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Athena's Annex: Notes on Overlooked Masterpieces that Help Us Be

Sunday 10/11/20

This is an entry in Athena's Annex: Notes on Overlooked Masterpieces that Help Us Be. The book will number 100 entries, each approximately 600 words long, spanning film, fiction, sculpture, ballet, rock and roll, jazz, classical, painting, blues, country music, soul, drama, TV, poetry, memoir, animation, journals. It's presently 1/10th of the way done.

The concept is three-fold:

1. These are works of art that one can love, that are cool, and that you likely won't come across on your own--especially these days, when we mostly focus on things shoved in front of our faces via social media feeds and the news cycle. It's a service, that way, of one-stop convenience that will pay out over the course of your life. Anyone can be like "Oh, it's Sgt. Pepper, oh, it's The Great Gatsby," but this is the cool stuff that stamps you as someone truly in the know.

2. It's also a liberal arts education between two covers and one of greater value than any you'd get at any university for like twenty bucks rather than a quarter of a million dollars.

3. Art can enable us to understand who we are, assist us in maxing out on our potential, and serve us in the rest of our lives and relationships. Help us be happier. Excel at becoming fully present in the moments that make up our lives. With our parents, our kids, our friends, our colleagues, and ourselves. These are works of art that are really good in helping us that way. If we assume that we only live once, they're the works that you're going to want to experience during your time on this earth. And who else could talk about all of them?

The entries are crisp, accessible, witty, invigorating, learned, and always inclusionary, for both the expert, the newcomer to a given subject, or someone who doesn't normally have an interest in a the topic being discussed--because each entry is about more than the work of art. It's also about the life stuff. And that's relevant to all of us.


The Power of Goodbye

Leo McCarey’s “other” picture from 1937, Make Way for Tomorrow. Finishing what you had so you know just how much you had it; or, Godspeed, love.

The most versatile of American film directors, Leo McCarey paired Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, oversaw the Marx Brother’s most Marx Brothers-y film in Duck Soup, and latched upon the mint-making idea of casting Bing Crosby as a singing priest in Going My Way. He was so versatile that he rarely comes up in conversations about auteurs. He should. His gifts rival those of John Ford and Howard Hawks, but neither of those directors inhabited as many filmic selves as McCarey.

1937 was his annus mirabilis. Two McCarey films were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: The Awful Truth—a pioneering slapstick vehicle marking the first time Cary Grant was funny on screen—and Make Way for Tomorrow, a film about an elderly couple treated like human detritus by the people meant to care about them. The Awful Truth won. Taking the stage for the presentation, McCarey remarked, “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”

The film is an extended, burning farewell. Maybe life is as well. Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper lose their home to foreclosure after Bark is relieved of his job. They have nowhere to go, and their kids have lives of their own—though not to the degree that they insist.

Siblings bicker. Each parent lives with a different child. The vague plan is that maybe Bark can find work again, put the elderly pair back up on their feet, but you know it will never happen, and they do as well. This is a story in which a couple whose relationship has spanned decades will be parted, but not on account of death. Lucy will go to a retirement home, Bark to California on the other side of the country.

They have one final afternoon together, a kind of inverted honeymoon. We so often hear lines about how we must make a stellar first impression. When you’re young, you’re told it’s invaluable. We overlook the power that is present in a goodbye. The goodbye must sustain us until we meet again, if we ever do.

Normally in a film that could turn “weepy,” critics write of dignity, how the characters are allowed to maintain their self-respect and not become targets for our pity. I watch and I find myself saying, “Good for you,” as the couple visits old haunts they haven’t seen in an age and won’t lay eyes upon again, thinking about where I have gone wrong v. where they have gone right. I envy them.

Bark and Lucy stand outside the train he will board. They lie to each other, but lie with truth. That is the rub of some of our hardest, most painful interactions. The words are not truly lies—even when they are inaccurate—when both parties know the reality of the situation, and they care enough—love enough—to assuage. To tend to the other’s pain.

They say, sure, he’ll get a job out West and send for her, but “just in case” this is the last time they see each other, they should make their goodbyes count. They’ve made their life and love count, after all. Take it to the end.

Graham Greene called Make Way for Tomorrow, “a depressing picture about an old couple.” Orson Welles spoke of stones that would weep if they watched it. I’ll tell you it’s the best film ever made about knowing what you have even as it’s leaving you. Which, really, it always is, if we’re being honest.


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