The Quintessential Hitchcock Film

 

So chic

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint

North By Northwest was filmed in 1959 but has a familiar, thematic ring unmistakably reminiscent of The 39 Steps, made twenty-four years earlier. First, North By Northwest is about buildings and architecture. By this time, Hitchcock was fascinated with them: their beamed foundations; cross-hatched construction; shining, lofty glass windows and artistic integrity. He utilizes some of the most famous buildings in New York City as well as the statuesque faces of Mount Rushmore and a phenomenal Frank Lloyd Wright house.

After buildings and trains, the movie is about advertising executive, Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant. He plays the archetypal ad guy: slick, the gray suit, polished, handsome, smart wry-humor, confident, plenty of cash on hand. The movie begins as did The 39 Steps, and many other Hitchcock thrillers, when our hero’s life is flowing at its usual every day pace but is suddenly interrupted by chaos. Roger Thornhill is rushing off the elevator of an imposing, downtown building delegating orders to his secretary, who must follow him out to the street taking notes. With the way these street scenes are filmed, there is the sensation of all movement taking place on conveyor belts.

Thornhill’s life is so robust and his calendar so full of client-meetings that his secretary must ride with him in a cab in order to scribble it all down as he dictates. Cary Grant hops from elevators to sidewalk curbs to the glistening marble halls of the Ambassador Hotel like a sleek gazelle and then glides into the bar for a martini with his somewhat dazzled clients. Then, by a sheer case of mistaken identity, two glorified thugs whisk Thornhill off to the sprawling, remote neighborhood of a country mansion.

The lurking captors, like pompous vultures, make homicidal threats. And just as Hanay in The 39 Steps, the innocent Thornhill has been spirited away into the underworld of espionage and murder. Thornhill’s captors, for all of their snobbish arrogance, (James Mason Plays an exceedingly articulate Phillip Vandamm), seem rather dim-witted at figuring out a way to keep their hostage subdued. They force a bottle of brandy down his throat to render him useless; but, they underestimate Thornhill’s threshold for liquor. He is definitely smashed – lolling his head around and singing out of key, but he is an advertising guy, and ad guys can drink! Soon Thornhill manages to thwart his captors, but now, like Hanay, he must solve his own case. He enlists his mother for a while. A well-heeled, attractive, middle-aged bridge-player played by Jessie Royce Landis, (who was really too young to actually be his mother); she is the essence of sarcasm and incredulity: being an experienced woman, she does not trust her son, but she keeps him amused.

Then there is the beautiful blond on the train, just as in The 39 Steps, but this blond, played by Eva Marie Saint, appears to be much more helpful! She is mostly well equipped for some very steamy scenes, 1950’s style, in the train compartment, as well as conducting our Thornhill onto a Greyhound bus and out to the flat, Midwestern boonies, where, at a crossroads, Thornhill stands alone and waits for the famous airplane, chase-scenes. The dry, brown American landscape is nothing like the Scottish highlands: and this alone seems to render his plight more harsh. Hitchcock somehow understood the good and the bad of our country: revering 20th century progress and the great, gleaming architecture of downtown Manhattan and the gifted architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright; yet, while at the same time, pointing out the prosaic and the petty-mindedness that is stitched into the fabric of our relatively young culture.

The director was also acutely aware of the strict controls that society wants to place on us, and of the ordinary citizens who will eagerly volunteer for the cause of entrapping an innocent man, as in Thornhill’s Grand Central Station getaway, where police guards stand peering through the crowds for the killer, and a ticket taker who keeps a photograph of Thornhill near the bars of his station ready to be the one to identify him. Or when Thornhill pops up once again to meet his killers at a silent auction and the well-dressed elite turn up their noses, one woman archly calling him “an idiot”, and an auction attendant who, with pursed lips, quietly phones the police.

The film’s pace is magnified throughout by the fantastic, sonorous base and viola symphony music of Bernard Herman. The music is on the same grand scale as the architecture, including the Wright house in which high-angle, camera shots bring the suave Grant down through the stylish, textured surfaces to yet another escape.

Hitchcock had a keen sensibility for the spy and counter-spy machinations of the cold war era. He puts particular emphasis upon the role of Washington in those high-stakes international, political games. And with a clean swipe, the director suggests that the White House and “the U.S. Intelligence Agency” are covertly involved in all of this. Yet, the faces of the presidents in the Mount Rushmore Monument seem to look worried, austere as well as enthralled at what is going on after their time.

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The Fellowship of Animals

The classic children’s book, Wind in the Willows, was published in 1908 and originally began as an antipodal exchange of short stories. The author, Kenneth Grahame, was a banker by trade who worked in the city during the week and would write letters home to his young son, affectionately called, “Mouse”. These letters were actually continuing stories about animal characters who lived by the river Thames and had adventures on the river and in the English countryside, presumably in such places as Wiltshire and The Berkshire Downs, as well as in the forest.

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Grahame describes generously, often poetically, the details in nature from a personified animal’s point of view, their adventures on the wide uplands and streams, along the river’s tributaries, bubbling brooks, runnels and little culverts. The animals, especially the Water Rat, have great escapades and picnics throughout these ebullient pools and backwaters. They go deep into the forest, too, and visit caves and underground tunnels that have been made into grand or quaint abodes, as with the Badger’s catacomb mansion underground and the Mole’s simple hideaway that he nevertheless calls home.

Ratty, the Water Rat, the wise, good-humored, avuncular animal in the story might be considered the main character, and yet, little Mole, who is naïve, impetuous, curious and childish, holds the center-stage, (that is at least when Mr. Toad is not hogging the limelight with his wild exploits). Mole starts out essentially blind to the world outdoors. Indeed, it seems as if Mole is born as the story of his adventure begins. As if in an underground liminal zone, he has been living for years doing nothing but scratching around for provisions and whitewashing his lair in the spring. His eyes are suddenly opened; he hears the birds singing for the first time, and when he reaches the river, he stops spell-bound… Mole has never seen the river before. Here, Grahame describes with Wordsworthian celebration, the spring that Mole wakes up to:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lovely little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing….
He sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him a babbling procession of the best stories in the world. Sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

When Ratty and Mole meet, they become fast-friends whose friendship grows and develops as that of a blossoming, childhood friendship. Yet these characters are not so much like children as they are like people that children can relate to and learn from. Certainly, the story is a classic that can absolutely be enjoyed by both adults and children. Ratty and Mole perform great adventures on the river, including a very funny scene in which Mole impatiently tries to take the oars from Ratty. They have picnics and meet many other animals who live by the river. There is an intricate system of social order and yet a warm comradeship among the various animals. Most of them are rather sophisticated, especially Ratty’s closest chums; they speak in an elevated English, and wear stylish outfits. Ratty, however, is more wise than most, and often circumspect or patient when the other animals are not as poetic or naturally insightful: as if the Water Rat were worldly-wise, though he lives only by the river in the English countryside. Still, each animal has the gift of natural instincts, much like that of humans, but the natural, more super-instincts, that inter-communication of animals – of sensing when they are close to home or when some danger is afoot. Indeed, Grahame humanizes the animals with great charm:

“Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!”
“Oh, Badger,” cried the rat, “let us in, please. It’s me, Rat, and my friend Mole, and we’ve lost our way in the snow.”
“What, Ratty, my dear little man!” exclaimed the Badger, in quite a different voice. “Come along in, both of you, at once. Why, you must be perished. Well I never! Lost in the snow! And in the Wild Wood, too, and at this time of night! But come in with you.”

In and among this milieu of sodality and amidst these various expeditions with a handful of close friends, Ratty and Mole maintain the closest bond. Theirs has become a cultivated friendship. They have had their little adventures, their strolls far-afield, for example, where they mingle with humans in society: paying a porter at the train station, lodging a complaint to the police… where, in the evening, they see people sitting by the fireside through their living-room windows along a cobbled sidewalk in the village. Ratty and Mole’s relationship has endured the perils of lovable, capricious, reckless Mr. Toad. Mole is going through some changes. He is growing as an individual and as a mole.

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As for Toad, he learns a few of life’s lessons, for sure, despite his insanely impulsive craving for cars and boats, or anything with a motor. Toad experiences the revelation of hope even at his lowest point, in jail, when the goaler’s daughter brings in a hot, fragrant meal. The aroma fills up his cell, and suddenly his old aspirations and dreams return and he sees a solution to his problems – scolding himself for becoming so morose, thus, hope springs eternal, might be Toad’s credo, even in the face of his shortcomings. He has a long conversation with the gaoler’s daughter, which is a more intimate example among Grahame’s portrayals of an encounter between an animal and a human. Still, Toad is possessed by a perpetual wild hair combined with his compulsive lying. Promising the train driver, for instance, he’ll wash the driver’s shirts in exchange for a ride home, knowing full well he won’t send them back, yet passionately believing he will wash the man’s shirts and send them on, once he returns to Toad Hall.

Whether or not Toad changes and matures for good: this is only implied at by the restraint he shows in front of his friends by not indulging in self-centered speech-making and hogging the limelight at the Toad Hall party. But we the audience perceive how capricious Toad can be. He’s tricky and holds his cards close to his chest. Therefore, only the author really knows if Mr. Toad has actually changed.

Ratty has remained throughout: wise, clever, sociable, yet circumspect, good-humored and adventuresome; perhaps Ratty has become more so, in every quality. The other characters are not as delved into; they are who they are. However, Mole has changed as a central character. He has transformed from a naive, myopic little animal living in a narrow hovel underground into a more knowledgeable; indeed, wise; well-traveled (albeit of the English countryside, villages and forests); more experienced and sociable mole who has learned true comradeship and has in fact performed brave, heroic and kind deeds since he left his lair and unwittingly enrolled in the apprenticeship of the Water Rat. Even Badger gives his nod of approval by calling Mole, “clever Mole” and “good Mole,” tributes that Toad jealously covets from anyone, but especially from practical, austere, fatherly Badger.

When choosing your copy of Wind in the Willows, any book will do as long as it contains all twelve chapters. I found one large, hardbound version with the most beautiful illustrations that I’ve ever seen for this book, however, it was missing chapters. Oddly, the chapters that were left out happened to be some of the most magical, mythical and mysterious chapters of the entire story, such as: Piper at the Break of Dawn, Wayfarers All and the unedited The Return of Ulysses. To have these chapters is to enjoy the full enchantment of Grahame’s genius.

“The Rich Boy,” a Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Out of his collections of short stories, The Rich Boy (1926) is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best pieces. Today the tale might be called a short novella; it has also been deemed a psychological study of the advantaged. It is the story of a young man born into wealth and how he responds to love, relationships and issues of money and status within his upper-class, Fifth Avenue inner-circle.

Fitzgerald begins by depicting rich people almost as if they are a separate race – “they are different,” the narrator explains:

“They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are… Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.”

Fitzgerald made the art of characterization seem easy. He molds his characters quickly as if with a painter’s brush, so that I feel I know them perfectly. Their gestures, body-language and thought-processes flow smoothly from the palette, yet his people are not boring stereotypes. Indeed, Fitzgerald himself had this to say about characterization:

“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves.

 

Fitzgerald was among the writers and artists of the "Jazz Age," a term he invented himself.

Fitzgerald was among the writers and artists of the “Jazz Age,” a term he invented himself.

 
Fitzgerald was devoted to Zelda, though they had a distressing relationship.

Fitzgerald was devoted to Zelda, though they had a distressing relationship.

 

The main character in The Rich Boy, Anson Hunter, grows up having an English governess so that he and his siblings learn a certain way of speaking that resembles an English accent and is preeminent to middle and even upper-class American children. Thus, the people around him know he is superior – they know he is rich by just looking at him.

The tension of the story begins right away – with his fitful love for Paula, and an iffy engagement, tinged with the kind of alcoholism that deviously thwarts everything in sight. Anson is a man who lives in separate worlds during the glittering, glamorous, roaring 20’s, when everything seems impossibly affordable – big houses, flashy cars, Ritzy nights on the town. Yet, his stories take a turn, just as the Stock Market did at the dawn of the 1930s. Fitzgerald’s settings are bewitching. Today some of the vernacular might sound old fashioned, yet, the efficient punch of its delivery stands as a first-rate testament to the writer’s craft!

Everything about Anson creates tension. Even his wealth and his absolute capability cause apprehension. Then there is the awful hold that alcohol has on him and the maddening indecision it creates between Anson and a real commitment to Paula – or any woman. Finally, the way Anson goes about counseling all of the couples in his “circle” yet cannot maintain a lasting relationship of his own. This compulsive-will to verify himself as a moral, respectable, mature man of New York society by patching up difficulties in other marriages proves to be an irreparable flaw in Anson’s character. The conflict builds up to a sad denouement when Anson begins dutifully setting about putting an end to the illicit affair of his uncle’s wife, Edna. And when his machinations turn out badly, Anson takes no responsibility for the tragedy.

 
Ernest Hemingway wrote about his friendship with "Scott" in A Movable Feast, set in Paris.

Ernest Hemingway wrote about his friendship with “Scott” in, A Moveable Feast, set in Paris.

 

I want to like Anson even as I realize that underneath all of his glamour and devotion to high society and tradition of family posterity, he is really suffering inside with alcoholism. This handicap, or tragic flaw, gains my sympathy. However, Anson’s ultimate indecision in regards to commitment and real love, his hyper-vigilant need to interfere in the affairs of others, begins to strike me as infuriating – and of course, this very lapse in character adds to the tension of the story.

Fitzgerald’s propensity for describing a bar-scene at the Yale Club or the Plaza Hotel became thematic to his tales and, upon further reading, takes on a recurring vignette from one tale to the next. Yet, I find myself lapping up these settings that involve stylish bars and hotels, because they are so well articulated, from the clever dialogue at the bar with a bartender or drinking-companion, to the colorful yet moody renderings, to the inevitable infatuation with glamorous women and the way these motifs affect Fitzgerald’s heroes.

I think of Hemingway’s, A Moveable Feast, throughout Fitzgerald’s short story; because, in Hemingway’s novel he describes Fitzgerald’s terrible weakness for alcohol. I also think of, The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham, perhaps because of its detached yet familial narrative style.

Fitzgerald, in a style all his own, offers shocks of unexpected sensitivity and wisdom, which seem somehow surprising. I almost worship the writer’s vocabulary and his way of forming a phrase, such as – “rapt holy intensity” when describing the lovers. Or Anson and Paula’s “emasculated humor:” I found this such an apt way of describing the initial repartee that occurs between two people who are falling in love inside their own profound, yet rather childish, bubble.

“Nevertheless, they fell in love – and on her terms. He no longer joined the twilight gathering at the De Soto bar, and whenever they were seen together they were engaged in a long, serious dialogue, which must have gone on several weeks. Long afterward he told me that it was not about anything in particular but was composed on both sides of immature and even meaningless statements…”

 

The writer pictured in Hollywood not long before his death at the age of forty-four.

The writer pictured in Hollywood not long before his death at the age of forty-four.

Fitzgerald was contracted to write screenplays for Hollywood at two separate stages of his career, though he contemptuously viewed it as “whoring.” The author inserts himself briefly, however lightly-concealed, into Anson’s life:

 

“…one (friend) was in Hollywood writing continuities for pictures that Anson went faithfully to see.”

Thus the interweaving of fiction and autobiography! The glamour and infamous history of the writer himself affects the impact of his tales; yet, whether a reader knows about the writer’s life or not, Fitzgerald’s works are treasures!

 

 

Christmas Stories

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Everyman’s Pocket Classics

Christmas tales are meant to cheer us and to help usher in the Christmas spirit; yet, every favorite tale embodies a degree of struggle, an element of danger or some darkness that must be gotten through. There may be magic and wonder leading up to the final, satisfying denouement of Christmas morning – upon waking to find everything wished for sitting under the starry lights of the Christmas tree, but the waiting is always prolonged.
Most of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket anthology follow this pattern distinctively, in 20 different ways. From Charles Dickens to Richard Ford the inveterate Christmas struggle is traced.

Dickens and Early Russian Writers

The anthology begins with a Dickens tale called The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton (from The Pickwick Papers). Charles Dickens was only 25 when he wrote this playful tale, and the ironic humor that we have come to love in just about every Dickens story is delightfully fresh in this selection from his first novel. It is a Christmas Eve ghost story amidst a nighttime landscape of snow and stars and a bad-tempered old grave digger named Gabriel Grubb. A bit like A Christmas Carol, Grubb is visited, in this case, by a fantastical goblin king and his goblin courtiers. They sing terrifying ghostly songs to Gabriel Grubb and, rather violently, teach him a lesson about life and his disagreeable attitude toward other people. Dickens, the eternal humanitarian, makes a case for women as being the most compassionate of the human race.

He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore in their own hearts an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotedness.

Of the Russian writers in the anthology, Nikolai Gogol is most similar to Dickens, yet Gogol’s devils and witches of Christmas Eve are finally conquered by the, mostly benevolent, characters of a snowy village near St. Petersburg in The Night Before Christmas. This is a famous Russian fairy tale about a gifted painter and blacksmith who paints frescoes of the saints on the church walls and who is therefore most sought after by the devil. This devil, whose lover is a witch, steels the moon on Christmas Eve and tempts the best, god-loving people of the village. Another delightful, fantastical tale!
Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is and Anton Chekhov’s Vanka are both heart-warming stories that evoke questions of morality, spirituality and the love of God and people.

Vladimir Nabokov’s more modern narrative reflects an elegant mastery of story-telling with a unique, stream-of-consciousness style in the beautiful yet tragic story titled, Christmas.

The night was smoke-blue and moonlit; thin clouds were scattered about the sky but did not touch the delicate, icy moon. The trees, masses of gray frost, cast dark shadows on the drifts, which scintillated here and there with metallic sparks.

The three Russian writers are similar to Dickens in their sympathy toward humankind; they are quite clear about the virtues of compassion. In the modern tales, however, the narrative of compassion and human mercy is more implicit.

British Writers Apart from Dickens

When it comes to expert story-writing, leave it to the British. And when it comes to writing a great detective yarn, leave it to Arthur Conan Doyle to tell an amusing Sherlock Holmes story. The investigation in The Blue Carbuncle takes place in the bustling streets of London, in Covent Garden Market, two days after Christmas. Holmes is just as we like him: clever, articulate, circumspect, and yes – merciful.

Anthony Trollope’s whimsical Christmas at Thompson Hall mixes suspense with a smattering of cheeky humor. His name, Trollope, like his writing style, gallops or trots along and is as ever: impeccably English. And Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant Bella Fleace Gave A Party takes place in Ireland, outside Dublin in the Market town of Ballingar where a wealthy, eccentric lady decides to divert death and instead throw a party. The story is expertly written, detailed and surprisingly ironic. Elizabeth Bowen, who always wrote a flawless tale, is somewhat dated in Green Holly, yet the witty cadence makes this bizarre ghost story worth the read. And Muriel Spark whisks the reader along in Christmas Fugue. It is a romantic tale, a travel piece, in which the main character, Cynthia at twenty-four is suspended in a kind of limbo or liminal zone up high in the air on a passenger jet. Questions of belief… in Christmas, in the start of a new life, in a love affair and in reality itself are raised in an unforeseen way.

American Writers

Willa Cather, a favorite American poet and novelist, had a beautiful way of drawing in the reader and maneuvering the plot. The Burglar’s Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve in Chicago. Reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, juxtapositions of excitement vs. safety, and poverty vs. success, drive this touching story along, together with the prevailing theme of motherhood and mother-son relationship.

John Cheever’s excellent Christmas is a Sad Time For the Poor examines the benevolence of people in a New York City high-rise apartment-building one day out of the year when these sophisticates have the chance to give. And Truman Capote’s now famous A Christmas Memory is the striking memoir about a seven-year-old boy and his elderly cousin. Capote’s style is compelling from the first sentence:

Imagine a morning in late November.

This poignant tale is a must-read at Christmastime.

John Updike’s evocative The Carol Sing takes us through a melancholy surveillance of the cycles of life, death and seasonal holidays in highly intelligent, sharply witty prose.

Strange people look ugly only for a while, until you begin to fill in those tufty monkey features with a little history and stop seeing their faces and start seeing their lives.

Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice is about a Jewish schoolgirl, Shirley, who has the most resonant voice in a Christmas play. Her family and the Jewish families in her neighborhood struggle to accept their children being in a Christian play. Shirley, representing the only first-generation American in her family, is open-minded, curious, helpful and resoundingly confident.

Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winner, Richard Ford depicts a divided American family mired deeply in issues. In Creche, the main character, Faith, a successful L.A. attorney, narrates the story amidst growing resentments, threats and dangers. Yet, by Christmas Eve, the snow still glistens over everything and the children are tucked away safely in their beds. Ford holds our interest and sustains a measure of hope with his buoyant prose, as when Faith goes for a solo, nighttime ski-run:

Here the snow virtually hums to her sliding strokes. A full moon rides behind filigree clouds as she strides forward in the near-darkness of crusted woods.

Canada

Nobel Prize winning, Canadian author, Alice Monro’s gamey tale is a bold and effective portrait of human nature. The Turkey Season describes the acute observations of a fourteen-year-old girl who is surrounded by small town people who tend to be decidedly small-minded and cruel. Still, Christmas appears to win in the end.

These stories represent a fine collection of esteemed writers. I have not mentioned all of the stories here, some of them are simply short and sweet, but for a good measure of the Christmas spirit and a reminder of what it is to have a sympathetic heart, all of them are worth reading.

The Bog Girl

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Karen Russell, Author of “The Bog Girl”

The celebrated novelist, Karen Russell, of Swamplandia! fame, has also written a similarly swampy, short story, The Bog Girl, which was published in the June 20th issue of The New Yorker. It is the kind of story one would expect to read in The New Yorker: eloquent, articulate… even high-brow. Russell is fluent in the art of providing a comfort zone for the reader with everyday, likable characters and familiar yet vibrant, pulsating settings, then soon, delightfully switching the filter so that we are now in a surprisingly surreal realm.

Most horror writers are passive aggressive alarmists, and Karen Russell falls into this category but in the nicest possible way. When Cillian discovers his new girlfriend, completely intact, in the ethereal bog waters of a remote island off the coast of northern Europe, the other men as well as the authorities hardly flinch. They are just relieved that this wasn’t a recent murder victim. Granted, this is a far-flung locality, with a small town milieu; the locals maintain a private respect for the island’s mythic ancestors and their gods. In fact, the place is a creation born out of Russell’s imagination, a clever way of giving the story a sense of its own logic outside the normal rules of time or place.

 

          It’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit.

 

And this kind of droll humor softens the horror continually, rendering it safe, almost scientific. That which would normally seem grim is charmingly made-over into poetic beauty, shimmering with historical observation and an otherwise normal conversational tone. Amidst the shockingly morbid resides an underlying voice of calm speculation, as when the narrator explains what bogs are like.

 

          They are strange wombs where the dead do not decay – in that sense, too,

          like human memory.

 

Refreshingly, The Bog Girl is partly about acceptance and inclusion. Cillian, a reclusive fifteen-year-old, is finally accepted and even included now that he and his new girlfriend have each other. Indeed, he is more noticed and effortlessly integrated at high school with the Bog Girl on his arm. She is like a princess. The popular girls bring her clothes and jeweled barrettes for her hair. The way Cillian loves the Bog Girl incites awe and a little envy in the popular girls at school. They sigh over his devotion to her.

 

          The popular girls were starving for that kind of love.

 

Even Cillian’s uncle becomes an example of accepting someone who is rather intolerable. Uncle Sean is a big, ungainly presence; still he is tolerated, though he leaves something of a stench in the air.

          He smeared himself throughout their house… His words hung around, too,

          leaving their brain stain on the air.

 

Nevertheless, Cillian communes with Uncle Sean as they share a bong out on the patio, where Cillian listens to his uncle’s warped logic about girls and love. Uncle Sean argues with his lazy wit and a decidedly adult tongue-in-cheek attitude that Cillian hardly knows the Bog Girl, plus there’s a striking age-difference. Cillian is fifteen while the Bog Girl is two-thousand. Anyway, love is love, what can you do?

Gillian, Cillian’s mother, is the kind of mom that won’t get in her son’s way. She loves him too much. Also, she is insecure, harassed by her sisters and her own memories and mistakes. She gave birth to Cillian when she was seventeen. The slightest protest about the Bog Girl invites Cillian to argue with Gillian and bring up the past. “We have rhyming names, Ma,” he complains. At seventeen Gillian had found it endearing to give her baby son a name that rhymed with her own. “If he’d been a girl I’d have named her Lillian.”

Gillian, though apprehensive and qualmish by nature, is especially brave when Cillian whisks his girlfriend up to his bedroom and locks the door. Gillian’s mothering instincts cause her to worry herself into a stupor. She really has no one to talk to, as her sisters are the only ones who are all a-panic about this, strangely enough.

The most she can do to set down some rules is to say “everyone has to wear clothes, and no locking the door.”  Though she goes through the motions of accepting Cillian’s girlfriend, letting her sit at the dinner table and basically not putting her foot down and calling the authorities… or a museum, Gillian feels contempt for the girl. And all the while, the Bog Girl smiles-on serenely, her red/ iridescent hair glistening down her back. She is totally non-judgmental and the essence of acceptance.

 

          The Bog Girl smiled her gentle smile at the wall, her face reflected

          in the oval door of the washer-dryer. Against that sudsy turbulence,

          she looked especially still.”

 

Russell brings Cillian’s girlfriend, this Bog Girl, alive slowly. At first, giving her the possibility of poetic, Bog Girl thoughts:

 

          The bog crickets were doing a raspy ventriloquy of the stars;

          perhaps she recognized their tiny voices.

 

Cillian, in his love for her, creates these dreams and fantasies of what the Bog Girl should be – what their relationship should be. No betrayals… no broken promises. In his quiet conversations with her, she smiles agreeably.  He is convinced that he knows her very soul. But when she actually offers back the same kindness he gave to her, Cillian cannot receive it. The minute she looks him in the eye and loves him –  is when he changes. Of course, this messy development truly resembles an ordinary love-relationship. Someone is incapable of fully loving; in this case Cillian. Subsequently, he finally relies on his mother to step in and help him. And Gillian, who feels she knows her son better than he knows himself, has the answer.

 

In Karen Russell’s uncanny worlds, the beautiful and the monstrous assume blurred lines, just as the real and the fantastic flirt with our sense of truth. She does this in the most compelling way: with a blazing imagination and pure, story-telling talent.

 

The Bog Girl

 

 

 

 

An Engagement Waylaid

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And Now For Something Completely Different: A Story Vignette of My Own.

Oliver and I descended the stairs at Market and Montgomery Streets down to the BART station underground. We wandered unfamiliar searching for the ticket machines so we could buy our tickets to Oakland for Stacie and Mark’s engagement party. As we stood at the machines with our dollar bills drooping at the ready, we were suddenly helped, (accosted rather), by two nefarious characters. The first, a young, scraggly 20-something guy who snatched our bills and explained incoherently what to buy and how to buy it as he wildly hit buttons and tapped the screen until our tickets popped out, rather miraculously. Then he pointed out that we should give him two dollars.

We were then left with one ticket of the proper amount for going to and from Oakland and one ticket that had five dollars more than we needed. Inexplicably, the second character popped up: a scraggly, 40-something, rather taciturn yet officious fellow who attempted to help us retrieve some of that extra cash on our ticket but in actuality only succeeded in giving himself two dollars. We do not say no to these people. Thus equipped, we toddled off to our train stop. Once aboard, the rather vacant train whisked us down underwater. A harrowing experience, if you are not used to it, which I never will be, as the old train screeches and scrapes its way through the decades old tunnel at the speed of light, 30-feet below the surface of the bay. At the deepest point, a nerve-crushing sound much like, perhaps, the Death Star scraping through a tight tunnel sent pulsating waves rattling to the core of my soul. I am reminded why I never take BART.

The train emerged above ground in a burst of stark, East Bay sunlight. The worst of the noise ended, and we rattled along on what now seemed rather tottery tracks, high above and over sun-blanched suburbs and empty, industrial buildings. We looked at each other with relief and promptly exchanged overly exuberant jokes in a compulsive fit of jollity. The bright sun moved across the gentrified interior, through the wide, bubbled, scratched windows and across our squinting brows, as the car wavered and turned on its tracks.

Two women sat across from us after the first stop. They could have sat anywhere in the empty compartment, as it  was Saturday and quite uncrowded, but sat across from us and ignored us, putting on their makeup as they chattered-on, their lips and eyes becoming wider and more expressive with each swathe of a pencil-like brush. When the train stopped again, the compartment doors parted with a deep swoosh. We could see through the open doors a brick wall bearing the MacArthur Street sign. “Ours is the next stop,” we agreed. And the doors remained open. We snickered to ourselves at a man who had fallen asleep with his mouth open. And the doors remained open and would not close. We laughed at this, too, in our spectacular ignorance, for this was our stop, in actuality.

However, we unwittingly got off at the wrong stop, the next one, which dropped us in East Oakland where we walked the long and winding way to Stacie and Mark’s place, through dusty neighborhoods that reeked of rancid soy-sauce and stale hamburgers, where the scant population shuffled in ratty clothes and thin-soled shoes, and where a hot wind blew a lone, crusty, fallen leaf down the sidewalk like a shrunken tumbleweed. Once, while peering at the screen of my phone, texting Stacie in the relentless sunshine, a poor soul walked up into my personal space and mumbled something I could not make out. He was too far-gone to incite fear, still, all I could think to say was “sorry,” and he wandered on his way.

An English Comedy by John Schlesinger

Billy hamming it up.

Go back a couple of generations, to an era that has become legend to the technological age, and you will find the actor Tom Courtenay as Billy Fisher sitting at table with Mum and Dad, plus Grandma, enduring with good humor his family’s brooding disapproval. It is 1963, and at this typical Yorkshire, England kitchen table with frilly curtains, porcelain tea-pots, sugar bowls and all, sits a not so typical young man.

He tells lies with uncommon repose and has these indulgent fantasies of heroic grandeur; still, he seems most likely of all the young men in this small, Yorkshire town of Bradford, to one day escape its fishbowl mentality. Billy has the instinctive ability to shrug off the glowering looks aimed at him from the older generation, as well as from the many fiances he has acquired, with extraordinarily self-mollifying humor – at its best when his speech verges on a rather elegant brogue

The movie, Billy Liar, is early-John Schlesinger, with foretellings of the genius that became the Academy Award winning fame of Darling, (1965), and Midnight Cowboy, (1969). While Billy Fisher throws actual calendar pages at the wind, to Joe Buck’s symbolic ones, each of these 20th century heroes wants to escape the confines of his prosaic home-town for a more exciting and self-fulfilling life in the big city.

A lighter movie than Midnight Cowboy, Billy Fisher, like Joe Buck, struggles within two realms: that of life’s reality and the illusory world of dreams and fantasies. Billy Fisher wants to become a scriptwriter for a questionably famous comedian in London, and, not surprisingly, the would-be writer is funnier than the comic. Some of Billy’s most humorous material is practiced on his boss, Mr. Shadrack, who runs an undertaker firm. A hawkish, stolid man, played by the venerable Leonard Rossiter, he finds no humor in Billy whatsoever.

Liz and Billy above the dance hall.

Julie Christie, however, plays Liz, the beautiful, mercurial girl who drifts back and forth between London and Bradford – she won’t be tied down. Yet, she has an inkling for Billy; indeed, it becomes obvious they are kindred souls.

Why does Billy lie? Julie Christie is asked in the film commentary, and she sums it up well by pointing out that Billy was intensely creative, but “not a second of time was given” to him by anyone in his family, nor by his boss, who, like everyone else, mockingly waves-off Billy’s ambitions to be a scriptwriter. Moreover, Billy’s father is a real brute; and his mother, though she loves her son, takes no interest in what Billy is really all about. “So it is no wonder he lies about himself all the time,” Christie says.

Billy lives in a fantasy-world, to which only the audience is privy. He has all sorts fantastic, inner-imaginings – of soldiering, marching and shooting, which is such the vernacular, survivalist culture of England. He is always the wounded but celebrated hero of the war – marching through the dilapidated streets on the winning side; though, it is a little unclear whether he fancies himself on the English side, the German side or what-have-you. And Billy’s underlying anger manifests itself in these flash-fantasies of shooting people or blowing them up, namely his father, his boss, or his fiance – the bitchy one, whenever they go against him.

Billy and best friend, Arthur.

Tom Courtenay had been playing the understudy for Albert Finney in the stage version of this story, which was based on a novel by Keith Waterhouse. John Schlesinger chose Courtenay, as well as Billy’s mother and father and grandmother from the stage cast. Leonard Rossiter, Mr. Shadrack, was a well-established T.V. actor, but a number of the other characters were inexperienced, which was the way Schlesinger wanted it. He liked the germane, northern England quality they brought to the film.

As for Julie Christie: she was discovered by the Italian producer, Joseph Janni, acting in a dramatic production, at a time when she was studying language and drama in London. This was Christie’s first part in a film, and she has mentioned, somewhat wistful, that it was the best role she has ever played. This, even though her very next part, also with Schlesinger, in Darling, earned her an Academy Award for best actress!

Schlesinger’s great genius as a filmmaker becomes corporeal with Christie’s role as Liz, the girl who is spiritually characteristic of Billy – without the lies. She breezes into Bradford on the black and white, chiaroscuro light of Schlesinger’s film-art. The towering, ancient buildings of northern England that he renders as flying above like beautiful, gothic birds alongside the new buildings going up during England’s post-WWII industrial urbanization, define Schlesinger’s initial documentary style. Christie dances through the streets like a Londoner, to this snappy, piping flute-music accompanied by somber, jazzy, bass undertones which signifies the era at the inception of its time.

 

Billy grasping his calendars of good-will.

Billy grasping his calendars of good will.