Saturday, March 07, 2009

Valley of the Shadow

“When you pray, think. Think well what you're saying. Make your thoughts into things that are solid. In that way, your prayer will have strength, and that strength will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit.”
---Mr. Gruffydd in How Green Was My Valley

When it comes to old movies I confess that I am a shameless weeper.

If a film has any kind of sincere sentimentally to it—and I stress sincere—you’d better put on a poncho and a scuba mask because I'm sure to be blubbering all over you.

But I even amazed myself the other night when I sat down to watch John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley.

The credits rolled, the narrator began speaking and that was it, brother—the tears flowed out of me like building sprinkler system in a 12-alarm fire.

It was insane. Characters would say hello to each other and I’d start wailing and reaching for the tissues. I don’t enjoy living alone in my family’s house, but I was sure glad there was no on around to watch me go to pieces like this.

I don’t know how I avoided seeing this fabulous movie for so many years. As a movie fanatic, I should see every scrap of film that a titan like Ford ever shot, in addition to watching his best work repeatedly.

I suspect I avoided this picture because it’s considered a classic, and thus I thought it would be dry and dull and a bit clunky.

I approached the idea of watching this film with the same attitude I have when I take vitamins or eat spinach. This stuff is good for you, but not terribly exciting.

(I had a similar experience with Polanski’s Knife in the Water, a great, but--whoa!--totally different film.)

After watching How Green Was My Valley , I see that I could have not have been more wrong about the “classic label” because some of the synonyms for that word include timeless, immortal, unforgettable, landmark, and masterpiece.

And How Green Was My Valley is every one of those and more. The cast is fabulous, the shots are so beautifully composed, and the music is incredible.

I thought that a story about Welsh miners at the turn of the 20th Century would have very little to say to a guy living in modern day Brooklyn. I got that one wrong, too.

The setting of the story is just the surface-something you think I would have learned a lot time ago. It’s the emotions beneath that setting—like coal beneath the earth’s surface--that made the story resonate with me.

And let me be clear: this is no tearjerker with phony, manipulative scenes. The reactions I had come from Ford’s honest and powerful filmmaking.

So when the narrator begins the story by saying how the mind forgets what just happened, but remembers "memories of long ago and of men and women long since dead," my tear ducts shifted into overdrive.

Like the valley that the adult Huw Morgan recalls, the Bay Ridge of my memory seems like a magical place; a small town, really, where walking to Shore Road or to the stores on 86th Street—before the chain retailers muscled in—seemed like a great adventure. I remember the shop owners, the friends and neighbors, a whole way of life, that are all gone now.

I think it’s important that I saw this movie at this time of my life. While I’m sure I would have enjoyed the movie had I seen it as a young man and aspiring filmmaker, the story is so much more personal now that I’m middle-aged, missing my late parents, and regretting so many of my decisions.

I was walking up Ovington Avenue on Wednesday feeling a bit melancholy. I know I declared 2009 the year I stop hating myself, but you also have to be realistic and when I look back on my life, I have to say that I didn’t do enough to make turn my dreams my reality.

I wasn't daring when I was young, I chastized myself, yet again. I didn't take risks because I was so fearful of failure. Instead, I played it safe.

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

I stumbled upon reporting, only because I got a chance to write and instead of moving L.A. to pursue my Hollywood dream, I went to towns like Stroudsburg, Pa., and Waterbury, Conn., to work at small daily newspapers and promising myself I would only stay a short while before hitting the big time.

The years went by, the dream stayed distant, and I find myself writing for a living about things like fair value, mark to market, and unremediated deficiencies. I lived in a dream world, watching other people’s films but never making my own.

“Huw,” Mr. Gruffydd, the minister tells our young hero, “I thought when I was a young man that I would conquer the world with truth.”

I thought I was going to conquer the world, too, only with fiction that read like the truth. But I found every excuse not to make good on that wish.

Rev. Jones at Trinity Church—he’s my version of Mr. Gruffydd--gave a sermon this week accepting ourselves as we are—with our flaws and deficiencies, unremediated or otherwise.

He didn’t mean that we should give up and not try to improve ourselves. But in this season of Lent, I think he was calling for a ceasefire in the relentless assault that we often launch against ourselves.

While so many of the film’s images strike a chord with me, others are painful in how they differ from my life.

When Huw recalls his father, he says so lovingly that “men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever.”

Oh, boy, I’m crying now as I type this and think of the difficult relationship I had with my father. The Elder Morgan, while pretty tough, doesn’t appear to yell or bash the people the way it happened it my house.

I suppose some part of me wishes my father could have been the Ideal Movie Dad, but then I was hardly the Ideal Movie Son. We were both people living in the real world, and not on a Hollywood movie set.

"Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father," Huw says, "and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday."

Much of that is true for me. My father did love his family very much and he could be very loving and supportive. Like most of us, he had his dark side and it makes little sense to revist those ugly memories.

There’s a scene in the film where Huw is being bullied at school and his father has him take boxing lessons, declaring “a boy must fight.”

I was never a fighter in school or in adulthood, never really stood up for myself, and that’s another club I used to beat myself with—until I gave it up for Lent, of course.

After seeing a film like this—a classic, if you will--I’m tempted to rattle that old line about how they don’t make them like this anymore. Only here, it’s not a line. It’s true; they really don’t make them like that anymore, and that’s a damn shame.

Instead of slow motion, fast motion, CGI and rapid fire rock video editing, I’d like to see a modern movie depict the same kind of emotional power that Ford displayed in this film.

I would like to see one of today's young geniuses conquer the world with truth the way Ford did, but I’m not holding my breath.

Yes, change is inevitable, and so is the pain that comes with that change. The important thing is that you can’t let allow yourself to be overwhelmed by that pain and drown in a sea of nostalgia. You can honor the past without throwing away the present.

Huw Morgan learns that lesson at the end of How Green Was My Valley, so I’ll let him speak for himself:

"Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are still a glory in my ears? No. I will stand to say 'No,' and 'No' again, for they remain a living truth within my mind."


Lisanne McT said...

OK I am netflixing this post haste, i have also avoided this movie.

Stop beating yourself up so bad Rob,we all have regrets... live for now!

and i mean this with sincerity...

Rob K said...

Right you are. This is an old tune--enough. You have to love who you right now.

Hope you like the movie!