What I Watched About Love

I started watching movies on television. Whether Saturday afternoon monster movies, short films on the CBS Children’s Film Festival with Kukla Fran and Ollie, Sunday afternoon matinees, movies of the week on Tuesday nights, Sunday night movies, or Friday night late shows, I watched movies. The movies of my early life ranged from img_0274-1The Red Balloon to The Great Race, from The House of Frankenstein to The Trouble with Angels. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia on a 36-inch screen. I first watched the Wizard of Oz on a black and white television.

My high school, a boarding school, had movies boys could love (James Bond, Juggernaut, and Sky Riders) on Saturday nights. What I most remember are Sundays after church, when I watched the Flash Gordon serials in the tv room of the dorm. My college had a “popular” film series on Friday and Saturday nights—I was recruited to join the selection team because I had seen Enter the Dragon, and members could only nominate films they had seen to add to the series—and an art series on a weeknight. I can admit that I rarely went to the art films, but can remember classmates going on about Renoir’s Beauty and the Beast. I took a cinema class in the spring of my sophomore year, and remember listing Star Wars and Airport among my favorite movies. And then I saw Persona, Masculine/Feminin, Providence, Meshes of an Afternoon, Breathless, img_0275Un Chien Andalou, and Birth of a Nation. Kaori Kitao used a projector to screen the films, and we watched and re-watched scenes for hours on Wednesday afternoons. Our three hour class often ran six hours.

In my twenties, my girlfriend bought me a vcr, and between rentals, late-night movies on Philadelphia’s Channel 29, the Ritz Theater, and movies at the TLA, I filled in what I had missed. I saw Bringing Up Baby, The Searchers, Some Like It Hot, Red River, It Happened One Night, Flying Down to Rio, Koyaanisqatsi, Duck Soup, Ran, The Thin Man, Vagabond, Snow White, Freaks, and Claire’s Knee. I watched two or three movies a day. Some movies I watched as many as a dozen times, and there are some, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas come to mind, that I still have not seen and, still, want to see. I watched nearly all of the Marx Brothers, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, and Jacques Tourneur. I liked Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Robert img_0276Mitchum, Rosalind Russell, Humphrey Bogart, Irene Dunne, Toshiro Mifune, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire,  and Charlie Chaplin.

During this time I started writing a novel that I would abandon later. In that process, I went to graduate school, and then started reading books the same way I had watched movies. My walls are lined with bookcases full of the books I read while I found my way as a writer: Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Lorrie Moore. Hundreds more. Nonetheless, given two hours and a good movie, I still get lost in film.

Movies shaped me. My parents did not dispense life lessons, short of “don’t bug the grown ups.” My brothers and I lived fairly privileged and independent lives. My parents expected us to self-entertain, and we lived where we could do exactly that. Our play ranged over many square miles of field and forest. When we got bicycles, we rode as far as our will and muscle would take us. At home we ate dinner together then went to separate rooms to watch television (when we did watch television). Only event movies drew us into a single room. There were times when I was a teenager that my father and I would watch the same movie in different rooms, and at the end, my father would say, “That was good, wasn’t it.”

godzilla and mothraMy father loved movies. He shared his love of old horror movies with us, and we did watch Frankenstein and Godzilla together. Back then, Frankenstein was not played often on television, and one UHF channel featured a week of Toho giant monster films. These, along with the Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia, were event movies. I learned from watching movies that my father also had a soft spot, enjoying The Trouble with Angels and Agnes of God, but enjoying them alone and sharing his enjoyment after the fact. If I did not learn to watch movies alone from him, I certainly continued doing so, never feeling the need for company either when watching at home or in the theater.

Without much direct advice about how to live life, I learned from what teachers I could find. Mr. O’Connor, my eighth grade history teacher, taught me not to swear, and that police work was valuable; he was a former police officer. Mrs. Vandergrift, my fifth grade homeroom teacher, taught me about kindness and to value my academic achievements. But as far as the calculus of adult life, I learned from literature and from movies. Literature, like The Catcher in the Rye or Billy Budd, taught me about the pitfalls of adult life. Perhaps it is not so strange there there is very little in literature that reassuringly implies, “Everything is going to be all right.” There was even less in the literature I read for school about love. For love, I turned to film, or rather, film found me. I was a willing student.

The movies I will write about are not my favorite movies, with one exception. They are movies that stayed with me, like shadowy guides, for years. I feel their influence even now, in some cases I fight against them, the way one might struggle with a parent long after he or she has died. We are never truly done with the past. And so, I will revisit these films, neither to praise them nor to bury them, but to think about them and what I learned from them about love.

Are these the best depictions of love in the movies? Hardly. Nor are they the truest depictions. They simply stood out to me. Beyond that I had only two simple rules for their selection. First, I had to see each one first on television. All but one of these I watched alone the first time I saw it, with the exception being My Fair Lady, an event movie to be sure. Second I had to see each before I was 17, before I became an adult, and before I said the words “I love you” to a woman. Whether I like it or not, every time I have said those words, from the time I was 17 until now, when I am 57, “I love you” is an echo of something I saw in these films. For better and for worse.

The Films

The April Fools

Two for the Road



What’s Up Doc

My Fair Lady

Dr. Strangelove

Loss and Connection

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is a tart response to the steady procession out the door.  First she loses keys, then houses, then cities, two rivers, and a continent.  She writes, “Practice losing farther, losing faster.” And finally, “you (the joking voice, a gesture I love).” And that seems about the right order: keys, houses, cities, rivers, continents, you.

I have to admit that I’ve lost my fair share of people along the way. I have no friends from elementary school. I have a few acquaintances (thanks Facebook), but no profoundly important bonds from high school.  I keep in intermittent touch with a couple of professors from college, but all the people I played bridge with at lunch or in the evening, my swimming compatriots, or my more fiery friends from that rich time of awakening have gone. I retain only a single connection from the lost years while I worked in restaurants. Until the age of 28, the only people who remained constant in my life were my father, my mother, and my brothers, and I could no more lose them than I could lose my opposable thumbs, my kidneys, or my hair. Oops.

Somewhere along the way all that changed.  And it wasn’t the people I was meeting.  I figured out a few things about myself, and started on my life’s work. I am happy, overjoyed really, that I have friends who I met on the first day I started graduate school at Binghamton, and that in the thirty years since then, I have built, and been built into webs that extend across the country and onto other continents. Even if I disappeared today, if sudden tragedy erased me, those webs would remain, and my juncture would remain too, if only as a bright memory.

Still there are losses, certain “you’s” who spin away someplace else, who collided with my life, briefly or for longer times, and then left.  In the ramshackle castle of my heart, I have a dozen rooms of voices and gestures belonging to this you or that you who received and returned “I love you” from me and to me.

I can imagine rekindling almost any old friendship.  Bruce, Steve, Kevin? Trevor, Barry, Pete? Beth, Paul, Wendy, Cliff, Neil, Jean, Miriam, Ted? Sure. I would be delighted to hear about their lives, to listen to their stories, and discover where they have been, what they have learned, the best meals they have eaten.  I would sit them all around a table and cook a stew of memory.  But those women with whom I have shared at least a glimpse of my most intimate self, for whom I carved hearts into scallops (and filled those hearts with pesto), or alongside whom I have sat quietly on glacial erractic boulders, or who kissed me until days turned into into weeks, and weeks turned into years?  I think I have lost them.

Maybe it’s because break ups are just that—a break, a tear in the web of connections.  If a declaration of love is tantamount to an assertion of meaning in the universe: there are stars! there is hydrogen! the miracle of leaves! radio waves! elephants! cellos! then the end of love threatens to cast all of creation into some alternate universe where everything delicious tastes like burning tires.  Of course it doesn’t. Of course that is overly romantic. It is just turning a page.

What universe do you live in that anything can be set aside so blithely? I cannot.

And so it is with special joy that one star flickered back onto the horizon.  After nearly twenty five years, I sent this old friend a message “Went on a date with someone who so fabulously reminded me of you.” We chatted back and forth and she sent me a draft of the book she has been running away from for as long as I knew her. Finally running into it, she has uncovered connection after connection, and as she does, she bounced between them amazed and perplexed, delighted as a child who has discovered the art of skipping. At some penultimate revelation she declared that she had uncovered a miracle, to which I responded that she is, was, and always would be a miracle. She answered, “Well that made me cry. We had something so special. And for you to still be in my in my life is another miracle.” Thank you, my now distant friend, for helping put the universe back into order.  Keep writing.

We are all miracles. Loss only makes me feel that more keenly now than I ever had before.  But not just loss: my daughter, my students, my friends, a Sondheim song, everything, everyone.  Once I felt unequal to the task of acknowledging and praising the miracles that were all around me.  I kept them at a distance and felt flustered, off-balance, and awestruck when they accepted me into their orbits.  When they drifted away, I accepted the loss, almost as glibly as Bishop does in her poem. After all, what was I but some strange satellite from some strange universe?  Even Bishop’s advice, “Write it,” seemed to make the world and the process of loving and losing little more than the material for writing (which, I am half ashamed to say, it can be).

Loss is a disaster and no disaster, because it casts me back out of myself, and so deeply reminds me that I am not the center of a weird universe, but part of something larger. In his poem, “The Cleaving, “ Li-Young Lee calls us “a many-membered body of love.”  So I am reminded, and so I write, part of the miracle and a miracle. A contradiction and a multitude. Brian Brennan for the moment and in perpetuity. My heart fixed here, back in the web, part of this and every other universe, spinning in every direction, and open.

On Being Known

IMG_2982Is there anything worse than being mis-known? Than someone making a claim about how you feel or think that has almost nothing to do with your actual thoughts or feelings? I remember an occasion after one of our Thursday night poker games in Binghamton when some poor soul ventured that no matter what I said, he knew that what I felt in my heart was different. I don’t even remember what we were discussing—maybe Moby Dick. My friend Brian looked at me at that moment, acknowledging the serious breach that had been made.

And of course, there are worse things—1,000 worse things involving the obliteration of the physical being. However, our ability to say, “This is who I am”—to define our mental and spiritual being (which exists fully in concert with our physical selves), is of tantamount importance, especially in a world in which our physical beings are fairly secure. We are privileged to be able to assert this side of our being. But even when chained, we need this self. Both must be unbound.

For the most part, and it almost hurts to admit this, I do not expect to be known in the world. I rarely put the full force of who I am and what I think and how I feel on display. My writing, and these blog posts over the past few years are a first step. But, whether it is a function of the way people know each other, or the fact that, over the years, I have learned to restrain myself in order to fulfill specific tasks in the world, I no longer expect to be fully known. I feel sometimes caught between the poles of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the bounty of Whitman’s Song of Myself—either worrying about being misapprehended, or standing in a field of grass beckoning “Here I am! Here we are!”

The Eliot pole—and he is not holding Prufrock out as an exemplar, but as a warning—burdens me with the sagging weight of doubt that any connection is ever possible. Even the sirens will pass me by. I feel, at times, profoundly sad that anyone, really, ever knows another. This suspicion is tied up in the gnawing Weltschmerz that descends upon me and sends me reeling into the worst and most stupid kind of isolation. When so gripped, I guard myself with cynicism or sarcasm. But those moments are my worst, never my best. They are too easy.

The Whitman pole buoys me. The contradictions don’t matter; in fact, they are an essential part of me, and the world, the great breathing, aching, loving, ecstatic, terrible world surges through me and restores me. My “I” ceases to matter. I become a vessel for a song made up of all the voices of all the things and all the people. I tend toward those voices with ferocity and devotion. Bring it on! “The dancing wagon has come! here is the dancing wagon!”

However, and here is the rub–I am too full of contradictions, too connected to a world outside myself. I feel afloat in a world that values certainty and consistency. Most people seem to seek firmer ground, to limit voices of dissent. I don’t know why, not exactly, not when we are beings of such profoundly possible connection. I have “everything” tattooed around my right ankle. Then I remember Prufrock. Do people live with such doubt? Do they never explore and expand to meet the world like lovers, ready to be torn to shreds and remade by love. Damnit all. Go!

Maybe we are never sure, never sure enough, and especially not in the presence of love. I know that my greatest struggles with being known have come in the presence of more singular love, when there is one person who must bear the shaking I experience between the poles, and then must love the contradictory, magnanimous, possible heart I carry deep inside. And perhaps this is asking too much of one person to be the secret sharer of this heart. I feel difficult, even to myself, and am not sure whether I am knowable or lovable on my own terms, not in a one-on-one kind of way. Maybe the way I am precludes this. Maybe I am best known facet by facet, and not all at once. I am fifty five years old; time passes, slowly and quickly.

Still, I hear the voices, and sing the songs, and cherish the world that is always there, no matter how great the hardship, no matter how awful or wonderful. And I chose, for better or for worse, to write, to scribble down thoughts and ideas and images and characters and stories all in the hope that they would come alive in some stranger’s mind. I do not sing this world to the angel, unless the angel is you, unless we are all, already, angels.

And in some small and not small way, the hope of being known—asserting myself—seems almost like a betrayal of my charge. Sing the world, you man. Give it up! Disappear! You will never disappear! Keep singing. Keep telling stories. Keep connecting. Know the world and love the world.  Find yourself there.