When Is a Good Man not a Good Man? When He Is a Family Man.

It sometimes happens in watching a movie that one will be struck by something that others may not even notice, something that had it been edited out and left on the cutting-room floor would never have been missed. So it is with the movie 99 Homes (2014).

The movie is set sometime after the bursting of the housing bubble.  It is a time when there is more money to be made evicting people from their homes than building new ones.  In particular, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker who can no longer find work building homes, and as a result, he and his family are evicted from theirs for failure to make mortgage payments.  On the day of their eviction, Nash tells Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the real-estate broker in charge, that he was born in that house. This being said by a man in his twenties, such a house would normally be paid off by that time, which means he probably refinanced the house along the way to help pay the bills.

The Nash family, consisting of Nash, his mother, and his son, quickly put as much of their stuff as they can into their pickup truck and wind up at a cheap motel in the bad part of town.  When he realizes his tools were stolen by the crew that moved his stuff out to the curb, he goes back to his house and gets in a fight. Because Carver needs someone with Nash’s fierce determination to assist him in evicting people, he offers him a job.

At first we believe that Nash will simply be helping Carver do stuff that is legal, however unsavory it may be.  But soon we find that his job also involves scamming the banks and the government, stealing appliances and air conditioners so that Fannie Mae will give them a check to put the stuff back in the house they took it out of.  This makes Nash a little uneasy, as it does us, but bankers have always been fair game in fiction. The idea of the banker foreclosing on the widow with a baby because she is late with her last mortgage payment has been the stuff of melodrama since the nineteenth century, and those who rob banks to get even are romanticized. Nevertheless, when Nash’s mother finds out what he has been doing, she takes his son and goes to stay with her brother, “Uncle Jimmy.”

Eventually, it becomes more than just cheating the banks and the government. When Frank Greene, a homeowner whose family is about to be evicted, threatens to foul up a multimillion dollar deal for Carver by contesting his eviction, Carver gives Nash a forged, backdated document to take to court. Nash really becomes conflicted by this, because this is cheating a family just like his own.  He decides not to deliver the document, but the court clerk, who is in on the deal, snatches it out of his hand and gives it to the judge, who approves the eviction.

This leads to an armed standoff, where Greene fires warning shots from inside his house.  Nash steps out from behind a car and walks onto the grass with his hands up and tells Greene that he cheated him with a forged document. Greene surrenders, and we get the sense that with Nash providing evidence, Carver will soon be heading to prison.

That is the movie in a nutshell.  But an offhand comment made in the middle of the movie caught my attention.  Carver asks Nash why he isn’t married, to which Nash responds that he doesn’t have time for it.  “I don’t trust a man who’s not married,” Carver says.  “Nobody does.”  At first, that would seem to be a preposterous contradiction.  Carver, as we have seen, is not only ruthless in evicting people from their homes, but he is also willing to break the law to do so. He also cheats on his wife.  But then we realize there is no contradiction here. He is not saying that married men are more trustworthy than single men, but rather that they are so regarded.  In other words, a single man might be just as trustworthy as any married man, but it is a fact of human nature that people are more likely to trust a man who is married than one who is not. Carver would prefer that Nash be married, because it is easier for a married man to cheat people than it is for a single man, owing to this prejudice in favor of the trustworthiness of the former over the latter, however misguided that may be.

Well, that would account for the rest of mankind, but why would Carver be more likely to trust a married man when he knows from the example of himself just how misplaced such trust can be?  That leads to a paradoxical distinction between two different kinds of trustworthiness.  Some men can be trusted because they are basically good, and some men can be trusted because they cannot afford to be good.  As Tallyrand said, “A married man with a family will do anything for money.”

If this is what Carver has in mind, that a married man burdened by the responsibilities of a family will not be able to afford the luxury of doing the right thing and therefore can be trusted to do the wrong thing when necessary, then Nash actually is effectively more like a married man than a single one, in that he has his mother and son to support.  (We gather that when Nash was young, his girlfriend got pregnant, had a baby, and then took off, leaving the child with him.) In fact, it is only after his mother and his son go to live with Uncle Jimmy, where they will have food and shelter no matter what happens to him, that Nash is free to do what is right.

In general, whether one is married or has a family without actually being married like Nash, one is not as free as a single, unattached person to do all the things he or she would like, whether for good or ill.  We tend to think of the bachelor as someone who is more likely to indulge his vices or commit crimes, with good reason, I fear, but it is also true that anyone who aspires to be a saint will find family life to be a hindrance.

This is undoubtedly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). You are not supposed to divorce your wife, of course (Matthew 19:19), but you are supposed to hate her.  That might be said of a lot of married men, unfortunately, but I doubt if for religious reasons.  In the parable of the Great Banquet, a rich man invites a lot of people to have dinner with him, which I suppose is analogous to Jesus inviting people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with him. An excuse offered by one man for declining the invitation was, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come” (Luke 14:20).  In a pinch, a man might be better off castrating himself:  “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12).

Obviously, Jesus was addressing his remarks to men rather than to women, not only because women cannot be eunuchs, but also because he says that a man must hate his wife, not that a woman must hate her husband. Notwithstanding this oversight, women are capable of becoming saints just like men, though there are more officially recognized male saints than female.  On the other hand, from a casual perusal of the movies, it would seem that women make better movie saints than do men.  St. Joan of Arc, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Bernadette get lots of screen time, whereas the only male saint to get that much attention from movie producers is St. Francis of Assisi.  They all pretty much have in common the fact that they are single.  Elizabeth Bayley Seton had been a wife and mother, but one suspects that she would never have made it to sainthood had she not been widowed.

Traditionally, bachelors have always been looked upon as being of doubtful character, in part because they were suspected of homosexuality.  Even when that was not the issue, however, there was the sense that there was something wrong with them.  Of course, by “bachelor” I mean a man who not only has never married but has never lived with a woman as well.  I once knew a couple that had been living together for seven years and had a three-year-old child, but they still counted themselves as being single.  If possession is nine-tenths of the law, cohabitation is nine-tenths of being married, even when common-law status is not invoked.  With women, on the other hand, it has traditionally been different, as if they were more to be pitied than censured.  The “old maid” was usually thought of as a woman unable to attract a man, and the “spinster” was a woman forced to support herself for want of a husband.

The idea of a man being so spiritual that he rises above his sexuality is part of the awe afforded to priests.  The Protestant version of the priest, who likely is married, may strike us as more dependable and down to earth, but he no longer seems special the way a Catholic priest does.  However, it is the entanglements of marriage that really get in the way of one’s spiritual aspirations.  So, what does a man or woman do who wishes to become a saint only after having become married? As a rule, I suppose one gives up the dream of becoming a saint owing to one’s family obligations.  But there are a couple of movies that suggest that abandoning or neglecting one’s family is permissible and even laudable.

In the movie The Boy with Green Hair (1948), Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell) is a war orphan because his parents died during the London blitz of World War II trying to help war orphans.   This is premised on something supposedly noble, but which is in fact quite irritating. When Peter was very young, his parents left him with an aunt so that they could help the war orphans in London. Even if one of his parents felt the need to participate in the war effort, say, the father, we would expect the mother to stay with her son and take care of him; but they both figure they have more important things to do than raise their own child. When the aunt gets word that Peter’s parents are dead, she passes him on to other relatives who don’t want him either. This continues until he ends up with his grandfather (Pat O’Brien).

We are supposed to think of those relatives as being cold and selfish, but after all, they did not bargain on having to raise someone else’s child. It is actually Peter’s parents who are selfish. They are that strange breed of do-gooder who becomes so enamored with the idea of saving the world that he neglects his own family. Without pausing to be sure that Peter would be raised to maturity by a loving relative happy to take care of him if they died in the war, they just dumped him on his aunt and took off.

There is one moment in the movie when Peter concludes, correctly in my opinion, that his parents cared more about other children than they did him, but the movie insists that he is wrong, and at the end Peter is seen as understanding that they really did love him and that what they did was right and good. As insistent as the movie is in this regard, it still leaves us with a feeling of revulsion for parents who would abandon their child so they could devote themselves to some higher purpose.

Another movie along these lines is Magnificent Obsession (1954).  The movie is based on a karmic principle explained by analogy with electricity.  The way it works is that if you do good things for people without letting other people know about it, and you refuse any attempt on their part to repay the debt, you build up a spiritual charge of good karma that rewards you. If you allow them to repay the debt, the spiritual force is discharged. Most people are grounded, never accumulating a charge, because they allow people to return the favor. If you tell other people about your kindness or charity, the spiritual force will dissipate, as with a wire without insulation.

The story begins when the reckless behavior of the rich, irresponsible playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) inadvertently causes the death of Dr. Wayne Phillips, a man who had been initiated into the secret karmic principle. Dr. Phillips was such a good man that he used up all his income and borrowed against all his assets to do good deeds, leaving his wife, Helen (Jane Wyman), and his daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), nothing.  You might be appalled that Dr. Phillips did not provide for his wife and daughter in the event of his death, that he was so caught up in the idea of helping strangers that he neglected his family, grabbing up all the good karma for himself while his wife and daughter are left destitute. And yet, the movie insists that we are to admire Dr. Phillips.

Being a good man and being a good family man may be two different things.

2 thoughts on “When Is a Good Man not a Good Man? When He Is a Family Man.

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