My imagination makes me human
and makes me a fool;
it gives me all the world
and exiles me from it.--Ursula K. Le Guin
An Urban Journal Exploring Place,
Purpose, Literature, Memory,
and This Time
January, 2010 - The Lives They Lived
No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does,
straight to our emotions, deep into the dark rooms of the soul.
Two of my favorite things at year's end are TCM Remembers, Turner Classic Movie's annual tribute to movie professionals who died during the year, and The Lives They Lived, the New York Times Magazine's annual issue dedicated to some of the most interesting people from the year's obituaries.
There is something so moving and dreamlike about TCM's montage of actors caught momentarily on film when they were young and beautiful and at the peak of their careers that I am almost always moved to tears. It's like watching old home movies, or Bergman's Wild Strawberries, such a poignant reminder of how brief and precarious life is and, for a film lover like myself, of the many hours of pleasure that movies have given me.
Movies are mini-vacations from the body, two hours of not having to be, of being able to leave the ego's troublesome, exhausting children at home and just free-float in a world that you didn't make or have to be responsible for. Let's face it, I'll never be able to get outside my ego through meditation, drugs, or religion; the only safe and sure things that work for me are novels and movies. And I am so fortunate to have these two things in such abundance. They are the little trains I have jumped on and off of throughout my life, taking me everywhere and expanding my imaginative boundaries, both emotional and geographic. Thank you, TCM, for honoring all those who, as Martin Scorcese said recently at the Golden Globes, "made these pictures for us so that we could live in their wonders."
Where are they all now? They are vanished like a little smoke;
they are nothing but ashes, and a tale - or not even a tale.
--Meditations of St. Augustine
Every year when I look through The NYT's The Lives They Lived issue, I scan the list of subjects and think, "That one doesn't interest me; I'll skip it," but then I end up reading every one, and every one is interesting, whether about a boxer or a chimpanzee, the owner of a chili dive in D.C. or the scientist who spent decades searching for the Loch Ness Monster not, like Ahab, to kill her but just to look into her eyes. And, of course, much of what makes them so compelling is that they're well written.
A complaint in publishing today is that too many people are writing memoirs, and as much as I agree with that, I'm also saddened by all the wonderful life stories that will never get written. Like the black man in my mother's nursing home a few years ago. He and his wife shared the room across the hall, a rare circumstance in itself. I guessed them to be in their eighties. She was confined to her bed, rendered mute and paralyzed by strokes, but he could get in and out of his wheelchair with surprising agility. He wheeled up and down the hallways, engaging strangers with his dapper boyish charm. He always wore dark slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled and a worn hat, an old-fashioned felt fedora with grosgrain band and pinched crown. He told me that he had sung in Harlem in the early forties with a group called the Johnson Brothers, that they had toured in Europe and sung in Paris. He said he loved Paris and the French people, and I've no doubt they loved him in return. What did she do, I wondered, all those years he was singing in clubs. Did she stay in Jacksonville, doing some white woman's laundry and unable to sit at the lunch counter at the Five and Dime? Some days, I could hear him singing to her, some old Southern gospel hymn in a molasses and buttered bread baritone. They disappeared in a few months, as is common in nursing homes, vanished like a little smoke. What lives they must have lived.