Friday, November 19, 2010

An Artful Documentary

If asked to name my top five favorite film genres, documentaries wouldn’t make the list. Yet, for some odd reason, I always seem to find them when channel surfing and seldom seem to leave them. Such was the case with the oddly named “Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon.” I happened to run across this documentary on Showtime one morning when getting ready for work. Next thing I knew, I was running late.

The first time I watched it I thought it was about a dysfunctional father’s struggle with a bipolar disorder and how it affected his family. The second time I watched it I thought it was about a man who overcame disability to become an artist of some renown. Or maybe it was about a mother’s love. Come to think of it, it was really about all three.

I know this sounds disjointed. By all rights, it should have been, if not for the efforts of filmmaker Tom Murray. He’s probably the only person in the world who could have pulled it all together. For him, it was a labor of love. After all, the dysfunctional father and heroic mother are his parents; the disabled artist is his brother.

Murray tells the story of his father’s fall from grace, including anger, alcohol and financial troubles as well as the birth of a disabled son. Through most of it, Thomas E. Murray II refuses to acknowledge his problems. One day, after a chance meeting with the filmmaker, he swims out into the ocean and never returns. He was apparently overcome by the tides, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he committed suicide. The specter of this unpredictable man was so powerful that it remains over his family decades later.

Meanwhile, Christopher, who is said to suffer from autism as a result of not getting enough oxygen to his brain during birth, exceeds all expectations, thanks primarily to the loving and unwavering efforts of his mother. Christopher teaches himself to sketch following his father’s death. He turns out to be quite good … so good that his artwork, consisting mostly of multidimensional cityscapes, gains acclaim. There’s even a waiting list to purchase his work, although he sketches at his own pace.

Tom Murray tells this story artfully through home movies, interviews with family members and a well-chosen soundtrack. You can’t help but wonder how he maintained such distance while peeling back something so raw and personal. At times, you even think he’s pushing his own family members too hard for a response. No matter how he accomplished it, Murray created a film that is melancholy and hopeful at that same time.

Even when the documentary was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about this family and its struggles, past and future. There are clearly obstacles ahead for them with an aging matriarch and a son who, although talented, still faces many of challenges. How could they maintain stability? What would happen next?

That kind resonance is the mark of a good story. I always seem to find them …even when I’m not looking for them.

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