That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions, and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions. —George Santayana
Over the long weekend—filled by having Thanksgiving dinner with family, viewing a few old films on cable, reading the first of the numerous annual end-of-year “best of” lists (including the New York Times lists of best books for 2008), watching lots of sports telecasts, and now noting Woody Allen’s birthday today (born on December 1, 1935)—I have been considering connections between all of these and forming the following serving of leftover thoughts from the holiday break.
There is an interesting moment in the film Manhattan (1979) during which Woody Allen’s central character, a writer named Isaac, is lying on a couch in his apartment, brainstorming, recording ideas on his cassette tape recorder as preparation for composition of a short story (see film clip above). In an uncharacteristic twist of direction for a Woody Allen protagonist, Isaac decides to examine an optimistic approach to life and living.
Indeed, most of Allen’s characters’ attitudes can be summed up with the following pessimistic observation offered in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) by another of Allen’s alter egos, Mickey: “There are only two types of people in the world, the unhappy and the truly miserable.” Thus, one might conclude we ought to be thankful when we’re only unhappy. However, by the end of that movie even the seemingly suicidal Mickey accidentally discovers a renewal of hope and a belief life is worth living when he drifts into a revival theater showing the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.
In Manhattan Isaac begins his search for a positive evaluation of life by asking one pointed question: “Why is life worth living?” He then records his list of responses: “Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘Potatohead Blues,’ Swedish movies (naturally), Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s . . ..” The list includes individuals and works that contributed to experiences found fitting, harmonious, beautiful, or rewarding in his life—pleasurable memories gathered together, which to some extent sketch a formal statement, a descriptive analysis of the formative influences that fashioned his character.
Similarly, in Save the Tiger, a 1973 film directed by John Avildsen, Jack Lemmon portrays a somewhat successful businessman living in Beverly Hills, but undergoing a midlife crisis. Much of what he sees in his current life offers little or no enjoyment. Consequently, in an effort to recapture his former, more youthful, enthusiasm for life, he plays a name game and thinks back to those who made life worth living for him. His list includes the following: Glenn Miller, Fred Allen, Jimmy Durante, Carl Hubbell, Eddie Arcaro, Laurel and Hardy, Sugar Ray Robinson, Hank Greenberg, Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Fatha’ Hines, Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Popeye, LuLu, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin. The names in this personal inventory read like an excerpt from one generation’s imaginary program of popular arts, sports, and entertainment.
The preceding lists present wide-ranging implications not only about the lives of the film characters who speak those lines, but also about elements of art and popular culture most of us might consider valuable in our own lives. One may take it for granted when determining those responsible for the aspects of our lives that have nurtured us and contributed greatly to whatever sense of contentment we may have experienced, especially when considered over a holiday weekend, most of us would initially indicate our family members and close friends. In fact, Woody Allen even ends his list when he comes up with “Tracy’s face,” and he recalls his affection for a former lover.
Many might also include teachers, clergy, neighbors, local leaders, or co-workers. However, no matter how many figures we draw from these diverse personal relationships, such resulting lists of important, inspirational, or influential individuals who have enormously enlightened, entertained, enchanted, and enriched our lives remain singular or isolated, not mutually shared with those members of society outside our own communities.
A revelation of common cultural heroes or collectively recognized works of art in our society marks the two film monologues previously cited as significant to many and recognized by others outside the closed circle of family, friends, or acquaintances in the personal lives of their speakers. In these twin instances, it is particularly essential that the references travel beyond the enclosed worlds of the speakers, of course, since both characters must seem relevant and connected to their audience in order to ensure empathy.
Moreover, one might suggest the very nature of such lists—honor rolls that often include human icons representative of contemporary culture, those stars and celebrities who comprise the intimate strangers of our society mixed like ingredients in a recipe—and the total composition of the montage one envisions when faced with such selected combinations establish a particular reflexive portrait of ourselves and our society in a given time period.
The way a gallery of Andy Warhol portraits of noted figures partially explains the painter’s self and the interests of his audience, the popular personalities we choose to place in our aggregate allow for instantaneous identification with the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes expressed by others. As Louis Simpson has written: “Time after time, the artist who is true to his own view of experience turns out to be speaking for others.”
Additionally, the artists’ creations of symbols out of ordinary articles given special attention in their works, such as Warhol’s soup cans or the American flags and targets of Jasper Johns, also permit our imaginations to ascribe to objects of art those emotions or moods we find present in ourselves and feel a need to represent through everyday physical signs. Therefore, our own menu of selections might serve as an indicator of the ways we see the world in which we live, as well as an instrument that projects for closer scrutiny our personal images of self.
It seems fitting to close these stray after-Thanksgiving thoughts with one more moment from a popular film of the seventies, The Way We Were (1973), directed by Sydney Pollock. In one scene Robert Redford, as the well-off WASP writer Hubbell Gardner, is floating in a sailboat on a calm bay with his best friend. Since their college days, whenever together the two continually play another form of name game as they attempt to list their opinions of “the best” of everything in life for which they are thankful.
Perhaps everyone ought to test himself or herself by playing this game every once in a while, as a few of us did after dinner this Thanksgiving. For example, try to name the best jazz album, the best Hitchcock film, the best modern novel, the best James Bond, the best living songwriter, the best contemporary poet, the best Impressionist painting, the best American playwright, the best Shakespeare sonnet, the best television sitcom of all time, the best major league shortstop, the best pizza place in New York, the best bookstore in Chicago, the best beer (domestic and imported), the best blend of coffee, and so on. Compose your own list. Coming up with more innovative categories supplies much of the fun.
All will soon discover a pleasant problem with the game. The purpose of the exercise cannot and should not be an arrival at the right result. Except in the case of numerically measurable topics, it is impossible really to know the best of anything not quantifiable, as every response would be subjective, and inevitably there will never be a definitive correct answer. This predicament is especially evident when contemplating art and artists in various disciplines or evaluating accomplishments of individuals associated with an array of entertainment areas in popular culture.
Therefore, as in the case of the Redford character, the game never stops: it is a lifetime adventure involving ongoing debate, perhaps with ever-changing replies as one matures and gains enhanced knowledge or accumulates more experiences, developing a growing roll of valuable images as memories to be preserved, and that is exactly the charm of the game. Answers given at any moment may define where we are at the time they are volunteered, but asked again next Thanksgiving or during a holiday conversation ten years from now, we might find we’ve moved forward in our lives and likely second-guess previous selections. Even experts’ opinions are often suspect: for proof, one need only to debate volumes on the “best books” lists or examine those chosen ten years ago, twenty years ago, and fifty years ago to see how many have held up well over the decades, as well as how many have not.
Nevertheless, the name game is enjoyable to play and provides a spark frequently leading to bursts of interesting holiday conversations with friends and relatives. Let’s see: the best jazz album, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis; the best Hitchcock film, Psycho; the best modern novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; the best James Bond, Sean Connery (especially in Goldfinger); the best living songwriter, Bob Dylan; the best contemporary poet . . .. You try it.