Marilyn Monroe and Rachmaninoff: Can Movies Sell Music?

Sex sells everything or so it seems.

My earliest recollection of any connection between sex and music was the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, with Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe. The former imagined seducing the latter when a combination of circumstances fueled his fantasy: a stale, seven-year-old marriage; his wife’s temporary absence; and the availability of Ms. Monroe, his smoldering new neighbor. Ewell’s plan was to use Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 to win her ardor. The scene above depicts his strategy.

Classical music in film usually isn’t intended to engender lust, although the cinematic hit 10,” starring Bo Derek (with Dudley Moore playing the Ewell-like role), gave it a try in 1980, with Ravel’s Bolero serving to keep the erotic pace. Various recordings of the piece dominated the pop and classical charts in the months following.

The use of such music raises the question of whether a movie featuring a classic opus can open the audience to classical scores beyond those pieces featured in the film. Favorites like Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey), Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Platoon), or Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Elvira Madigan) raised interest in the featured works, but not other selections from the oeuvres of those composers. In light of these failures, should a film be expected to convince a classical newbie to dive deeper into the world of symphonic music simply because of its connection with a single appealing piece?

Let’s start with the music attached to Ms. Monroe and Ms. Derek in the already mentioned films. Does any lonely soul watching Tom Ewell or Dudley Moore think he might achieve his romantic fantasy solely by his choice of CD while on a date? Surely no man with a recording of Bolero or Rachmaninoff playing in his living room regularly brings sex to the mind of women. Thus, a film’s featured sound track, if it is to cause anyone to listen after the cinema’s end, will have to stand on its own. Powerful men have an evolutionary/sexual advantage connected to the need of our female ancestors to find a protector and bread-winner. Contemporary males who listen to Bruckner give their dates no clue to those talents.

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Nor is film likely to create wide interest in classical music without a sexual connection to ladies like the two featured above. No boom in the record sales of Richard Strauss’s other compositions was created by Stanley Kubrik’s use of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Space Odyssey, nor did Mozart’s 600+ compositions fly off the store shelves because the slow movement from his Concerto #21 was featured in an art film hit.

Those who believe cinema might increase the classical audience should consider what must be overcome to do so. Music used in movies competes with dialogue, scenery, and plot for the viewer’s attention. By comparison, the standard concert hall symphonic fare offers no dialogue, no story, and the unremarkable sight of a group of sitting musicians — usually at a distance — fiddling, drumming, and blowing; all dressed in similar outfits.

Music at a concert is supposed to speak for itself, while a movie’s narrative line is intended to transcend the background audio. The implied message is that the score is secondary, designed only to create a mood. If the film tunes are being given second class status by the movie makers, why would anyone believe the rest of the composer’s works were worth their time?

Then there is the obstacle classical music confronts when it is heard by an audience of the uninitiated. The standard wisdom of the crowd is that classical music is “relaxing” at best, boring at worst. If they listen to something attractive on the film’s soundtrack, most may conclude the beauty or excitement is an anomaly, nothing like the standard classics they know or think they know. Surely this belief doesn’t spur the listeners to explore beyond a particular piece that, for them at least, is the exception proving the rule.

One more challenge stands in the way of the film-goer’s transformation from someone who doesn’t listen to many classics to one who does: effort. Anyone who wishes to learn to love the classics must put in a good deal of time. The Beethoven Symphony #5 takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 minutes no matter what. A Rodin sculpture, on the other hand, can be observed for whatever unit of time you wish to put into the examination. Concert promoters do what they can, but they cannot generate motivation or cut the score without mutilating the art.

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Don’t underestimate the effort required to become a convert to an unfamiliar art form, even in the case of visual art. Chicago’s grandly successful and much visited Millennium Park was expected to generate increased attendance at the nearby Art Institute when the former opened in 2004. The failure to achieve the expected bump in Art Institute admissions was “a puzzle” to the museum because the art repository was only one block from the new outdoor venue. Perhaps part of the answer then, is that movies are movies, paintings are paintings, and Bolero’s ability to attract an audience guarantees no crossover even to another of Ravel’s famous works, like La Valse. Those who go to a public park want a park experience, not one authored by Van Gogh. Those who visit a Chinese restaurant aren’t looking for pizza.

Presenters have added movie screen close-ups of the players to the concert experience, big screen painting reproductions to enhance performances of Pictures at an Exhibition, iPads to provide a technological jump from the old style paper medium of program booklets, and lectures before concerts to tell the audience what they might want to notice when the program starts. In the end, however, do these produce the “buy in” intended? Doesn’t the music live or die on its own merits?

Concert promoters have tried about everything to expand the audience for the classics, with questionable success. What can one say that hasn’t already been said? Two things:

  1. In the words of impresario Sol Hurok, “If people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them.”
  2. If you have a seven-year itch, try some talcum power.

Following the scene from The Seven Year Itch is a poster from the movie “10” featuring Bo Derek. The bottom image is the Crown Fountain (facing Michigan Avenue), part of Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Should a Therapist Give Advice?

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Most therapists avoid giving advice — most of the time. Even so, it is hard not to. Perhaps impossible, unless you are a 100% non-directive or psychoanalytic counselor.

Here is an example of the difficulty. When a profoundly depressed patient comes to you, you would be remiss not to suggest antidepressant medication. Not demand, but suggest.

Or, let’s say he consulted you for your expertise in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). You’d then evaluate him and work out a CBT treatment plan. A workbook of your choice might supplement your sessions together. This and the other details of the program are directive. They are advisory, even if not so stated.

The very “brand” of therapy you choose preempts the patient’s choice of treatment possibilities. Most people come to the first session without a flavor in mind. No practitioner could review all the strawberry, vanilla, and mango varieties for the new arrival. How do you describe a taste to someone who has never tasted? Such an education, taking as long as a semester of university classroom study, would still be inadequate. In actual practice, the shrink might instead discuss a few possible prescriptive approaches, but since the client is probably a therapy novice, he’d rely on the professional to suggest — advice again — which is best.

True, therapists usually don’t go so far as to say, “You must” or “You mustn’t” do that, unless facing a life or death issue. Even then, the phrasing would differ.

Once the goals and treatment approach are determined, therapy proceeds in something like the following way. The Therapist and Patient here are engaging in a Socratic dialogue within a session of cognitive-behavioral therapy:

P: I’m too scared to go to the party.

T: What will be the cost to you if you don’t?

P: I’ll be lonely, but at least I won’t get ignored or rejected.

T: Why do you think you won’t fit in?

P: Because that’s what always happens.

T: On every occasion? Can you remember any time it didn’t happen?

P: Yeah. One birthday celebration, someone came up to me and said he liked my hat. He asked me questions and we discovered we enjoyed the same music.

T: So, is it possible you wouldn’t be rejected or ignored?

P: Yes, but a long shot, for sure.

T: What do you think you’ll need to learn in order to make success more likely?

The conversation (much simplified above) would go on for a while, but a couple things have already been accomplished:

  • The patient has moved from his avoidance of social contact to the more hopeful project of learning something new.
  • Catastrophization has stopped (at least temporarily). P is thinking in a more nuanced fashion, admitting a small possibility of a good result.

What if, however, P gets stuck? Assume everything has been tried to reduce anxiety, yet the next step remains daunting. Say, he wishes to go on a date or a trip alone, but can’t budge. It now becomes hard for the therapist to refrain from encouraging the person to take a big risk.

Yet some guidance shouldn’t be offered by the therapist. Moreover, if offered, the patient should hesitate. Sometimes the advice of financial, legal, and career consultants, as well as therapists and friends, is suspect. All have less at stake than their advisee. For example, an investment professional might profit more from the portfolio of stocks or bonds he is endorsing than those he doesn’t tout. Brokers offering retirement suggestions, in particular, are not usually required to disclose conflicts of interest.

Human communities require trust to function. We approach all sorts of service providers with assumptions, from auto mechanics to massage therapists. A minimal level of unspoken confidence in others must exist for everyday social intercourse and commerce. The default standard for dealing with these unfamiliar people causes us to accept, without thinking, that the relationship has been arranged for our satisfaction. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “we carry (our) fool’s cap (unaware)” of the danger of a naïve attitude. Yet, to be ever-vigilant and suspicious leads of a life of perpetual anxiety and misery, questioning everything.

The counselor or friend laying out a pattern of advice is also in a dangerous spot. In a certain sense, if you push an unhappy buddy or your patient to dump his significant other, you own the suggestion you passed along. Should he come to regret propelling his girlfriend out the door, you are to blame. Worse yet, were the man in distress to ignore this direction and then report his idea back to the lover, the confidant might find himself out the door.

From a therapist’s perspective, P best “own” his therapy, his decisions, and his life. T makes this harder when he becomes like a parent and infantilizes the patient. One mothering mother in any life is usually enough.

Where disclosures of conflicting interests are not required, P is on his own in the jungle. We assume our lawyers, insurance salesmen, and doctors are always putting our well-being first. One counterexample occurs if a physician prescribes medication for which he is being paid by the manufacturer (drug company) to lecture other medical professionals about its advantages. Yikes!

An old Depression-era vaudeville routine demonstrates the downside when an adviser (in this example, a lawyer) acts on your alleged behalf. The sketch appears in the 1945 movie, Ziegfeld Follies. The two-man show is darkly humorous and all too representative of the risk when those at a safe distance push us into a safari to parts unknown.

As this skit amusingly demonstrates, we must always be careful with whom we deposit one of our most precious possessions: our trust.

Take my advice (oops) and watch, Pay the Two Dollars:

Pay the Two Dollars stars Victor Moore as the “little guy” and Edward Arnold as his lawyer.

The “Real” Frankenstein: How Abusers are Created

Frankenstein

This post is not about the movie you saw starring Boris Karloff or Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle. Somehow Hollywood made conventional monster movies from something very different and infinitely more touching.

Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel is the story of a man-created creature who is abandoned by his “parent” and is so badly treated by others that he becomes something that he himself hates: a murderer. It is also a tale nearly 200 years old that has a great many contemporary implications, but two in particular that came to my mind: will man and his science be our saviour or our destroyer? Will we manufacture our own death through scientific advances or control the secrets that have thus far led to both medical miracles and misery?

And I’ll add two more which are not a great leap from Shelly’s story: shall we keep destroying or polluting nature by chopping and digging and drilling and fouling the air, simultaneously making it less beautiful by the very act of trying to perfect our lives? Finally, will the increasing abandonment of the impoverished, eventually cause them to rise up in revolution (like Frankenstein’s monster) and create their own wanton destruction? If you wish, you can attach almost any of Shelley’s ideas to war, plastic surgery, the efforts to extend human life, global warming, the growing underclass, etc. All of these are wrapped in a ball of intolerance, ambition, and man’s ability to justify his worst behavior, all themes that are central to this work of art.

The creature is not even given the dignity of a name. His master — the man named Viktor Frankenstein who made him — cannot bear the sight of his own “child” (an eight-feet-tall male) of massive strength, great intellect, and astonishing agility, so the “monster” enters the world by himself, without yet understanding it or knowing how to speak.

He learns the terrible lessons that experience with mankind will teach him: that those who are different or ugly are ridiculed or physically attacked. That he alone in all the world has no playmate, soul mate, parent, or companion. And, without my giving away precisely how it happens, he does learn to read the loftiest books and speak eloquently, not the grunts of the character Karloff created for film in the 1930s (pictured below). Science has gone awry and the scientist Frankenstein has abandoned his creation, hoping he will just go away and be forgotten.

Frankenstein Karloff

But the monster is touched by the beauty of nature, the song of the birds, and the warmth of the people who inhabit a country home he comes to live nearby; especially moved by the human relationships he has not achieved himself. Further efforts to find a social place in the world fail utterly. The unfairness overwhelms him. The artificial man finally begins to resemble in personality what he looks like in physique and physiognomy. He does some terrible things out of frustration, unfairness, anger and imitating the mistreatment he regularly receives even when he tries to do good, like saving a young girl from drowning.

The man-monster tracks down his creator and attempts to make a bargain: create me a mate, someone as outcast as I am, so that at least the two of us can have a life with each other. If you don’t, I will track you wherever you go and make your life some version of the misery that is mine. Viktor Frankenstein has grave doubts about the wisdom of this arrangement and fears that two such creatures will do more destruction than the one he has already created. For the rest of the story, you will have to do the reading of this brief but compelling book (I read a free download from Amazon).

When does man’s ambition and arrogance take him too far? Human cloning? Weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction? Intolerance of those who are different, not just in looks but in habits, religion, and values? Why isn’t the beauty of nature enough? Why must we have more and do more and control more of the things that people used to give over to gods and goddesses?

In the end there are two monsters. The nameless one created by the hands and machinery of Viktor Frankenstein whose real malevolence was unleashed by the unkind world that had no place for him. The other, Viktor Frankenstein himself, who becomes appalled by the “thing” and so obsessed with what his creation had done to him and those he loved that he too seeks vengeance. And, in the end, we are sympathetic to both and touched by both. We have witnessed how abuse can produce abusers even among the most sensitive, high-minded, and intelligent among us. The abused are at risk of becoming the thing that they hate.

The monster knows that the evil he performed has not just been to others, but to the best in himself.

No sympathy (shall) I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to (participate in). But now the virtue has become to me a shadow and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair. (Where) should I seek for sympathy? I am content to suffer alone while my (life) shall endure; when I die I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, or enjoyment. Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honor and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation (in hell); I am alone.

For those who prefer movies, the National Theatre Live performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the lead roles can still be seen here and there in encore presentations. They are based on a two-hour adaptation of Shelley’s work by Nick Dear. I saw the one with Cumberbatch as the monster. I’m told the other one, where the main players switched roles, is equally good. Here is the site for these films, if you wish to act while they are still being shown: “http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/16546-frankenstein/”

What Memory Would You Take To Eternity?

After Life

If you could remember only one moment from your entire life, what would it be? Or, to put it differently, if eternity (heaven) consisted of reliving that single experience forever, what moment would you choose?

Before I reveal to you how I would answer that question, let me tell you about a movie that deals with this rather odd dilemma. It is a 13-year-old Japanese film called After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on their way to whatever is “beyond.” They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts to assist them with the choice.

To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to anything else, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with relinquishing all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with nothing else on their mind.

In effect, what the movie is indirectly asking us is to determine how we value things. That is, to decide what means the most to us; or, perhaps, what experience has been the most pleasant or exciting.

Much depends on when one is asked. I am quite certain that I would have chosen a different moment if I had to make the choice in my 20s rather than in my 60s. Not only do memories change (often losing intensity) as we revisit them, but their relative importance is altered as new ones are woven into the tapestry of our lives. In my 20s, I might have wished to relive the intense excitement of a personal athletic triumph, or winning an award, or a blissful sexual encounter. If you’d asked me in my teens, I might have chosen a particularly thrilling baseball game I’d attended. But, as I think about those kinds of things at some distance, I know I wouldn’t choose them today.

You might ask “why?” Well, I’ve seen lots of good ballgames and I probably care less about sports than I ever have at any time in my life, even though I still enjoy these as a spectator. Maybe, as a Chicago fan, I simply have seen too many defeats for one lifetime! But, spectator sports are more about someone else’s experience that you vicariously participate in, rather than your own. So if I were to choose one moment from my life to relive, it wouldn’t involve watching someone else perform. And, since my own athletic successes were quite modest, that category gets knocked off the list of potential winners in the area of “reliving.”

"The Dugout" by Norman Rockwell

“The Dugout” by Norman Rockwell

OK, what about sex? I knew you would ask. For most young men, I suspect that sex is the dominating preoccupation, at least until they lose their virginity. Then, assuming that they are able to have sexual relations with some frequency, it becomes a thing that fades as a singular focus. Yes, I know that there are people for whom it appears to be the only issue that matters. A pity. While it is an important part of life, I doubt that most people (even including men), as they cross over the threshold into heaven, would say, “Boy, if I could only get laid one more time!”

Nor do I think that I, personally, would like eternity to consist of the intensity of a continuous orgasm. I guess that what I’m getting at here is that the physically stirring nature of that experience isn’t any different (I suspect) from what a dog or a cat or a mountain lion feels in the moment of coitus. For eternity I’d choose something that involved every part of me, not just the physical part.

What else might I consider? Well, I met and interviewed my hero, Carlo Maria Giulini, when I was 31. Memorable, but not really a contender. I have heard lots of terrific musical performances and attended a few plays that had me spinning for days. Again, watching and listening, whether it is baseball or Brahms, aren’t as valuable as those endeavors that you do yourself. And while I had countless profound experiences in doing psychotherapy, I doubt that even a brain surgeon would take a single successful operation with him or her into a personalized version of heaven. Nor is there anything unique about such things, as a rule. No, I think the actions or experiences that you repeat probably don’t have the special meaning that is required for you to cherish them forever, above those that happened just once.

Well that narrows the focus, doesn’t it? The contenders for your afterlife usually have to consist of things that you participated in (not watched) and that happened only once. Let me tell you about three such instances that I think about from time to time.

My mother, Jeanette Stein, probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s

My mother, Jeanette Stein, probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s

In her 83rd year, my mother’s unhappy life was particularly difficult. Not only was she in great physical pain, but she’d lost my dad several months before. My visits with her had frequently and historically been unpleasant. She’d accumulated much anger in the course of her time on earth and those closest to her were often targeted. My weekly journey to see her was dutiful, but both of us knew that I didn’t perform the obligation out of a sense of joyous anticipation.

Mom was a very clever lady who could get under your skin with the speed and deftness of a chef at a Japanese steakhouse. Even though I had learned how to deflect her sharp-edged and pointed affronts, I did have to be on my toes or deaden myself to the jabs that could be expected. But, one Sunday, everything changed.

This woman, who had told me more than once that she prayed to her mother and my father to die as soon as possible, was in a particularly light mood. She didn’t seem to be in pain that day and was the funny, warm, joyous being I had not seen in decades. We laughed, we talked, we showed affection. It was a small miracle.

When I returned the next week, things were back to “business as usual.” And one week later, she was unconscious when I arrived and dead within days. But that Sunday two weeks before her demise was a gift. When I think back, it is with a mixture of happiness and a tear or two. I got to see, for a brief moment, the best of my mother just before the close. And, I got to be with a woman I loved — briefly, finally, free of pain — the emotional and physical pain that was her nearly constant companion for much of her life.

The second contender for the memory I’d take to eternity will be no surprise to the parents among you. Like many dads, I was in the operating room with my wife at the birth of our first child. It had been a labor that started at about 1:00 in the morning and ended at 9:34 in the evening. Like any good husband, I held my wife’s hand, coached her on the breathing exercises we’d learned to minimize her pain, and urged her to “push” when the MD so instructed. And, when our first-born finally emerged, it was another small miracle. The emotional experience involved love, exhaustion, amazement, gratitude — the kind of mixture that is impossible to imagine, reproduce, or describe.

The Kiss

Only one more memory then, dear reader. This is one that has grown on me over the years. I had the good luck as a young man to kiss a sufficient number of attractive women to know that some were good kissers and some not so good. Some of those kisses by those kissers were enthusiastic, some indifferent, some creative, some passionate, and some loving. Some of those osculations by those osculators were ravenous, some languorous, some long, some short, some almost painful. But the one that I think about every week is the first time I kissed my wife Aleta. It was on the steps of her mother’s house, where Aleta lived, ending our first-ever date. It is doubtless colored by the life we’ve had together, our still growing love, our children, our ups and downs. But it was also memorable even at that time, without the accumulated experiences of more than 40 years since. It warms me and reminds me of how lucky I am to have met and married the best and most beautiful person I have ever known.

Well, by now you realize that the choice was really not a choice at all. It is the memory of that kiss that I’d take to eternity. That would be a heaven worth waiting for. But — lucky me — I get to relive some version of the moment every day.

The last image is a detail from Klimt’s The Kiss.

Permission to Speak: Dealing With Difficult Subjects

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There are things about which it is difficult to speak. Hurt feelings, loss, and embarrassment can fall into that category. We are afraid to be misunderstood. We are afraid that disapproval will follow. And so, too often, there is silence.

The person who knows just a bit about our circumstances might also hesitate. Perhaps she doesn’t want to embarrass us either. Perhaps she expects that we will give a signal, convey the need to speak if that is what we want. Perhaps it is thought to be all too personal, too painful, too uncomfortable.

Or maybe it is simply that with more knowledge of another’s pain there also comes unwanted responsibility to ameliorate it. And so, too often, there is silence.

Sometimes what is lacking is a sense of permission. That the other is open to opening a wound, showing a scar. That the other is not too squeamish, won’t be offended, won’t judge. That it won’t be a burden or an imposition. That there is time.

It is all very fragile. As if two people were trying to move as close as they can to each other without touching; fearing that to touch — to go too close — would somehow spoil it. It is between two and about “too.” Two people hesitating at the possibility of being “too” close. As James Baldwin said, it is the mistrust of contact that

…takes off the masks we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

The ingredients for this delicate amalgamation can be named. The hope that the other will not be callous, belief that you will not be injured, need for consolation. And, naturally, something that caused the damage in the first place is also a required part of the equation. The thing about which words must be said. It is usually easier if that injury — that thing — came from the outside, not the person opposite you.

The 2011 movie,  Monsieur Lazhar, deals with just such a situation and the need to speak about it. Even more fragile and necessary because children are involved.

It is set in French Canada, where a class of 11 and 12-year-old students have suffered the loss of their teacher. A substitute is chosen, an Algerian immigrant named Bachir Lazhar.

The school doesn’t know quite how to handle things. The children’s room is painted a new color, the better to help them get over the loss; the better to distract them from their instructor’s death. A school psychologist meets with the kids in a group. The class does well academically, and yet…

There are signs of trouble. One boy remains aggressive. One girl who is not the object of his aggression is particularly angry with that boy. One student transfers out. Parents are bewildered. Something needs to be said, but no one senses the permission to say it. No one wishes to rock the boat since, on the surface, things seem back to “normal.”

Physical contact between teachers and students is verboten under the school rules, for fear that it will go too far. Thus, the setting lacks the comfort of both understanding speech and human touch. And so, too often, there is silence. What will Monsieur Lazhar, a man with his own pressing demons, do?

The movie is quiet and quite moving. It is sustained by an understated, gentle, hopeful possibility. The atmosphere is suspended. There is space for something to happen, something good that will help the healing. Courage is required on all sides.

If you are used to films about exteriors, you will be disappointed. This one is about interiors, what goes on inside of us and in the space between children and adults when the adults are as hesitant and injured as the children. If you need car chases and special effects and sex, it is not a picture for you. Monsieur Lazhar is a movie about children, but for adults. The English subtitles of this French language film are easy to follow.

If you are a survivor of loss (and who among us is not), there is something here for you. Not everything needs to be said. Sometimes a look or a touch is enough. But not everything just goes away without human consolation in the form of words.

We need to give ourselves and others the permission to speak. Otherwise there is emptiness, missed opportunity.

And so, too often, there is silence.

Opportunism and Its Consequences: “Sunset Boulevard”

Swanson-Holden

Being a has-been can’t be much fun. They are like ghosts of their former selves; and worst of all when they do not know that their day is already done, that the time has come when the shade will not (once again) see the sun.

Those people who are identified by the adjective “former” risk the dissatisfaction that comes with knowing you are no longer who you once were. It is easy to sympathize if someone is out of a job necessary to make a living. But what of the CEO, musician, ballplayer, or actor with tons of money but nowhere to go when the new work week comes, no crowd of fawning acolytes to sing his praises?

The world usually has a short memory for such people, as can be seen in the classic 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, 16th on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest American Movies. It was directed (and co-written) by Billy Wilder, and stars William Holden as Joe Gillis and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Upon meeting Desmond, Joe, a failing screenwriter says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!” She answers back, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And, indeed, fifty-year-old Gloria Swanson was a very real relic of the silent screen, here portraying a rich, overdressed, out-of-date, ex-femme fatale who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion as faded as her movie career.

The world has mostly forgotten Norma, but she has not forgotten the world. She is one of those people we read about on the Internet, in features like “Whatever happened to…?” And then we see that so-and-so is now well-worn and largely out of the public eye and we say to ourselves, “Gee, I thought she was dead.”

The movie provides an answer to the question, “What would you do to get your dream.” Maybe your dream is an estate with a swimming pool, maybe it is becoming a star again, maybe it is directing a movie.

The movie gives us some answers. Joe Gillis is willing to become the sexual plaything of a sad, deranged, controlling woman (Desmond) who is 20 years his senior; and prostitute his writing skills as a ghost-writer for her irredeemable script, one that she expects to be the vehicle for her return to the movie screen. Of all things, it is based on Salome, the biblical tale of a sex-crazed girl in her early teens who becomes obsessed with John the Baptist, to the point of kissing his decapitated head. It seems never to occur to Norma that, at age 50, she is at least 30 years too old for the role; or that she has found her obsession in the writer Joe Gillis and, even more, in her comeback.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Not the exaggerated quality of her face and body, suggesting both a silent film style, but also her unhinged mental state.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Note the exaggerated quality of her facial expression and gesture, suggesting both a silent film acting style and her unhinged mental state.

For his part, Joe Gillis is also desperate, but unlike Norma he is out of money and on the way out of Hollywood when he accidentally meets her. The movie community’s dismissal of the former star is similar to its indifference to Gillis’s own modest accomplishments. We meet other silent film greats now on the movie world’s discard pile, not coincidentally playing cards with Norma. And they are portrayed by real, but forgotten leading men (Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner) and an ex-leading lady (Anna Q. Nillson). Nor should I overlook Erich von Stroheim, once a famous director in real life, who is cast as Norma’s butler.

None of this is coincidental, as Billy Wilder apparently wished to make a movie about the cruelty of the flesh-market that is the motion picture industry, a place where the question “What have you done for me lately?” is the only one of importance regardless of what you might have accomplished in the past. Narcissism and opportunism are the watchwords for nearly every significant Hollywood character in the movie: self-involved people using people, just as Norma and Joe use each other.

There is much irony in this film, as when Joe Gillis says, “Funny how gentle people are with you when you’re dead,” by way of comparing that kindness to their treatment of you in Hollywood when you are alive. And then there is the movie’s title, Sunset Boulevard, referring to the street on which the mansion is located and the sunset of the careers of Norma and Joe.

Joe Gillis knows what he has become, but can’t free himself from his attachment to the fine things that Norma’s money will buy him, even if it requires the surrender of his independence and self-respect. He has become the consort of a ghost and her ghost-writer, both; a woman who dresses like Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, in a theatrical style as antiquated as the mansion she lives in and the overly dramatic way that she performs. As an actress she is a throw-back to something that literally went out when talking pictures came in and spoken words replaced, in part, facial expression and bodily movements that previously had been the only means of communicating. She remains stylized and “over the top,” despite the movie industry’s long-completed transition to a more natural way of acting.

This great picture is almost horror movie-like in its portrayal of Norma Desmond’s ultimate descent into madness — from trying to recapture the past to actually living in it — all in a house haunted by memories and photos of her former fame. It is also a film noir in the bleakness (however entertaining it is) of its vision of this segment of the human race. It is a morality tale too, a social commentary that extends beyond the movie industry to the mirror we might hold to our faces and ask, “What have I done to get what I’ve got; and what am I willing to do to get more and to keep it?” Dog-eat-dog behavior is not the exclusive property of a film studio.

The ultimate irony of this video production can be found in its stunning last scene, which I won’t give away here. I will only say that each of the main characters obtains some version of what he has been seeking, even though none of them can be thought of as fortunate in having obtained it.

Two famous quotes come to mind, one from the New Testament: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

The second is one of my favorite all-around quotes, by the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.” As I said, they all get something (Norma, Joe, and the butler), but not quite in the form that they expected it.

A Frame or Production Still Photo of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 Movie "Don’t Change Your Husbanda frame or production still of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 movie "Don’t Change Your Husband"

A frame or production still photo of Gloria Swanson from the 1919 movie “Don’t Change Your Husband.”

The top image is a studio publicity still from Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson and William Holden are featured in this photo, downloaded by Dr. Macro. The second picture comes from the movie itself; again Gloria Swanson is shown, as downloaded by hd-trailers.net/ All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Have a Little Faith in People:” Therapy and Love in the New Year

manhattan

The beginning of the New Year is one of those moments when love-past and love-future stand back-to-back. I suppose they always do, but rarely do we so literally turn the page, see the annual number change, and acknowledge our movement across time. The advancing calendar makes our heart’s progress (or lack of progress) harder to ignore than usual.

If you had a relationship-past that is better than your present, there is a chance that the New Year will remind you of those times when there was love and enchantment in your life; when bygone people who meant everything to you also believed that you meant everything to them. The New Year in that case offers another chance, hoping to recapture what was lost or trying to achieve the thing that has been so elusive.

The subject of love — the lost and found quality of it — is at the heart of Woody Allen’s 1979 movie Manhattan; much more a romance than a comedy, for all its good humor. You may not think of Woody Allen as someone who specializes in tenderness, but Manhattan certainly does.

Mariel Hemingway plays “Tracy,” a young woman in a May-December romance. She is soon to find that her openness to love leaves her as vulnerable as if she were in surgery. Perhaps she is also too young to know that the operating theater of romance always involves the potential for heartbreak as well as the hope that finally — finally — someone will see all the good inside of us and cherish it without conditions. That their eyes will brighten on our arrival, and that even our scent on a just-worn garment will warm the frozen sea within. Love is compensation for the lacerations of living, but also the cause of those same cumulative cuts.

If the New Year’s dawn is spent in the company of someone who is constant and caring, it is easy to feel intoxicated even without champagne. But if we are alone on New Year’s Eve, the back-to-back character of the old year turning new forces us to look both ways. In one direction is the receding memory of ended romance and present loneliness, while the tightrope of hope beckons in the other direction — the hope that relationships yet unknown are just up ahead; if only we can keep our balance and brave the journey from here to there.

That dream confronts the darker aspect of our memory. All of us have been betrayed or rejected by lovers. The surgical scars bear witness. As Sartre said in No Exit, “Hell is other people,” but so is heaven, at least as we imagine it. Still, it is easy to give up.

The line I love the best in Manhattan comes in its closing moments: “You have to have a little faith in people.” For those who have been repeatedly hurt, this is asking terribly much. Yet the first job of the lovelorn is to keep alive the faltering flame of future possibilities. A therapist can be of help in this.

It is faith in what another person might be able to do that ultimately brings the lonely to therapy and keeps them in the game of love, doing the hard work that treatment involves; dreaming finally to come out whole; and trying once more to find a lasting romance.

With or without therapy our job is the same, this New Year and every year: To have enough faith in people to keep searching; and, once the right one is found, to hold tight.