A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1992, USA, Robert Redford, Richard Friedenberg screenplay, Norman Maclean novella)
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.
Regrettably, Norman Maclean waited until late in life to publish his first book, an elegantly written memoir of his youth that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s about fly fishing, it’s about his father – a Presbyterian minister who loved the Montana rivers almost as much as he loved his boys and the gospel – but mostly it’s about Norman’s kid brother, a high flying golden boy who loved danger.
Two years after the author’s death, Robert Redford’s handsome treatment reached the screen. Viewers gloried in images of unspoiled river valleys and the portrait of a family and a time that was nostalgic without being saccharine. The film celebrates the love between the Maclean men without sentimentalizing it: there are rivalries and tensions, too little is spoken or even expressed, and ultimately these men remain opaque to one another, their actions a mystery.
Critics of the film found that absence of character revelation a deficiency. Hal Hinson rightly notes that Paul’s gambling and drinking “seem to spring from an anger deep within,” but then complains that his anger is “never fully explained…. This deficiency leaves a hole in the picture that Redford can't cover over. And it causes repercussions throughout the film, particularly in Paul's relationship with Norman, who seems as puzzled by his brother's behavior as we are.” But would it really be better if Paul’s anger were “fully explained”? No. This is a film about the inexplicableness of people, particularly those closest to us, and the choice we are offered to see their beauty along with their shadow, and to love them nonetheless.
It’s not only his brother’s behaviour that confounds Paul, it is his own as well. In one potent scene violence erupts between the two brothers, without any apparent context or provocation, and when their mother happens into the kitchen and is knocked to the floor, the film brilliantly captures the awkwardness and inexplicability of the event, and the way that none of them has the words or the means to come to terms with what has occurred. The author’s wisdom lies in refusing to explain away souls: the critic has yet to attain that wisdom.
The same commentator finds it perplexing (and ultimately a flaw, a contradiction within the film that “expresses a split within the filmmaker himself”) that Paul masters fly-fishing while failing in life. Hinson correctly reads this as a spiritual movie, but faults the director for failing to deliver the straightforward moral the critic has assigned to the film;
“In RIVER, those who excel in fly-fishing do so through the grace of God. Ultimately, this is a spiritual movie, and if a man is not in spiritual harmony with himself, his God and nature, then, well, he can pretty much count on hamburger for dinner that night. … The sympathies of the gods appear to be divided here, throwing the moral compass out of whack. While Paul is blessed with the greater artistry (not to mention the bigger fish), it is Norman and his father who are blessed in life.”
Is the film full of flaws, then, or is the universe full of mystery? It seems that Mr Hinson wants answers: he’s a Proverbs man, not an Ecclesiastes man, and if a movie is going to show the rain falling on the just and the unjust, it better explain just why that might be.
Roger Ebert also assigns to the film a pretty tidy message, and in doing so quite exactly misses the point: “Fly-fishing stands for life in this movie. If you can learn to do it correctly, to read the river and the fish and yourself, and to do what needs to be done without one wasted motion, you will have attained some of the grace and economy needed to live a good life.”
Perhaps he gives too much credence to Rev. Maclean, who also seems to believe something along these lines, at least early in the film. But the preacher (like the Preacher before him) lives long enough to see his youngest son disprove it: the universe won’t boil down that way, won’t reduce to formulas.
The elder Maclean is a fascinating character. He embodies a certain tough-minded Protestantism, transcendent yet relentlessly pragmatic: he preaches a grace that seems foreign to his own predilection for hard work, righteousness and self-controlled sobriety. Do we earn our way, or are blessings dispensed on some other basis? Surely there must be something we can do to deserve grace? Something a son can do to win the love of his father?
Perhaps that central quandary is what draws him to fly fishing: in the cathedral of a river gorge, fly rod in hand, only the most highly skilled fisherman will be rewarded – yet there are no certainties. Try as we might to master the art of fly fishing, it still remains for the river to offer up its blessing. What’s hidden, or fleetingly glimpsed, may never yield itself up: when it does, when the fish rises to the lure, there is mystery and a sense of blessing. Earned, yet not earned. He begins the film as a man of certainties who will be taught otherwise by all that he loves most.
One of the first chapters in the Movie Critic Handbook states that all voice-over narration is bad, and must be criticized, and, dutifully, the film’s detractors did so here. (Maybe they ought to add that chapter to the Movie Maker Handbook, get rid of those damn voice-overs once and for all, save all those movie critics all that time later on.) But in this story it seems right, essential, reminding us that people do tell these sorts of stories, years after the fact, tell them and re-tell them, fishing for understanding, but that explanations remain elusive. “Long ago when I was a young man, my father said to me, ‘Norman, you like to write stories. Someday when you’re ready, you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened.’” So now, obedient first-born son that he is, Norman tells the story. But perhaps the only understanding available to him – or to us – is that sometimes things can’t be understood. People can’t be explained. Only loved.
The film’s detractors were impatient with its leisurely pace, with its lack of complex and carefully structured narrative. I think of Auggie Wren’s words in SMOKE: “You’ve got to slow down, my friend, or you won’t get it,” and I wonder if these boys know how to look at a river? This story isn’t engineered, it’s not an irrigation system or a white-water theme park ride: it’s a river, it flows, it ambles, it finds its own way. The subplots aren’t carefully manipulated to create whiz-bang narrative payoffs: it’s a memoir, a contemplation of a life, of the ways men, and the ultimately insoluble mysteries that gather around what we love best; brothers, fathers, lovers, rivers, God.
Available at Videomatica