I enjoy a comedy, a solved murder mystery, an upbeat song or a love story that ends with “happily ever after.” I am inexorably drawn, though, to the un-mended, the thrawn, and the unresolved. [Note: I’m probably all over irony, too, but writing about my love of irony seems excessively and preciously self-conscious, so I won’t do it although I may actually be doing it]. I respond to the unsettled in art, in music, in movies and in books, feeling a jolt of recognition and a little rush because someone has made art that reflects what I feel most deeply: pat resolutions are fleeting fixes, and the real work of life is never on “pause” while we have our happy sitcom ending or find love, after all (darn it!) in the arms of the handsome-but-quirky guy we sparred with all through the movie. It does a huge disservice to humans of any age or gender to see this absence of care and surreal resolution presented as “normal,” or even attainable in a world where it is far more important to live in, embrace and own what is real, even if it’s a little dirty, a little shaky. That’s where all the good stuff, the real magic of life is found.
As a high school junior in 1978, I saw Woody Allen’s “Interiors” with a group of friends. I was drawn into it’s cold, controlled pastel veneer and the depiction of a family trying desperately to remain in control as everything fell apart. It was only partly a matter of personal resonance; my own family was not anything like what I saw on the screen, but I recognized the suffering of trying to “keep it together” and look good when one’s heart is breaking. (there is nothing a hypersensitive sixteen-year-old girl knows as much about as heartbreak and longing for a happy ending). Nothing could really be fixed, or resolved in any way, and the failure of most of the movie’s characters to acknowledge and give in to their real predicament magnified their pain and isolation. Everyone I was with hated it, and I remember silently mulling it in my head as we all rode back to hang out at someone’s house, feeling self-conscious because I was the sucker who had gotten wrapped up in a “terrible” movie.
Later, I came upon “Lost in Translation,” which is my favorite movie in all the world. It is far less tragic and difficult than “Interiors,” because rather than fighting against the temporal and unresolved nature of life, the main characters “roll with it,” for lack of a better expression. It’s focus is two lonely people far from home, and the ways in which their lives intersect for a brief time, with love, deep understanding and romantic longing, but not so much as a kiss. It does not end with them together, or living happily ever after; there is no dramatic smack-to-the forehead, running to catch the train, “I almost lost you” moment. We honestly have no idea whether they will ever see each other again, and it seems right, and it seems wrong just as it does at the end of “Casablanca” when Ilsa gets on the plane with her husband, which is right but really wrong, and leaves the man she really loves, which is wrong but really right. The main characters in “Lost n Translation” have let a “moment” happen, and not tried to pin it down or save it. It is not abstract, or manipulative, but a beautiful expression of how love and pain and uncertainty and necessity are with us all the time, and sometimes the most serendipitous moments occur when we stop trying to make everything fit neatly into a plot or a program.
In literature, my favorite is also a master of the unresolved; J.D. Salinger didn’t publish much (although he is rumored to have written a great deal), but what is available to us is a small collection of art that recognizes life’s uncertainty with no attempt at varnish. My favorite is “Franny and Zooey,” in which a young woman wrestles with issues of faith and meaning, coming to no permanent conclusion except that there is no permanent conclusion. There is no plot, there is a great deal of breathtaking character development and dialogue than makes me want to weep with envy, and it is not a wise choice for readers looking for an easily digested “take-home message.” A shorter, and more devastating example of Salinger’s ease with the uneasy is the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Because I’m hoping that you’ll read it some day, if you haven’t already, I won’t tell you what happens; suffice it to say that it creates attachment on the part of the reader, and then does what life does, and pulls the rug out from any sense of comfort or predictability.
There is both classical and popular music that elicits and ratifies feelings of tension between reality and our dreams of resolution and long-term happiness. In classical music I find this beloved paradox in much of Mahler, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, in Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night and Bloch’s “Schelomo,” and in the best Requiems, which manage to combine the message of eternal life and release with acceptance of the sadness and loss of those left behind. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” moves me the same way; clouds, love and life may appear beautiful or terrible, but our characterizations and classifications of them are nothing more than passing illusions. Everything, really, just “is,” and our attempts to trap, codify and preserve “good” things may well keep us from the necessary work of living life. It’s tough, it’s un-pretty, it wouldn’t work on the Hallmark channel, but it’s ultimately far more joyous than the stress created by trying to create or hang on to some artificially generated standard of “happy.”
I am leaving this post unresolved.