Olin Johnson in flight training WWII.

“The psychological or physical absence of fathers from their families is one of the great underestimated tragedies of our time.”-Samuel Osherson, Ph.D., Finding Our Fathers

Over the last two hundred years, the father’s role in the family has been gradually minimized.  The colonial father was head of the house and involved in all levels of the family.  After World War II, the father’s role had been reduced to breadwinner and occasional disciplinarian.  Many baby-boomers grew up in households in which the father was either emotionally or physically absent and the mother was in charge of the child rearing.   Hence, the natural relational development of boys from the world of the mother to that of the father was often interrupted.  Of the 7,239 men surveyed in the Hite Report (1981) “almost no men said they had been or were close to their fathers.”   This, coupled with the baby-boomer’s rebellion against traditional family values in the sixties has lead to, among other things, an epidemic of depression across all sectors of our society, a rise in divorce, violence and dysfunction, and the overuse of medications as a replacement for parental love.

Through the interwoven stories of the filmmaker and his friend, Phil Wilson, Stuff re-enacts this drama of interrupted development and shows how it may have affected the protagonists growth as men.  It also shows how a father’s sickness and death stimulates an urge in a son to seek the fulfillment of an unanswered need for intimacy with the father.  Phil Wilson:

“You know, it seems like there’s just no way to resolve the fact of somebody being so utterly gone to me.  I don’t know if anybody can ever do it. Like last night I walked down stairs and I saw something, which hit me, which made it hit me that Im fatherless.  And I just couldnt except it for a moment until I just looked away and didnt deal with it anymore.”

Phil and the filmmaker attempt to connect with their fathers through different ritualized acts.  Phil undertakes a journey across the country a kind of pilgrimage to his father’s hometown and enacts the ceremony of returning his father’s remains to the earth next to his mother’s grave.  This brings a sense of completion to his grief.  The filmmaker, on the other hand, connects with his father through his father’s stuff, his home movies, pictures, books and tools.  He moves the stuff from California into a storage unit, then moves it again.  The stuff becomes a burden.  He tries to sell some of it, and it starts to get mixed up with his own stuff as his life starts to disintegrate.  It seems this search is somehow connected to a crisis of self-awareness in the filmmaker’s life.  Soon, the film itself becomes a means to find his father and himself, as he integrates the ideas of the film into his consciousness.  The act of making the film liberates the filmmaker to look at himself and his relationships with fresh eyes.   For the audience, these thought-provoking stories will catalyze similar self-analysis.

Still from the film "Stuff"Stuff also explores the problem of Alzheimer’s disease and the stress it puts on families of those suffering from the disease.  The filmmaker’s mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s, is featured in Stuff as the filmmaker visits her and attempts to communicate with her.  Robbed of her opportunity to grieve for her husband by the lack of comprehension caused by the disease, she lives with only seconds of memory, doomed to a kind of purgatory of the moment. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over 5,000,000 Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and a new person is diagnosed with the disease every 72 seconds. By 2030 the cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s will approach $400 billion, enough to bankrupt the Medicare system. Building public awareness and support for Alzheimer’s research is a necessary and worthwhile cause.

“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.”-Robert Anderson, I Never Sang for My Father

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