#10. The Phantom Carriage (1921)

I was thinking while watching The Phantom Carriage of this conversation between Norman Mailer and Charlie Rose where, when asked why he’s still such an advocate of the novel, Mailer says that, among other art forms, the novel is “the highest form of moral inquiry,” which sounds very nice, you have to admit, and I’m obviously inclined to agree with him since that’s the career I’m pursuing. But The Phantom Carriage, in its simplicity and sincerity and darkness, is a strong sort of moral investigation (which I know sounds pretentious) that I think it could’ve boosted Mailer’s estimation of the medium (Mailer’s own directorial forays are certainly nothing to celebrate).

On top of being technically innovative with its translucent phantoms walking around the set, The Phantom Carriage hits me as a powerful work of art for how unrelentingly bleak it is. The happy-ish ending does feel like a bit of a copout, but still. Every character in this movie has done something that’s caused a great deal of pain to other people, and the depiction of how they struggle to live with themselves thereafter is as brutal as the stubborn reality of such things. A line from The Counselor (a movie with which I have a really complicated relationship, I’ll probably bring it up a lot) came to mind a couple times. Jefe (Ruben Blades) says to the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), “The world in which you seek to undo the mistakes that you made is different from the world where the mistakes were made.”

But I also keep wondering if it’s normal or healthy for me to be so concerned about these themes at 25. I have a friend who says that I fetishize the lives of Old Man writers, which feels accurate, and I had a therapist a few years ago who said that by saturating myself with the worries and words of guys in their 70s and 80s that I’m basically misleading myself into thinking, for instance, that things like arthritis and estate taxes are worries that should be at the forefront of my mind. That I’m training myself to think like a person who’s at the end of their life as opposed to the beginning. Like remember how I mentioned in the last post how stressed I was about the fact that, at 25, I’m not where I’d like to be, professionally, as though 25 is like The End of the Line? Why do I talk like that? It’s true that I shouldn’t take longevity for granted, or act like I’ve got all the time in the world to do the things I wanna do, but I also probably shouldn’t be so doom-&-gloom in my 20s. On the other hand, this anxiety about some quickfalling sky probably motivates me to get more things done than I otherwise would.

phantom-carriage-cry-gifThe Phantom Carriage starts out as a story about a woman who works at the Salvation Army, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), who’s on her deathbed with tuberculosis and, as her dying wish, is asking the people around her to go out into the night (it’s New Year’s Eve) and find David Holm (Victor Sjostrom), the first man she ever tried to help and the one who has most eluded her efforts. He keeps destroying his life, and the lives of his family. Turns out Holm has gotten himself killed in a drunken accident and is now being visited by the Grim Reaper, arriving in the shape of an old friend, who walks him through all of the fuckups of his life. Bit like A Christmas Carol.

Something about the slowstepping stoicism of the Reaper here really jangles my chains. Like life itself, I guess, he just doesn’t pause to observe your pain. No pity or anything. Ahdunno. Shakes me up.

Maybe the reason I find this movie so grueling is because I see a bit of myself in Holm. Or a lot. Holm is a drunk and when things get bad I tend to haunt bars a lot and for a big part of 2016, while my parents were going through a divorce, I went on a bad streak of getting fall-down drunk and shouting at relatives. It wasn’t good. I look back on it, though, and want to give myself a pass. “It was a stressful time, a lot was going on, I wasn’t myself,” et cetera. Not sure if I should allow that. The people who got the brunt of my nastiness seem to be forgiving about it.

There’s this scene in the movie where Holm goes to the Salvation Army, drunk, because it’s cold outside and he wants a warm place to sleep. They welcome him in. While Holm is unconscious on a cot, Sister Edit takes his coat and starts patching it up, sewing the pockets where they’ve torn at the seams. She stays up all night doing this. When Holm wakes up in the morning he marvels at her handiwork. He looks moved by the gesture. Then he puts on the coat, looks at the smiling Sister Edit, and starts ripping off all the patches, tearing the pockets, undoing her work. He’s laughing as he does it. He says to her, “I like it this way.” But then he stops laughing. Because of course he doesn’t like it this way. The issue is that he hates himself for having ended up where he is, and now he wants to punish himself.

phantom carriage coat.gif

I haven’t hit such a bottom yet, thankfully, but in the interest of candor I’ll admit to getting close. Drinking has helped to get me a lot better acquainted with shame, in all of its complicated shapes. I’ve never seen a depiction, like in this scene with the coat, of that impulse to destroy the good things that keep coming to you when you know that you don’t deserve them. The impulse to punish yourself when the universe refuses to do it for you.

Looks pretty familiar.


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