“Every family has its own history book,” observes filmmaker Nick Fitzhugh in “Starboard Light,” a lovingly crafted documentary in which he shares a significant chapter of his own.
The film chronicles his family’s difficult decision to sell the eponymous Cape Cod cottage that had served as the Fitzhugh clan’s summer home and emotional polestar for five generations.
Built in 1800 by a New England sea captain for one of his three sons, the house occupies a prime perch overlooking a picturesque harbor in the town of Chatham and was named after an old nautical lamp affixed to its weather beaten façade.
“Once you name something, it starts to live,” Fitzhugh rhapsodizes as the film’s narrator.
In 1925, the filmmaker’s great grandfather, William W. Fitzhugh, bought the house. At the time, Chatham was still a rural fishing community on a “rough underdeveloped peninsula” where you could snatch up oceanfront property for $30 an acre.
Part biography, part social history, part loveletter, the film is about many things, but mostly about the ties that bind families together, and to the past, gently posing the question: “Does a family make a house, or does a house make a family?”
Fitzhugh’s answer splits the difference, recognizing a home as something more than the sum total of the wood, nails and bricks that go into its construction. It is an amalgam of mortar and memories, a locus of shared community, a fundamental forum that “facilitates the core parts of being alive... your connections to other people.”
Incorporating archival footage and multigenerational interviews with Fitzhugh family members, past and present, the film, in telling one family’s story, achieves an engaging balance between the deeply personal and universally relatable.
Fitzhugh invites viewers to crash boisterous gatherings and eavesdrop on intimate conversations around dining tables, punctuated with laughter and tears. They do what all families do: share stories. In doing so, a family mythology is born out of their communal experiences and history, an oral DNA through which values and traditions are transmitted.
For the most part, the tales told are happy reminiscences of cheery childhoods spent on the beach or setting sail aboard the family’s cutter The Dragon Lady tempered by more melancholy memories, including the passing of the filmmaker’s grandmother, the Fitzhugh matriarch and “the brightest light of all.”
The mood becomes plaintive when discussions turn to the house’s uncertain future and the realization that “without the house to share” it will be harder to create “new myths.”
At one point, a relative tearfully asks, “Is someone going to take care of [the house]?” There is pain in his voice. Having spent time with the family, you feel his heartbreak.
Another mourns the loss of ritual: the annual opening of the house each summer or the dressing of the rooms. Even quotidian tasks like hanging laundry out to dry stir sentimental significance sheets aromatic with the “smell of warm sunshine.”
Such evocative phrases lend an almost Walt Whitmanesque eloquence to the film, infusing it with poetry and pathos.
If there’s one minor criticism, it would be, with so many family members interviewed the emotional focus is diffused. Certain personalities radiate much stronger than others, particularly the grandparents, with the lower hanging boughs of the Fitzhugh’s family tree less distinct and, therefore, their voices less compelling. It’s difficult to figure out who belongs on which branch.
Perhaps the film would have been better served if the director had picked one representative as the lens through which his family’s story is viewed. Though, ultimately, the emotional center is the Starboard Light itself.
In nautical usage, a green “starboard” light and complimentary red “port” light aid boats in ensuring safe navigation. It is a fitting metaphor for the house that guided generations of Fitzhughs “safe and true” through both squalls and sunny waters.
While cherishing the house for providing that constant safe harbor “when the world is full of noise, and heart and mind need rest,” Fitzhugh also recalls how, as a boy, it conjured the allure of adventure.
Arriving late at night, half asleep and waking up to the exotic symphony of surf and sea gulls, it was a “magical place.”
“Once upon a time, everything was new and amazing... I still have that wonder,” he states with wistful nostalgia, echoing G.K. Chesterton’s contention that, “The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; its is the one wild place” in a world of listless routine.
Oscillating between enchantment and elegy, the film reminds us of the importance of continuity and connection with the past, and affirms the value of “old” things in our disposable culture.
It also speaks to the current American experience, particularly the harsh economic landscape that makes it increasingly challenging for families to hold onto multigenerational homes.
Fitzhugh, whose previous work includes “Soccer City” about the first World Cup to be held in Africa, has an eye for articulating things visually with an economy of image. A window
looking out on the harbor toward the Atlantic’s endless horizon. It is what the window looks into, when filled with love and laughter, that seems wider and deeper. Yet it is the same window that later reveals vacant rooms, solemn and silent, exposing an emotional emptiness that not even the ocean could fill.
The film is both a celebration of home and family and a requiem, lamenting not just his situation, but the tragic wider realities of modern life, of which his family’s loss is but one sad example. A message well worth considering in our age of domestic dissolution.
Early on, Fitzhugh asks: “Would it make a difference if the house could talk and spill all its secrets? Can we really put a price on the memories within those walls?”
Through making this film, Fitzhugh manages to provide his beloved Starboard Light with a voice, and a poignant one at that; the memories shared are priceless. In return, “Starboard Light” rewards viewers with both illumination and warmth.
“If the raw materials are good, you’ll have a tough time building something bad,” Fitzhugh states at the open. This heartfelt gem of a film proves how true that is.
Former film reviewer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops