Mountains & Melancholy

Bill Forsyth's HOUSEKEEPING (1987)

Mountains mean a lot to me. I grew up spending summers at my family’s cabin in Lassen National Park near Chico, CA. Those days were pre-Internet, pre-smartphones, pre-things we now spend our every waking moments obsessing over. I vividly remember hiking through dense, Walden-level forests, swimming in remotely located lakes and rivers, and falling asleep on our wood deck looking up at the stars. It was a great way to grow up, and those wilderness experiences invariably defined how I would come to view the world and time in general.

So much of what I experience now is antithetical to being present in the mountains. We’re always moving, always watching, always escaping to the next virtual or professional engagement. Regrettably, I haven’t been to our cabin in nearly 20 years. Life, responsibility, priorities - they all change and with those changes comes certain sacrifices. For a long time I felt fine skipping the cabin experience, but now that I have a young daughter its absence is becoming more pronounced and profound. Next summer we’ll return.

I thought of my mountains quite a bit while watching Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987), a sobering examination of generational melancholy that was adapted from Marilynne Robinson’s novel of the same name. Set in the fictional 1950s back-country town of Fingerbone, Idaho but shot in the alpine highs of British Columbia, Canada, it’s a visually stunning piece about the battle between individualism and conformity that also juxtaposes epic images with intimate, complicated feelings of purpose. In the film’s opening moments, 15-year-old narrator Ruth (Sara Walker) describes an old story about her grandfather’s love of mountains and how that obsession with natural majesty brought him to Fingerbone a generation earlier, and finally to the bottom of the town’s magnificent lake during a tragic train derailment that made national headlines.

It’s really the only bit of lore she and her younger sister Lucille (Andrea Burchill) know about their family, which has been long been marked by madness and suicide (their mother being the latest casualty). Raised for years by a series of elderly relatives, including their stern maternal grandmother and flighty pair of great aunts, the girls’ hope for a more stable and exciting life is rejuvenated after their mother’s transient sister Sylvie (Christine Lahti) returns to Fingerbone and assumes the role of caretaker.

Over time, Ruth and Lucille have very different reactions to Sylvie’s unorthodox parenting style, penchant for hoarding, and flighty disappearances. While their aunt’s character remains permanently chaotic and sincere, we learn more about the two girls by the way they judge others, show empathy (or a lack thereof), and view her particular offbeat, eccentric rhythm to life.

As a result, Housekeeping slowly pulls these characters toward different sides of the societal spectrum; in Lucille’s case, she becomes more obsessed with appearances, social gatherings, friendships, and dressmaking. More importantly, she grows increasingly embarrassed by not only Sylvie’s ramshackle lifestyle, but also Ruth’s inability to be as questioning of it. Much of the film’s tension stems from these increasingly stressful standoffs about sisterly loyalty, future prospects, and self-doubt.

For a film that goes to great lengths in showing the presence of physical spaces - mountains, Fingerbone lake, and the lengthy railroad track that bisects them both - Forsyth also explores the specter of absence. These girls know very little of their family’s history, and while Sylvie presents some new details, they are always given through the hazy lens of her frazzled memory.

Ruth and Lucille spend ample time avoiding school, Sylvie, and the traumas of their past by circling the lake, trekking up into the forest, and becoming lost in spaces that feel so familiar. At one point, these adventures aren’t enough of a distraction for Lucille: “We’re just hiding up here.” Ruth isn’t sure if she feels the same way, about that or anything really. Lucille sees her hesitance and shy demeanor as a weakness, whereas Sylvie sees the prospects of a potential protégé.

Ultimately, Housekeeping presents a universal dichotomy that anyone who’s spent time up in the mountains can relate to. There’s the pull of pleasure and comfort, escaping back to civilization, this need to move and be somewhere else. But that would mean leaving a very spiritual place that unlike cities, allows for time to think, wonder and wander, and to quote Lucille, “spend too much time looking out windows.”

As Housekeeping concludes with an all-timer final shot of Sylvie and Ruth crossing Fingerbone lake along the miles-long railroad track, walking toward some unknown new beginning on the road, I couldn’t help but think of returning to my mountains, my woods, my lakes, my spiritual place that I’ve been escaping from for two decades. It may be different now, but it’s time to come back and see for myself.

Housekeeping is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.


Receive all future Afterglow newsletters electronically by clicking the subscribe button. Most newsletters are free but paid subscriptions are welcome and help support future posts. Thank you!