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Tuesday, September 4, 2001
By Paul Ford
Gene, Debbie, and Donald teach me about art
I can't stop eating the little treats downstairs, plunging my paw-hands into the glass jars full of something cooked in oil or something glazed with sugar, something prefixed with “choco.” Israel, the land of milk and batter.
Sugar is a slow-drip morphine, and a shameful addiction. Where are the poems about sugar wafer dissolving on the poet's pink tongue? Cataloging pure carbohydrate joy? Surely starch-pleasure is a feeling as profound as love or depression. It's only going to lead to more self-loathing and belt-loosening, but in the moment it's unfiltered comfort, comfort stopping at the tongue for a visit, then racing down the esophagus to settle in the body and radiate through the capillaries.
The office is filled with clever folk, and the sheer mental pressure of their work creates enormous atmospheric differentials. Once, when there was some real thinking going on, the mental energy released accumulated into a huge, invisible cognitive cloud, and when someone lit a cigarette, all the intellectual output swirling through the halls caught fire, blowing the office doors off their hinges and cracking all the windows. So now they run a special ventilation system, sold through the MENSA catalog, to siphon off overheated ideas.
Amidst all this amazing ability I found myself, for no clear reason, with a severe backache, sitting through two long meetings in a haze of gnawing pain, trying to follow what was being said about complex and obscure computer programs. Meetings are held in English, in multiple accents, but revert to Hebrew when someone needs to express themselves with real clarity, argue a fine point, make a joke, or discuss something personal.
As ideas flew around me, my thoughts were It feels as if a wolverine is boring its teeth straight into my spine. What if I stood up and said, “My God! A wolverine is boring straight into my spine!” And, what if I followed that statement by a little dance, a soft-shoe, then I rolled around on the floor? What if I threw up right now? What if I started wearing a porkpie hat around the office, and in the shower, and in the pool? Why can't I pay attention?
I began to feel my blues were etched in marble. The best remedy would be an Ftrain trip to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, and a slow walk to the Boat, where I'd play My Bloody Valentine on the jukebox, drink 8 gin and tonics in linear sequence, coming to two conclusions in sequence: (1) everyone else is stupid; (2) I love everyone. And there might be the regular rhythms of hand-touching and so forth. One thing I left behind in America was human touch.
But all that out of reach (and I am here by choice, under my own volition), I took in a half-glass of straight gin, freezer-fresh, settled on the downstairs couch, kept my posture straight, and, on the DVD player, let spin Singing in the Rain. 10 feet across on the projection screen, it scooped up all my glum, enough so that I might sit here an hour after the credits rolled and write, if tired, in good spirits.
I first saw Singing in the Rain upstairs at my grandparents', when I was 15; I would walk over to their place some nights, a bit under a mile away, and hang out, then go to their upstairs room and watch T.V. until I fell asleep. For my first time, Singing in the Rain was a late night movie on their old Sony set, dark at its curved edges, on Philadelphia's channel 6. Each musical number ended with a cut to a local commercial: car dealerships and Crazy Eddie's discount electronics, and one clothing outlet with the jingle:
If you've got a passion for fashion
And you've got a craving for savings
Take the wheel
Of your automobile
And drive on down to
This jingle is carved into my head more permanently than any other songs. Most nights at my grandparents I crashed out a few minutes into the movie, which usually starred Sally Field or Burt Reynolds and showed a dozen scenes of boxy cars crashing into flames, but that night I sat up straight through, and when the movie was over, I thought, this is the best movie ever made, ever, in my life. It was one of the first times anything that wasn't a rock opera punched through my blanched adolescent brain. I also realized that for complicated reasons associated with young men who like musicals, I should keep this to myself. It's still something I'm careful about sharing with others, along with my love for the film work of Divine.
I've since seen the movie about 8 times; the DVD was a recent acquisition, and I was saving it until a bleak night, trusting it to have magical properties of mood-lifting. It worked, I think - Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were my anaesthetic; my back hurt less and I began to see my life, which moments before had seemed like a gray box filled with suffering, as an amiable affair in which, while I cannot have all the nice things I'd like, and which often leads me down bad or painful paths, is not filled with hellish obstacles, and which is actually mostly pleasurable. I am such a whiner.
More than anything, what comes over the screen was the pure talent crammed into the 103 minutes of the film, the scripting, the multiple narratives and layers of parody, comedy, musical, and drama, the way the story branches out into side-performances, racing in and out of various forms with the stars to hold things through, whether the Lockwood and Lamont silent films, the musical numbers, the Broadway Melody Ballet.
Now that I'm 12 years older I see more of the skill that is inside the film, the hoofing and singing and acting, each actor armed to the teeth with talent. Thrown in the middle of a room of bored strangers, I'm sure Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, or Debbie Reynolds could do 20 minutes, get the folks laughing, figure out the crowd. Who can compare now? Not Jennifer Lopez, Harrison Ford, or any of the heavy-breasted starlets and the sullen male leads. Gene Kelly did the performance of the title song with an 103 fever, milky water pouring over him. I mean, Jesus. 103. And he could dance, his smile like a foglight.
Gene and Donald and Debbie spoke to one another, sang, and danced; the movie itself - the sum total of their actions, mixed with the efforts of other actors, of choreographers, songwriters, scriptwriters, directors, and producers - found its own voice and said to me, Paul! Take care of your talent. It said, take care of your back, forget the guilt over the sugar and treats downstairs, don't worry if you're often ugly, forget the Brooklyn Bridge and the Boat bar, let your back heal, do your job, keep your wheels spinning fast as they can go, and then try to hit the ground. Vroom!
It's implied that the promise of art, of doing good work, is that it will be here after the artist is dead; it's a kind of immortality. And this seems to me a sort of weak reason to go for it, writing letters to the future, trying to bind them to your beliefs. I imagined old actresses in their dotages, taking pleasure in watching themselves in 40-year-old films, their skins smooth, their butlers running old gray film projectors.
But I think I've been seeing it wrong; good work, like Singing in the Rain, accumulates, it survives, it piles up and informs the next crop of practitioners, and they build on it in turn. Eventually it may pile high enough that the person who climbs to the top of it can look down and see what's actually going on, without all the hoping and guesswork. So why not be a step, why not search for your form and go down on all fours, in the hope that someone brighter? We must build the mountain before we can climb it, but at least we are moving, our hands busy with pens, brushes, and hammers.