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Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America (2004)

Dissection by Kelly

Currently listening to: Anaal Nathrakh - We Will Fucking Kill You

My ex gave this to me...

My last partner was an absolute gorehound. So much so that he spent a decent amount of time on the internet watching the most graphic violence that he could find. Whenever I would suggest watching a horror movie, it often had to be of that ilk. Movies like A Serbian Film, Saw, Headless and more were common films to watch in our apartment. I didn’t care much for the real blood and guts found in the darkest recesses of the world wide web, but I loved the fake stuff. I enjoyed the practical effects -- the more realistic the better. I will watch anything that extends beyond the norm in horror, except for real animal cruelty for the sake of film-making. No one needs to see that shit.

I really enjoy the extreme and the macabre so it’s only fitting that I was inspired to explore these themes further in my movie reviews. This is my first time and it won’t be gentle, so let’s break this hymen and get into the first film called Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America.

Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America is an anthology film written and directed by Douglas Buck. These shorts were to “reflect on America’s declared foremost concern today; the family, struggling to survive amidst the cauldron of hollow religious practices, alienation, and spiritual despair threatening at any moment to explode into violence.” Though three very different films, there are a lot of overlapping themes of childhood trauma, self-harm, depression, and not to mention the emotional despair of pressured heteronormativity and monogamy.

America is a richly diverse, multicultural country, so the fact that these films include zero people of colour or other ethnicities makes them very misleading and casually racist. If you want to explore the horrors of the American family then one should show more than just the average, middle-class white family. They are definitely not the only ones struggling in any socio-political climate, not to mention in the past three decades.

All of the families in Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America are dysfunctional; with the fathers of the households have experienced terrible trauma as children, which then extends into their new families as adults. From religious domestic disputes in Home to repressed pedophilia in Cutting Moments, these men destroy their homes from the inside out. I am going under the assumption that the men didn’t receive help for their trauma, which causes them to wreak havoc onto their wives and children, leading to murder. The men are showcasing evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and this can see the afflicted person withdrawing from social situations and personal relationships, and even experiencing rage and anger, all the while feeling numb and disconnected from reality. Children who experience physical or emotional abuse, sexual or not, can be seen to repeat these behaviors onto their own families; they project their fears and insecurities, and in Cutting Moments, Home, and Prologue, we see this happening before our eyes. Every person these men touch suffers tremendously. In Home, this leads to, albeit off-screen, the bloody obliteration of a wife and daughter and in Cutting Moments, the complete mutilation of a wife’s body.

I am empathetic to the abuse these men have experienced, but what stood out to me was the anxiety, grief, and discontentment of the women. I want to focus on Cutting Moments, the first short in the film series, as it is a goddamn gut punch and kick to the face in its raw emotion, violence, and gore. I think it’s the most effective piece of the three and it’s too bad that it was shown first, as it makes the other two pale in comparison. It’s definitely the most visceral of the three, the one that will hit you hardest emotionally and physically.

My heart breaks for Sarah, the mother, as she is living in the shadow of what her marriage once was; a marriage full of life, chemistry, and hope. Now, her husband barely acknowledges her existence and seems to be more interested in abusing their son then touch her. This reminded me of the Madonna-whore complex where men’s desire for women is reduced in monogamous, long term relationships, but they can have intense sexual desire for others -- the “whores” -- outside of the relationship.

It’s common in these relationships, especially after children are born, to have less and less sex. The mother of their children is no longer seen as a sexual being but is to be admired and respected. However, we are all still sexual beings, requiring affection and physical intimacy.

There is a moment where Sarah puts on a lovely red dress, red lipstick, and proceeds to stand in front of her husband, only to have him remain fixated on the TV, not noticing her in the slightest. This tears me apart inside. This complacency and avoidance causes her to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and not only wipe the lipstick off using a scouring pad but further maims herself by cutting off her lips, the symbol of arousal and intimacy. Sarah stumbles into the living room, bloodied and numb, to once again stand in front of her husband. This grisly site attracts his attention leading to a brutally grim ending.

We don’t know that much about the father in question; was he sexually abused as a child which led him to repress it, and thus create the “normal” idyllic family, only to drag them under the bus? Signs point to repressed, shameful sexuality at the end of the short, but we can only speculate as to why.

The women of Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America are sexually repressed, depressed and languishing in these suburban, white picket fence homes with dangerous and troubled men. Men they initially trusted and loved, but who weren’t able to effectively communicate their needs, which then leads to tragic ends.

Women and men alike are pressured into establishing and creating the “nuclear family” in America -- by any means necessary. This gives a facade of normalcy because it’s expected; there is no going outside of the box. Heteronormativity and monogamy are hugely limiting, giving people no other options for love, connection, and sex. When this is perceived as “normal” people see no other options to be happy, forcing themselves into creating picture-perfect families and enduring emotional and mental distress.

Although the acting is overall quite terrible, Cutting Moments, Home and Prologue are each an effective look into the consequences of family, trauma, isolation, and mental illness. The simple score is beautiful and used throughout all of them.

None of the movies discussed in Kelly’s Taboo Terrors will be for the faint of heart. If you enjoy film analysis, psychology, and exploring the human experience, then you might be able to get past the ghastliness and see something wonderful. I know I did.

I would give Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America a 3.5/5 on the Nightmare Scale for its boob cutting, pedophilia, and claws for hands.

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