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A River Runs Through It: grace comes by art and art does not come easy

2022 marks the 120th birth anniversary of American writer Norman Maclean (his novella, A River Runs Through It, was nominated for the Pulitzer in 1977) and the 30th anniversary of Robert Redford's Oscar-nominated eponymous film.

As with all great films, the director, cast, screenwriter (Richard Friedenberg), cinematographer (Philippe Rousselot) and soundtrack composer (Mark Isham), together, tell you more than the cameras and microphones do.

Tom Skerrit, in the role of a lifetime, plays Presbytarian minister John Maclean, the beautiful Brenda Blethyn plays Mrs Maclean, and Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt play the two sons, Norman and Paul.

Redford's River is packed with profound scenes. In one, the brothers (Norman and Paul) are stealing back into their home while father and mother are worried sick over their escapade in a boat, on a deadly waterfall.

Furious, their Presbytarian minister father, John Maclean demands that they work off the debt on the boat they’d borrowed and ruined. As the older brother Norman nods to take responsibility, it’s the younger Paul who steps up, shoulders squared: it was his idea, if there’s any repaying he’ll be the one doing it.

In spite of his anger, John’s face lights up with a half-smile at his younger son’s courage and character.

For all his austerity of body and mind, initially Norman can’t seem to go beyond himself, even when nudged by the generous, gutsy Paul. Later, he learns.

The brothers are indulging Norman's girlfriend Jessie, by taking her annoying alcoholic brother, Neal, on one of their fly-fishing trips.

As planned, the Macleans turn up at the river at daybreak.

No Neal.

Norman goes in search of Neal only to find him sloshed from a night out. Incensed, he heads back to the river.

Paul: Couldn't you find him?

Norman (disgusted): The hell with him.

Paul (mildly incredulous): I thought we were supposed to help him.

Norman: How the hell do you help that son of a bitch?

Paul: By taking him fishing.

Norman: He doesn't like fishing. Doesn't like Montana. Sure as hell doesn't like me.

Paul (in words that will later haunt Norman whenever he remembers Paul): Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.

Redford’s handling of that final family fly-fishing trip is a masterclass, filmed like an action scene.

Unlike the light-hearted, earlier scenes, it’s stripped of music. The waters are rough, even hostile. The river roars.

Isham’s music starts only as Paul plunges down river, chasing — then catching — the biggest trout they’ve ever seen.

2022 also marks the 80th anniversary of Yasujirō Ozu's film There Was A Father (1942).

Like John’s promise to send his son, Norman, to any college of his choice, in spite of his meager earnings, the doting Japanese father too promises to send his son to any high school he chooses.

Both films have a fateful boat trip that marks a turning point.

Look closely at Ozu's framing of father and son, ankle-deep in a river in Japan, their fishing lines sweeping, in hopeful arcs. You'll see that same expectant tranquility in Redford's framing of father and sons, fly-fishing side by side on the outstretched forearms of the mountains of Montana.

Fuller thoughts here

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz



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