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Author Archives: KWadsworth

Thirteen, Thirty-One, Forty-Nine

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Some years back, I was at a neo-Pagan shop picking up a particularly nice-smelling incense they specialized in.  After he’d fetched it for me, the clerk suddenly gave me an intense stare, peering at me through his glasses and between his shaggy bangs.  “When’s your birthday?” he asked.

“……why?”

He grabbed a notepad.  “I want to do your numerology,” he said.  It was a bit slow at his counter, but that still doesn’t explain why he was that determined to give me a complete numerological workup at that exact moment.  He asked me my birthdate and name, and then, pen flying across the paper and fixing me with intense looks as he spoke, he gave me a five minute dissertation on numerology, complete with telling me my birth number, how to calculate it, what such a number portends, and how to calculate a separate number based on my name and how it also affected me.

I have forgotten nearly all of what he told me – I’ve always been a little dubious of numerology – with one exception.  “The thing about life,” he said, “is that it goes in eighteen-year patterns.  Or, more like pairs of nine-year patterns,” he added, sketching a curved line for me on the page – up, then down, then back up.  “It takes you nine years to go from here to here,” he said, pointing first at the beginning of the line up high, and then the valley.  “And then, it takes another nine years to go from the bottom here back up to here.  And then it repeats,” he said, continuing the line in a few more swoops up and down the page.  “So if you want any insight into where you are now, a good way to find out is to look back eighteen years to see what was happening to you then.  That’s when you were at the same place in the pattern.  Not nine years,” he warned, staring at me and tapping the paper.  “Eighteen.  That’s the pattern.”

In late June Alex told me he was moving to Los Angeles.  It wasn’t entirely surprising – he’s always wanted to get into screenwriting, and after visiting friends there this spring he came back saying that writing jobs were “free-flowing” there and I suspected this would happen.  What did surprise me was how his brave leap started me thinking about what I’m doing with my own life as well.  “It looks like you’ve triggered a midlife crisis,” I joked to Alex, “it’s just manifesting as something deeper than a facelift.”

He moved out this Monday.  But I had a decent amount in savings, so I’ve chosen to treat August like a sabbatical – take my time finding the next roommate, and otherwise live alone, trying to do some digging into my own brain and clearing some things out while I did the same with the apartment.  It’s going to be a tough job – not only have I built up an amazingly stupid amount of junk in this apartment that should probably go, I’m afraid that I’ve buried some bits of myself out of necessity and they need to be unearthed.  Doing that out of sight of any other human is probably going to be a very wise move.

It’s scary as hell, I’m not going to lie.  It’s triggered some really uncomfortable moments at work, where I’ve had to fight back the urge to burst out crying at my desk out of sheer frustration that I even have to be there instead of….somewhere else, doing….something else.  But that’s the thing, I haven’t been sure yet what the somewhere and the something else are, or what I want them to be.

But it’s a start.  And looking back a couple of eighteen-year jumps, it looks like that may be the pattern.

Eighteen years ago I was 31.  That spring I’d been working as a secretary in a bank while working as a stage manager when I could, mostly at a little company on the Lower East Side five minutes’ walk from my house.  I wrote a little bit for them as well.  But then in June, the department I was working in imploded, and they laid off about 70% of us, me included. But at my meeting with Human Resources, they presented me with an eye-poppingly huge severance package.  “Ah,” I thought.  “I’m not being laid off.  I am having a summer of theater funded.”  The first rehearsal for the latest show at my theater was that evening; I’d been tapped to be the company dramaturg, and I turned up early to tell the director, “you know how you didn’t want to ask me to stage manage because of my job?….Good news!”

That summer was the beginning of a full-bore concentration on theater.  I dedicated myself to it more intently than I had before, a move which carried me through another seven years and nearly 30 shows, an Equity card, three Fringe Festivals and a stint off-Broadway complete with seeing my name in a review in the New York Times.  It also led me to doing double-duty in writing – that same director moved on to another theater the following year, and when they needed someone to write program notes for their shows, he called me up and even offered to pay.

Relatedly – although I didn’t know it was related at the time – that summer also introduced me to my friend Colin.  But “friend” wasn’t what we were thinking initially – we actually met through an online personal site, and…er, in the interest of discretion I’ll just say that that was the avenue we explored at first.  We dated only very briefly, but had already been talking about working together by the time we called that quits – so when Colin called me literally the next day to ask “I know we just broke up, but…do you still wanna try working together?” I surprised myself by saying “you know what?….I do.”

First we tried working on a quick fundraising event for his own company, and then I gave him some help at another event, and a couple months later he invited me to join his company fully, a move which lead to us co-producing another 10 years’ worth of plays and founding a playwriting contest that at last count helped to launch the careers of three different writers.  I was there to see him meet Niki, the woman he would ultimately fall in love with (and ultimately move to Colorado with last year), he was there to see me meet the man I fell in love with (and who ultimately broke my heart).  I helped him and Niki paint their first house.  He did my taxes for two years simply because he was convinced I could do better than taking the standard deduction.  He teased me for being a sucker for plays about people growing up Catholic, and I teased him back over his soft spot for bioplays about Shakespeare.

We developed a conversational shorthand that relied heavily on quotes from Princess Bride and Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and a professional decision-making method that involved southern barbecue and pitchers of margaritas. We worked in the same office for nearly eight years and only had two major arguments, neither one about work (they were instead both about politics, which lead me to decree that henceforth, on Election Days, we were only allowed to talk to each other about puppies).  We once giggled ourselves into breathlessness over the title of a play we received – “To Barcelona!”, complete with exclamation mark – because after three hours neither one of us was capable of saying the name without heroically shouting it in a Castillian accent and pumping a fist in the air.  We both nearly got trampled at a protest march when a group set fire to a banner in the middle of the crowd behind us, sending a crowd of people stampeding at us from behind and a flying wedge of cops charging at us from the front (I grabbed him and dragged him onto a side street barking that we’re going to walk this way RIGHT NOW, please). We both recognized in each other a few years back that “it looks like neither of us is really into theater any more,” and I know that helped me face that it was time to close that chapter of my life.  He has an insight into me and my mind that I have come to value tremendously.

Eighteen years ago today, I didn’t know any of this was ahead of me – I was likely only just finding Colin’s profile online and sending my first “hey, how are ya” message before slipping off to rehearsal for the show I’d just started working on.

Eighteen years before that I was just thirteen.  I was only a few months into puberty, something I find comically ironic now that I am likely only a few months away from the end of that part of my life.

I don’t really remember all that much of that year. I keep on thinking of things but then realizing they came either a year or so before or a couple years after; meeting my best girl friends Sue and Cliona came when I was eleven, writing a goofy book with Sue and another friend came in high school, when I was fourteen.  I even tried browsing a couple history sites for news events from that year, but save for clinically noticing that “okay, I remember that movie” it didn’t trigger anything.

But doing the math that may be because there were things that went down that spring that I’ve wanted to block out.

I was bullied as a child for a solid three or four years, pretty much from fourth grade up through seventh.  Not for any real definitive reason that I know, either – I was a little bit quirky, prone to nerdishly obsessing over random things, and perhaps some kids didn’t know how to relate to that so they turned on me.  Or, maybe it was just the reason any kid gets bullied, because I was there and I usually didn’t fight back.  I didn’t know how to fight back, either – when it started, my parents advised me to just ignore it, which I internalized as “even though you do hear what they’re saying and it hurts, don’t let them see that you’re hurt.”

And a lot of times the things they said would seem like compliments if you were to type them out and read them.  They would tell me I was smart, I was pretty, I was their best friend.  They would wave really big at me when I walked into a room. They would tell me that my hair was pretty and my clothes were cool.  But they said it in exaggeratedly sarcastic, syrupy-sweet overly fake voices that made it obvious that they were picking on me.  It was especially insidious, because how was I going to complain to a teacher about that?  “They’re picking on me by telling me I’m pretty”? I had friends, but only a couple, and they weren’t always around and didn’t really know what to do to help me either.

And so I sat, in classroom after classroom, in lunch room after lunch room, for four years, listening to the giggles and sarcastic whispers telling me that I was sooooo smart and sooooooo pretty, and knowing they meant something completely different from what they said and not being able to do anything about it. To this day I have a hard time trusting praise or compliments from anyone because my bullies taught me that sweet words are usually insincere.  Only when I know you well will I believe you if you praise me, and sometimes not even then.

Still all of that was prelude to when I was thirteen.  It wasn’t constant, either – it came in fits and starts, as different people saw me in different classes.  But that spring it suddenly got physical when a group of girls in my gym class took to laying in wait for me after I changed out of gym clothes and was trying to get to my next class.  When I was with my friends, they would leave me alone, but when it was just me, they’d giggle and follow me, trying to corner me against a wall and…and I didn’t know what they wanted to do and I didn’t care, I saw enough menace in their eyes.  Once they even trapped me in the stairwell and one threw the threat of a punch at me, all of them giggling when I flinched.  It got worse as the semester went on, with them not even waiting until after class sometimes, trying to corner me in the gym itself.  I’d spend most of class trying to dodge them and escape their notice, and was not always successful.

But sometime that April, at the beginning of a gym class when we were playing volleyball or something, the teacher told us to all form ourselves into groups for games.  I saw my buillies heading my way and I was cowering, knowing they were going to try to pull me into their group so they could corner me – and suddenly three other girls from class that I didn’t know got to me first, standing around me in a protective huddle.  “Hey, wanna play with us?” they said, a mite louder than necessary.

“Uh….okay?”  I dumbly followed them, and they introduced themselves to me as we found our way to a net.  We played a haphazard game – the three of them had known each other a while and had a lot of in-jokes that I didn’t really know how to relate to, but they treated me decently, and we all were equally bad at volleyball so it didn’t matter as much that I was bad and I took their laughter when I blew a serve as the good-natured laughter it was.  I was still puzzled about why they’d sought me out, but went with it.

After class they told me what they were doing.  “We don’t like seeing you getting beat up by the tough girls every day,” they said.  “We decided we wanted to do something.”

“Really?”  The thought that anyone even noticed what was happening to me, much less actually wanted to do something about it, floored me.

“Why don’t you tell the principal?” one challenged me.  “You don’t have to take that.”

“I don’t know….I don’t think he can really do anything, he won’t understand.”

“That’s stupid!” she retorted.  “Of course they can do something.  And you don’t have to take that, it’s not fair to you.  You should tell him!” When I still hesitated, she added, “I’ll come with you and hold your hand, want me to?”

She did hold my hand.  Literally, as I sat in the principal’s office and sobbed and hiccupped my way through finally telling someone what was happening, she sat in the chair beside me with my hand in hers.. She’d taken it when she saw me start crying and held on.

The school mismanaged it, of course, by trying to set up a mediation between me and each of the other bully girls, and I had to sit in front of the principal as they lied through their teeth about what they’d been trying to do.  Schools usually mismanage bullying, in my experience.

But the notion that someone standing outside of my hell had even noticed me, and had decided to try to help me, was a crack in this sense of self-belief I’d been constructing that told me I didn’t deserve anything better. I was on my way to believing that this was just what I deserved and that was that.  Those girls reaching out just that one time was the first inkling I had that that was bullshit.

I didn’t realize I was thinking that the August I was thirteen.  Mostly I was just relieved that round of bullying had ended, and I was trying not to think about it any more.  It’s only now, 36 years later, that I realize that it was the last time I was properly bullied at all.  I did have a few more people try a time or two over the next couple years, but I thought differently about it; it was a reflection on the bullies, not on me.

The August I was thirteen was the end of a hard few years and the beginning of realizing that I deserved better.

I’ve had a hard few years.  I was starting to believe that the rut I’m in is as good as it can get; I had to settle for less, just to protect myself.  But that’s over now.  I’ve started looking into ways to change the path I’m on and do more with it; it will take time and years to get there, but I’ve started to remember I am worth that path.  And it’s very possible, if my history repeats itself – as it seems to have done – that the things ahead of me might be rich indeed.

Eighteen years.  That’s the pattern.

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Summer Doldrums

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So hi, I’m tired.  Why I’m tired is a complicated and thorny situation, with a good degree of heat combined with some money hiccups combined with the evening news making me want to hide under the covers. Basically my life has turned into the theme song to Friends (“Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA”) only with global warming.

This is fortunately timing itself with my CSA ramping up production, which forces me into the kitchen to deal with a mountain of food.  I have signed up for the “single” person’s share, which still leaves me with 7 pounds of different vegetables every week that ends up all being for me (Alex is a supertaster and partakes of very little of that), plus a couple pounds of fruit and a half dozen eggs every week, and a pound of coffee every other week besides.  And all the food is farm fresh, and that combined with my natural New England “must not waste food” frugality and I have a lot of things that I have to figure out how to use up before it all goes bad.

Fortunately I’ve taught myself how to freeze some vegetables (all the shell peas I got were immediately shelled and stashed in the freezer), so that does make a dent, as well as creating a pantry to fall back on when the harvest is done; my CSA does have a winter share, but it’s less frequent, and relies heavily on root vegetables and there are times in the winter when I’ll be thinking “I need to eat something that’s a color other than beige”.

I’m also thinking in terms of improvising recipes based on what needs using; for instance, a quiche can be a catch-all for random needs-to-be-used-in-a-hurry vegetables, and will also knock out some of the eggs.  I did something similar with an overlog of fruit last year; it was a great way to poke through the various just-about-to-go-bad fruits littering the fridge and the counter, the things that weren’t quite enough to make a pie on their own but too much for me to eat quickly (I also had great fun calling the resulting concoction “Usufruct Pie”).

The best bit of all of this, though – aside from keeping me fed and busy – is that it gets me away from the trash fire that the online world has become, and grounds me in something hands-on.  I have a lot of resources at my hands, and I just need to do something with them.  It keeps me fed, and busy, and also keeps me hopeful.

A Contemplative 4th

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About 20 years ago now, my Irish friend asked me a really interesting question – “what is America?”  What she meant, she explained, was that she was trying to get at some kind of unified-field-theory to sum up America’s identity.

This being a multi-verse of a nation – especially now – that was a impossible question to answer.  But it gave me a great idea for a July 4th observation – every year, I spend part of the day reading books about America’s history and culture and thinking about her question.  I tend towards collections of first-hand source documents, too – anthologies of letters, eye-witness accounts, speeches, and the like – so I always have time for at least something every year, whether it’s just a couple essays read on the subway on the way to a cookout or a couple hours’ worth of reading on a blanket in the park.  I’ve got a big enough library assembled for this, too, that it’s high time I share.

  • History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around The World Portray U.S. History.  This is one of my favorites – it’s an anthology of excerpts from high school history textbooks, but they’re all textbooks from other countries, discussing their perspective on interactions they had with the United States over the years. So you get the what the British textbooks say about the Revolutionary War, for instance, or what the Canadian textbooks say about the War of 1812, or French textbooks’ take on D-Day, etc. It’s a fascinating take on some familiar stories, and a reminder that we are one of many nations in the world.
  • History In The Making:  This is another book by one of the same editors as History Lessons above.  It’s also a collection of excerpts from textbooks; this time, though, the textbooks are all American.  With this book, the editors have selected a handful of incidents from America’s history, and studied how history textbooks from different time periods have reported on the same incident.  So you can watch how a small border skirmish between the United States and Mexico gets an exhaustive report in the years immediately following, to a couple paragraphs 50 years later, to a single sentence today.  You can also see how different eras emphasize different elements of each story.
  • Witness To America: This is one of three different collections of first-hand documents I have – anthologies of letters, court transcripts, interviews, and speeches, running the gamut of the momentous to the mundane.  You have everything from a transcript of Neil Armstrong’s comments during the first moon landing to a kid who rode for the Pony Express talking about what life in the saddle was like.
  • The Cartoon History of the United States: Okay, first let me say that Larry Gonick, the man behind this book, is a phenomenal writer.  This is just one of the many cartoon guides to things he’s published – there are also cartoon guides to Statistics, Ecology, Physics, and Sex in his quiver, as well as an even more ambitious Cartoon History Of The Universe, which is more accurately a 6-volume history of our own planet from the days of the Big Bang up to 2004.  I learned of Gonick through that last series, and was stunned how exhaustive the series is – he covers things that are rarely included in most Western-world published “World History” books, like the history of the Mali Empire to a discussion of the impact of the Black Plague on non-European countries.  His books are so well-researched they’re often assigned as supplementary reading in college classrooms.  This book only covers up through the late 80s and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but it still covers a lot of ground.
  • America Eats! On The Road With The WPA: The Venn diagram between “foodie” and “fascinated by the history of the Works Progress Administration” is probably very small; nevertheless this book fits that niche.  During the Great Depression, the New Deal had a program designed to give work to writers; one idea they had was to send writers out into their communities to report on the various food traditions where they lived, as well as any public food-related events – an account of a traditional New England clambake, an article about a Baptist church’s ladies’ auxiliary fundraising supper, a piece about hunting in the backwoods of Louisiana, things like that.  The intent was to publish one massive book about “American Food Traditions”, but the project was interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the manuscript was archived for 50 years.   This is one of a pair of books that was eventually assembled from the archive – author Pat Willard combines passages from the archive with her own writing, chronicling a handful of trips to revisit some of the bigger events from the archive to see how they’ve changed.
  • Travelers’ Tales – America:  Some of the best travel writing is in the Travelers’ Tales anthologies, a series I’ve been diving into for years. Technically this is a travel anthology, but the editors focus more on the writing than on the topics covered, so this isn’t yet another series of anecdotes about family vacations to national parks or the like; instead you have things like an account of life on Skid Row in Los Angeles, to a comedic take on a lackluster bus tour of Cincinnatti to an essay on camping in Yosemite.
  • The Journals of Lewis and Clark: Speaking of travelogues – do yourself a favor and read these. This is the firsthand account of the expedition where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored and mapped the Louisiana Purchase, an expedition that at the time was akin to the Apollo 11 mission.  So Lewis and Clark took copious notes about the things they saw and heard along the way, all of the people the expedition met, and countless little incidents and hiccups.  There’s a section chronicling a five-day stretch of bad luck that befell one of their boats that literally had me laughing out loud.

I actually have a new book to crack into this year; will not report on it just yet, I’d like to give it a thorough read first.

A Visit To The Opposite Of The Crash Course

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Image result for ishtar film

So in the Movie Crash Course I’m watching films that are critically regarded as some of the best of all time.  So over here, I’m giving a quick nod to a film that for a while has been regarded as one of the worst of all time – Ishtar.

Which I saw in the theater when it came out in 1987.  And…I liked it.

No, really.

Many of you probably avoided it because of the reputation, so real quick – it’s a combination buddy comedy and action film, with Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beaty playing a couple of outrageously terrible singer/songwriters who somehow get caught up in a murky spy plot in a fictional Middle East country.  I think there was also something involving…a hunt for treasure and a camel?  Something like that.  It’s a completely ludicrous plot, with most of the comedy coming from the whole fish-out-of-water element of the songwriters “Rogers and Clarke” blundering through international incidents, and also from seeing Hoffman and Beatty really lean into the “these guys are terrible” aspect.

Ishtar famously tanked – and let’s be real, the plot is ridiculous.  But I always felt like it never deserved the depth of the vitriol it got.  I would always admit to saying that “I kinda liked Ishtar” with a bit of an embarrassed and sheepish look.

Suddenly, thirty years later – we’re starting to see a bit of an Ishtar renaissance, with the film being featured as part of a salute to director Elaine May at New York’s Film Forum center. And this weekend, the Public Radio program Studio 360 is airing an analysis of the film and its critical response, suggesting that it didn’t get a fair shake in the press.

And I’m seeing this and looking back at 17-year-old me and feeling vindicated.

I Gave Them My Heart, They Gave Me 30 Years

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Well hello! This is something movie-related, although not quite for the Crash Course as I’m not quite up to where this movie falls on the list just yet.  But this is the year that Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything is turning 30, and they had a big anniversary screening and a reunion panel as part of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this week.  I snapped up a ticket more to see John Cusack in person than anything else (she said, blushing), but he had to drop out of a live appearance at the last minute; he’s just started filming for a series on Amazon, and had to Skype in from Chicago.  So the panel ended up being Cameron Crowe and Ione Skye sitting on the stage with John Cusack’s enormous head grinning over their shoulders, which was every bit as surreal as it sounds.

Image result for john cusack tribeca film festival

I actually wasn’t all that blown away by the panel anyway.  Mostly memory-lane anecdotes and a couple inside-baseball tales that a lot of the entertainment media is picking up now – stories about how Dick Van Dyke was approached for a role (ultimately everyone mutually agreed he was a little too old), or how John Mahoney helped talk John Cusack into the part by talking up the movie while they were filming Eight Men Out, or how Lloyd Dobler was based on a wacky neighbor of Cameron Crowe’s, that kind of thing.

The biggest takeaways from the panel were things I’d already picked up from the movie itself.  It very well may have been 30 years since I saw this film all the way through, and I was mostly focused on Lloyd Dobler back then because John Cusack was my jam  – but watching it again, I was more struck by the relationship between Diane Court (Ione Skye) and her father (John Mahoney).  There are at least three or four major scenes that are just the pair of them talking, and I was struck by how rich that relationship was – how much Jim Court loves his daughter and how much she loves him.  And how that all turned on its head into “oh, no, wait, Jim only thinks he loves Diane, he’s convinced himself that he’s doing the right thing.”  The scene right before Diane breaks up with Lloyd is chilling – it’s another conversation between Diane and Jim, and I suddenly spotted Jim’s behavior for the manipulation that it was.

During the panel Cameron Crowe also talked about how they’d settled on an element of Lloyd’s character as “positivity as a revolutionary act”.  And as soon as he said that I realized, yes – that’s what the appeal is about Lloyd Dobler.  He’s optimistic and positive, but not in that kind of Pollyanna way of turning a blind eye to everything that’s problematic.  Lloyd doesn’t ignore problems – he sees them there, and says you know what, I’m going to be positive just to spite them.  There’s an early line he has in a conversation with his sister – “How hard is it just to decide to be in a good mood?”  That’s what works for him – life has dealt him some hard knocks, but he is not going to give in, dammit.

That’s also why the famous boombox scene works too, I think – everyone knows about this scene, where Lloyd is standing under Diane’s window and blasting their song on a boom box.  On paper, that sounds corny as all hell.   But it works – and the reason why it works, I think, is the look on Lloyd’s face.  He’s not standing there with lovelorn tears streaming down his cheeks – he’s standing there defiantly.   This love was theirs, and it was good, and Diane breaking up with him was not going to get him to stop celebrating it, dammit.

That’s something I’m finding myself thinking about a lot now in retrospect.

There were also a couple of crowd-reaction moments I thought were touching. The very first time Lloyd came up on screen, sitting in Corey’s room and talking about their upcoming graduation, a little whispery murmur ran through the crowd – the sound of several of us having a tempus-fugit moment of oh my gosh it’s the baby version of John Cusack will you look at that.

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During the boombox scene, I noticed several people were trying to take cameraphone pictures of the screen – something that’s perfectly ridiculous if you think about it – and rolled my eyes a little at that. But I noticed something else too – first a couple people just behind me quietly singing along with “In Your Eyes”.  Then a few people down the aisle to my right, and a few other voices dotted here and there in the theater – and soon me too.  None of us singing too loud, all of us still watching the film, but all of us singing one of the world’s most perfect songs in time with one of the most perfect uses of a song in a movie ever.

 

The Movie Crash Course Officially Moving!

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My friends:

As I mentioned in previous posts, I have OFFICIALLY moved the Movie Crash Course to its own site, MovieCrashCourse.com . Starting TODAY, any Movie Crash Course reviews will EXCLUSIVELY be posted over there.

I will keep this site for more general-stuff posts, and contemporary movie postings; so I’ll still be here.  But if you’ve been following the Movie Crash Course specifically, you may want to head thither.

Thanks.  I had no idea when I started this two years ago that it would get big enough for its own room.

Movie Crash Course: Now, Voyager

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Image result for bette davis now voyager

So, watching Now, Voyager was seriously thought provoking for me. Although not for the reason you may think.

At the time of its release, it was heralded for handling psychotherapy and mental illness in a uniquely sensitive way; a trait that still wins this film applause today.  Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the youngest daughter of a super-strict Boston Brahman matriarch (Gladys Cooper).  Charlotte has grown up the target of her mother’s verbal and emotional abuse and repressive control.  But Charlotte has a sympathetic sister-in-law who brings a psychotherapist along for a visit one day so he can have a look-see.  Mrs. Vale protests mightily, but after only five minutes with Charlotte and her mother, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) sizes up the situation, tells Mrs. Vale off and drags Charlotte off to his sanitarium in Vermont.

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Charlotte is much better after a month (although the place looks more like a resort, so it’s no wonder), but is still uneasy about heading straight home right away, so with Dr. Jacquith’s encouragement she embarks on a six-month cruise.  She has a marvelous time, and turns out to be quite the social butterfly.  Most significantly, she meets Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), who’s hitching a ride on the cruise to make a business meeting in Buenos Aires.  Jerry is married, but unhappily so, and is the father of two girls – the youngest of which, Tina, is suffering the same kind of maternal neglect that Charlotte did. Charlotte’s confidences about her own troubles help Jerry to understand and support Tina, and Jerry’s kindness and attention brings Charlotte out of her shell even further.  Of course this leads to the pair falling in love – but they part at the end of the cruise, since Jerry won’t divorce his wife.  Jerry still can’t resist sending a corsage to Charlotte’s house in Boston as a parting gift – it arrives just as she’s about to finally see her mother again, and the gesture gives her enough confidence to finally assert herself and her autonomy.  Mother and daughter live under a kind of chilly truce for a while, with Charlotte even getting engaged to a distinguished Boston blue-blood, but a chance meeting with Jerry again shakes her up to the point that she breaks her engagement and calls her mother out for her neglect – a double-whammy shock which causes Mrs. Vale to suffer a fatal heart attack.  Wracked with guilt, Charlotte heads for Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium again.  And on her first day there, she sees a surprisingly familiar face – Jerry’s daughter Tina, whom she recognizes from a picture he showed her. Thinking the girl can use a friend, she reaches out…

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So here’s the thing.  I read a quick 25-words-or-less plot blurb before watching, and wrote it off as the kind of melodrama I usually don’t like.  And I still don’t.  I’ve always felt this kind of plot was formulaic; it presents a woman whose sole path to happiness seems to be via Finding Love, and even worse, it denies the lead her heart’s desire and holds up sacrifice as a noble thing (the famous last line, “let’s not ask for the moon when we have the stars” is presented as romantic, but to me it sounds defeatist).  There’s a lot of sturm und drang along the way, a lot of chance meetings and tragic misfortunes, cruel twists of fate and at least two scenes with dramatic confrontations between two female relatives where one of them is finally confronting the other over some long-lasting mistreatment.  Alex inadvertently hit on a modern word for the genre after I told him that it was a classic example of the three-hanky picture; he hadn’t heard that term before, and I told him it was an older term for this kind of melodramatic, sentimental film with a woman going through various trials and tribulations and affairs of the heart.  “Oh,” Alex said, “you mean it’s like a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel movie.”

And he’s right.  And I further realized that I’ve been sneering at the contemporary version of this kind of film for years – the overwrought melodrama, the heightened plot twists.  Now, Voyager even includes the old trope of the character who undergoes a “stunning transformation” in appearance, which really just boils down to her giving up wearing glasses and doing her hair different, which I rolled my eyes over at first.

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But interestingly enough that is also what gave me pause.  Bette Davis tried to do a bit more to alter Charlotte, to be fair, and it’s an example of the trope that works a little better than usual.  There’s not much that can be done to “ugly” up Bette Davis, but they really try – Davis insisted on padding inside her costume to make her look fatter, a really stodgy pair of glasses and a Mary Todd Lincoln hair style with some fake bushy eyebrows.  It’s a marked difference from the “after” – Davis’ usual slim figure, stylish gowns and swept-up hair showing off a slim neck.  Davis also carries the difference emotionally – the “before” Charlotte is nearly mute, while the “after” Charlotte is gracious and charming.  It may have been a cliché, but it was a cliché that I realized that I bought in this case.

And that made me analyze my reaction a bit further.  I’ve protested in the past that I disliked this kind of film because the heroines ended up having to sacrifice happiness, and that was unrealistic – but on the other hand, I also take a dim view of the rom-com because the lead always gets happiness, and I also thought that was unrealistic.  Was the problem the films, I wondered, or was it me?  Have I been unfair to an entire genre of film?

What I finally realized is that it wasn’t the content of films like this that galls me – it’s the segregation.  This is something that discusses emotional abuse, neglect, psychotherapy, coming into one’s own and asserting one’s self, being a responsible parent – these are all things that affect men as well as women.  It isn’t even women who are the only ones with emotional stakes in this film – Jerry has some seriously high emotional stakes, and goes through some intense growth as well.  This could have been a film for everyone.  But it wasn’t billed that way – it was billed as being a film “for women”, for them to just have a cathartic cry over before going back to their own lives.  Lives which might have been similarly troubled; but instead of being encouraged to take more of the kind of control that Dr. Jaquith was encouraging for Charlotte, the women in the audience were being encouraged to get all the crying out of their system in the theater so they could suck it up and cope with the status quo at home.

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It may be unfair of me to expect third-wave feminism from a 1940s drama. But it may be women like me back then who were starting to get sick of this kind of thing who paved the way for third-wave feminism in the first place.