Archive for June, 2010

The Void

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

When someone leaves your life, when death takes him away suddenly and irrevocably, he leaves behind a lot of nice things: those memories of your time together and of his particular way of being, maybe a photo or a favorite tchotchke.

But what he leaves behind first — most painfully and, with time, most poignantly — is his absence.

It’s a realization built of the unremarkable bits and pieces of the everyday. And it comes quietly, surprising you each time it arrives. When you think to complain to your mother about something you know would annoy her even more than it does you. When you carefully put aside some of your sandwich makings so that the dog you’ve loved and spoiled all his life will have something to lick off the plate after you’ve finished your meal.

Those are the moments when you feel most deeply your connection to the one who’s gone. It’s when you understand most plainly that you’ll never experience again those moments of communion apart from the ones you’ve committed to memory. It’s when his absence feels the most disturbingly real.

Each of us experiences loss in his own way, and probably a little differently each time it comes. This morning (after a weekend of tears) I lay in bed and started to sob all over again. And I thought of one of the most beautiful, most heartbreaking depictions I’ve ever witnessed of that experience of another’s absence.

In Fritz Lang’s wonderful M (1931) — a movie remarkable for the complexity of its sentiments and the subtlety in its mix of sympathy and social commentary — there is a moment in which the director needs to convey the effect of a girl’s disappearance on her mother.

There’s no unnecessary wringing of the hands or wailing at heaven. There’s no literal exposition of the facts or of what the woman’s thoughts must be. Instead, we can read in the expression on Frau Beckmann’s face both that slow process of realization and the heavy counterweight of her inability to accept what’s happened.

To explain the fact of the little girl’s murder and how it feels when someone steps quickly and finally out of your life, Lang shows us a world without Elsie Beckmann.

It’s so simple, so lyrical. And it’s so heartbreaking to see this elegant montage of all the places where Elsie isn’t.

Time doesn’t really heal all wounds: that would mean forgetting when memories are all we have left. Instead, there are some wounds we just learn to live with, even to cherish for the way they put us back in touch with those who aren’t there anymore.

It Was the 3rd of June

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

While we won’t ever know for sure just what she and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Bobbie Gentry’s lazy, throaty delivery of the story makes us feel the weight of its secrets and innuendo.

Why not click the big, shiny button on the left and give “Ode to Billie Joe” a listen now? After all, it is the 3rd of June.

Ode to Billie Joe” tells such an elegant and economical story; it’s like quick, loose pencil strokes that give us precise renderings of a few minute details, but go soft and suggestive in their depiction of larger pieces of the picture. Gentry tells us so many little things about the hours from breakfast through dinner: who said what while passing which bowl around the table. She captures whole characters by quoting only the smallest pieces of their conversation. But she tells us almost nothing about what happened that day on the Tallahatchie Bridge, just enough for us to sense the pall it casts over the entire scene and the rest of our narrator’s life.

While most of us would never know the Tallahatchie Bridge without that song, for some its name brings to mind the story of a boy lynched nearby in 1955.

That summer, 15-year-old Emmett Till had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. The story goes that he whistled at a white woman on a dare. A few days later, when the woman’s husband returned home from a trip, she reported the offense to him. Three days after that, Emmett was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. His murderers had beaten him and gouged out one eye, then shot him through the head and thrown him in the river. When the authorities recovered his body, the fan from a cotton gin was tied around his neck.

There was overwhelming evidence to support a conviction of the three men charged with the murder: witnesses who testified that the men had bragged about their crime afterward; testimony from Emmett’s great uncle who was present when the men abducted the boy; and another eye witness who saw Emmett in the back of a truck with the accused.

All three were acquitted.

The jury deliberations took 67 minutes. As one juror explained, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken us that long.”

The genius of Bobbie Gentry’s song is that it doesn’t really matter what happened that day on the bridge. What matters is the mood she creates with her careful balance of first-person narration and direct quotes from the conversation. And somehow that mood — slow and heavy — manages to convey the weight, the quiet oppression of the summer heat and rural southern morality.

This song made for an auspicious debut. The album even knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out of the #1 spot on the U.S. charts. But Bobbie Gentry’s debut didn’t follow through to the kind of stellar career her talent deserved.

She followed this 1967 album with another impressive single in 1970. But that song, “Fancy,” didn’t gain the same broad appeal, reaching only #31 on the U.S. pop charts and #26 on the country charts.

And don’t bother going looking for the bridge; it was demolished in 1987.