Sometimes a Great Notion
Movies weave in and out of my life and past, connected to events and people I have known. Sometimes the place or time I have seen a film leaves an incredible mark and that movie represents much more than I ever thought it would.
I watched Sometimes a Great Notion not long ago and a second time this past week. The film was directed by Paul Newman from the lesser known novel by Ken Kesey (who also wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The cast includes Newman, Henry Fonda, Lee Remick, Richard Jaekel, and Michael Sarrazin. The story concerns a logging family (led by Fonda) in conflict with themselves and a town of strikers. Sarrazin plays a long-lost hippie brother who comes home and stirs of the pot even more. They all struggle to bring in a big contract of wood and hold onto the traditions of their house.
It’s a big movie in the sense that it feels like the novel it comes from could be a thousand pages or more long. It isn’t a perfect film by any means, perhaps a story like this could only be successfully told in a long form (like a miniseries). But the movie has great moments, scenes which transcend the film itself.
The one everyone who has seen the movie seems to remember happens in the last half of the film when Newman tries to rescue his friend Jaekel, whose legs are trapped under a log in the water. It’s a heartbreaking, terrifying scene. I’m fond of a scene in which Remick (who plays Newman’s wife in the film) tries to get her husband to stay home from work. She confronts Fonda about it and asks him why it’s so important that they go. He delivers an incredible line (paraphrasing, I’ll get the exact quote soon): “Well, don’t know you know. Wake up, work, eat, screw, drink, and go to bed. That’s all there is.”
I watched the film for a second time this last week with my grandfather. This was the night my uncle (his son) died. We sat around with drinks, trying not to talk or think about the loss, and find a movie to watch. He suggested Newman’s film and I hesitated because of the tragedy involved in the story.
It was hard to watch together because it was true. Fonda (in probably the best role of his later career) relates very much to my grandfather, a man of few words and traditional values. Newman, tough and sometimes mean, in many ways resembles my late uncle and so does Sarrazin with his hippie values. It hit close to home and too much so after the haunting scene with Jaekel because my grandfather asked me to stop the film.
It was only in this moment when I realized how much this film connected with our lives that I knew its worth. Perhaps not a great movie, but one with true characters and true moments which will endure.