The Prince of Tides

The following are my thoughts; both about and related to, the 1993 Barbara Streisand film (of much acclaim) titled “The Prince of Tides”. It relates very little of the film’s content and storyline, and is this not to be considered an official movie review.

I just recently finished watching “The Prince of Tides” in my Psychology II course. As the next in the series of movies we’ll be watching related to our area of study, it was a great follow up to “Nell”, which I talked about last time.

“The Prince of Tides”, doesn’t take a strong, independent character that is made into a victim of the evils of modern-day society (as did “Nell”), but instead places a faltering personality embodied by middle-aged man, Tom Wingo (played by Nick Nolte) as its central plot. The movie is based on the book of the same name written by Pat Conroy in 1986. Tom Wingo grew up in the Southern part of the United States during the earlier decades of the 20th century. He was accompanied through childhood by two siblings – Savannah, whom has been traumatized interminably, it seems, by a case of sexual assault that Tom also endured; and Luke, the heroic gun slinging brother that serves as the hero of both the movie, and of his siblings. An impulsive character, his personality is blamed by Tom as the cause of his death at a young age, one which visibly affects Tom as he loses the hero that protected him and Savannah from the violent antics of their parents.

Tom’s parents, on that note, were a rough couple that often fought. This took a toll on Tom. His father was very much like him – a violent, black-and-white person both in terms of physical actions and of thoughts – but as the movie progresses, Tom is depicted as the wiser man for being able to explore, accept, and express his feelings. In other words, Tom’s father is the angry, violent character that Tom wishes to be the antithesis of. In several parts of the movie, flashbacks delivering scenes of daily life in the Wingo family are shown, and they serve to illustrate the nature of his family. In one scene, they’re all gathered around the table eating lunch, when Tom’s father begins to pound the table when he doesn’t like his food. He screams at his wife, telling her that he works all day and all he wants when he comes home is a good American meal. It’s a typical scenario – a high-octane, “abusive” husband – but the other half of it isn’t typical at all. You’d think that the man’s wife would be a frail soul that would be made this way for the purpose of accentuating the violent nature of her husband, but this is not the case. She does not scream or hit or pound the dinner table when she’s angry, but instead expresses her feelings of resentment through words and sneaky treacheries. And so, when her husband demands a better meal, she enters the kitchen and fools him into thinking that a pile of dog food sandwiched in between layers of salad and fruit is actually the good American meal he demanded.

He’s fooled into eating dog food.

It’s this sly, underhanded nature of hers that makes her a worthy competitor to the impulsiveness of her husband, but also adds to the caustic nature of Tom’s family.

And so, growing up, modeling the hard-headedness of his father, he keeps all of this bottled up, never speaking about the caustic nature of his youth. H never speaks about how his father would beat his mother, he never talks about how his mother would flirt with the rich man that lived in the city (whom she ended up marrying) – not even to his own wife and children it seems. It’s never fully established how much of Tom’s life and secrets his wife Sally (played by Blythe Danner) knows about, but considering that she criticizes him for being such a closed person that loves to avoid serious conversation by always changing the subject matter and laughing everything off with a wry joke, it can be assumed that she doesn’t know much.

Pat Conroy’s original 1986 novel.

Tom’s closed nature, however, is challenged when his sister Savannah – now living in New York – attempts to commit suicide yet again, and her psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (played by Barbara Streisand) calls on Tom’s help to understand Savannah’s personality and mindset by getting to know facts about her family, her and Tom’s relationship, etc. Lowenstein (whom in a somewhat cliché way ends up being a love interest for Tom, though it can be understood) is the agent behind Tom’s learning.

What is he learning? To express himself. To not keep things bottled up, to understand that the wiser thing to do is to let it all out to a trustworthy person. To be serious about things. Tom’s personality at the beginning of the movie is one that is very cynical and witty but also cannot bring itself to deal with life’s problems. Towards the end, however, Tom is like a child that’s matured into adulthood; that adulthood being one that maturely deals with life’s struggles and is not afraid to appreciate the past, no matter how horrible it may have been.

And that’s something I agree with so much; I smile at the notion of thinking that one of the film’s life lessons is this. I have friends whom have had past experiences, people, or other things in their lives that they’d rather not talk about. I have been blessed to be able to enjoy the beautiful life I’ve lived, yet this does not blind me to the possible misfortunes of others. At the same time however, the more trivial you make past experiences, the harder you’re making it for yourself to deal with them. If you can come to a point where you can discuss them comfortably with friends and family, and consider them things in your life that just happened because they happened, you are doing yourself a favor. Don’t hide these traumas and past misfortunes like a secret is hidden from the public. It’s the mark of a strong person to be able to do this, and the mark of weak one to fail to do so.

Am I strong or weak, then? Well, I don’t have the answer to that. For now, let’s go back to the film.

The greatest example of change in Tom is found in the scene in the movie where Lowenstein asks about a word that Savannah continuously repeats. I don’t recall the word at the moment – thus, this can’t be considered a proper movie review – but it’s one that relates to the sexual assault and home invasion that Tom, Savannah, Luke, and their mother had the misfortune of having to experience on a rainy night.

This is how it happened – Tom, Savannah, and their mother are home dancing to some properly Southern style music, when three men enter the house and proceed to rape each of them, but soon enough, Luke enters the scene with his rifle and kills two of the men, while his mother knifes the third one as he’s distracted by the gunfire. Blood is left splattered all over the walls.

Nick Nolte, now just a tad older.

The scene is chilling and traumatizing (no extremely graphical content is shown, though – thank God) which is good, because it allows the viewer to feel the effect of the experience on Tom, justifying his breaking of character short afterwards, when he sheds tears like never before and rests his head on the psychiatrist’s lap.

There are many other aspects, subplots, and themes to this movie that would need a project to explore. I’ve decided to write instead about that which left is mark most heavily upon me after watching the film. At an age where the struggle of life gradually becomes harder than just worrying about getting straight A’s in school, seeing a movie in which the weaknesses of someone’s personality are addressed and beautifully resolved, is helpful. It’s a captivating film that is also excellent in terms of photography and production.

It’s one of those films that provoke both the mind and the heart, one that shows faults in the human condition and reminds us that alleviating them is possible. It’s beautiful – because it’s about us. It’s about us humans; it’s about our strengths and our weaknesses.

It’s about self.

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