Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Opus Deities

I think I thought my mother was a movie star. She was tiny ---you can’t tell that when you’re little, looking up, but you can see that men are watching her. And you could observe her smile, dazzling, even white teeth behind parted shiny red lips, great legs, and the power, like The Shadow, to cloud men’s minds, starting with my father’s. He was madly in love with her, ‘madly’ being the operative word, as the violence between them was consistent and regular, charted by me on a calendar as soon as I was able to read numbers and make circles, around the age of four. I would draw a ring around the date of the last explosion, estimate the probable time of the next one, and was eerily accurate. Incidents when the police came, summoned by my grandpa—we all lived together in those early times—were noted with a star.
I suppose I thought that great love was signaled by bursts of passion like in the movies, absent the blood. Mostly, as I remember, and was able to reason in recollection, the fights were provoked by her, she was so disappointed by his moving in with her lovable but poor family; his family, though irascible and not much fun to be around, was on so much higher an economic plane, she’d imagined she would be marrying up. His failure to rise—he was a pharmacist and sold condoms for Bauer & Black, a kind of road company Johnson & Johnson, and she mockingly called him a ‘cunjun salesman,’—added to her rage, exacerbated by her conviction that he was cheating on her, a seeming irrationality that might have found footing in the fact that he hit on her younger sister.
The movie star Helen, aka Mom, most resembled was Paulette Goddard, being little and dark, saucy, with that flashing smile and perceptible wit. So when I heard, in Key West, where we’d fled when I was five, under cover of darkness so Daddy wouldn’t intercept us, that ‘Reap the Wild Wind,’ starring that actress, was filming there, I played hooky from school to watch. I’d written a note (I could write by then) signing my mother’s name, saying little Gwen was ill and could not be in school that day. So I stood hypnotized and enchanted on the dock, arduous and uninspiring though the actual movie-making process was, until it was time to go home.
My mother was by then a secretary in the offices of the U.S. Army—as bright as she was fetching, she had mastered Gregg shorthand on our train ride South—but the school had managed to get through to her to report my truancy(I guess my handwriting, at six and a half, was not too convincing.) So when I heard her high heels clacking in the hallway, the fury audible, I braced myself for the worst. It came. She hurled a lamp that missed me, and wielded a wooden yardstick that didn’t. The physical mayhem that apparently gave her and my father such disturbed satisfaction, serving as a kind of foreplay before they healed their anger with sex, had morphed its way onto me, the object of her disaffection. She was always sorry afterwards; I always forgave her. How could I not, when she was a movie star?
So it is at the feet of that apparent masochism that I lay my infatuation with the movies. Not that movies were unkind to me. On the contrary: it was in that protective, cosseting darkness that I was most comfortable. But many were the stars with whom I was besotted, several of whom I came to know personally, through quirks of Fate, or maybe some invisible, guiding hand that elected to impose on my life a deep superficiality. That is not an oxymoron, but an observation. There’s comfort in superficiality, the layers of fat and tissue that lie between the harshness of the world and you, cushioning its ability to inflict an actual wound.
Maybe that’s what accounts for the current celebrity craze. Maybe what’s going on in our time is just so painful and insoluble that most people take refuge from the war and the blind ignorance and their comfort from endless dispatches about Anna Nicole Smith. Or Brangelina, or Vincifer, if, praise God(Jennifer Hudson would say) Aniston gets it back together with Vaughn, or her nose job straightens out more than her septum.
In any case, this is by way of a confession that movies as church for me are over. I knew that the other night watching the Oscars, a ritual I have observed with reverence for more years than I thought to count, the weighty trio of directors having announced, when they finally got to give the award to Scorcese, that they had been close friends for thirty-seven years. I realized then that that was the exact number of years since Sandy Burton had covered our Academy Award mock-party for Time Magazine. 1970. The 42nd Academy Awards it was, given by the Mitchell Academy of Arts and Games, the raised print invitations read. Sandy called it an anti-Oscar party, because it was in the midst of Vietnam, all the liberals hated Bob Hope who was hosting, and John Wayne who was up for, and would receive the award for ‘True Grit.’ So, as noted in a previous Report, everybody who was anybody (and many who weren’t, since Don and I still had a taste at the base of our tongues for real friends) came to 9492 Rembert Lane in Beverly Hills.
But the darker part of the confession is that for me it wasn’t a bit ‘anti.’ I was thrilled at the presence of all those stars, elated and probably drunk with the truth that Time Magazine was at our house and I was getting publicity, which was more than Mother's Milk to me, since my mother's milk was a little sour even at the breast. But still sort of grounded in domesticity—a classmate in the Creative Writing program at Stanford where I went after Bryn Mawr(not as good) said that the reason I was crazy was due to an inner tussle between my mother and my Grandma Gussie, who only wanted to give love and food—I made all the hors d’ouevres for the party, won tons and empanadas and tiny franks rolled in dough (also hand-rolled) which had kept me cooking and baking and frying for days. Still, I also put my children, Robert(2) and Madeleine (4) in black tie, and myself in a beaded Michael Novarese. That is to say I admit not only to buying into but also buying for the Bullshit.
I watched this year’s awards from bed, alone, except for Mimi. I experienced no wish that I were there, or near, or leaping over the giant hedge outside Morton’s that Graydon Carter had had shaped into letters that read VANITY FAIR, that reminded me, when I attended, of the topiary in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining,’-- equally scary. I remember a story of E.M. Forster’s called ‘The Other Side of the Hedge,’ written, I would guess, some time on the brink of his fascination with the mystical and his dance with the Great God Pan. I think, I hope, that I have made it to the other side.
What's there is magic, and invisible. It turn out, particularly in these times, what matters most is that which we cannot see. Especially on television.