Friday, January 15, 2010

Two Favorite Images Of Marriage, In Book And Film

Today is the wedding anniversary of some good friends, and I want to honor it with two beautiful images: one from a book I loved as a child, one from the last film of the great director Akira Kurosawa.

I'm a member of the generation that was weaned on the Babar picture books, created by Jean de Brunhoff. Babar is a noble, smart, jolly, kind and loving elephant who bravely meets every challenge that an orphan faces in a harsh world. We, his peewee readers, had suffered with him through incredible hardships which illustrator de Brunhoff didn't whitewash. When Babar's father, the King Elephant, dies from eating a bad mushroom, he's painted a ghastly green. When Babar's mother is shot by wicked hunters in pith helmets, she falls with a look of agony on her face. But Babar meets every challenge bravely, and rises to become King of the Elephants himself. After everything we'd gone through with him, it was a huge satisfaction to see him in his place in the sun, complete with red royal robes (fluffed up with an ermine border) and golden crown.

Now that Babar is King, he can marry his sweet friend and soulmate Celeste. We readers (at least the girls) have been primed for this event for some time, since Babar and Celeste have known each other from childhood. The wedding is a magnificent affair, but my favorite image occurs after all the crowds and pealing bells have left.

A relative very kindly sent me the link to this picture, which is #9:

It's nighttime, and Babar and Celeste are standing outside in the dark. They're side by side, and we see their silhouettes: Babar in his royal robes, Celeste in her snowy wedding dress, both with major crowns. They're looking up, silently and happily, into a vast starry sky.

For me, this picture illustrates a saying which a very wise person told me: "Good partners aren't always gazing into each other's eyes morning, noon and night. But they're looking in the same direction." And my next favorite Marriage image, from the film MADADAYO, also reminds me of this.

MADADAYO was the last film of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The film was greeted by many with savage reviews, and some called it a work of senility. But Kurosawa's senility, if that's what it was, still had lovely flashes of power which would have been considered the peak of achievement for any other director.

In MADADAYO, during World War II, the very old teacher and his wife have been bombed out of their home. They have only a three-walled gardener's hut to live in. In the next fifteen seconds we see their next year in the wheeling of the seasons: the old couple sitting quietly together on the open side of the hut, peacefully looking out, in every weather: through springtime blossoming to scorching summer to storms of leaves to snow. It's a sequence of stunning emotional power, because although they've lost what most people would call "everything," what we sense is their enjoyment and completeness. They have each other, and an interesting world to look at, and so they have everything.

(Happy Anniversary, and many more of them, N. and J.!)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Part 2: New Year's Eve: Billy In Trouble (continued)

(Blogger's Note: I posted last week's excerpt --New Year's Eve: Billy In Trouble--as a cautionary tale. It was meant to point out to hard-partyers of all ages that there are worse things than boredom. But it turns out I didn't have the heart to leave Billy at the point of being torn limb from limb by backwoods Deliverance-type smashed-drunk savages, or gobbled alive by a wild dog pack, so here's the rest of the excerpt. As it begins, Billy is being thrown out of a speeding car. He is the narrator.)

"...He's throwing up! He'll ruin the car!" Friedelund yelled, and I was seized by enormous hairy hands and flung out the door of the moving car, sailed through at least twenty feet of night air like a shooting star and landed rolling in the ditch. The car peeled out smoking. The dog pack began howling again.

"I stayed put in that ditch, afraid to so much as put my head up. Between the young savages and the wild dogs, I didn't see how I dared stir all night. I lay there shaking as it grew colder and colder. I wondered if people could go crazy from fear.

"I'd just had this thought when headlights swung over the hill and a car followed fast. I thought it was the seven giant kids coming back to finish me off. I tried to crawl away fast and low like a snake, and collapsed. The lights swung over me. I snapped tight into the fetal position, hoping to protect vital organs, and locked my arms over my head. The car slowed, then stopped. There was a pause. Then the car door opened and there was the sound of a great big boot setting itself down with deliberation on gravel. Another boot followed, and after a minute, the boots approached me.


"I knew that voice. It was Brian Aaltonen, my Uncle Joe's deputy sheriff, and that was Brian's shaving lotion, the very one Joe had teased him about that afternoon. "Whoo hoo!" Joe had said. "Beware all fillies!" Now I lay there with my nose frozen by icy snot to ditch weeds and although I'm not religious I thought silently," Thank you Lord of mercy, thank you Lord God of Hosts for Brian."

"Goddamn it, Billy, your uncle told you he never wanted to find you passed out and buck naked in a ditch somewheres. Was it too much to ask?"

"I'm not naked," I said. My coat and jeans had a hell of a lot of peppermint schnapps spilled on them, but at least I was still wearing them.

Then I couldn't remember moving, but somehow found myself in the front seat of Brian's car. He said, "If you throw up in my car, I'll nail you to the hood like an ornament."

He drove me back to Uncle Joe's without a word. I kept looking at him sideways. Brian dressed for New Year's Eve was a sight to behold. He wore black from head to foot. He had a fine, bulky black leather jacket that made rich sounds when he moved. He was laden in gold, a flash of chains at his neck, but the gold was not brighter than his blond mullet.

I kept expecting a big meaty haranguing lecture from him, but there was none. I couldn't believe it. When we approached Uncle Joe's driveway he turned the engine and lights off.

"Window?" he said, and we coasted right up to my bedroom window.

"See you in church," Brian said. Then I climbed out, and he coasted away. We never mentioned it again.

(excerpt from the novella BILLY IN TROUBLE.)