July 09, 2008

I Just Watched A Thousand Clowns Again.

It was a birthday treat from the husband. As God is my witness, for years the title of that movie was generally treated with the numeral: 1000 Clowns. But now "1000 Clowns" is a rap group, and IMDB lists the movie as A Thousand Clowns. Amazon is using the words for it, but won't sell it. [Cue Charlton Heston voice: "Darn the luck!")

This movie is my family's signature film in the way that Harvey is my husband's family movie. But K Clowns always makes me cry (not in a bad way), for two reasons: (1) in this storyline the main character, eccentric as he is—beautiful and charming as he is—is forced to comes to terms with the world of work, of conformity. Of dealing with what he cannot help but perceive to be lesser minds. Contrast this with Harvey, wherein Elwood P. Dowd has to make a sacrifice similar to that of Harry Potter in The Deathly Hallows. In a move that must feel like a kind of death to Elwood, he is forced to put his love for his sister above his love for a (possibly) imaginary creature who happens to be his best friend.

But in Harvey, Elwood's sister realizes that forcing her brother to give up the "delusion" of a six-foot rabbit would change him, and ultimately she doesn't want her brother changed.

Deus ex machina. To some degree: the willingness to sacrifice turns out to be sacrifice enough, as in The Deathly Hallows (at least with respect to Harry Potter's own life).

In A Thousand Clowns, the Jason Robards character has it tougher [always the way, when one is grappling with oneself]: in order to retain guardianship of his nephew, he is required to get a job (a notion that truly horrifies him), and that means (as he vaguely conceives it) being nice to people whom he feels superior to. People he may in fact be superior to, the movie allows.

His quandary finally requires that he act like an adult, rather than drifting along in the dysfunctional role-reversal that has characterized his relationship with the nephew he had been raising, in his own way, up to that point.

A Thousand Clowns is a tough movie for Bohemians, for iconoclasts, for rebels who do and do not have causes—because in this story middle-class morality—the need for a modicum of conformity&mdashwins. Ultimately, playwright/screenwriter Herb Gardner suggests, we can each listen to the beat of our own drummer, as long as we don't do it on the clock. And no matter how bright we are, we must make our peace with the larger society around us. Do things that might appear to be "beneaath us." Engage in activities we don't particularly feel like. No matter how hippie-like we are inside, we all have (Gardner and K Clowns tells us), the responsibility to figure out what we want. And then—at least with respect to that one thingmdash;we must grow the fuck up.

Not a cheerful little movie. And yet still a very charming one, because the potentially distressing message is delivered with love. Or, perhaps, because it reflects the larger notion that dying to one's shortcomings/sins may bring about new dimensions of life we'd previously only dreamed of.

Dealer's choice.

* * *

A Thousand Clowns is also difficult for me personally to watch because it reminds me of Dick Siegel. That is, Richard W. Siegel, the former geneticist at UCLA, who was my stepfather (not legally, but for all practical purposes) for several years. Not only does he look vaguely like Jason Robards in the movie, but he turned my mother on to that film, and she took my brother and me to see it when I was something like seven years old, and he (the brother) was maybe nine. It was playing in a revival house in Maryland somewhere, and we got to stay up late on a school night to see this funny movie she thought we'd like.

It is a funny movie, but in a tragicomedic way, so I always weep just a bit when I see it on that account. And the rest of the crying—which I try to hide from my husband, lest he think I'm not enjoying it—has to do with how haunted I am by Siegel. By not knowing whether he's even dead or alive right now. By having lived in such intimate quarters with him for several years, and then having had to cut off all contact. (And that was a necessary evil: my mother simply could not keep her balance with that man around; it was a severely unhealthy relationship. Mom is a sensitive lady).

Still: for me, cutting off part of the past felt like—feels like—amputating a limb. (Yes: the neurons are still signalling from my stepbrothers and stepsisters in the Siegel family, with whom I've largely lost contact).

Last I heard, Dick had retired to the Pacific Northwest (a not-atypical thing for Southern Californians to do). Somehow I hope he's still alive, and that if he isn't, he died a happy man.

In the meantime, I have a black and white movie he turned my mother on to that features "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" (which Dick, also, used to sing around the house).

I never learned to play the harmonica, as he could (though I tried), or learn to speak other languages, either (which did not really try to do). I was always very narrow, and rather alien. I ultimately didn't fit into academia any better than I fit into any other professional niche in this world. (That is not really good or bad; just a fact.)

As a child I was, more than anyone else, like the 12-year-old Nick in A Thousand Clowns, trying desperately to find the humor in all the silly, zany things others called "physical comedy." And trying to be polite about it. (Only two people have ever made me laugh at physical comedy: Steve Martin, and Bryan Cranston of Malcolm in the Middle. Cranston really gave me an appreciation of that art that no one ever had before. The couple of years that Attila the Hub and I watched Malcolm and the Middle regularly (because it was the only sitcom he could bear, and he loved it) didn't just made me laugh: they made me realize that I wasn't a total freak. (Just mostly one.) Because that one guy—Bryan Cranston—made laughing at absurd bodily movements the most natural thing in the world.

* * *

So thank you to everyone, for a terrific birthday: thanks to Attila the Hub, for the nice presents and the beautiful movie. Thanks to Fred Coe, for directing A Thousand Clowns, and to Herb Gardner for writing it. Thanks to Dick Siegel for stopping by in my life for a few years, and telling me tales about New York City and Real Delicatessens and Serious Academic Life.

Thanks to Jason Robards and Barbara Harris. And thanks to Barry Gordon, for being Nick.

And thanks to Bryan Cranston, for helping me break free of my (sometimes) overly cerebral sense of humor.

Sweet dreams, beautiful world.

Posted by Attila Girl at July 9, 2008 10:54 PM | TrackBack

Oh, LMA, I love this movie, too. As I am older than you, I originally saw it in a theater -- first run. Thanks for helping me to understand why I have loved it so much.

I am bothered by something in your post. You are clearly, I understand from your writing, an intelligent and self-respecting lady. But... because your mother is "sensitive," you gave up an important relationship? I don't, of course, know all the details, and it's definitely none of my business, but that doesn't sound very healthy to me. As I said, none of my business, but I like you, and it bothered me. Still does.

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