Wednesday, September 27, 2006

127. Bungled Shame

It's been so long since I've written that I'm afraid all I'll be able to manage is, as Smash Mouth sings in "Pet Names," "an itsy bitsy tiny little almost inaudible squeak." Still, I will clear my throat and let fly with a note or two.

I watched some instructional films from the 1950s and '60s, the foremost being Lunchroom Manners, made famous by Paul Reubens' comedy club version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show ("Was that a big enough piece of cake or what!?"). But as I watched Phil and the other towheaded Children of the Damned beaten into submission by firm instructions peppered with the adverbs of conformity--"quietly," "politely," "neatly," "slowly," and, of course, "thoroughly"--I found my derisive laughter growing forced, as I succumbed to a flickering 1959--when I was three--in which kids who were never really all that quiet or polite or neat moved in soft fluorescence amid the featureless Alphaville of modernizing education, an All-Purpose Room of squared-off spongy linoleum along which Eames contour chairs glided like beige geese, and the furthest horizon had the quiet lines of a simple geometry problem. Watching Phil deciding not to cut in line and breaking off a piece of his cookie (rather than offering a bite), I realized I knew that kid, and that he, in part, was me. After first grade, and before seventh, I cultivated a dutiful demeanor, with a little daydreamy quietude thrown in--at least in school. To this day the thought of a classroom bathed in light while a stormy day darkens the big windowed wall makes me feel as cozy as an English cat by a glowing fender. Those were good days to be in school, as the meandering quiet of a 1962 classroom passed in lazy ovals, number-two lead spiralling across my yellow sheet with a Crucifix and "J.M.J." drawn at the top, Palmer Method penmanship class slipping with a small wink into Art--a minimal line of endless circular movement, forming a gray tunnel, almost a burrow.

The more I thought about Lunchroom Manners, the more I realized that cinema's delirious power lies in its assertive idealizations: images of blocky shoes planted firmly on the ground while nice ladies restock the milk, a world sad and beautiful, just as Roberto Benigni insisted in Down by Law (1986), narrow and soft, stern and sleepy--and gone forever. And watching the final scene--as Mr. Bungle (the puppet who couldn't use a napkin correctly if his rubber head depended on it) grew "ashamed" for being, well, a bungler--a part of me whispered, "'Gone forever,' all right, and good riddance." But the pencil-fine ovals turn, while the noses get picked, and the feet never stay firmly on the ground, and I START FILM again, just to see.

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