Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vincent Van Gogh & Gossip

Awhile back, there was a lot of press about Van Gogh: The Life written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White.  It's been months, and yet I continue to think about their theory regarding his death.
From "New Book Claims Vincent Van Gogh Didn't Commit Suicide" by Megan Gibson, Time Magazine, October 17, 2011The authors argue that a teenaged boy named Rene Secretan, who had a history of harassing the artist, and his brother Gaston accidentally shot van Gogh while the three were out drinking together. Although it’s widely believed that the 37-year-old artist committed suicide — having famously said,”Do not accuse anyone, it is I who wanted to kill myself” —  the authors posit that van Gogh only claimed to have shot himself in order to protect the boys.
Whatever the Truth is, I love this because it is such a great reminder that you just can't know.

Thinking about the possible alternate ending to Vincent's life leads me to think about all of the regular folk I have known, that other people have told me stories about.  Usually the information is second- or third-hand and/or based on a hazy interpretation of events that may or may not be connected.  As much as I love concocting alternate tellings of the gossip, attempting to cast the lead as a misunderstood hero, I'd happily give it up to never hear another flip comment disparaging the abilities, choices, or whatever of someone not present.  A friend of mine recently said that she thinks people should, "tell their own stories." I think this is brilliant.  And it has already led me to bite my tongue a few times.

Maybe, instead of attempting to create a picture out of an incomplete set of puzzle pieces, maybe we let the person tell us.  And, if someone's not talking, but you've got some odd shaped fragments of a picture that you're itching to link together, before you start man-handling the corners to "fit," think about your favorite movies, books, tv shows.  Most all of the characters you love and admire could be judged quite harshly.  They're flawed.  It's what makes them interesting and relatable.  You know their thoughts and their personal context, and so you understand their poor choices and root for them to find their way.  Think of those fictional characters, and then apply that same open-minded, big-hearted acceptance to the people you actually know.  Trust that the people amongst us are the leads in their own story, and that they have their reasons.  Skip past the potentially damaging conjecture and settle at simply wishing the best for them.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think making educated attempts to flesh out history should stop (if it weren't for that, I wouldn't have had this new theory about Vincent to kick around for weeks on end).  And I wouldn't necessarily choose Jesse Pinkman for a neighbor, send Jackie Peyton to pick up my prescriptions, hire Larry David to watch my cats while I'm out of town, or marry Hank Moody (on second thought, given my history, I probably would do that last one). And I am aware that certain kinds of talk about other people can be a positive (e.g., "Patton Oswalt deserves an Oscar for YOUNG ADULT." or "When are we going to tell Amanda that her blog sucks.")  

The thing is this, well, the two things are this:  1) If you're looking at another person's life and thinking you've got an open and shut case, indictment-wise -- think of Vincent.  "Of course, the crazy, ear-cutting, paint-eating drunk shot himself.  Saw that coming."  Well Super-Worldly-Knower-of-all-the-Hearts-in-all-Mankind, maybe you anticipated something, but that might not be the thing that happened, even if it kinda looks like it did, and 2) If it's even remotely possible that troubled and tormented Vincent Van Gogh had the grace to prevent young men from becoming "the ones who shot that painter," then maybe we can all give each other a bit of slack.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Man vs. Machine: The Holiday Edition - The Final Stretch, Never Alone

It's so easy to forget, but it's always true that no matter what you've got going on, you're not alone. In "Those Are Marshmallow Clouds Being Friendly" (The Paris Review, December 22, 2011) Rachael Maddux describes how, like me, her holiday retail experience was shaped by the music.
During this time, my one reliable coping mechanism was to give myself over to the power of our management-mandated holiday-themed satellite radio station. I used to believe stores played incessant Christmas music to anesthetize shoppers. But now I’m inclined to believe it’s for the sake of holiday retail employees—offering a synthetic place for their minds to drift toward, away from the maddening, small realities at hand.
Yes, the same music machine I've been battling.  I've been wrong, all wrong.  War is nothing if not a breeding ground for regrets.  Everyone was so cranky about the arrival of holiday music, that I thought my challenge would be to still love it once the holidays were done.  Yet, whatever my initial motive, the end result was the same, I made it my enemy. I was mistaken to rigidly attempt to pace myself for the long-haul, as though I could mete out my fondness with precision control. It seems I should have relaxed and simply been thankful to have a friend with me at work each day.  It's right there in the lyrics of one of my favorite songs, "The world is your snowball, just for a song.  Get out and roll it along." (For the record: The Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin version of this song is the gold standard).

This could be post-holiday grief come early.  When you lose someone, it's natural spend a spell thinking of what more you could have done.  During all those early mornings alone on the dark, empty 3rd floor, sometimes as early as 4am to prepare the store for shoppers, I danced, whistled and sang along more than I'll ever admit.  Yet while I read Ms. Maddux's piece about the candy store, I had to pause and wonder if I had done enough.

But I did.  I did just enough. I showed up and was present when it was time, I'm not hanging on after it's over, and I did not embarrass myself overindulging on things like ornament earrings, reindeer antlers, or thinking that anyone wants anyone else to give them cologne as a gift.  It turns out, my relationship with the holidays is one of the healthiest and most functional I have.

Knowing the holidays, they'll show up next year, accompanied by exuberant and wistful music, and treat me as though I had never doubted them.  It's not a matter of the holidays forgetting, or choosing to rise above my behavior, they'll just get on with who they are and what they do.  And they'll let me do the same.  Or, like this year (and probably more years than I am aware), they'll actually help me do what I do.  Whatever it is that year.

Nope, never alone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Man vs. Machine: The Holiday Edition - Missive from the Front Lines

I am battle weary, but I soldier on.  Though I catch myself lost in the thousand yard stare, I have not yet resorted to earplugs.  I am confident the war will be won, but if I do not return, tell future generations I was a Jennifer, and not a Bailey.  It'll make for a better park statue.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

HOLIDAY | 1938 | aka The 5th Avenue Anti-Stuffed Shirt and Flying Trapeze Club

“I never could decide whether I wanted to be Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, or John L. Lewis."
(Katharine Hepburn as Linda Seton in HOLIDAY)

I had to look up that quote because I wanted to be sure I got the order right.  I was pretty sure she listed those people in chronological order, because that made sense organizationally and it sounded good when said aloud.  Still, I felt compelled to diligently confirm the facts before I posted the quote on a blog that no one reads, where errors go undetected and/or can be quietly corrected.

While searching, I discovered this article ("It Happened One Decade: What the Great Depression Did to Culture," The New Yorker, September 21, 2009 by Caleb Crain) containing the fantastic idea that the sharp dialog of screwball was an application of "the hardboiled style of crime stories to the softhearted subject matter of a couple falling in love".  

Even then, folks were embarrassed to write rom-coms and were compelled to toughen 'em up a bit.  

Sometimes a sense of shame can be beneficial. 

It might actually be tied with necessity as the mother of invention.  

Actually, when it comes to the arts, shame probably beat necessity with a TKO for the title.

But that's a tangent.  Actually this whole post will be a grab-bag of tangents.  As much as I adore this film, I'm not going to nail this post.  Which kind of breaks my heart.  Did I mention that I adore this film?  I do.  Adore it.

I had intended to write a simple, fluffy little thing about a screwball set during the holidays to kick-off the season, but now realize that starting with HOLIDAY might be a mistake.  
It's more of a late holiday season movie.  Partly because there's a key party scene that takes place on New Years Eve, and also because the tone of the film just isn't busting with anticipatory and celebratory goodwill.  Instead it feels like that bubble between the December 26th and January 1st, that window of time when the holiday decorations look precisely the same as they did on the 23rd, and have lost none of their enthusiasm, and yet they feel a bit world-weary somehow.  A really fantastic and enjoyable phenomenon, but not really right as a seasonal starter.

Plus, finding the article in the New Yorker has put my focus back on the actual non-holiday essence of the film.  The title isn't only referring to the setting of the film, nor is it only referring to the holiday in Placid where Johnny Case (Cary Grant) meets Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), it is most significantly referring to the holiday Johnny wants to take from work.  That's the holiday that ruins one romance, but ultimately lands him with the best, most appropriate mate (as all screwballs aim to do for their leads).

Johnny is a smart, athletic, self-made (as much as any one individual actually can be), capable of making money, as well as conducting himself appropriately among all classes; economically and socially mobile, one version of the American Dream is in the palm of his hands.  He's just not sure the goal of life is to "pay bills and to pile up more money" and he wants to take the time to figure out what he wants his life to be about.

Referring to my screwball hymnal, Screwball Comedy:  A Genre of Madcap Romance, it makes reference to a 1938 article in Time Magazine that defined the chief problem of HOLIDAY as "The prospect of having too much money."  Although that is certainly a screwball dilemma to have, I'm not sure that's quite right (but I need to read the actual article before totally ripping that theory apart).

The thing is, Johnny seems fine with having money.  When he learns that his fiance is one of those Seton's he says that he wishes he'd known earlier because he'd have proposed to her in two days instead of ten, and he equates discovering her wealth as discovering she could play piano ("I'd be delighted, wouldn't I?").  Plus he's set to earn millions from a deal of his own construction, so he's definitely not anti-money, he's just wise enough to know it's not the end all be all.

And that is how Linda Seton comes to be the correct pairing for Johnny.  She knows the limitations of money, she's had it all her life.  She saw wealth go from a positive freeing thing when her Grandfather earned it, to becoming a limiting and constrictive thing when her father labored to preserve it.

If I haven't sucked all the fun out of it, you should watch this film at some point between Christmas and New Year's. It's a nice prompt by way of getting your priorities sorted out and re-established for the fresh batch of 365 days coming down the pike.  Also, thanks to the state of our world economy, the comedy and concerns of this film don't feel at all dated.

Screwball Checklist:

Comic anti-hero struggling to identify and/or earn the best, most appropriate partner?
Johnny isn't an anti-hero in that he is failing or flailing, he's an anti-hero in that he's rejecting the status quo.  He has the ability to be a full-speed ahead hero, but choses to be something different.  Better, actually.

Class conflict?
The film makes it very tempting to draw the lines of the conflict along lines of education.  Johnny has an academic couple as his best friends and a sort of moral center, and their presence keeps him from being absorbed by the two Seton's preoccupied with status and propriety.  It seems the class conflict here is really about values.  It feels like opportunities are fairly equal among this cast of characters, but each made different choices based on what they value in life.  Julia Seton and her father are classy people because of what they have, while Johnny, Linda Seton and Ned Seton and Johnny's academic friends are classy people because of what they do.

Urban setting?
NYC.  As per usual.  Though this one sticks nearly exclusively to the 5th Avenue Seton mansion, and the contrast between the grand museum-like rooms and the cozy childhood playroom.  

Value placed on child-like outlook?
See childhood playroom.  This is where true natures are revealed, and where the "Fifth Avenue Anti-Stuffed and Flying Trapeze Club" is formed.  'nuff said.

Art & Fart?
In this case, this is probably best put as High and Low Comedy because the lowest HOLIDAY goes is pratfalls.  It travels no where near anything farty.  Still, behavior is absolutely used to define classes.  In this cast there are characters who are playful, do acrobatics, play music, sing songs, and drink, and then there are those that don't.  Guess which batch are our heroes? 

Baseline dissatisfaction with the status-quo?
This is the core conflict of the movie.  Johnny Case, Linda Seton and Ned Seton see the opportunity money affords as sacred, they just don't worship the dollar.

Released: 1938
Writer: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman (based on a play by Philip Barry)
Director: George Cukor
Producer: Everett Riskin
Leads: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon, Lew Ayres, Doris Nolan, Henry Kolker
Genre:  Rom-Com, Screwball
Plot Summary and reviews of HOLIDAY @ Rotten Tomatoes