"Home," Robert Frost wrote, "is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." And although most people would protest that sentiment -- have to go there? -- Frost was trying to get at something that runs deeper than how much we happen to like one another. He was referring to the ties that bind. And rarely do those ties bind as tightly as they do on Thanksgiving, our annual cornucopia of food, football and family frolic. Historically, almost every society has set aside a day or two in the fall to celebrate the bringing in of the harvest, but few have gone at it as whole hog -- okay, whole turkey -- as we have here in the land of the pilgrim's pride. On the fourth Thursday in November, like it or not, come rain or come shine, hell or high water, we gather together.
What we don't tend to do, once we've gathered together, is watch Thanksgiving movies. I know, I know: What Thanksgiving movies? There's Planes, Trains & Automobiles, of course, but that's really a pre-Thanksgiving movie. Unlike Christmas and Halloween, Thanksgiving hasn't inspired Hollywood to cook up stories that capture the flavor of this cherished holiday. And I'm not sure exactly why that is. I mean, if ever there were an occasion for the so-called family film, this would appear to be it. But where's Thanksgiving's very own It's a Wonderful Life? When I went looking for something to watch while the turkey's roasting in the oven, I had to resort to TV shows to make sure there was enough to go around. But I did manage to scrounge together a full meal, some of it quite tasty. Just be sure to save room for pie.
The first popcorn movie
You'd think we'd be up to our gizzards in movies about the first Thanksgiving, but the only one I could find was Squanto: A Warrior's Tale, a live-action history lesson from the friendly folks at the Walt Disney Company. Released in 1994, a year before Pocahontas, it stars Adam Beach as the fabled member of the Patuxet tribe who helped the Pilgrims through that first winter by showing them how to plant corn and such, and like Pocahontas it's as PC as hell. But there's no disguising what happened to Squanto before that -- kidnapped by the English, taken to London, treated like a bloody savage. And when he did finally make it back to his village, the village was destroyed, his tribe scattered to the wind. What exactly Squanto was thankful for on that first Thanksgiving is anybody's guess.
Maybe he was thankful he'd never have to watch the Mickey Mouse version of his life, which turns it into an epic adventure about the need to learn from cultures other than our own. While in England, this Squanto spends time in a monastery, where he absorbs the idea of Christian charity. Only then is he able to accept the Pilgrims with open arms. And their Thanksgiving spread is, admittedly, an impressive one, including a turkey for which there is absolutely no historical evidence. But it's true that the peace brokered by Squanto between the natives and those fresh off the boat lasted from 1621 to 1675, at which time those who were no longer fresh off the boat reneged on it. Unfortunately, Squanto wasn't around to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He died in 1622.
Insider trading recipes
Now, fast-forward a few centuries: How should we celebrate Thanksgiving today, when setting aside enough popcorn kernels to get through the winter isn't exactly a problem? Well, I don't know about you, but I turn to Martha, the arbiter of all things domestic. Back before Martha Stewart Living became Martha Stewart Omnimedia became Martha Stewart Living Behind Bars, she was just Martha, the woman who knew a frightening amount about how to, say, turn a dried-up orange and a sprig of parsley into a fantastic Thanksgiving-table centerpiece. And who better to assist us through Turkey Day than the proprietress of Turkey Hill Farm?
Luckily, all of Kmartha's wit and wisdom regarding this anxiety-provoking holiday has been compiled into Martha's Classic Thanksgiving, a video available at your local library. And if you don't feel more rather than less anxious after watching it, you're not picking up on the essential message, which is that Martha-ness is something to aspire to, not actually achieve. She takes us through the various ways of preparing a turkey, excelling at each of them. (Rembrandt spent years trying to get that particular shade of golden brown.) She also handles the stuffing, the side dishes, a yummy-seeming pumpkin soufflé, how to make napkin rings out of fallen tree branches and how to make tree branches out of fallen napkin rings. The woman's a genius.
She even knows the difference between stuffing and dressing, a distinction that's baffled me for years. Let's face it, she knows everything, and that's (wait for it) a good thing. Just don't expect to ever look at your own measly Thanksgiving spread the same way again.
Someone who might have benefited from Martha's guidance is April Burns, the pierced and tattooed protagonist of Pieces of April, Peter Hedges' off-white-but-not-quite-black comedy about giving thanks when there isn't all that much to be thankful for. As played by a pre-Tom, pre-Suri Katie Holmes, April is a punk waif -- Nancy Spungen by way of Pippi Longstocking. Not only does she not know the difference between stuffing and dressing, she doesn't know the difference between an oven and a stove. And yet she's going to have to use hers to prepare an entire Thanksgiving meal for her family, which is driving in from the suburbs to spend Thanksgiving in April's ratty Lower East Side walk-up. Yes, it's a holiday-from-hell movie.
Did I mention that Mom has cancer? Or that she and April have never gotten along? Well, she does, and they haven't. And Patricia Clarkson, as the mother, breaks new ground in the depiction of maternal feelings by appearing to have none. About as close as she gets is when she says to her son, after smoking a joint with him in a gas-station bathroom, "Honey, roll it tighter next time." Behind the wheel of the family station wagon, Oliver Platt's gentle patriarch tries to smooth everything over. Meanwhile, April has stuffed an entire onion up the turkey's ass and gone after a raw potato with a masher. Oh, and the oven -- or is it the stove? -- is on the blink.
How our hostess gets through all this is a lesson in the kindness of strangers and the strangeness of kin.
WASP, where is thy sting?
There's nothing quite like watching a family of WASPs gather in their nest for Thanksgiving, stingers sharpened. And Bart Freundlich's The Myth of Fingerprints doles out the poison one droplet at a time. Julianne Moore, Noah Wyle, Blythe Danner and Roy Scheider are among those who star in this Chekhovian tale about a Maine family that still hasn't figured out how to relate to one another. "Can't you ever just let things be uncomfortable?" Moore asks Wyle. Wyle can't, but Freundlich sure can. In fact, he seems to luxuriate in awkward moments, as when yet a third sibling, told by his girlfriend (Hope Davis) that she loves him, says "Thank you." Nothing if not polite, this nuclear family is headed for a meltdown.
And it comes courtesy of Scheider's patriarch, a lion in winter who wishes he still had his way with the lionesses. Call it original sin -- well, not that original, but it does bring the Oedipal subtext bubbling up to the surface. A little schematic in the way it deals with emotional constipation, The Myth of Fingerprints might seem in dire need of a bracing enema were it not for the cast, which hits its marks like they were Stations of the Cross. Moore presents us with a woman made of glass -- cold, sharp, yet fragile. Wyle does a marvelous impersonation of a wet noodle. And Danner has the Yankee wife thing down. Asked why she keeps a box of baking soda in the fridge, she doesn't miss a beat. "It takes away all the rotten smells," she says.
As far as I can tell, Gurinda Chadha's What's Cooking? is a WASP-free zone. Instead, we spend Thanksgiving with four families that, although they all live on adjoining street corners in Los Angeles, seem to hail from all over the map. There's an African-American family, a Mexican-American family, a Vietnamese-American family and a Jewish-American family. And you shouldn't assume that, just because they're better at expressing their feelings, they don't have any problems. On the contrary, and many of those problems are attributable to their hyphenated-American status, which has opened up a generation gap that nobody seems to know how to bridge.
Alfre Woodard, Mercedes Ruehl, Joan Chen and Lainie Kazan play the mothers, who, in addition to directing traffic, have to put food on the table. And the food -- everything from tamales to kugels, spring rolls to mac and cheese -- is definitely part of the fun. The cinematic equivalent of urban sprawl, What's Cooking? doesn't know where to stop, introducing us to more characters than we can possibly keep up with. But Chadha, who would go on to direct Bend It Like Beckham, knows how to negotiate the fault lines among and within the various ethnic groups. At its best, the movie's an Altman-esque portrait of... well, not a community but a community of communities, the boundaries between them as clearly demarcated, and yet as tightly interwoven, as the stripes in the American flag.
What a turkey
But back to those WASPs. For sheer pandemonium, it's hard to beat The War at Home, Emilio Estevez's melodrama about a Texas family suffering from its Viet-vet son's post-traumatic stress disorder. Estevez also plays the son, and maybe the strain was too much for him, but the movie's what we'll just have to call an overstuffed turkey, a bombastic display of cinematic ineptitude. Not that I didn't enjoy it. I loved it, my jaw resting gently on the floor. Martin Sheen and Kathy Bates play Estevez's parents, who can't understand why he can't understand why they can't understand why he's so crazy. And Bates' character, though utterly unbelievable, is quite a piece of work -- a one-woman argument for matricide.
She's a passive-aggressive ninja warrior in addition to being a religious nut, and yet it's Sheen's car-dealer dad who has to take the blame for our escapades in Southeast Asia. It seems never to have occurred to him that his son might not have wanted to go to war, especially this war. Why the son still lives at home is never adequately explained. Maybe it's so he can pull out a gun and say "Thanks, but no Thanksgiving." Yes, it's another holiday-from-hell movie. And what I took away from it, once I'd sorted through the wreckage, was how psychologically unprepared this average American family was for the tragedy that unfolded before it, like a cloud of napalm. Were Thanksgivings particularly tense during the late-'60s and early-'70s? What family could possibly have won the war at home?
Cue guitar and harmonica
The Waltons, that's who. Those of us who grew up during the Great Depression as depicted on The Waltons know how it feels to long for a more nostalgic era. And the 1970s, when this beloved television series aired on CBS, was awash in nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time, when kids did their chores instead of burned their bras and draft cards. It was a total crock, of course, the denizens of Walton's Mountain managing to strike Norman Rockwell poses, no matter how hungry they were. But when I recently watched an episode called "The Thanksgiving Story," I was barely able to get through a scene without reaching for my hankie. My own dear family, which was closer to the Simpsons than to the Waltons, used to watch the show together. It beat talking to one another.
Of course, every day was Thanksgiving for the Waltons; they were always giving thanks for the little they had. But "The Thanksgiving Story" digs especially deep to come up with something to be especially thankful for -- namely, John Boy's recovery from a sawmill accident involving a board and his forehead. The danger is that he won't be able to take his college entrance exam and become the writer he's always dreamed of becoming. But even as a pimply teenager I detected the contradiction at the heart of The Waltons: Earl Hamner, the real-life John Boy, who created the series, couldn't wait to leave home so he could write about how he missed the days when he couldn't wait to leave home. Still, it was great to see everybody again. In the '70s, I was John Boy's age. Now I could pass for his daddy.
Where's that hankie?
Your crack's showing
Like I said, we were closer to The Simpsons, so it was like a homecoming for me when I watched the "Bart vs. Thanksgiving" episode from season two. You remember it, the one where Bart accidentally on purpose sets Lisa's Great Women of America centerpiece on fire, refuses to apologize, gets sent to his room and winds up on the dark side of town, selling his blood for enough cash to feed the homeless -- i.e., himself. Meanwhile, Lisa pours her anger into a poem that Allen Ginsberg would have admired: "I saw the best meals of my generation destroyed by the madness of my brother." And Homer, having noticed Bart on TV (the local news is doing its annual soup-kitchen number), races to the phone and shouts "Hello, operator, give me the number for 9-1-1."
Somehow, everything gets restored to "normal," which inspires Homer to deliver a heartwarming Thanksgiving prayer. "Dear Lord," he says, "on this blessed day we thank Thee for giving our family one more crack at togetherness."
West Side story
It's a long drive from Springfield to the Upper West Side of New York; you have to pass through at least two comedy zones. But Woody Allen, in his own way, used to be as funny as Homer or Bart. And his movies were as richly emotional as the average Simpsons episode. Hannah and Her Sisters, which came out in 1986, was Woody in his prime, the movie spread out before us like a banquet table. Through three successive Thanksgivings (all of them shot in Mia Farrow's actual apartment), we follow the lives of three sisters -- Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey -- who are both extremely close and strangely distant. Maybe that's why they play musical chairs with the men in their lives (Allen and Michael Caine). "The heart," as Woody would soon be saying in a slightly different context, "wants what it wants."
Today, the movie can't help but seem like a swan song for the life Woody and Mia shared. But it's also a gentle reminder that you never quite know who will be sitting across the table from you at next year's Thanksgiving dinner.
Oh, stuff it
Somewhere between the Simpsons and the Waltons lie the Larsons, subjects of my favorite Thanksgiving movie of all time. Jodie Foster got, if not pummeled, then rapped on the knuckles by critics for her Turkey Day Special, Home for the Holidays. In fact, it seems to have chased her out of the directing profession altogether, which is a pity, because she shows a real talent for capturing the emotional chaos that results when people who have to go there join people who have to take you in. Holly Hunter plays Claudia, a barely-getting-by art restorer for whom family holidays are a Long Day's Journey into Night. On the ride in from the airport, Mom (Anne Bancroft), from her vantage point in the back seat of the car, issues her official Thanksgiving greeting: "Claudia, your roots are showing."
And it's all downhill from there, a blissful slide into petty bickering, major arguments and all-out war. Robert Downey Jr. shows up as Claudia's Ritalin-challenged gay brother, and if you ever wanted to see Downey Unplugged, here's your chance. Charles Durning is also around as Claudia's retiring father, whose best days are behind him, most of them captured on videotape. "Float, just float," Claudia whispers to herself in moments of solitude, of which there are few. But the brother has brought along a new co-worker (Dylan McDermott) who may be the answer to Claudia's barely-getting-by problem. And the family, like all our families, manages to pull itself together just long enough for Dad to offer up his own Robert Frost-like sentiment: "I can't wait for goddamn Christmas."