Friday, May 18, 2007

191. The Friday Club 9:
Comfort and Joy

The weather in May--at least here in the Middle West--can be forceful, if only because it is so insistently pleasant. The cool breeze skims along while the sun warms, and the birds twitter at 4:00 AM while the boys and girls--at least the little ones and the college students--go la-dee-dah all day. The rain comes down, and up go microscopic droplets that settle in your nose the sweet musk of trees perspiring, and fireflies pulse in the newly humid air. And more: Everything knows that spring is short, summer transient, and winter hard on its heels, so a mad glee runs through it, the twitter-pated recklessness of the indestructible and the permanent amid the fleeting world of full spring. These are intimations of joy--not mere "happiness," which you can make--and which belongs only to you (thus diminishing joy--a communal experience, something you can get even at funerals, but never when cloistered); instead, joy is something that makes you--joyful, that is.

When this happens in a mere movie it is, admittedly, not as good as the thing itself, the real breeze and moisture, the burgeoning of everything, but a portion nonetheless, a bright shadow of the big surprise.*

Monday Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Watch the strength of joy, for this movie survives Alex, A Clockwork Orange's Humble Narrator, and his satanic warble. Gene Kelly lifts his grinning face to the downpour in Technicolor unapologetic extravagance while Donald O'Connor hurls joy in alarming trajectories and Debbie Reynolds sprints alongside, feet also lifting in the wake. Even its jabs at Hollywood seem mere throwaway gags compared to the "pop-pop-POP!" as it were, of the dance numbers, incidents in a life of--if this is possible--carefree ecstasy.

Tuesday My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
When I first saw this movie with my children I was afraid the mother's illness would fret, but the joy flourishes like mild-summer crops, as the children become the parent, traveling far to soothe and heal. Along the way they are shadowed and led by the most benign of spirit-beasts, roaring and snoring, sighing and snuffling, in love with every lazy snooze and bouncing jaunt, light as a catbus along humming wires. Miyazaki goes to the edge of the city, then to the edge of the wood, uses all of his senses, and returns with a tale as full as a Totoro's belly and as light as a soot sprite.

Wednesday O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
A film so eager to charm everyone that it manages to cast a concerned eye even toward George "Babyface" Nelson, maniacal cow-killer and manic-depressive narcissist--and to set up one-eyed conmen/Klansmen just to bonk them on their heads with their own burning crosses. It grabs at every stray "startlement" and handles them like juggling pins, all-singing, sometimes-dancing, with the devil on a leash and a good-sized glob of Dapper Dan (and remember: "the pleasing odor is half the point") to keep one's coiffure just so, despite the tight spots and epic demands of wife-bound travel. Yes, "hard times flush the chumps," but the Coen brothers--in this return to the high-toned hillbillies of Raising Arizona--cast off all doubts, and give us a quick-pickin', fun-strummin' twirl in their "happy little tire swing."

Thursday Duck Soup (1933)
There are a number of Marx Brothers movies that fill me with joy, but--keeping in mind that this is the one with the mirror routine, the frenetic war-parody (in which a standing army is preferred as way to save money on chairs), songs that make both sly sense and non-sense, startling word-gags tossed off like minor asides--not to mention as a bonus a patented Edgar Kennedy slow burn and the sight of poor Margaret Dumont pelted with fruit--again, despite all that, Duck Soup is the Marx Bros. movie in which Groucho intones, "Go, and never darken my towels again!" I'm still laughing.

Friday The Straight Story (1999)
Despite his reputation, David Lynch seemed to be heading toward this picture his entire career. All his other, "nightmare," films simply express the terrifying loss of the determined love Alvin Straight shows for, not just his estranged brother, but his own sense of what is right. The Lynchian morality embraces peace, love and focus--a meditative attitude, if I may refer to his dedication to Transcendental Meditation; it is a state that flows from Alvin and calms everyone he meets. Virtually every episode of this journey-quest affirms the need for love expressed as a certainty, like simple laws of physics, immutable until the universe shifts, if it ever does--and if it ever does, this film, in its own almost-silent way, seems to assert that love--the expression of peace focused on whoever is right there in front of you--will withstand even a universal shift--will, if I may wax monumental, be the shift; and love will still stand, like Alvin's rickety rig, chugging along, finding in the end a sudden downhill slope to take you to the moment of reconciliation. This one goes up to your heart, and in the end draws you toward a state of literally astronomical proportions.

Saturday Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
To be honest, rummaging around in Tim Burton's Playhouse can be a little disconcerting, but Pee-Wee, almost like a campy hybrid of Harpo and Alvin Straight, transcends not only a sense of proportion but the law of averages that states one must fail sooner or later, and giggles his way into spastic affirmation--of self, to be sure; no one thinks more of Pee-Wee than Pee-Wee--but also of the trick of innocence, a now-you-see-it smirk overlaid with a now-you-don't grin, part Pink Flamingos, part Bugs Bunny, all hijinks, as much comic strip as kitsch. Having taken a particularly nasty spill on his bike, Pee-Wee recovers with an almost-challenge: "I meant to do that." The pleasure of this movie is that, as long as it is running, you believe him.

Sunday North by Northwest (1959)
This is Hitchcock's most exuberant, least "serious" thriller, a celebration of his own title as Master of Suspense, a chance for him to play card-sharp extraordinaire, with Cary Grant as the plant, and to fling around the Wrong Man with such happy violence that Grant himself becomes a McGuffin, while Bernard Herrmann and Mount Rushmore build iconic/almost-parodic Jacob's ladders. At no point are we asked to worry about anyone; like its secret agents who invent some lives and toy with others, we too get to sit back and make our gaze as potent as a director's, moving everything around at our whim, in patterns as exact as an Owner's Manual but with zero impact on anything beyond ourselves as the merry-making audience. In short, as my son puts it, you smile all the way through. This may not seem to be much, but it does provide an inkling of "a mere movie's" exertions as it makes its way into our eyes and ears, into our need for joy.

*I've left out some joyful movies because (1) joy deserves more than a week and (2) some joy--It's a Wonderful Life, for instance--is better discussed before snowier landscapes.

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