I don't get it.
December 20, 2010 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Just watched A River Runs Through It, and I think most of it went way over my head.

It seemed to me like most of the story was the way that everyones lives clash, but because none of the characters ever talk about what's going on, it's up to me to figure it out. I failed horribly at this. There was a lot of tension between everybody, maybe that was the idea? That everyone had an unspoken agreement to leave things untouched, and that all the discomfort was shared? Maybe they all knew what was going on, but I sure didn't. For a specific example, the family sits down for a meal, but after it comes up that Norm isn't funny, everyone makes a few awkward forced comments and then gets up and leaves and I was totally confused. I felt like this for most of the movie. Is that the way I was supposed to feel, or did I miss something?
posted by LarrenD to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Roger Ebert's review had an interesting take, that the movie is nearly all about mood and tone, and not exactly plot and character.

This must have been a very difficult movie to write. It is not really about the events that happen in it. They are only illustrations for underlying principles. Leave out the principles, and all you have left are some interesting people who are born, grow up, and take various directions in life.

Redford and his writer, Richard Friedenberg, understand that most of the events in any life are accidential or arbitrary, especially the crucial ones, and we can exercise little conscious control over our destinies. Instead, they understand that the Reverend Maclean's lessons were about how to behave no matter what life brings; about how to wade into the unpredictable stream and deal with whatever happens with grace, courage and honesty. It is the film's best achievement that it communicates that message with such feeling.

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Link to his review
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2010

You might try reading the book to get a better handle on the story.
posted by Jahaza at 10:32 AM on December 20, 2010

I read the book first, I think that helps. Beautiful writing.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:33 AM on December 20, 2010

Another review. It's of the story, but is distinctly relevant.
posted by Ahab at 10:33 AM on December 20, 2010

Best answer: One of the key ideas in the book is that "we can love perfectly without perfect understanding," and I believe the father preaches this point in the film as well. A great deal of the subtleties in the movie- such as the awkward dinner scene- are about the beauty and tragedy in how we can love people and yet be unable to understand or reach them- and vice versa- or save them from themselves. I would say if you read nothing else of the book, read the last four pages. Haunting.
posted by questionsandanchors at 10:59 AM on December 20, 2010

Best answer: This right here is the point of the entire movie:

Rev. Maclean: Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.
posted by wherever, whatever at 11:03 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

The prior posters have it. Two other quotes from the book that get at the meaning:

(1) Describing Paul's fishing:
"“At that moment I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. He stood before us, suspended above the earth, free from all its laws like a work of art, and I knew, just as surely and clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.”"

(2) The ending (which I believe is spoken as a voiceover in the movie):
"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters."

(that last part gives me chills every time)
posted by griseus at 11:27 AM on December 20, 2010

Response by poster: That's sort of what I thought, but it makes a lot more sense when that is the main focus that frames everything else. Taking advice and reading the book.
posted by LarrenD at 11:30 AM on December 20, 2010

I'm fond of this film and have seen it several times. Watch carefully the physical behaviors of the two brothers (who paddles into danger and who drags his paddle in concern?, etc) and there is a subtext of how the trustworthy sibling struggles to relate to his wayward brother. The tension is illustrated beautifully without many words devoted to it. Gems like this make me come back to this film.
posted by dgran at 12:32 PM on December 20, 2010

For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us.

In part, this is an allusion to Matthew 13:57/John 4:44. John records Jesus teaching, "a prophet hath no honour in his own country." (both quotes KJV) and the story in Matthew says: "And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief."
posted by Jahaza at 1:50 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

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