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Maybe I’m just talking about movies. More likely, I’m talking about something most of us associate with big purses, big bellies and boring conversations. I’ll get back to that.
I currently have beside my computer a somewhat antediluvian book that I should have read eight years ago when it came out: Mick LaSalle’s “Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood.”
In it, the author and San Francisco Chronicle film critic discusses dozens of movies from the late 1920s through 1934 in which women played interesting, well-developed, grownup roles. They had lovers, babies, jobs and even inner lives.
Prior to and for many years following this era, female characters were likable either because they were virgins, or because they repented. But these pre-code women were sympathetic because they were human, and therefore complicated.
This trend stopped mid-1934 when a strict production code required that every film include a moral consequence, at least for women. If a woman had an affair, she was obliged to regret it. If her husband cheated, she forgave him.
No longer could a picture like “The Divorcee” (1930) reach the screen, with actress Norma Shearer’s character responding to her husband’s infidelity (it was just one time – it means nothing!) with a ”meaningless” affair of her own. She and her husband separate, and after she has a very lucrative time being single, she takes him back, not the other way around – and on her terms.
By 1934, risk-taking and adult scenarios had dissolved, in some cases, into shock-factor and gratuitous exposure. One could argue the code, which lasted about 30 years, prevented or postponed something worse than it created. One could also argue Hollywood’s never fully regained the guts of those early years.
This brings me closer to the big purses.
How do you start again after you’ve already tanked?
A cinematic canon is probably not the best example. I’ll get back to that. For now, take a piece of writing, a first love, a marriage, a dream of being a gymnast or a journalist or a Shaolin monk, whatever the project: Once you’ve stopped going for it, you forever have a little stop switch in you that wasn’t there before.
You know how to quit, and you know you’re not good enough. You build yourself a tight little straitjacket of self-pity. And you can’t get out even though once you’ve started something that really matters to you, you also know it doesn’t really matter how good you are, whether “good” in your case means creative or honest or giving or sane.
All that matters is that jump in your heart. That primal pulse. The part of you that can ignore the whole world if it needs to, just to pursue some idea.
Movies, even the message-on-a-leash ones of today, often remind me that part of myself. Watching “Annie Hall,” “Pollock,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Save the Last Dance,” “Marley and Me,” or pretty much any other movie about writers or otherwise creative people will get me back to my keyboard if I’ve strayed for too long, at least for a while.
These are not all great films, but they do the trick – a very specific trick. Essentially, they pull a sweet, lovable rabbit out of a dark, gloomy hat.
Movies tend to focus on a protagonist who is bamboozled and weak, discouraged and bowled over, but then later–ta-da!– isn’t. On-screen, completely mediocre characters do incredible things. They tell us in their whiskery way that we, too, can be successful, love life and act without second-guessing ourselves.
When I’m not under this formulaic spell, I sometimes forget success is even an option. But I always remember the other extreme.
I think my fear of big purses is related. You know the ones: handbags with giant, leathery, grossly heavy sacks that, when you are a teenage girl, you know you will never be old enough to carry. I felt similarly about pantyhose, high heels, Weight Watchers and soap operas. Boys might feel this way about neckties, Rogaine and camcorders.
I’m talking about maturity. My yearning to be manipulated by a standby story arc, even more than my tiny, useless purse, reveals my deficit. It’s an almost deliberate shortfall, because I never wanted to sit at the grownup table. It was horrible over there. It was mind-numbing.
But what if I had come of age watching Shearer and Greta Garbo instead of Meg Ryan and Winona Ryder? I would have given anything to share a table with the pre-code women, who made acting like an adult the sophisticated choice, rather than the dull one.
They didn’t always win, but then neither do we. Maybe it’s not about starting all the time, and failing most of the time, but rather about keeping our grip on makes our lives barely extraordinary, and living that.