. . . Don't look to 'Remains' for answers

August 18, 1994|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

REMAINS OF the Day" is an exquisite movie, but it's an odd one for Mona Charen (see accompanying article) to discuss in the same column with the decline of fatherhood.

Yes, the butler, Stevens, does keep Lord Darlington's household running smoothly even while his own father lies dying upstairs. And, as Ms. Charen notes, he represents a kind of "duty, honor and responsibility" whose decay has left us all poorer. But the burden of the movie, and of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, is the way we are forced to face the fact -- though it's not clear that Stevens himself ever does -- that he's sacrificed himself for an unworthy master, and perhaps by extension an unworthy system.

Lord Darlington shows his unworthiness most obviously in his politics. He begins with a generous sympathy for beaten, destitute Germany after the Versailles Treaty and ends with appeasement abroad and fascist sympathies at home. Forced after World War II to sell the country house where Stevens worked, with his reputation so ruined that Stevens has to soft-pedal his association with him (in the novel) or deny it altogether (in the movie), his defense comes down to the point that he was a fool, not a traitor.

In one of the several painful scenes in the movie, a couple of Mr. Darlington's guests ask Stevens some highly technical questions about foreign and economic policy, and use his meek response: "I am unable to give satisfaction, Sir" as proof that the masses weren't up to, or interested in, governing their country. Upon reflection, Britain was run by "gentlemen" for most of the years between the 1870s, when competition from Germany and the United States first spawned worries that decline had set in, and the 1956 Suez crisis, which made it clear that Britain was finished as a world power. How much is there in that record to be proud of?

John Goodman's movie "King Ralph" inspires similar reflections. Mr. Goodman plays his standard crude but lovable lug (with surprisingly good moves on the dance floor); my wife and I both wondered whether Britain could have done any worse with him than it's done with the real-life Windsors.

What's particularly odd is that Ms. Charen would connect fatherhood, in the sense she means, with the former British governing classes. A work aspiring to the subtlety of "Remains" couldn't make the point directly, but the series "Upstairs Downstairs," spelled it out: These are people who virtually institutionalized their children from birth, passing them on from nursemaids to nannies to boarding schools and letting them into the grown-ups' lives pretty much at the grown-ups' convenience. When middle-class Americans try something like that, "pro-family" conservatives like Ms. Charen ring the alarm bells.

(Lord Darlington may be a bit extreme even by the standards of his class. In both the book and the movie, he tries to have Stevens -- a bachelor and a servant -- tell an old friend's son, about to be married, the facts of life. Neither version of "Remains" spells out whether Lord Darlington had children.)

The '60s did produce a lot of cultural detritus, but they also produced something Ms. Charen doesn't mention: the movement toward involved fatherhood, whose anthem could be Harry Chapin's song "Cat's in the Cradle." We may be Daddy Wimps -- my wife is looking for a less patronizing name for us -- but we're closer to the heart of the matter than Stevens and his master.

Jeffrey M. Landaw is a makeup editor for The Sun.

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