Monday, July 4, 2016
(September 1988, U.S.)
I'm more-than-very confident that nearly none of you reading this post right now have never heard of ROCKET GIBRALTAR. It was the second-to-last film of Burt Lancaster's illustrious career (FIELD OF DREAMS being his last) and features a cast of then-unknowns who would later go on to bigger stardom, including Kevin Spacey, Bill Pullman, David Hyde Pierce, Patricia Clarkson, Suzy Amis and a cute, blonde-haired little boy named Macaulay Culkin who would later go on to be home alone in a couple of big Christmas movies. It's a simple, little movie filled with the warmth and heart of love and family that could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle of other big summer hits that were still going strong at the time, including DIE HARD and A FISH CALLED WANDA. For me, however, it's a film I've always embraced on a deeply personal level and I'll try to explain why now...
ROCKET GIBRALTAR is the story of retired and widowed Hollywood writer and patriarch Levi Rockwell (Lancaster) whose family reunites at his Long Island estate to celebrate his upcoming seventy-seventh birthday. Surrounding the celebration are the family's personal (if not predictable) problems and social dramas. That's it, really. The movie doesn't offer too much more than a look inside a large family and their children who spend everyday playing on the beach and restoring an old boat to give to their grandfather for his birthday. The movie was filmed on location on Long Island, with some specific scenes filmed right in Westhampton Beach. You've all read my descriptions of this town before and how I've spent the better part of my entire life there every summer season at the family's beach house. Very sadly, it was only just weeks ago that the house, after thirty-eight long years, was sold. As I write this blog, I am currently experiencing the pain of having to turn my back and walk away from something that has been a part of my strength, my inspiration, my passion, my identity and my very soul. It was a house that brought out the best in me as a man and as a father to my son. As a result, the task of actually re-watching ROCKET GIBRALTAR for the purpose of a fresh perspective seems too painful and emotional for me right now. Writing about it, on the other hand, is somewhat therapeutic and I shall do my best now to continue with things on this blog as I always have.
Much like THE BIG CHILL (1983), this film examines our human social interactions when we are put in the position of staying under the same roof for a long weekend. The Long Island home is actually nothing that special, really, but the film puts its proximity to the nearest beach as only a short bicycle ride away, as seen through the actions of the children. The boat they work at restoring is not only a testament to the grandfather they love, but also a project which bonds them closer together as cousins. There's a particularly touching moment of bonding when Levi takes a late night walk with his grandchildren on the beach and tells them of the ancient traditions of the Viking Funeral and even goes so far as to express it as a dying wish after he's gone. Later, it's actually during the course of the birthday celebration, when everyone is completely bogged down in their own personal issues and worries, that his health begins to fail and he slowly slips away while watching an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers picture. The children, being the ones who find his body in bed, decide to interpret his dying wish literally and proceed to actually sneak the grown man's body away from the house and their parents and drag it to the beach in order to give him a real Viking Funeral. This is, perhaps, where things get a little far-fetched in terms of small children actually being able to get away with something like this, but before we know it, they've put their grandfather's body aboard the restored boat and set it out to sea, where they proceed to shoot flaming arrows at it and fulfill the man's final request. Truth be told, if you can get past this little incident of disbelief, what remains is very touching to the point of choking up in your own tears, as the entire family sits on the beach (children and their parents) and watches the patriarch of their life burn away into the night and the approaching dawn. It's an unconventional way to say goodbye to a loved one in the 20th Century, indeed, but it's a final moment that ultimately brings family back together again and reminds us of what's most important and even the geographical locations of where we express those important issues. For me, the location was the family beach house in Westhampton Beach...and now it's gone. How do I move on? I don't know how. I only know that I have to. So...goodbye.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Levi Rockwell: "Their whole life was the sea, the sea and their boats. So in celebrating their deaths- yes, you can say celebrating - they used both. The families of the great Viking would put the body of their loved one on a ship, cover it with straw, and then, as the sun was setting, cast it away into the water. They would light huge bonfires on the beach, and then the Vikings would light the tips of their arrows in the bonfire and shoot them at the ship. Ah, it must have been so beautiful, fire on the water. Legend has it that if the color of the setting sun and the color of the burning ship were the same then that Viking had lead a good life, and in the afterlife he would go to Viking Heaven. All night long the Viking men, women, and children watched the ship with the body as it burned in the water. By dawn all that was left were ashes, complete obliteration, carried by the currents to the four corners of the earth, fresh and beautiful, and vanished completely, like a dream."