Thanksgiving Confessions in Modern Film
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I have to confess something rather embarrassing. Every time I sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, I can’t help but reflect on that surreal scene from one of my favorite cult classics, David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), where Henry Spencer is assigned the simple task of carving a chicken. Of course, this proves to be anything but simple. Eventually, my appetite manages to return, and I can erase this film from my thoughts and proceed to dig into the moist turkey sitting in front of me.

We often forget that Thanksgiving symbolizes so much more than food. Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) represents family dynamics in an all too familiar light. This film begins around the Thanksgiving table and concludes the subsequent Thanksgiving. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the anchor of the family, self-sufficient and giving so much without expecting anything in return. Her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine), has a crush on sister Lee (Barbara Hershey) who really hasn’t found herself. However, Lee is also the muse of an aging reclusive painter, Fred (Max von Sydow), who refuses to let her go. Holly (Dianne Wiest), an ex-drug addict, is the aspiring actress/screenwriter who’s always borrowing money from sister, Hannah. Add to that, Dad bantering back and forth with Mom, a “boozy old flirt with a filthy mouth,” on rather benign issues. Finally there’s Mitch (Woody Allen), the hypochondriac producer who’s also Hannah’s ex-husband. This typical Woody Allen film hilariously brings a multitude of family dynamics to a head—resentment, jealousy, infidelity, remorse. In between the comedic drama (yes, the two do coexist), Mitch lightens the tension with his constant bouts of neurosis. Hannah and Her Sisters offers a satisfying conclusion that will send you off to bed with a smile on your face.

As in the last example, many films centering around Thanksgiving reveal the anxiety of family members as they hold on to their dark secrets, dreading that a little lie or hidden truth may be exposed. Unbearable shame might then be cast upon them or the family name. And, of course, these secrets often seem so insignificant to us. As we peek at the Thanksgiving feast of four culturally diverse families—Jewish, African American, Vietnamese, and Mexican American—we see more than just a scrumptious meal in Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking? (2000). These families live within a few block radius in Los Angeles, but they really don’t know each other. Issues of infidelity, homosexuality, inter-racial relationships, mothers-in-law, and even guns explode on this holiday. This film radiates with a superb cast; among them are Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Mercedes Ruehl, Joan Chen, A Martinez, Lainie Kazan, and Kyra Sedgwick. It handles emotional subjects with light humor and is a joy to experience. We’re also forced to admit that we can identify with some aspect of these characters. In the end, these families all learn what truly matters in life.

Sometimes just trying to arrive home for Thanksgiving can turn into a terrifying experience. Simply leaving New York for a flight to Chicago turns into a dreadful journey for “tight-ass” marketing exec Neal Page (Steve Martin). Not that he was mugged or taken for dead, lying on the New York streets, but, worse, he just happened to cross the path of the obnoxious but somewhat lovable shower ring salesman, Del Griffith (John Candy). John Hughes’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) provides one laugh after another as these two encounter so many obstacles just trying to make it home to spend Thanksgiving with their families. This is modern slapstick at its best.

In most holiday films, the real meaning of Thanksgiving is not forgotten. We give thanks for our blessings, family, and good fortune. While many of the self-absorbed characters overlook this, their gratitude does reappear in some form or another…eventually.

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