Thursday, March 31, 2011

Got That Swag

When we are young we are all baby birds, clean slates awaiting the first mark. The mark is made by our idols, the first images of "cool" that imprint themselves on our consciousness. Whether we realize it or not we're stuck with the idea of "cool" we form from a very young age, and although we can always change and grow and learn new things, those first pieces of cool wedge themselves very deeply into our nascent personas.

Cool is impossible to define in the abstract, it's simply something you know. It's relative. Consensus is a very fragile thing for cool: if something becomes too cool, it's hard for it to retain its aura. Usually once someone is dead and gone it's easier for people to agree on whether or not they were "cool." And of course, when we are kids we are most likely to imprint ourselves on something obvious and extremely popular - there's nothing at all wrong with that. Some people grow out of their cool, some people keep it with them forever. If it's cool for you, no one is going to be able to change your mind. It's never cool to judge.

Identity is pliable, especially for the young. Actors or musicians or artists or athletes who project an aura of cool that appeals to the young remain cool for a long time. When the fans grow up they carry the influence of their idols into adulthood. As we grow older the possibilities for our own lives shrink: every decision we make closes off possibilities. By our mid-twenties we usually are exactly who we will be, with maybe a little wiggle room on either side. We still look to our idols to inform us, and as we grow older the fantasy of a permeable identity becomes the most appealing and transgressive fantasy of them all.

When I was young, really young, I wanted to be a rock star, because everyone did. I wanted to be an astronaut or a scientist and all those other things that seem glamorous to little kids who have no real conception of what those professions actually entail. My parents still have a class newsletter from first grade where I said my favorite subject was math and I wanted to be a scientist: in reality, I would grow up to be awful at math, and could never have been a scientist under any circumstances short of a sudden extinction-level event that left me the only man on earth with working arms.

But when I got older and reached that age when we are most impressionable - when we start to peer outside our nuclear family unit, looking beyond our parents for concrete role models and behavior patterns to emulate - it wasn't a rock star or an athlete who made the biggest impression on me. It was Jack Lemmon.

This might seem odd if you don't know me.

Recently I sat down with Violet and watched Save the Tiger for the first time in a few years. She had never seen it before. When we had finished watching it she looked over at me and said something to the effect that, she really understood just why that movie would appeal to me. Extrapolating backwards, it was easy for her to see that this was a movie that I had seen when I was young that had imprinted itself on me, for whatever reason. Sometimes I talk like Jack Lemmon, apparently, without even realize it. The way he wears that shiny gray Italian suit - never has such an expensive suit looked so cheap! - slumping around early 70s LA with the weight of the entire world on his shoulders - that, to me, was cool. That's how I walk when I think no one is watching, or when I think everyone's watching.

I guess I can see why Toshiro Mifune and Steve McQueen are cool. They are cool. I'm partial to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke myself. But to me there has always been something a bit obvious in that kind of cool - a young man's cool, a lazy and dangerous cool. Lemmon, on the other hand, was never a young man - even in his earliest roles, Mr. Roberts and Some Like It Hot, for instance - he's a young man playing an old man, cranky and high-strung and always just two steps behind everyone else. He's a striver and a searcher, with anxious eyes, someone whose only real composure comes in the moment just before disaster strikes. If there was ever a real life Donald Duck - and I mean Carl Barks' classic Donald Duck, the Donald of the 1940s - it was Jack Lemmon.

Here's the secret to Jack Lemmon. Whether he was playing comedy or drama his virtues as a performer never wavered. He was always that guy in just over his head, with a touch of panic at the edges when things didn't go quite the way he planned. He's that guy in The Apartment and he's that guy in Days of Wine and Roses. He's that guy in The Odd Couple and he's that guy in The China Syndrome. It's only the context that dictates whether we're supposed to be laughing at him or crying with him. You know, like life.

Save the Tiger is one many respects an odd film. On face value, it's one of the most depressing films ever made: the movie is about a man having one of the worst days you can possibly imagine, a bad day on the heels of a string of even worse days. This is America at the height of the bad old seventies, with Vietnam not quite done, the Watergate scandal in its infancy and the recession deepening. Five minutes into the movie you're taken aback by how dark the whole thing is - every scene is another rock on Harry Stoner's back. Ten minutes in and you're ready to slit your wrists. But fifteen minutes in, you realize that it's not so bad after all - things keep getting worse for Harry, but it's not a movie about failure. It's a movie about resilience. Harry doesn't have anything left on which to hold, no secret reservoir of strength. All he has to go back to is baseball, from when he was a kid - the only real baseball. Every time he stops long enough to gather his thoughts he goes back to the beaches of Enzio and the bloodiest days of the war. The onslaught of awfulness never subsides, never wavers. Literally everything Harry encounters is broken: if he's not arranging a prostitute for a rich buyer, that buyer is dying of a heart attack because the hooker was too intense. He can't even walk down the street without being assaulted by news of mass extinctions.

After a while, though, it gets funny, and you begin to see just how Harry's resilience actually works: it's not the strength to triumph, it's the strength to endure. As I said, by about the fifteen minute mark you realize you're not watching a tragedy in the conventional sense, you're watching the modern-day trials of Job. It's funny because it's not happening to you except, of course, when it is. And that's when you need you sense of humor the most.

And that's what always draws me back. In our moments of greatest need we're not Bullitt and we're not Sanjuro, we're just Harry Stoner. Sometimes all we can hope for is a walk along the beach at dawn - and sometimes, if we're lucky, that's all we really need.

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