Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Monday, May 14, 2007

On the Waterfront

Since Marlon Brando appears in two films that are long-standing part of SKS fare -- Apocalypse Now and The Godfather -- I figured it made sense to go back and watch his earlier stuff. We watched On the Waterfront, the 1954 classic about a washed-up boxer standing up to a corrupt union boss.

Everyone remembers "I coulda been a contenda," and it is a great scene, when Terry Malloy confronts his older brother about their shared compromises. Brando is very convincing as a sensitive brute, miles ahead of King Kong and other shlocky attempts to make the less-civilized morally superior. Ahh, that was in a time when films dared to be more subtle, when men could have touchingly intimate scenes with nary a hug, and every drop of romantic tension had to be squeezed from the heroine's lovely face, since the only on-screen consummation would be a kiss.

What stuck with me was a scene much less commented on, when one of Terry's young friends kills off all of pigeons Terry had cared for since the death of their owner, another man who broke the omerta. "A pigeon for a pigeon!" he cries, crying and visibly heartbroken. There was almost more pathos in the murder of a few birds than in the death of Terry's own brother. The slaughter of innocents by an innocent, in the name of a morally bankrupt code of silence . . . now that's complex. Perhaps the boy did it willingly, feeling utterly betrayed by his hero . . . or perhaps he did it reluctantly, afraid to be associated so closely with a turncoat. We don't know; Terry says simple, "Aw, what he have to do that for?" His sympathy is not (thank God) merely for the birds, but rather for the loss of the boy's innocence, the making of another sensitive brute. That scene is the moral pivot-point for the whole movie, more so than even his decision to testify in court. "I'm gonna go down there, and get my rights." That's when he goes past knee-jerk notions of loyalty and finds real principle. That's the moment when he transcends mere revenge and moves into self-sacrifice.

Ah, sacrifice. What with the priest's impassioned speech in the hold of ship, calling a stoolie's death "a crucifixion," I thought for sure that Terry was not long for this world. It wasn't clear, by Hollywood storytelling standards, whether Terry was culpable enough in the mob killings to deserve to die, but with so much Christ-like prefiguring I thought it was a sure thing he'd go down. He does get sold by the mob, a scourging by the soldiers, a stumbling walk on the way to redemption . . . but miraculous resurrection instead of death.



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