Saturday, June 23, 2007

The improvisation of our lives (Books Elia Kazan by Richard Schickel & Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh)

By what scale should we take measure of how we've lived our lives? What we've acquired? The satisfaction with which we can look at ourselves? The works we've done for others? Our commitment to causes? Our faith? The depth of our love? Our honesty? It's this I'm reflecting on having read Richard Schickel's incisive, fast-moving biography of legendary director Elia Kazan, watched the last episode (again) of the great BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisisted, and having celebrated Pride day in NYC.

Schickel characterizes Kazan as a man of contradictions: - simultaneously deeply loving and respecting his wife but openly having sex with other women - a liberal political radical and, briefly, communist, who believed in the rights of everyday man and a "cooperative witness" for the HUAC - a stickler for the truth of human behavior in acting, a true product of the legendary Group Theater and the work of Stanislavski, and a Broadway and Hollywood showman. Rather than harping on this as a flaw, Schickel sees it as the human condition:
all of us are capable only of those improvisations we make in response to our circumstances - some of which work out, some of which do not, most of which end in ambiguity, in, as we might say, mixed reviews...

Schickel, if anything, sees it as the key to Kazan's insight into how the inner struggles of human beings motivate their passions. Both the content of the work Kazan remains famous for and the methods by which he synthesized story, with performance, with physical environment, exemplify this.

Schickel is, thankfully, not simple-minded in his analysis of Kazan's testimony to the HUAC - spending many pages moving back and forth between defense, understanding, and criticism. Schickel protests a little to much that perhaps Kazan didn't respect the people he named any more - he doesn't cite any real evidence for that - or that those who were blacklisted weren't really hurt for very long. If it is true, that hardly seems the point if one feels betrayed. His otherwise fair analysis would have been sufficient support of Kazan without such disingenuous comments. But when all is said and done, Kazan's naming names can be summed up as the act of a man whose membership in a political party was never as important to him as the warm and passionate feelings about the common man he expressed through his work, and who was justly intimidated by the threat of not working just at the moment his career was on a roll.

I'm sure I would not have wished to betray colleagues, but I cannot honestly say what exactly I would have done given his circumstances. If I experienced fear of Soviet spies infiltrating our government (which did happen no matter how underhanded the methods of the HUAC, and what a betrayal of our rights as citizens), if I had a great career with everything to lose and a family to support - what would I have done? This book asks you to ask those questions of yourself so that you may contemplate fully the worth of the work Kazan created in the context of the complexity of his life - not blithely judge him with a "I would never." Nobody's life can be summed up in a single act, . The humanity of Kazan's work should be remembered too, when examining the value of his life.

What indeed makes the sum of one life valuable? When do we say - good life, well done? Do only the Mother Teresas qualify? Is there a balance sheet we tally up? Brideshead Revisited made such an interesting point of this in the final section when Lord Marchmain returns home to England to die. A staunch Catholic family (not the usual in England), a chapel was actually part of the grand estate. Present around his deathbead are his Italian mistress of many decades, his elder son Bridey - a prig who hopes his father will take the sacrament - his elder daughter, a woman "living in sin" herself with Charles Ryder (a man married with children but also the former homosexual sweetheart of Marchmain's younger son Sebastian). This elder daughter is a deeply fearful Catholic who swings between living out her passion in full and becoming devout again to wash away her sins. She desperately wishes absolution for her father. The mistress -raised catholic and, while not hysterical, wishing for last rites out of habit. The youngest daughter, an unmarried, serious young woman - a practical sort of catholic, who wishes for the priest simply out of her own devotion. Finally Charles Ryder himself, who deeply objects to the hippocracy of imagining one can wash away the sins of a lifetime by simply saying "I'm sorry" the moment before you die. It's a marvelous novel written by Evelyn Waugh - a Catholic himself - about the deep passions that drive our lives - religious and carnal.

Does a moment of one kind of devotion trump one's devotion to the passion of one's life. Cannot one live a life of value by working well? By providing comfort for others? I think so. The greatest fulfillments in life, I think, are the acts one performs out of deep passion for those subjects, causes, or people, one loves most deeply. Writing, performing, giving medical care, participating in local government, parenting, putting out fires... There are countless ways to do it. It is the deepest kind of betrayal of ones life, I think, to try to live our the passions of others, once removed - the formula others would give us so that we might live out a life worthy of their approval. I think it's a sad life wondering only whether others will like what we do. And who the hell are these holy 'others' anyway? What arrogance.

As hundreds of thousands of people marched down fifth avenue in New York yesterday, watched by hundreds of thousands of others in the Gay Pride march, I was touched once again by the astounding variety of participants. Not only gay, lesbian and transgendered people, mind you, also those that love them, support them, or just want to sell things to them (I couldn't decide if the number of product advertisements was awful or a real statement to the rising power of the so-called "gay market"). So sure you have the drag queens in 5-inch platform shoes and peacock feather headdresses out in all their magnificence, and the floats from lots of noisy dance bars, but you also have the gay Armenians (no kidding - all eight of them), gay police force members, gay Republicans, gay religious groups of every kind, gay lawyers, gay airline employees, gay parents, gay senior citizens. If you can name some ilk of person - some way a person can look, some age or color they can be, a kind of job they can have - they were all there. And the point of this march to my eyes is that people are not limited to looking or acting just one way because of the attraction they feel toward members of their own sex. We don't live in bed, you know. They call this a "pride march." Now what better statement of pride can be made than being visible. In some cases relentlessly so, either by virtue of how much of them we saw, or how much noise they made. But after all the amplifiers are turned off and the confetti is swept up, these people were being visible to assert the value of their life as they live it. As they live all of it - the acts they perform in work, in the community, the families some of them raise, the people they love, and the way they have fun too. I would say there's a great measure of the value of a life to add to the list: that we look at other's lives openly and fairly.

That's how Kazan's life, the many varied family members sitting around the deathbead of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, and the Pride march I participated in yesterday all came together in my thoughts this weekend. Schickel helps us examine the value of Kazan's work fairly, in the context of his whole life - not as holy judges of a single act even he came to regret. It makes me want to go out and see some of his great films - A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Faces in the Crowd, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn again.

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