Cider House Rules (the Movie)
Bill Long 9/13/08
Revisiting a 1999 Favorite
Framing this story of moral ambiguity, loneliness, and flawed father-figures, originally put in print in 1985 by one of America's finer authors of the current generation, John Irving (b. 1942), are two complementary expressions of inspiration and aspiration. These statements of aspiration refer both to the present and the future, and so they seem to be sufficient to summarize all of life in their majestic though brief sweep. However, their majesty is quickly swallowed up in the ambiguities and heartbreaking loss, poor decisions and loneliness of real life. This essay will explore the tension between lofty aspiration and mucky reality, not only in the film but also in our lives.
The Two Aspirational Statements
One of the earliest lines we hear in the movie is when the doctor/director of a Maine orphanage, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), confidently intones to the boys each night, "Good night, you princes of Maine; you kings of New England." The boys are, in fact, "rejects." Their biological parents have dropped them off there, for whatever reason, and no adoptive parents have come forward to take them as their children. Much as cute puppies in the windows of pet stores, these emotionally bruised but game children try to put on their best face to convince prospective foster families to adopt them. Yet, the daily intonation of these words hallows the film and ennobles the boys, giving us the sense that if there were kings in New England and princes in Maine, these boys would be precisely the kinds of boys that could take on those roles.
The second aspirational statement is of another kind, one relating to the Christian tradition--Cardinal Newman's famous prayer of support:
"O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then in your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest,
and peace at the last. Amen."
This prayer is also heard on more than one occasion in the film, and it functions as a sort of "frame" to place the hectic and heartrending realities of life into a more eternal context. We live in the "busy world" where we experience life so many times as nothing but a "fever." The hush of that world, and of our often vain and fruitless attempts to affect the direction of that world, leaves only the reality of the Eternal in our field of vision.
The Hectic and Heartbreaking Reality of Life
Those affirmations may provide comfort, but in fact life is quite different, and comfort seems quickly to disappear. Homer Wells (Tobie Maguire), the lead character in the film, was himself nurtured in the orphanage in rural Maine (the filming in a dozen New England locations give the film a poignant delectability and verisimitude). He was adopted twice but was either returned to the orphanage or removed from the custody of the parents. So, he grew up there, learning the trade of gynecology, including how to perform abortions, from Dr. Larch. Sooner or later, however, Homer needs to leave and explore the world. He does so by going home with a young couple, played by Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd, who have come to the orphanage for an abortion. Predictably, Homer and Candy (i.e., Charlize) fall deeply in love with each other while Wally (i.e., Paul) is off fighting in WWII, and so part of Homer's education in the world relates to his acquaintance with a real body and real love, a body that makes him "hurt" when he looks at it. Dr. Larch feels he has lost a son when Homer goes off to explore the world, but his nurses are much more realistic--for they know that he is a young man, and must try to find himself before settling in on a job "for the long haul."
When Homer goes with Candy and Wally, he ends up living at Candy's farm, and working/living in the "cider house" on the property with a seasonal hired staff of about five or six African-American workers. If there was ambiguity in actions done by Dr. Larch to try to keep Homer tied to his coat-tails in Maine, there was also moral ambiguity among the cider-house workers, since foreman Arthur Rose (Delroy Lindo) eventually impregnates his own daughter Rose (Erykah Badu). Hovering over the life of the cider house are a series of rules, which seem (as I recall) to play a larger role in the book than in the movie, and relate to things that the workers in the cider house can't do. But these rules boil down to one rule--"don't go up on the roof," and the workers recognize that rules established by someone else are only good to be burned while we, in fact, make up rules for ourselves every day.
Moral ambiguities pile up. Homer is taught how to perform abortions by Dr. Larch, but vows never to do one himself; after all, in the early 1940s they are "illegal." But then, faced with the incest among the cider house workers and the resulting pregnancy, he performs an abortion on Rose. Rules, again, go out the window as they run up against the harsh and tumultuous realities of living.
The movie tries to tie things together nicely at the end, by having Homer return to the Maine orphanage after Dr. Larch has (accidentally?) died from an overdoes of ether; there he is welcomed like the lost son he is. He takes on the role of Dr. Larch, who had forged Homer's credentials in order to get him accepted by the board of the orphanage, and bids good-night to the boys with the familiar line, "Good night, you princes of Maine; you kings of New England." The music swells, and we feel good for the moment. Yet, in the quiet of our own evenings, when the stories have ended and the lights go out but before we fall asleep, we also feel deeply in our souls the tension between the aspirational and the real, the cleanliness and the mud, the desire for rhythmic simplicity and the arhythmic pace of most of life. In the end we live lives of considerable desperation and sadness even while we place God in the heavens and ascribe to Him ability to straighten out all the rough places of life. Cider House Rules is a good tonic to encourage us to assess the sources of our own yearning as well as the sometimes hopeless realities of our present. We live between the two, and sometimes almost perish with the unresolved tension between the two. But that is life as we know it, and as Cider House Rules knows it.