Earlier this month, I reconnected with a good friend from college. Conversation soon turned to movies, and she recommended “Housekeeping” (1987). Directed by Bill Forsyth, it is based on Marilynne Robinson’s 1981 novel. If you watch it in a mood similar to mine when I saw it a couple of weeks ago, you might be taken aback by the use of the word “comedy” in the opening of Vincent Canby’s November 1987 review for The New York Times. Taken in full, the description “haunting comedy” feels closer to the mark.
The movie, which dips a toe in the 1950s before bringing us into the 1960s, “tells the story of two young girls who are taken on a sudden and puzzling motor trip by their mother to visit a relative,” Roger Ebert’s January 1988 review reads. “Soon after they arrive, their mother commits suicide and the girls are left to be raised by elderly relatives. A few years later, their mother’s sister, their Aunt Sylvie, arrives to look after them.”
Aunt Sylvie is played, charmingly, by the wonderful Christine Lahti. The review by Desson Howe for The Washington Post says, “Sylvie’s guidance is not what they expected. Part overgrown child, part homeless Annie Hall, Aunt Sylvie’s more at home snoozing on park benches and wandering around in the dark than packing lunches for school. When the sisters play hooky for several days, she seems not to notice. And when a shin-high flood fills the house, she sloshes around in it like a benevolent amphibian.”
We — and the girls — soon discover that she likes to sit in the dark. We see her come home one day with a fish sticking out of her coat pocket. We hear her talk about loneliness, telling the girls that a woman can be married and have children and still be lonely. We watch as she accidentally sets the curtains on fire while lighting candles on a birthday cake.
When we hear, in a context I won’t spoil, “The problem is, you spend too much time looking out the window,” we are nudged beyond that window to places of adventure, discovery, pain and joy. We are, though, still spectators, viewing Aunt Sylvie’s life through the girls’ memories, on a screen that is itself a window, one that shows us their story, time and place. Through that same pane, it’s possible to see ourselves, and to recall the instances when perhaps we spent too much time looking out the window.
Newspapers comprise a curious motif in the movie. There are clippings about a tragedy that happened in the movie’s fictional town of Fingerbone, Washington, and over time after Aunt Sylvie’s arrival, the house she shares with the girls, Ruth and Lucille, becomes filled with stacks of newspapers. Aunt Sylvie is also fond of collecting tin cans, washing them cheerfully after removing the labels, and arranging them in gleaming stacks.
As Ruth and Lucille gradually drift apart — Ruth increasingly identifying with Aunt Sylvie, Lucille becoming more like the sociable teens at her school — we hear in Ruth’s narration from the future pieces of her that align with Aunt Sylvie’s spirit.
“As soon as the weather allowed, we stopped going to school altogether, although we still left home every morning as a courtesy to Sylvie. I felt an odd affinity with the hobos who gathered at the bridge. There we all were, on a chill spring morning, in unsuitable clothes, worthlessly passing time by the lake — like the marooned survivors of some wreck.”
“Sylvie had no awareness of time,” Ruth says later. “For her, hours and minutes were the names of trains. We were waiting for the 10:52.”
Trains are another powerful motif, central to the retelling of a fatal derailment we learn about early in the movie — and a metaphor for the transient nature of people, of the events in their lives, and even the details of those events as we try to recall and recast them, viewing them through whatever filters invest our perspectives and needs at any given time.
The same dresser drawer that contained clippings about that major news story of years earlier included a photo album containing black-and-white pictures of relatives and other people the girls had never known. After discovering the scrapbooks following their grandmother’s death, Ruth bonds with those people, too, over time.
“Most of the people in the photographs remained strangers with no names. I returned to the album often, until the faces became familiar and comfortable — like family. It was comforting to find Lucille and mother and me there, too. It seemed to suggest that we belonged.”
The quote that’s stuck in my head is about the trip the girls take to the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of the movie, just after the shot of the plains at the beginning of the movie and at the top of this post. Sitting in the backseat as their mother drives them toward their new life — and the end of hers — the girls are blissfully unaware of what is coming. They count things they see out the car windows. “Horses,” one tells her mother, who had asked what they were counting. “And cemeteries!” the other calls out loudly, even cheerfully.
Years later, Lucille and I still talked about the trip to Grandma’s. Lucille would remember one thing, and I another, until we pieced together the whole journey. We tried so hard that we ended up not knowing what we really remembered from what we had just imagined, and we often fought over the details.”
There is something about that dynamic that I connect with and that feels universal.
As for the details: One sister remembers their mother’s hair as brown. The other remembers it as red.
I recall hearing that Forsyth said he made the movie as a commercial to get people to buy Robinson’s novel and read it.