Friday, February 29, 2008

Breakfast at Tiffany's

I am a great fan of classic movies, and this is one of my favorites. I first saw it, as I saw many, curled up at home watching WGN t.v. in Chicago, long before the days of video, dvds, or even cable, when one had to watch movies as they aired, snipped and full of commercials (anyone remember EMPIRE?). Last time it was with my daughter, also for some reason watching t.v. late at night. I wondered at the time what she would think of Holly Golightly, the character who has been described by Matthew Cash as "a woman who makes a holiday of life, but treads through it lightly."

Late last night the image of Holly came to me all of a sudden, perhaps the way it did to Joe Bell, the bartender, in Capote's story. I was thinking about Rowan Williams and my own youthful descent into the desolation of European literature and philosophy. While I doubt I fell into that pit with anything like the knowledge and intellect of someone like Williams, descend I did, going from Camus and Sartre in high school French classes (with M. Sheridan's illustrative bounding around the room screeching and pointing, "la fenêtre ... la table" etc. "EXISTE!"), my senior European History papers on Dostoevesky's Brothers Karamazov and Nietzche's conception of Good and Evil (for which I read all I could find translated and written by Walter Kaufmann), not to mention college years with the likes of Foucault, Derrida, etal., and the law school years studying how law can and cannot reflect and shape culture and behavior. While I'm sure I did not understand even half of what I read (and now recall even less), I did grasp desolation, the loss of certainty, and the fear of relativism of all kinds.

What I also came to learn in the years following is that most people have not read these kinds of writings, and even those who have, go along in life pretty much the same way as if they had not. While there is something to be said for reading for self-understanding and learning what one can about one's culture (high as well as the rest) and that of others, the fact of the matter is that most people go ahead and try to live, love when they can, and do their best to get along with friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers, without worrying about meaning or coherency or the strength of the meta-narratives that bind or loose their cultures.

So what does any of this have to do with Holly Golightly? Well, who better to represent Western decadence and "self-creation" as Williams sees it. Capote tells us that Holly says, "...home is where you feel at home. I'm still looking," and "I'll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead." Williams speaks of the "homeless soul" of European culture and its religion, in which being a Christian has long been "defined as someone always refusing to settle down."

With all due respect to Capote's original vision of Holly, with its bitter satire and more darkly comic shading, it is the Holly created by Audrey Hepburn and Blake Edwards, who ends up clutching Cat in the rain with Paul (George Peppard), that most people know and remember. Hollywood and Mancini bring her, if not home, at least to a kind of belonging that she never knew before, a belonging that requires her to save Cat and risk all the harm and hurt that comes daring to love and take responsibility for caring for another.

Sentimental? yes. Materialistic? Maybe. How does one describe love shining in on a morning standing on Fifth Avenue and gazing in the window at Tiffany's? Should one fall prey to the dreamy strains of Moon River, the designer clothes and hats, and the luminous eyes and lovely voice of Audrey Hepburn that clothe an odd, arch tale of a young woman who escapes from a poor, rural childhood that leaves her orphaned and married young, and takes her to the big city, where she prostitutes herself and pretends that it is all just a romantic adventure?

For better or for worse, the spell works for most people. I would not want to claim the movie is the hallmark of Western civilization or even the best cinema, but I think there is something about it that holds up against the "red meanies." As in many classic American tales, there is no solace or salvation to be found in rural or small town life, where Holly's real problems began when she was orphaned as a child, left to forage for food on her own, and finally taken in marriage at age 14. Nor does sophisticated city life offer much better, just moving scenes of parties and noise, full of plots and dreams of finding men and money that will keep Holly moving but not tie her down or try to tame the wild, restless thing inside her.

In the end it all comes down to just a woman, a man, and a cat standing in an alley, soaking wet in the rain. That's all. All it ever is. People. Together. For awhile, at least. And then there is "The End" with screen credits rolling in the background.

The crazy thing about Americans is that we keep dreaming, despite all odds, despite constantly having to re-invent ourselves and forgetting what we did yesterday. Sometimes the dreams turn to nightmares, but we keep picking ourselves up to start over again, holding the dirt in our hands and facing the future.

Do I want my daughter to live a life like Holly's? Of course not. But I'd rather she had something of her spirit, her quest for freedom, and her unwillingness to sell her soul to the first man who comes along rather than live as most women have long had to live in traditional cultures throughout the world. There are worse things than trying to steer one's way through the hazards of choice or uncertainty -- like being imprisoned in traditions or circumstances that outsiders see as meaningful, coherent, and life-sustaining when they are quite the opposite. Sometimes escape is the only way to reclaim life, and a society that offers few if any opportunities for doing so can entomb many. In the end, however, escape is not enough. The touch of another and the tremor of divinity in that touch, the sense of true belonging to and for one another, is what finally brings us all home.

Above: Movie theatre poster advertisement for Breakfast at Tiffany's © 1961 Paramount Picturesm image from wiki

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