[Editor’s note from the future: Lemme just mention here in the opening that, being roughly a full year ahead of schedule with these essays, I do on occasion touch them up with current-day issues. Look at yesterday’s post and, though it was written almost a year ago, I touched it up with some details about what happened yesterday. Well, this essay was written in its entirety about thirteen months ago. It’s so saturated in the drama not only of that larger life period but of the day on which I wrote it. Kind of embarrassing and petty and self-pitying, looking back on it, but this was the genuine and immediate response I had after seeing the movie. So I’m posting the whole thing more or less untouched. Rest assured, my life situation — as well as the relationships depicted here in — has changed dramatically since then.]
Bette Davis does for me here what she did in Jezebel, another movie I was expecting to hate and ended up adoring, which is to somehow showcase extreme vulnerability while simultaneously presenting herself as a total authority on screen, the Master Presence, and so I find myself kind of suspended between two types of marvels, each one complementing the other. Not sure I can say that I like this movie as much as Jezebel, but I definitely fell for Davis again, and I had a great time doing so.
And, speaking of contrasting emotions while watching Davis onscreen, the movie’s subject matter — the story of a privileged young woman whose autonomy is stifled by an overprotective parent — both pulled me away from my issues of the moment, as all good art oughta do, while simultaneously rubbing my face in the Trouble. Last night, while I watched it, I’d just gotten home from a day at the shooting range with Bob. We took four of his pistols to a range way out by the Everglades and fired probably 200 shots by ourselves, the only customers on a rainy Thursday afternoon apart from an elderly rifleman in a different section. It was fun. Exciting. I’d been scared to go but Bob pressed me and I gave in and I’m grateful.
I didn’t it to my dad in advance because I knew he’d wince about it, and hem and haw, tell me that now he has to be worried all day and Jesus, Alex, I wish you’d consult me before commiting to these things (i.e. ask for permission) — I’d get a guilt trip, basically. Probably a silent treatment to follow. Apparently my brother told him while I was there. When I got home he gave me a wince and asked if Bob is careful when he “does these things”.
A month ago we had a spat and didn’t speak for seven days because, apart from constantly alerting me to the fact that I’ll soon be without insurance, he would ask me, as a quick follow-up to me telling him about any kind of writing accomplishment or landmark int he Project, “are you thinking about getting a full-time job, though?”
Whatever. A friend of mine recently met with one of my dad’s colleagues. He told the colleague he was a friend of my dad’s son.
“The younger one, Alex, the writer.”
“Oh,” say the colleague, rolling his eyes, “the idealist.”
My dad introduced me to some of his friends recently ata big dinner and I could feel something in his silence at my side, whenever people were asking me about what I was up to, that he felt embarrassed. Maybe I’m projecting that. But haven’t you ever been standing with somebody you know very well, soembody with whom you’ve kept close quarters for a long time, and you can feel a sort of tone to their silence? Sounds weird to say this, but silences don’t all sound the same.
Anyway. Bette Davis’s character here goes through the same thing. Before her transformation from a plain Jane into the ravishing Hollywood beauty, she has to sit around the house and overhear herself being discussed in tones of condescension, frustration, disappointment and a tenderness that borders on baby talk.
Bette Davis’s father figure is a doctor played by Claude Raines, who’s charming as fuck — and actually, seeing as his character has the potential to heap shame and ruin on our hero, I’m realizing now that the movie is constantly flirting with disaster, making us think for a few moments that we’re nearing some calamity, it never actually goes in that direction. In fact, it reels us back from the brink of ruin before we’ve even had a chance to get seriously worried.
This came out in 1942, shortly after the U.S. got involved in WWII. Is it possible that, as with the Great Depression ten years earlier, the ’40s will be characterized by a studio’s interest in boosting the morale of its audience? Showing that, yes, calamity may be a possible outcome, but look at the grace with which we can steer our way right past it?