Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”

To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful.  I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different.  To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be.  What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.

When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense).  She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true.  I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.

I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.”  I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage.  This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.”  In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.

But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end.  I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale).  Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:

“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat.  And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s.  So you do the wildest, craziest thing:  you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food.  You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory.  You’re not hungry for cocoa butter.  You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow.  That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”

This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry.  And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page.  That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions.  In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate).  She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us.  And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods.  Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries.  Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health.  At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me.  It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer).  My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content.  Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function.  Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.

So, that’s really all I had to say:  Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be.  After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to.  All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator

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Thoughts on synchronicity, Elizabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open,” and a poem inspired by two near-autodidacts

Recently, I have been feeling out-of-sorts more than usual, and sunk in a sort of spiritual case of the doldrums.  So, I figured I needed to return once again to my old habits of reading more, crocheting less (though I’m backed way up with craft projects!), and writing poetry again.  As it so chanced, I got Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow off one of my library websites.

Now, when I read a self-help book, even a more spiritually-inclined one, it’s a rare day.  I automatically have my critical claws out for grammar and punctuation and style errors, since many such books are self-forgiving in their copy editing.  And as expected, I found a number of mistakes and one nearly unforgiveable error–to an English teacher, anyway–in which T. S. Eliot was quoted or referred to knowledgeably, apparently, but spelled T. S. Elliot.  These sorts of things always make me suspicious of the author, because I reason that if their message is so vital and earth-shaking, they could at least eliminate errors and distractions, somewhat in the way that the first steps of any spiritual routine that I am aware of first concentrates on accuracy and repetition of some chant or discipline or physical exercise done correctly, which them later morphs into a higher reality.  Maybe Lesser reasoned that she was already on a higher level and so didn’t need to be cautious about her basics, but that didn’t wash with me.  The book wasn’t done with me, however.

Sure enough, once I started reading, my old friend synchronicity gave me a visit.  As Lesser more or less quotes the prophet of synchronicity (that prophet being Carl Jung), what is not brought to consciousness returns to us as fate.  Thus, all the many things I’d been meaning to have another look at popped up at once in the references in her book.  There was Jung, Joseph Campbell (yes, the mythologizing Hero With a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell), Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I’d also checked out before opening her book, and various other not-new-but-surprisingly-recurring items.  So, I kept reading.  It was an uneven book, but helpful and except for what I believe she herself calls a few “hippy-dippy” moments, for which anyone can be forgiven who’s writing about such intangibles as spirit and its manifestations, a restorative read.  After reading her, I went back to the two-disc set of DVDs in which Joseph Campbell was interviewed before the end of his life by Bill Moyers.  Though their conversation is dense with reference and complicated points in storytelling, it’s an enlightening and provocative set of interviews, and well worth anyone’s time who wants to feel more in tune with humanity in general.

This morning, I was feeling disgruntled again, so I decided to try to put down my thoughts in a poem, and boy, did I!  It may not be the best poem in the world, may in fact be thought of by some as very prosaic, but it’s three pages long, and I think encapsulates the experience I’ve recently been having.  Though the mystic in the poem is a “she” (as a sort of indirect nod to Lesser, though I wasn’t consciously writing about her), the real figure I was thinking of was a sort of femininized Campbell, a spirit guide.  As well, I thought of Kenneth Burke, the great rhetorician of roughly the same time frame as Campbell, who had many illuminating thoughts about the human situation as well, though his most flagrantly spiritual thoughts were protectively couched in terms of how rhetoric functions.  These two men were both loosely or closely at different times associated with teaching and universities, but both were often autodidacts in the sheer amount of syncretic learning and thinking they did, on many issues.  So, here’s the poem, in all of its perhaps dubious glory.  I have to apologize for the length of this post, but without all its parts, I don’t think it would make sense.

The Only Road in Town
(To Kenneth Burke and Joseph Campbell)

Wayfarers
We all are,
The signposts irregular
  and confused.
As children,
Proud of new abilities
To scan and read,
We make fun 
Of the ancient spellings,
Pronounce them in the
  distorted fashions
They seem to suggest,
Ignorant we, ignorant-seeming they.
Seeming, in fact, is what we know,
How things seem to interpret
  themselves out,
Lazy children, letting things
  go their own ways.
We think we split into many myriad paths,
I a doctor, you a lawyer, he a merchant,
She a mystic,
And we all shrug at her especially,
For she keeps insisting
That there's only one road in town.
But when we need, in the middle
  of the night,
It's her words we try to recall,
And if we are shameless of our pain,
We dial her up,
Hold her on the phone for hours,
Not thinking about whether or not
She too has children, or a garden,
Or a husband who's leaving
Because he can no longer
Stand the mice roaming in the cupboard
Which she refuses to kill
Because she wants to drive them out gently.
We laugh at her when we gather,
Sometimes to her face,
Which she takes in good part
Even while saying "You'll see,"
And we do see sometimes,
Though we are always newly astonished
That someone could hold that askew-view
Perpetually, instead of only now and then.
When we think we need God,
We speak about it timidly to her,
And usually her only,
As if she were a purveyor of pornography
Or other specious wares,
And we not wanting to be known to be
  a customer.
She doesn't tell us we need God,
But only confirms that we have something
  like a soul, needing water like a plant,
Though which plant and body of water
She refuses to say, only nourishing us
  with a taste of it
Through her listening and her rare words.
Her words too are signs, reminiscent
Of the signposts of old, though more intriguing
Through being more abbreviated and scant.
She lets us be, and it seems so rare and refreshing
Just to be let be, to share her sun,
To live under the same stars
With someone who seems to breathe sun and stars,
And breezes and antelopes and gazelles and tigers,
All in one.
Her rare earth is ours, for a while,
And though she can't explain it to us,
And doesn't try with phrases and such,
We respond like heliotropes and sunflowers
To her being, and go away feeling refreshed.
There comes the time, though, when we lose her,
Whether through our mortal dereliction or her own,
And we reach to try to preserve the intangible,
To recover the spirit that even those lazy children
We once were seemed to recognize in themselves.
And when we ask, from our deathbed or hanging
  solicitously over her in her moment of departure,
"Tell us, which road shall the funeral cortège take?"
Seeking either her last advice or her last wish,
She says but "The only road in town."
And we are thrown into tactless confusion,
Scrambling to assign a coherent meaning
To words that seem much like the signposts of old,
Contradictory, sublime, but oxymoronic all the same.
It may be then at that moment that she restores us
To the common lot, the way of it all,
To our not being doctors, or lawyers, or merchants,
Or even mystics, but to a being we can rejoin
Now that we have completed this leg of our journey,
This fine spectacle of a wayfaring,
This conundrum of existence,
And we are she, and she is we, and then someone departs,
Via the only road in town.

©by Victoria Leigh Bennett, 4/28/18

 

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“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”

As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”  Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order.  Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works.  The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.”  And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).

I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is:  the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution.  There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life.  Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations.  The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations:  she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.

And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done.  It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is.  It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected.  And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions.  Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where?  All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.

Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events:  the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events.  The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling.  This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime.  I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.

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“‘Infinity in a Grain of Sand'”–The first poem post of the New Year

This first week of the New Year, while I was sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike me as to what activity I should start with next, a phrase popped into my head:  “infinity in a grain of sand.”  As is often the case, I found out after looking it up that I didn’t have it quite right:  what William Blake actually said was something more like “To see a world in a grain of sand,” followed up by “infinity in an hour.”  But since Einstein, it’s apparently been thought that time and space are not distinct, so I stuck with my own title, with a nod to Blake (and Einstein).  This was my first poem of the New Year, 2018:

“Infinity in a Grain of Sand”

Love is an old man who sleeps poorly,
And awakens cranky with his wife in the morning.
Love is a young girl who can’t find one shoe,
And her mother calling repeatedly.
Love is a young man working on a truck
For his friend, who probably won’t pay him.
Love is the Earth going ’round,
With the universe still expanding.

Love is a cat who doesn’t have fleas or ticks
Still scratching herself and bathing methodically.
Love is a mother hen, pecking one chick on the head
And flapping her wings, and trying to crow.
Love is a horse rubbing its rump against the rail
And then trumpeting its voice to the donkey
Two stalls down, who answers.
Love is the Earth going ’round
With the universe still expanding.

Love is the mathematical equation
That the teacher writes on the board
Hoping his students will think him profound.
Love is the gravedigger, on a cold day sitting on a frozen mound
To eat his lunch, and drink the soup
From his thermos, which his wife filled.
Love is the conjunction point where all of them meet
Each in his or her own world, not yet complete.
Love is the Earth going ’round,
With the universe still expanding.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/2/18

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Autumn Days Revisited–“A Change of Seasons”

Other than love, probably one of the most tried (or trite) and true subjects for poetry is the change of seasons.  There are a few new things to say on the topic, however, sadly enough.  Here goes:

 

A Change of Seasons

The fall is come
And the days are doing what they call
"Drawing in."
And I too am drawing in,
Shutting down and pulling in
My seasonal feelers
Like a snail's antennae,
Because sounds will be different in winter,
When they are muted by the snowfall.
My aspirations too
Are becoming flat characters,
Losing their roundedness,
No longer speaking of fully realized possibilities
But now only signaling outlines of things
Which may or may not come.
We have no hope of escaping
Without leaving the temperate zone,
Though meteorologists are already disputing
Inches of white, feet of rain,
Days' light, Nights' dark,
While what will come will come
Whether they argue or not.
And it's not especially dread that I feel,
For I'm used to it by now.
The unsettling element is rather
That things are now topsy-turvy,
And for certain days of autumn, it's summer,
For some days of winter, it's autumn or even July,
For some days of spring too, it'll be
An early and undue warm season,
Then back into a retrograde deep freeze on days
When we expect the sun to be smiling.
We are even getting used to climate change,
The adaptability of humans
Being apparently our biggest selling point.
But perhaps the question is due to Nature,
Or the gods, or Fate, or whatever you may happen
To believe in,
"How hard is it to change?"
What else should we be asking,
We, who are at least partly to blame
For this untoward state of affairs,
Given our ability to adapt,
Shouldn't we practice
Adapting our selfishness and greed,
Instead of trying to figure out how
To make the earth spin round in the opposite direction?
Even now, experts try to figure out how we can control the weather--
Wouldn't it be easier, and more economical,
All things considered,
To learn to control ourselves?
That would be a change of seasons I could really get into.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/17/17

This isn’t a particularly “poetic” poem; in fact, it more than borders on the prosaic.  Nonetheless I wanted to share the point of view.  There may be better poems for other days.

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A Poem Combining Two Themes–“Costan and Merlu”

Sometimes, a poem just springs forth into the mind, however good or bad like the springing forth of Athena from the mind of Zeus.  This is such a poem, but I’ve thought about it a bit and managed to locate two themes from other works that I suspect contributed to its genesis.  The first is the tale of David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament, in which David sent one of his generals, Bathsheba’s husband, into battle so that he would be killed and David could have Bathsheba.  My favorite contemporary song, “Hallelujah,” mentions this episode briefly as well.  The second work is the tale “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville.  In it, a naïve midshipman, Billy Budd, is trapped into a confrontation with Claggart, a scheming superior officer, and accidentally kills Claggart in a fit of justifiable though excessive rage, and is condemned to death.  Somehow, I think these two stories came together in my mind and created this poem, which doesn’t exactly match either of them, but has the joint themes of a young officer being shoved into harm’s way, and a devious superior officer who is responsible for this.  The poem is cast back in time, which I think is also responsible for the somewhat old-fashioned tone of the remarks about the two main characters, being as Costan might today be seen as a womanizer plain and simple, and Merlu perhaps even a correctly behaving superior who gets the soldier’s mind back on what he is supposed to be there for, however harsh the task or sentence.  Still, I think with the tone cast as it is in the poem as written, the readers’ sympathies should rest mainly with Costan.  Here’s the poem:

Costan and Merlu

Costan
Was what women know as a warm man.
Up to all their wiles and tricks,
Even seeing a few where there were none,
But full of love and joy and yes, laughter,
Nonetheless.

Merlu
His superior
In the army
They wrinkled their noses up at
When they discussed him,
And more than one thought
“Cold fish.”
His love and attention wasn’t warm
Rather possessive and deigning,
Full of his own self-importance,
And seeing not them.

Costan
At the sight of a red petticoat,
Always had a second glance for it
Over his shoulder,
Merlu
Had the mort arrested
For crimes she’d only thought of committing
And thought disdainfully
Of poor people’s attire,
For modesty had nothing to do
With red petticoats,
And he flattered himself
That he was a modest man.

Costan one evening
Caught up with a lovely young smart thing
And chortled and sang with her
Under the wall, where they sat,
Sharing a bottle and some bread and cheese.
Merlu’s henchman
No less forward to impropriety,
But knowing what Merlu wanted,
Carried the news.
The next night,
Costan stood red-faced for reproach
In front of Merlu
Agreeing that yes, he had been most improper,
And bowing his head to anger and what was more,
Envy, though he hardly dared even to himself
Think of Merlu in that light.

Two days later,
There was a wall to storm,
A bridge to take,
And warning his friends to stand away from him,
Lest they too fall into disfavor
With the keeper of the garrison,
Costan accepted the mission
Forced upon him by Merlu,
But eager himself to shine.
The ending was inevitable,
Given Costan’s brave resilience,
And throwing of himself over the wall
Straight into enemy fire.
His loving and noble heart was breached as well,
By cannon fire he’d no way to fend off,
Since all he could think to offer was himself,
His skill with firearms not equaling
His skill with loving negotiations.

That evening, Merlu sat pondering:
What more need he do to preserve
The public order,
What ordinance or regulation pass
To keep his officers and men in line?
As he then stood, just before his window
He looked at another wall, like to the one
Of Costan’s trespass, and on it,
Flaunting bold and red,
As if someone had torn the red petticoats in pieces
And stuck them in place any way at all,
Someone had hastily painted the accusation
“Murderer!” to face his window;
He was startled, and for just a moment
Struck to the heart
That someone had read his thought.
Then, taking on himself once more
The yoke of office,
He sent a man out to clean it off
Or paint over it,
Sure, or no, not sure,
But avoiding the thought,
That someone knew him
Better than he had known himself.
Such knowledge comes too late for regret,
And in any case,
He was persuaded by the experience
That constituted all his life so far
That he was right to act so,
That Costan had been hostile
To the public temper and a danger
To public life.
And after all, once the word was painted over
From the wall,
There was no witness to the crime
And that made all the difference to him,
Though those who knew him sensed a subtle change,
A tension in the command,
As if he was second-guessing himself,
A lack of certainty, a questioning,
A questing for a solution to something
They knew not.
Came the day when he too was ordered over a wall
In front of his troops,
And taking a deep breath, nearly asking himself
If this was the price of it all,
He tried to be valiant, as valiant as he could imagine
Costan had been,
Though when his body came back also shot through,
The women and men of the town
Didn’t mourn him. Instead,
As his shattered body made its way on a stretcher
Through town, his last breath still not drawn,
He heard them saying, “It’s his time!” and laughing,
And then
Someone spitting by his frame,
And “Serves him right!”
“Vindictive peasants!” he thought, and shedding a tear
For his own passing, he died.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/27/17

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My all-time favorite Halloween movie, and why (without spoilers)–“An American Werewolf in London”

Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them.  As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them.  Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary  film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind:  “An American Werewolf in London.”  Here’s why:

There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true.  Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar:  the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased).  This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem.  But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more.  Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.

For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage:  the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth.  The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there.  Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success.  Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.

Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again.  So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!

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