Last night, we watched the 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Marty”, starring Ernest Borgnine. The year this movie was released was the same year my parents graduated from college and got married. My mother could have played the heroine, a gentle, intelligent young woman with a narrow Celtic jaw and a fabulously stylish but thrifty wardrobe. Except she was just 20 when she got married, and Clara in the movie is a dangerously spinster-approaching 29. Marty is “the stocky fellow”, an Italian butcher and a bachelor at 34. My dad was “that cute boy on crutches” who was a little soft around the middle due to a bum knee that kept him from vigorous exercise. The social game of the day in New York City was to go to The Stardust Ballroom, a dance hall “loaded with tomatoes”. Marty and Clara are the kind who get turned down for dances. He owns up to the fact that they are “dogs”, but awkwardly, tenderly, they begin to treat each other like real human beings. They speak honestly together while Marty’s Italian family covers up true emotions with white lies and secrets and his buddies pretend machismo. The two of them create a little oasis of sanity in the desert of social confusion. And it’s charming, really.
All of us who grew up believing “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skin smiles who married young and then retired” (Tara Mclean) might find a champion in Marty, who recognizes a chance for happiness in being himself, like Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof” who asserts that “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness”. Why does our society put so much pressure and competition into the process of discerning your identity and living authentically? I suppose that our economy runs on producing that neurosis. “You couldn’t possibly find love or happiness without our product!” Maybe there’s a lurking sense that civilization is actually advanced by feeding that neurosis in order to produce those marvelous, gorgeous, socially admirable types. God forbid that the misfits should breed. And so, the universal theme emerges: misfits and nerds are humans, too, and we all belong in that category, really. The “in crowd” and the “out crowd” are fantasies. We are ‘the crowd’, that’s all.
The Italian mothers in Marty’s neighborhood keep up this refrain: “You oughta be ashamed of yourself. 34 years old…when are you gonna get married!” Shame. God, what a horrible thing to put on someone. I am a mother, I oughta know. I used it enough. Now I feel like shouting out, “Never mind what I said before! Be happy!!” Aren’t we all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as long as we aren’t harming anyone? Ah, yes, it can get complicated. The pursuit of my happiness might impinge on the pursuit of your happiness. It happens. I can’t be a happy Italian mamma unless all my sons are married to Italian women and producing grandchildren that I can feed. Maybe happiness has to be a responsibility that doesn’t require someone else’s participation. Can I be a happy Italian mamma all by myself, cooking for myself, caring for myself, doing things I enjoy, entering into relationships by mutual agreement, not by obligation? Marty’s aunt keeps saying, “I’m 56 years old, a widow. This is the worst time of life. I’ve got no one to cook for, to clean for…” Marty’s girl suggests that she take up some “hobbies” and the old women stare at her as if she’s just shot a hole in her own forehead. God forbid I should take responsibility for my own happiness! No, make that “God require that I should take responsibility for my own happiness”.
Be happy, people! Live happy, love happy.
Saturday night we went to see a movie: “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors”. This silent movie from Germany was accompanied by a live band from St. Louis called The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, which features Wurlitzer electric piano, theramin, vibraphone, electric guitar, two violins, viola, trombone, trumpet and one percussionist. The theater itself is an old relic. Typically, the front rows of seats are replaced with old couches and sofas and end tables. For the crowd on Friday, though, there were rows of seats and cafe tables on the side. It was a pretty funky set-up, with lots of young people in attendance, and a few old fogeys like myself and Steve. The theramin player was fascinating to watch. She also played a violin part. Her intonation was better on theramin, unfortunately. It was good creepy, goofy fun, though. German expressionism is interesting. How would you stylize fear or death or love? Silent horror film stars don’t scream. Their eyes widen; they grimace; they gesture, but they don’t scream. Make-up and background heighten contrasts. Here’s the iconic image from the film.
Steve likes the childlike exploration of a basic emotion – fear. It’s not deep and philosophical, really, nor is it very clever or contrived. I tend to find the old horror films funny. I mean, here comes Count Orlok walking through town with his coffin under his arm. Seriously? I won’t even go to a modern horror movie, though. I get too tense. It’s not good for me.
On Friday night, I finally watched “Citizen Kane”, which we borrowed from the library. I’d never seen it, although the ending had been spoiled for me many times over the years. I got hooked by Orson Welles’ genius. The way he pieces together the story, the radio-inspired musical effects, the dialogue and writing, the visuals and directing, and his acting are just brilliant. Did you know you can buy a T-shirt with his picture on it that says, “I made Citizen Kane when I was 25. What the fuck have you done?” His creativity is evident, and was technically ground-breaking at the time. I mused about the psychology of the story for hours afterwards. Agnes Moorehead’s portrayal of his mother was just eerie. Issues of control and freedom and power squeak out in each scene. So, I’m in total agreement with everyone who says it’s possibly the best American film ever made.
One more thing: what do you do with leftover movie popcorn? Feed the squirrels. I put it out on the old wicker chair. It’s already gone. Now it’s snowing. Food is going to be harder to find. I might need to see another movie.