The recent change of seasons marked by the winter solstace holidays has been a season of death for me; rebirth and renewal should come by spring. One loss has been memorialized with the release of the film Foxcatcher, marking 18 years since the death of a friend’s close relative. There is nothing seasonally festive about Foxcatcher, other than the last scenes take place over the river and through the woods in snowy Pennsylvania. The film has made me reflect on my personal friendships as well as the work that I do.
Known only in my mind as “The Film,” for most of the last 17 or so years, Foxcatcher depicts the relatonship between Olympic and World Champion wrestler Mark Schultz and multi-millionaire John duPont, the development of an elite national wrestling team sponsored by duPont, and the death of Olympic and World Champion wrestler Dave Schultz, Mark’s older brother.
We rarely go to the cinema any more. It has probably been more than ten years since we have paid full price to attend a first run, feature film during prime time in a downtown theatre. I was actually relieved when it was a mere $11.00 each to walk through the door, and pleasantly surprised that we could get beer and wine with our popcorn. We wanted to see Foxcatcher opening weekend because it was personal. Our friend was close to his relatives, Mark and Dave. We’ve met Mark and Dave during at least one family gathering for our friend. Our friend was excited at the release of the film, and so were we.
The film critic in me (consider the above qualifications and about a gallon of salt) says Foxcatcher was not Bennett Miller’s best work. The fatal flaw in the film is that there is not one main point, and no single narrative. Moreover, a huge part of the story development was omitted entirely: a full eight years to be specific. I have to assume that the choices about what to retain and cut in the story overall left the final eight years of Dave Schultz’s life on the cutting room floor. There are also important social issues that were never unpacked. Any viewer who does not remember the events that the film was based upon is likely to leave the theatre confused. That said, the three principal actors – Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carell – were magnificent. Tatum and Ruffalo so accurately portrayed the Schultz brothers it is eerie. This is a must-see film for anyone interested in brilliant acting.
As a friend I had a hard time watching parts of The Film. Miller was a little rough on mothers. Intentionally or not, the film effectively derided wealthy and ordinary mothers alike. duPont’s mother was portrayed as judgemental, arrogant, and never satisfied or proud of the accomplishments of her own child, or at least very disappointed in John. Dave and Mark’s mother was not merely omitted, but rather the messages around parenting and mentoring and family suggested she was downright absent and unstable, which is not at all true. I found myself personally hurt by some of the scripting. I imagined Mark and Dave’s mother in the theatre watching the film for the first time. How could any mother not be hurt by the messages conveyed?
I suspect either Miller has unresolved issues with his own mother he has never forgiven, or that he is so concretely anchored in a male dominated world that he can see no other perspective and is simply unaware of the messages he has created. I know that all mothers somehow find a way to get it together to give their children the best that they have in them, no matter what the circumstances are that have brought their children into the world. Sometimes the circumstances are such that mothers do not have a lot to give, even when it is everything they have. I also know that all mothers are human. As humans, mothers make mistakes and sometimes make poor choices because that is what humans do. Does that make it okay to dismiss the mothers for the expediency of storytelling and interjecting background information to create an impression?
While I have not seen reviews that take issue with Miller’s treatment of the mothers, Mark Schultz, himself, seems to have taken issue with some reviewers’ interpretation of his relationship with duPont. Apparently, some reviewers interpreted the power relationship between Mark Schultz and duPont as sexual in nature. This should come as no surprise since one of wrestling’s negative sterotypes is that wrestlers are gay and participate for the sexual stimulation. Anyone who has been through high school in the U.S. has heard the term “mat fag” used in reference to the wrestling team. If I had to guess, young men who wrestle for sport are constantly having their sexuality challenged by the ignorant and the irritable. It probably gets old. The stereotype makes an unfair assumption about wrestlers, and also makes an unfair assumption about young gay men. Confronting either about the issue creates a defensive situation with no reasonable answers.
There probably are some real issues of sexuality to examine in duPont’s relationships. duPont had a controlling interest in asymmetrical power relationships with nearly everyone depicted in The Film, except his own mother. Asymmetrical power relationships can lead to sexual exploitation. As many women are, unfortunately, very well aware, when a person in a position of power views a relationship with a subordinate through a sexual lens the relationship is often not reciprocal. There may never be overt sexually explicit invitations, but it can still be harassing. It can feel threatening. It is usually manipulative. The subordinate in such relationships often has a great deal to lose. Sexual tension is often used as a source of power, even when the subordinate party tries to ignore that element of the relationship. She or he often second guesses her or himself. Exploring the issue of sexuality in asymmetric power relationships could be a vehicle to shine a light on the breadth of abusive techniques duPont may have used in manipulating people, intentionally or subconsciously.
Miller actually conveys nothing overt about whether duPont played on sexuality to manipulate people. In reality, men can experience sexual harassment and abuse, usually by another man. Men perceive it differently than women, though are no more likely to report it than women are. Harassment and abuse against men is often treated differently than similar sexual violence against women. Men often have fewer options for support and healing than women have available.
I have no way of knowing whether duPont ever used sexuality to try to manipulate anyone. duPont was depicted as manipulative, and most definitely held a tremendous amount of power. He had many mechanisms through which he could control people. Miller might have explored more thoroughly the various control mechanisms duPont may have used with different participants, what was effective, and what drove people away. Miller suggests that duPont used his checkbook as his chief source of control, but some of his relationships ran much longer and deeper than mere dollars and cents. How did the family’s history with weapons of war influence duPont’s perception and relationships with others? His family has profited mightily from the culture of violence.
Miller’s biggest crime of omission was glossing over duPont’s mental illness. In the eight years that landed on the cutting room floor duPont became increasingly unstable, and my understanding is that life at the Foxcatcher Estate changed dramatically. It is also my understanding that duPont long displayed symptoms of mental illness, but that no intervention was attempted or treatment sought, even when his deterioration accelerated. If my understanding is correct, duPont desperately needed help, but in a position of power in nearly every relationship it is unlikely that anyone knew how to help him or could even see how desperate the situation had become. Miller missed a huge opportunity to examine the progression of mental illness, the intersection of mental illness and drug abuse, mental illness and a culture of violence, and mental illness and power. He missed an opportunity to open an important conversation around difficult issues that have affected far too many families; an issue that has far too few resources available to support families in health care and social services. After fatally shooting Dave Schultz, duPont confined himself in a two-day standoff with law enforcement before he was taken into custody. Ultimately duPont was convicted of murder and found to be mentally ill. duPont died in prison in December 2010.
When I think about Foxcatcher as a researcher, rather than a friend or film critic, I ask myself what is ethical to present in a narrative story in any media? Any research tells a story, though narrative research can be quite personal. In exploring a research question it is not possible to present all data, analysis, or conclusions to the reader. The research would loose all focus. The research question would never be answered. It is the researcher’s job to determine what to include and what to leave out of articles and research reports for different audiences, and even what to study in the first place. To tell a story is to craft a carefully constructed and edited mosaic with individual tiles that are all different sizes and shapes, that look different to everyone, and with only a small portion of them available.
While people and communities are dynamic, data points are not. When data are committed to any media, such as tapes, transcripts, or surveys, they are nothing more than a snapshot of thoughts standing still in time. People think actively, talk, breathe, grow, and develop. Memory changes over time as our perspective changes with distance. Time progresses and people and thoughts move with it. I may say something one day and then disagree with myself the following week. It can be startling for research participants and conversational partners to read their own words, and especially to see the interpretations and conclusions supported by the case for which they were integral.
Miller is not a researcher. He is not in the business of building scholarship or creating and disseminating new knowledge. He does not get paid to solve social problems. Miller is a film director. Being in the entertainment industry should not lower the standards of ethics in discovering events and representing another person. Humans are whole and complex. We are all good and bad, brilliant and ignorant, bold and intimidated. It is incumbent upon the storyteller to represent the players without making sweeping generalizations about them.
A person who shares a part of him or herself to help tell a greater story provides a gift to the storyteller. As a researcher who seeks many sources to explain events, I will almost always interpret someone else’s story differently than the individual who owns it, but it is still that person’s story. The participants need to be treated with respect throughout the process of information gathering, analysis, revisiting, finding contradicting explanations, re-analysis, conclusions, and representation.
Acting ethically as a storyteller is easier said than done. There are so many perspectives, emotions, and background conditions to take into account, assuming the storyteller can find them all. I even need to think about what is ethical in this little essay that at least two people might read. Whose account am I representing? Am I being fair about it, even with my own interpretation? What unwritten messages am I conveying by what I choose to include and omit? It can be overwhelming to think about ethics in my work as an evaluator and researcher. Consequently, ethics usually features prominently in my classes. Some of the lessons of Foxcatcher may find their way into examples for my students.
Am I glad The Flim was made? Yes. It has provided foder for both personal and professional reflection. I think the process of making The Film was therapeutic for our friend, despite what ultimately ended up on the big screen. I am, however, looking forward to the documentary version. It will undoubtedly be more convincing and more engaging.