullient videos with her dad have a grounding effect. The viewer is invited to giggle along with her while one of the most exalted artists of our age attempts to identify various feminine products, say, or interpret a slew of Gen Z slang terms—and, incidentally, if the director of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” wants to redefine “sneaky link” as “personal peccadillos,” who are you or I to stop him?

Francesca’s TikToks, which reached a viral inflection point during Scorsese’s press run for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” exemplify an increasingly common tendency among influencers, comedians, and filmmakers to use their parents as fodder. Donald Glover, the co-creator and star of the Amazon reboot of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” cast his mother, Beverly, as his character’s mom. Previously, Glover’s co-star, Maya Erskine, cast her mom as her mom in “PEN15”; reaching back a few more years, Aziz Ansari cast his parents as his parents in “Master of None”; and so on. In “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,” on Max, Carmichael, having recently come out as gay, seeks out awkward, often painful encounters with his disapproving parents over his sexual identity and—another long-held secret—his father’s second family.

And, across TikTok and Instagram, Gen Z creators—the first cohort to grow up in an era of social media and sharenting—are casting their Gen X elders as heroes, foils, antagonists, and comic relief. Their fathers are texting in #immigrantdad style or running errands with #girldad flair. The taxonomy of what we might call reverse sharenting can be micrometrical: one of the algorithm’s recent suggestions for me was, somehow, “Viet almond mom”—a mashup of the TikTok trope of the Vietnamese-immigrant mom (who is typically rendered as voluble, withholding, hypercritical) and the “almond mom” (diet-obsessed, passive-aggressive, hypercritical).

At times, other people’s parents are altogether inescapable. Recently, for weeks, I could not open TikTok or Instagram without being served an entry in the objectively enchanting #80sdancechallenge, in which adult children enlist their fit and stylish moms and/or dads to show off their best moves to the tune of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.” The keening song, about a closeted gay man who feels forced to escape the closed-minded provinces of his youth, is an odd choice of banger for such a joyous project: “Mother will never understand why you had to leave . . . / The love that you need will never be found at home.” The sadness of “Smalltown Boy” lies in its protagonist’s inability to connect with those closest to him, to be understood in all his facets—a main theme, incidentally, of Carmichael’s reality show.

Good, loving parents might also long for such deep and unconditional understanding from their adult children. These same parents know, too, that they’re not supposed to demand this reciprocal empathy, or even admit to wanting it. At the same time, it can be a twentysomething rite of passage to realize that your parents are more than your parents; that they had a life before you; that they were beautiful and moved beautifully and were desired, and still are. You didn’t really know that, and all of a sudden you do. They were so much older then; they’re younger than that now.

When children direct their parents, the role reversal adds dramatic or comedic frisson as needed—now it’s the grownups who must do as they’re told, and they often comply with tender dutifulness and grace. They are game; they are good sports. David Letterman’s mother, a onetime church secretary, was the most cosmically unflappable among his bench of amateur correspondents, whether she was being asked to alert the 30 Rock vicinity of a fake hostage situation involving the NBC weatherman Willard Scott or to present a gold-medallist skier at the Lillehammer Olympics with a canned ham. The prolific New German Cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder used his mother in twenty-odd films, and Andy Warhol employed his mother alongside his then lover in the 1966 featurette “Mrs. Warhol,” about an aged screen queen with a mysteriously high body count of dead husbands. In a wonderful essay on Warhol and Fassbinder’s “queer home movies,” the painter and film scholar Ara Osterweil called “Mrs. Warhol” “one of the most touching and least sadistic cinematic portraits” the artist ever made: “a scene of patricidal queer intimacy that lauds the death of the hetero-normative family.”

In another calamitous vision of the nuclear family, “A Woman Under the Influence,” John Cassavetes cast not only his wife and frequent leading actress, Gena Rowlands, but also his mother, Katherine Cassavetes, and his mother-in-law, Lady Rowlands. The older women’s performances are mostly one-note, and that is perfect: they are pedal tones in a symphony. The alchemical mix of professional and amateur actors lends the movie an uncanny, unsettling vérité intimacy. Cassavetes wanted to provoke the viewer’s discomfort, and enlisting some of the people closest to him was a means of achieving this domestic claustrophobia.

Sometimes, this discomfort derives from questions of ethics. Much of Chantal Akerman’s filmography is a stricken monument to her mother, Natalia, who survived Auschwitz. But some of the stones in the memorial invite close scrutiny, as the critic Violet Lucca observed in a 2016 essay. Were Natalia’s letters in “News from Home” (1976) ever meant to be made public? What should the viewer make of Natalia’s comments in “No Home Movie” (2015), when she is close to the end of her life, that she doesn’t want her conversations with her daughter to be shared with other people? Did Natalia know that she was being filmed as she spoke with her caretaker? Depending on the viewer’s vantage point, Akerman’s tributes may take on shades of indiscretion. A drop of filial impiety is also detectable in Fassbinder’s segment of the omnibus film “Germany in Autumn,” which reckons with the political violence that roiled the country in 1977. Fassbinder includes an exchange with his mother in which she acknowledges the appeal of autocratic rule returning to their country and muses about the revenge killings of imprisoned terrorists. The conversation is presented straight, but, as Osterweil points out in her essay, Fassbinder’s mother had, in fact, entertained and then regretted having these thoughts some weeks earlier; she only agreed to repeat them to provide a crucial moment in her son’s film.

Across the spectrum of the reverse-sharenting canon—from TikTok teens stunting on their immigrant folks to Oscar-winning directors—a primal generational drama unfolds: how the near-absolute authority of a mother or father gradually wanes, but does not entirely abate, as their kids mature and seize some of that authority for themselves; and how this redistribution of power is further complicated if the adult child attains unusual creative clout, prominence, or wealth. In Carmichael’s reality show, in his standup, and in his interviews, he repeatedly brings up the fact that, despite his parents’ refusal to embrace him completely after coming out, he paid for the house that they live in and he covers their health insurance. This is a multi-edged disclosure. It’s a gotcha on his mother and father, for sure—they accept what he earns but not who he is. But there’s also the plaintive suggestion that he is trying to buy their affections. And, if the viewer senses that their participation in his series is somewhat reluctant, it seems possible that a hint of financial obligation is also in play.

Carmichael’s parents, for all of their flaws, do sometimes show some willingness to submit to the plan, to defer to their child. In the fourth episode of “Reality Show,” Carmichael’s stoical father takes his son on a road trip, and, in a sweetly banal sequence, Dad drives around to multiple Bojangles locations, searching, with saintlike patience, for one with a health-board rating that meets his kid’s standards. Where Carmichael’s father will not acquiesce, though, is in discussing private family matters in front of a camera crew. In declining to engage fully in an enterprise that appears—in effect, if not necessarily intent—designed to embarrass him, he wrests a small degree of control over Carmichael’s raw, confessional project. At the end of the episode, sitting in front of a campfire, he tells his son, “You expressed yourself. You said what you wanted to say. You’re gonna to do what you want to do. Can I go home?” His son is already at home—the cameras are his windows. ♦

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