Friday, October 07, 2005

Things That Make Life Worth Living, Part V

Before we get to the final installment, I want to add one more to my list of Things That Make Life Not Worth Living: coating your pants in hotwing sauce the day after you did laundry. Evidently I should eat wearing a full bodysuit of moist towelettes.

And off we go...

Fitzgerald's final few pages of the Great Gatsby:
The pagination varies, depending on the copy, but I'm starting with, "Gatsby's house was still empty when I left..." What follows can be described (at least by me) as seven of the finest paragraphs in American literature. In this abrupt, ambivalent conclusion, Nick (the narrator) and Fitzgerald (the author) finally connect the sutextual dots of a masterful social commentary. When Nick says that "the party was over," Fitzgerald, writing on the eve of the Roaring Twenties, is talking about much, much more than just Gatsby's summertime gatherings. Here Gatsby's dilemma is America's, struggling between the shame of a troubled past and the hope for a better future. And, when Gatsby's past meets his present, it literally kills him, leaving everyone else to ignore the problem at hand or try desperately to act as though nothing's changed ("everybody's making love or else expecting rain," as Dylan sang). Between Gatsby's demise, Tom's relentless hubris, Daisy's flawed compassion, Nick's literal placement in the middle of it all, and that sublime, aborted statement "And one fine morning--" I'm not sure any passage has more beautifully and accurately accounted what it is to be a modern American, riddled with questions, and staring straight at the future without any answers.

But only if not taken seriously. It's a daily fortune cookie, but a prescription rather than a prediction. It's quite a thing to wake up and read a paragraph telling you about the day before you live it. "Make improvements to your home." I don't have one. "Somebody is waiting to betray you." Thanks, I'll keep a look-out. "You're feeling frisky, romance is just around the corner." Well, now that you mention it... Read, and live, with caution.

Kanawha River Valley, Charleston, West Virginia:
For some people in West Virginia (of which my great aunt is one), beauty is as close as their own backyard. For example, in Belle (a suburb of Charleston), the Kanawha River marks the border of the town, and many houses sit literally on top of its banks. If you know a little about West Virginia, you know it's one of the most naturally beautiful states in America, and if you know a little more, you know that the Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio River, carves a path right through the state's most scenic mountain views. These views that have served as a backdrop to the lives of my extended family and many of my own best memories. Anywhere along the river, you'll see rusty pontoons, creaking barges, and squealing kids, hanging from well-worn rope swings, too scared to just let go. There's so much simple, subtle perfection here that it makes the state's slogan ring louder than a riverboat's horn: West Virginia, Almost Heaven.

The "Yum Yum," Oxford, England:
For all I know they sell these things all over England, but I only saw them in a single Oxford patisserie down the street from St. John's. Though the British love to call their horrific entrees by dessert names ("meat pie with potatoes," "shepherd's pie," and "potato-ridden carb-stravaganza"), this actual dessert makes up for the otherwise bland, painful experience of British cuisine. My friends from Birmingham-Southern and I would get a yum yum after most meals to make sure our palates still worked. Part of the enjoyment is ordering a yum yum from the deary-looking cashier, who is probably depressed because he makes the yum yums and doesn't get to eat the yum yums. Part is washing it down with some cold elderflower. However, most of the enjoyment is the pastry itself: a dumbell-shaped, soft (but not flaky) pastry with whipped vanilla icing and chocolate lining the top. My friend Josh said that each yum yum would take a year off your life. And, let me tell you as someone who doesn't even like pastries: what are you really enjoying at 85, anyway?

The "Bike-scene" in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:
No, I'm not talking about the actual bike-riding scene with Paul Newman (Butch) and Katharine Ross (Etta Place, Sundance's lady) where they ride without Robert Redford (Sundance) while "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" plays in the background, although that's enjoyable in a Taster's-Choice-moment kind of way. It's what happens when they return that makes this short scene one the most interesting pieces of screenwriting I've found. Here's Etta, back from an afternoon with Butch, glowing flirtatiously. Here's Butch, who literally stole her from Sundance's bed for this afternoon together, and who clearly knows her better and loves her more than Sundance. And here's the dialogue:

Etta: Do you ever wonder if, had I met you first, we'd been the ones to get involved?
Butch: We are involved, don't you know that? (Etta looks shocked) You're riding on my bicycle. In some Arabian countries, that's the same as being married. (Sundance comes out, roused from his sleep.)
Sundance: Hey! What are you doing?
Butch: Stealing your woman.
Sundance, scratching himself: Take her.

Sundance goes back inside, and that's it. No emotional fireworks, no knock-down drag-out fight, no contrived banter. Butch says with a grin what he wishes he was doing, but what he knows he can't do. And Sundance, knowing Etta loves him for his indifference to her, plays the part: "take her." Then her goes inside, knowing she's coming after him. It's one of those rare moments when everyone in the scene says exactly what they should say, and not another word more.

Pearl Jam's, "Nothingman":
No song means more to me. I wanted to save this for the last entry on the last day, because I wasn't sure how I'd approach it. The words and music are by Eddie Vedder, both huge contributions, but Ed's vocal performance is what places this song firmly in the Pantheon. Pearl Jam's biography, Five Against One, tells me the song was written about the relationship between Eddie's mother and stepfather, but it could've been anyone who has loved and lost. Apart from the fact that Eddie as at the absolute top of his lyrical game and that the band's performance is nearly perfect, the vocals literally and figuratively soar above the rest of the song. Vedder's three choruses tell the whole story--the first resolving on a low note, the second landing on a wary leading tone, and the final chorus soaring up an octave. It's here, at the song's most crucial moment ("into the sun/burn, burn/nothingman...") that Eddie's vocal performance can rival anyone's of anytime in any genre. The timbre is wavering yet unshakable, vulnerable yet strong, as though Eddie's omniscient narrator simultaneously condemns, forgives, and pities the ballad's characters. If the best art embodies paradox, "Nothingman" achieves something special, as its protagonist is somehow freed by his own tragic demise.

And I'm spent.



DJ. Mj W said...

So, its taken me about two years but I finally am starting to come around to MMJ. This has nothing to do with your final post. But, really I only have it still moves, and i'm thinking maybe its just this album....i still have some qualms about them......something i can't name, something i can't place my finger on. but the things i like off of ISM i really like...the things i don't like, I really don't like. But i've always come back to give them another chance, and i always run away.

Chris Milam said...

It sounds like they give you tough love. If, after two years, you're still not completely sure, you have a fever, and the only cure is seeing them live. Do it, and rejoice. (I'll write about this show this week)

Anonymous said...

I am notorious for disliking The Great Gatsby, but even I have always conceded that the last two pages are good stuff. I stand by your choosing to praise the last seven paragraphs above the rest of the book.

-Ross K.

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