On the Year 1990 in Film

After revisiting Dances with Wolves this morning, I’m left meditating on the 63rd Academy Awards. I know three of the Best Picture contenders were some of my father’s favorites, and a fourth reminds me of my mother.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I rewatched Dances with Wolves this morning for what must have been the umpteenth time. It obsessed me from the night I first experienced it in the years following 2006, when you died within three weeks of each other. There was a period in my life, though, when I asked myself if I would ever see it again – I had fallen prey to food poisoning back in high school, and, too weak to get out of bed, I played it as a way to pass three hours. Like a Pavlovian dog, I associated Kevin Costner’s epic with an upset stomach for years afterward.

Thankfully, those years are now forgotten.

Since studying film in undergraduate school, I take issue with some of the identity politics underpinning the movie’s representation of race relations between white and indigenous Americans, as well as its depiction of Lakota culture. Writing for Salon, David Sirota is right to characterize Costner’s protagonist as a “white savior,” while his Lakota co-stars succumb to the “noble savage” trope. Meanwhile, Blackfeet filmmaker George Budreau is quoted as saying, “No matter how sensitive and wonderful this movie is, you have to ask who’s telling the story. It’s certainly not an Indian.”

Nevertheless, Dances with Wolves remains a groundbreaking mainstream Hollywood Western in its sympathetic and (at times) authentic portrayal of the Lakota nation. Because unproblematic media doesn’t exist, it is still one of my most treasured blockbusters.

And maybe part of the reason why is because I first saw it with Grandma, who says she and Grandpa took Dad to see it in theaters on New Year’s Eve 1990, when he was only nineteen years old. It’s almost like Dances with Wolves is a member of our family.

But for all the sentiment surrounding it, I agree that Dances with Wolves snubbed GoodFellas for Best Picture at the 1991 Academy Awards ceremony.

Over the years, I’ve criticized 1995’s Casino as derivative of GoodFellas, and while I still hold that to be true, Casino has grown on me as Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece (in no small part because Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone’s relationship reminds me of you at your worst, Mom and Dad, what with the fighting and the drugs). Regardless, before Casino, GoodFellas was Scorsese’s magnum opus, and it goes without saying that Scorsese is a more important director than Costner.

Grandma says GoodFellas was another one of your all-timers, Dad – everything from The Godfather to The Sopranos engrossed you with the Mafia, enough for Grandma to joke you would’ve joined Cosa Nostra if you could. Because you drank yourself to death when I was twelve years old, I would have been too young to watch GoodFellas with you, but I know we would have reveled in it together.

Which brings us to that other gangster classic (and Best Picture nominee) from 1990 – The Godfather Part III. Personally, I think it about as mediocre as Grandpa did when he saw it with you and Grandma on Christmas Day that year, but Grandma says you were as rabid a fan of it as you were of the first two installments in the trilogy. Again, I was too young to have watched any of The Godfather movies with you when you were alive, but the best part of them is how they remind me of you at your most spirited (and least likely to drink).

As for you, Mom, I don’t know what your opinion was of Ghost – perhaps tied with The Godfather Part III on the lower end of these four Best Picture contenders – but the Righteous Brothers’ iconic cover of “Unchained Melody” from the film’s soundtrack recalls the Elvis Presley version that surely possessed you. I remember you telling me before you overdosed that you expended much of your teenage angst listening to music, and your most beloved singer must have been to you what Lady Gaga was to me during my own high school days: something to live for while dying of unaddressed mental sickness.

A film professor once observed, Mom and Dad, that you must have been fond of blockbusters, and 1990 came and went not long before 1997’s Titanic (another favorite of yours) became one of the last Best Picture winners people have even heard of, much less seen. Yes, 1990 was a seminal year in popular cinematic history, but more significant than that is how these and other titles regale me with a release of your loss like only “movie magic” can provide.


On Harry and Meghan’s Paparazzi Chase

With its uncanny resemblance to the night Princess Diana died, Prince Harry and Meghan’s own paparazzi chase leaves me wondering about how my mother would have reacted to the event. Because we both lost our mothers at twelve years old – in fact, Harry’s birthday is the day before mine – I feel for the Duke of Sussex.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I was too young to know where I was when Diana, Princess of Wales, died. All I can remember is Mom recounting her death to me years later. We were sitting in the dimmed living room of the triplex we were evicted from when I was ten years old. The light of the TV flickered over us. Maybe that was back when Mom slept on the floor in a nest of blankets and pillows every night, more than likely as part of a quarrel with Dad. Sometimes, my sister and I joined her.

Either way, Mom subscribed to the conspiracy theory that Diana’s car crash was no accident, but, rather, that the royal family had assassinated her. Or, at least, you said that was what you believed – it wasn’t always easy to tell where your sense of humor began or ended, especially when I was a child.

But regardless, as I grew up to learn more about Diana in the years after you and Dad died within three weeks of each other in 2006, I found myself aching to leave behind the same gracious legacy as she did. I even entertained the notion of studying social work in undergraduate school, and though I ultimately decided against it, I think it’s still in me to reach out and redeem somebody a world away like Diana did to me, as if to be remembered for something “good” despite my own disabling unhappiness.

It’s true that I may be more of a “literary” journalist than an investigative reporter, but that doesn’t mean I can’t show even one of my readers how to live with the grief Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, endured when he lost his own mother in Diana.

To catch you up to speed, Mom and Dad, Harry and his wife, the Duchess of Sussex formerly known as Meghan Markle, claim they recently survived a high-speed paparazzi chase in New York City reminiscent of the one that killed Diana in Paris. Mom, I can picture you following the story on the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle no less fanatically than you would have watched Harry and Meghan’s wedding, telephoning Grandma every once in a while about the parallels between Diana and Harry’s respective encounters with the press.

Having stayed home from class enough times for the school to take our family to court over attendance, I can attest that the news was your answer to daytime television, which is perhaps why you had the intelligence to match your instability.

In any case, what Harry went through would have been frightful for anyone, but doubtless his mother’s memory flashed across his mind in much the same way the cameras burst outside his and Meghan’s car. What would it have done to him to relive what happened to her when he was still a boy, the same age I was when I lost my mom, too?

Not to speak for Harry, but I know what it’s like to go about my day with the same vulnerabilities that consumed each one of you, Mom and Dad. After I had my wisdom teeth removed in 2012, I almost didn’t dip into my Vicodin prescription for fear of ending up like you, Mom (until the agony forced my hand). And Dad, with every drink I take at an office lunch or during a party, I run the risk of craving one too many and ruining my life, or worse.

As for Harry, he was born into the life of a public figure through no choice of his own, and all he could do was bear witness to the masses crucifying his mother (as though he were just another estranged onlooker), only to go on living that same lifestyle – helpless to avoid it – until it nearly destroyed him, too. I wonder how many other children of deceased parents can identify with this fatalism – what is the quasi-inevitability of outliving a parent, if not a confrontation with one’s own mortality and fallibility?

No, I applaud Harry and Meghan for attempting to distance themselves from these dangerous patterns with as much vigor as I would celebrate anyone else for trying to do the same – myself included.

What could you have done differently, Mom and Dad, to take control and change your own destinies?