Wednesday, April 26, 2006

78. The How and Why of Wonder

Over the years, the dramatic qualities of movies have waxed and waned in their importance to me. Naturally, like anybody I can become deeply engrossed in story, eager to follow (not anticipate; that ruins the fun) every twist and turn. This is of course the not-so-secret secret of the success of all those Law and Order incarnations. When I was in high school or thereabouts, I remember my sister noting that, if you wanted to--and as you may already know, you really didn't--you could see Lucille Ball four times a day. And that was on pre-cable VHF/UHF TV. Law and Order has filled--with much less drek--the ubiquity-gap Lucy left behind. In the movies, I'm drawn to heists, trials, and spy-chases. I wouldn't mind if Edward Norton (the Younger), Tom Cruise, and Matt Damon made three a year, each: I'm more than willing to watch all kinds of Italian Jobs, Bournes, and Firms--not to mention a De Niro go-get-'em or two, him and Jean Reno lookin' sharp and figuring it out. And on the quiet side of the room I'm happy with a three-hour '50s soaper or a 90-minute Hugh Grant change-of-heart weep-and-grin-fest.

But the older I get, the more I find myself staring--I know, I know: creeping senility, ha-ha, snap out of it, grampy--and not slack-jawed, but stunned: at sudden images that well up on the screen, lost for years in the bigger, older, messier filing cabinets, then one day right there in the movie--where it always was--popping open the drawers, spilling out addenda and effluvia deep enough to wade around in. This happened to me last night while watching Bell, Book and Candle (1958), which I hadn't seen in years. At the start a Siamese cat leaps on Kim Novak's shoulder. My sister had a Siamese, Chi-Chi, and when I was a little kid I always enjoyed seeing one in the movies (I direct your attention in particular to Lady and the Tramp, "if you please"). It was like spotting your hometown or a piece of furniture you owned. So last night I saw the cat and Kim and stopped short--only in my head, of course; the movie kept going in its oddly unsettling pre-Bewitched manner, James Wong Howe reportedly unhappy with Technicolor (but getting even by doing his usual expert job), as Jimmy Stewart fell for a witch--and the image of Novak with the cat clambering and perching on her shoulder brought back a simultaneously specific and elusive memory: seeing the movie for the first time and knowing things would work out well for Novak and Stewart, somehow because of the Siamese. Growing up with one, I've never seen them as some others do--regally stand-offish or I'm-watching-you creepy--but as intelligent, semi-interested visitors, never quite judging, but still on their own, the first cats who "walked by themselves," as Kipling would say. I'm neither a dog nor a cat man, but living with Chi-Chi has conjoined in my head with seeing Novak's cat, and I was filled with my usual maudlin foolishness, riffling through the file in the dim light, peering at fading images of myself and my sister as kids, the cat off to the side, thinking of crickets she'll be catching later in the basement; but I have no argument with such memory-recapture. It's harmless--and I'll go further: It can be either electrifying, a sudden bolt-upright surprise at the past's uninvited visit; or salubrious, like a nap or a solitary half-hour on a quiet back porch. And afterwards conducive of a little self-indulgent melancholy, too, as one gingerly touches one's own past, full but fleeting, before trailing oneself back to the present.

Look at what I mean: I was wandering around James Lileks' "Institute of Official Cheer" (a link to his blog appears on this blogsite), and found this image:

It hit me with almost physical force, all those afternoons thumbing through old comics and kid-books, a little bored but almost content to be so, wandering around stuff I'd seen 1000 times before, like this back cover, the same one for every How and Why Wonder Book. When I was little the knight reminded me of The Sword in the Stone, which I missed because I had a sore throat; but my sister got to go, and as consolation they brought home a program--and do you remember movies with programs?--and I nodded in recognition of the need for a book on rocks (I flirted with geology for a while; the weight of my rock collection broke a drawer in my bureau--does anybody use that word anymore?); and I liked the Flying Tiger better than the T. Rex, whose head seemed a bit small; and so on. If you are middle-aged, you might have felt the same backward-falling vertigo of this image. But if not this, then another--I hope for your sake--in a book, on a website, in a movie--and even, dare I admit, in real life--if only so that you can stare and remember not to forget, even the little half-memories that lie in the back-files, closed cases in which everyone was innocent.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh yes,I know that little wrench,where a memory reaches out and grabs your heart, and you don't exactly want to go back, but you wish that part of your life didn't have to be over, either. Like Margaret in Hopkins' poem, our suffering from all the little losses of change hide our ache at our limitedness and mortality. Our hearts really want all the good things to be everlasting, and the memory of them, while good, is bittersweet because it also means that they are not.

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