#145. How Green Was My Valley (1941)

I probably still drink more than the average person but it’s not the gargantuan seven beers I was having each day between the ages of like 22 and 25. Back then I’d walk to the Ale House a mile from where I lived with my parents and get loaded on my day off, beginning in the afternoon, or else I’d go there after work, showing up at 8:30 or 9 and leaving at midnight. Did this seven days a week if I could afford it. Ran up credit when I couldn’t, drank cheaper stuff. That lasted for a little over a year. For some reason it started slowing down so that I was only drinking that way two or three nights a week (I think I was working on my second novel, and my parents had just gotten divorced, and I started going for these ten- and fifteen-mile walks that took three to five hours) and then one morning, waking up with an awful hangover, I started Thousand Movie Project on a whim and I’m still at it. It’s kept me so busy – occasionally lending my focus toward some work of fiction – that my drinking’s gone way down. Maybe ten drinks a week.

Every now and then I overdo it. Like the other night I had a ladyfriend over and we were reminiscing about something, and also talking about relationship stuff, and over the course of four or five hours I drank an entire bottle of wine by myself, knocked out at 3 a.m., woke up at 6, vomited and then felt sluggish and two-dimensional for about fifteen hours. It was awful. Prior to that, though, the last really bad hangover I can remember was the morning I woke up to watch How Green Was My Valley, a masterpiece that I’m a bit jaded about on account of it beat Citizen Kane for the 1941 Best Picture Academy Award (which I guess makes sense, as this is maybe not as good a movie but is definitely more commercial and befitting the Academy’s standards) and also because it’s so dour, so heavy, that watching it with a hangover just made me irritable. Especially the stifled romance between Maureen O’Hara, the family’s only daughter, and the local pastor played by Walter Pidgeon. I was drinking this thick, overpriced, carrot-looking juice from Starbucks that boasts of hydrating & restorative qualities (bullshit), I was low on cash from having spent so much money on booze the night before, I felt like shit and here were these two very attractive people with very clear chemistry who refused to just throw down and fuck each other because, what?, it betrayed convention?

Just didn’t have the patience for it.

But it’s a John Ford picture and while I hadn’t yet read Scott Eyman’s wonderful biography I was still interested in the man himself, and I knew that this was the moviepicture that’d beaten probably the greatest film ever made to win that year’s award for best movie, so I was curious about it – if not so inclined to like it.

how green was my valley poster 2How Green Was My Valley is about a family in an Irish mining community. The main character is a kid named Huw (pronounced like “Hugh”) who, after diving into a freezing river, temporarily loses the use of his legs. So he’s bedridden and gets a lot of reading done and interacts, with doting relatives as they come in and out of his room. He’s in the position of a viewer, watching other people’s lives unfold as his remains stagnant. It appears to be from this vantage that his adult self narrates the film, talking about the drama between these older sons and their father, the affections of the mother, etc.

how green was my valley 2It’s a family saga, spanning decades, and it’s a beautiful movie that, alas, is too big to take a shot at summarizing. But insofar as there’s a plot to the movie it’s about the workers at the mine going on strike when their wages are lowered, and less-experienced cheaper labor is hired in their stead, and also the story of unrequited love (mentioned above) between O’Hara and Pidgeon.

But telling you that it’s a family saga set at the turn of the century, and that it involves a band of male Irish relatives who work and fight and bond while doing labor-intensive work in a mine,  and also that it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, you can probably guess at some of the story beats it’ll entail: somebody’s gonna get trapped in the mine, there’ll be a tense effort to rescue that person, and whether that person does or does not die we know that there’ll be a moment of reconciliation in that moment when it all looks bleakest. We can guess that the crippled boy will regain control of his legs in a dramatic moment. There’ll be a mother who lives to serve her boys, who folds her hands atop her belly and tilts her head with adoration as she sees them out the door with their lunchpails, and who at some point flashes a subtle control over the domineering patriarch.

john ford pipe

It is what it is. It’s really good, very tender and revealing and feels at once like a natural extension of The Grapes of Wrath (Ford’s previous movie on the List) and a strangely sentimental turn. Both movies are about families working through trying times, families whose lives revolve around one another and whose members find – amongst each other – just about everything they could ever need: love, encouragement, criticism, forgiveness. It’s tender. Knowing that the tough, scowling, unrelentingly dutiful Ford, who made his bones in Hollywood with classic westerns, had these kinds of stories inside him, and that he was willing to sketch them so tenderly on screen, makes me think about the forever-scary risk that lots of artists take, after a certain amount of prosperity in their niche, in trying their hand at something new, to explore the kinda subject matter that they maybe don’t feel so comfortable discussing in their day-to-day. And so now – given all these factors of a storyteller breaking out of his mold, challenging himself, exploring the idea of family – I’m thinking of the aspects of my own family life that I maybe don’t wanna talk about. One of them, the biggest one, has to do with the aforementioned divorce.

My parents separated when I was twentysomething so it felt silly to be too upset about it, as I was ostensibly at a point where I was supposed to be seeing them as adults with their own needs and faults and lifecourses and not as these two authority figures whose union was somehow integral to my own life. It’d make sense for a kid to look at it that way, but not an adult. So I’m not too sure how I felt about it at the time because I kinda just buried myself in work. Also started going on those crazy-long walks (inspired by the LA Beast’s now-aborted effort to walk across America). Still not totally sure I know how I feel about it. But those months of the immediate aftermath are probably the only episode in my life that, when I think about it, I quickly kinda shake my head and switch the radio station, or go do something. It’s like I can’t bear to think about it. I feel ridiculous in referring to it as the worst period of my life, since everyone else in the family was either just as upset or infinitely more upset than I was, and also because I was an adult at the time, but it was clearly pretty grueling. More so than I was willing to confront. More so than I’m apparently still willing to confront.

amis.JPG
Amis, who I really like watching and listening to but whose novels I have a hard time with.

I think Martin Amis is now on his second marriage, maybe third, and I remember seeing him talk at some point about the usual agonies of divorce, what it’s like for the lovers parting ways, but he also spoke with remorse about what it does to kids – something notoriously difficult to pinpoint and/or articulate, but I think he did a good job, saying that what it does is it instills in your children, from an early age, a deep suspicion about the legitimacy of love. Which I guess he was describing as like a crack in their innocence. You realize there is no Santa, the good die young, there’s no evidence of God or Heaven and, finally, that the Big-L, the thing that allegedly conquers all, does not, in fact, conquer very much.

Bob (half of the Bob & Lynda pair who pop up here so often) sent me a letter when he heard about the separation to tell me about how he reacted when his own parents separated. He was fourteen at the time and he made an interesting point of saying that he felt their divorce had robbed him of certain ideas he’d been fostering about his future. Plans about how he’d go from one thing to the next and always have this one constant base of operations from which to take those risks. This one constant net in which to fall if he should fail.

It was helpful to hear him put that into words, cuz I was feeling something similar.

What I think it comes down to – and this is part of the reason I feel a connection with John Ford, the tough guy who occasionally made some tremendously sentimental piece of art – is that I have a hard time respecting my feelings about it. Mainly because I was an adult when it happened, I’m still an adult, and I should be doing my own thing.

I’m close with both parents and touch base with them a lot (my mom will say not enough). And I think of it within Amis’s framework about killing a kid’s innocence: well, first of all, I’m not a kid, and secondly my innocence should already be pretty much gone at this age. Twenty-whatever. Like I’ll think of the things that we generally associate with stealing somebody’s innocence: sex, drugs, violence, work, money. I’ve had at least a passing acquaintance with all of em.

But then my parents get divorced and suddenly I’m all brittle about it.

Ahdunno. I’ll regret even posting this at some point. Try not to ask me about it if we tend to talk in person.

As for the movie: it’s great. Check it out if you’re into sweeping family saga period pieces.

how green was my valley 1
The family gathers ’round.
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