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Language, Old Movies and Magical Thinking Can Elevate Us

Reading Joan Didion and remembering a Bogey-Bacall film to counter grief

“Language is where we meet.”

That is what Barbara, then my girlfriend, told my psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McGrail, when he asked her in 1997 what she and I had in common.

As I have pointed out before, Dr. McGrail, who passed away in 2007, was probably trying to protect me when he asked Barbara that question.

When she gave her response, he appeared to be stunned.  He was not expecting her to say that.  But then he nodded, because he realized that Barbara had expressed with such aptness and such beauty the core of our relationship and perhaps the core of any relationship between writers.

I suppose I knew when I married Barbara, who was 26 years older than I, that I would likely outlive her.

But that never concerned me because, when there is real love, as cantankerousness as it may be at times, that love is eternal and resides in the spiritual realm, one that cannot be limited.

It has been two months since Barbara, who was a writer as well as my Muse, passed away.

Like Joan Didion, who wrote so eloquently about her grief after her husband passed away, I do seem to get cold and shiver more often, partly due to poorer blood circulation and partly due to reasons that are harder to explain.  I also sleep during odd chunks of time, taking catnaps. 

And like Didion, I have engaged in some magical thinking.

It is not that I have obsessed over the precise details of Barbara’s passing (although I did save the credit card statements from just before Barbara passed away to remind myself of the places where we had recently gone to eat or purchased items).

Nor is it that I keep waiting for Barbara to come back, as Didion indicated, in The Year of Magical Thinking, that she did for a while after her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, passed away. 

For me, it is a little bit different.

In my case, I guess that I still don’t fully accept that Barbara has left me.

Yes, it is true that, at the recommendation of some friends, I have given away almost all of Barbara’s clothes to some other women, which is exactly what Barbara had been doing for some time after she would go on her buying sprees from clothing catalogs.

It is also true that I remember the viewing at Forest Lawn cemetery, where we had an open casket, and the memorial, where several dear friends and I gave eulogies in early September, and where Reverend Susie, whom Barbara and I had gotten to know in the preceding two months, led a moving service.

I remember releasing a dove at the gravesite, after a chaplain read one of King David’s Psalms, and I remember seeing Barbara tucked away underground, after several young pallbearer friends and I carried her to her new spot.

I also know that Barbara had physical ailments for years, respiratory problems going back to 2010 or so; surgeries on both of her knees; pain in her joints, neck and hands; an ulcerated esophagus, which led to acid reflux; and other issues.

I know that Barbara had surgery to remove a small carcinoma in her right breast in late July of this year, and that, prior to that, she lost about 25% of her body weight, due, in all likelihood, to a severe pneumonia in December 2018.

I know that Barbara and I made a decision in June of this year to purchase plots at Forest Lawn and to sell our old ones at Mount Sinai when we realized for sure that we wanted to have a Christian cleric officiate someday in the future when Barbara passed away.

And I know that it was actually my idea to contact a Christian cleric, an idea that Barbara embraced, before she had her breast cancer surgery this past July.

And yet I still don’t really accept Barbara’s absence because the blessing she gave me in saving my life, the love she showed me for 23 years and more, remains.  It is eternal.

Beyond parental love, if I had any love before 1996, when I met Barbara, it was probably the love of old movies, in particular Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s and ‘40s.

It turns out that is a love that Barbara and I also shared.

She had seen in the theaters many of the movies that I watched in the 1970s on channel 5, Metromedia TV, an independent station in New York that has since become the Fox flagship.

Barbara was not per se a fan of gangster movies, though she did love film noir, a subtler form of crime picture that often involves shadows and moral ambiguity, deep-focus photography, postwar cynicism, sleuths, femme fatales as well as the possibility for romance, however dangerous it may be.

One of the first films Barbara and I ever discussed was Dark Passage, a Bogey-Bacall film noir from the 1940s that is set in San Francisco.

On one of our first trips to San Francisco years ago, Barbara and I drove by the street, where Lauren Bacall’s character, Irene Jansen, supposedly lives in the film.

A fan of Dark Passage, who actually did live in the building that served as the movie’s main set, had affixed a poster of Humphrey Bogart to a second story window, as I recall.

Though Bogey did play gangsters in some of his early films, he did not become a star, let alone an icon, until the 1940s when he started to play private eyes and hard-boiled veterans of the war, or, in the case of Dark Passage, a flawed man, who has been falsely accused of murder and must go on the lam to clear his name.

For roughly the first 45 minutes of Dark Passage, we don’t see Bogey, as a camera is positioned behind his neck.

It is a clever conceit, since Bogey’s character, Vincent Parry, is a man seeking a new identity, so that he can, as already noted, clear his old one, clear his name.

After his character has plastic surgery, and the bandages are removed, the camera finally shows us the familiar face of Humphrey Bogart: the nose, a somewhat long one, that had taken a few punches in its day; the sad eyes; the slight scar by his lip.

These are the features of an icon, etched with character.

Of course, Bogey’s character in the film, Vincent Parry, needs more than a new face to clear his name.

He needs the help of Bacall’s character, an artist, who attended the trial, where he was falsely convicted of murder.

My wife, Barbara, who was a fine visual artist, as well as a murder/mystery writer, knew trauma and violence all too well. 

Although neither Barbara nor I ever had to go on the lam, and although neither one of us was ever falsely accused of a crime, we both probably related to Dark Passage, because, among other things, we knew what it is like to be lied about, to be mistreated, to be ostracized, and to be willfully misunderstood by hatemongers.

Still, like Humphrey Bogart’s Vincent Parry and Lauren Bacall’s Irene Jansen in Dark Passage, Barbara and I both persisted with love, until we finally met in 1996 and saved each other.

Though Barbara and I stopped going to see movies regularly many years ago, mostly due to her health issues, we never stopped talking about old movies.

And Barbara had a beautiful memory.

She remembered seeing For Whom the Bell Tolls in the theaters.  At first, I thought the adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel had come out in 1939 or 1940, around the time that the book did.

But the windows back then between the publication of a book and the exhibition of a film were typically longer than and less strategically planned than, say, the controversial decision by Netflix to show The Irishman for only about three weeks in the theaters before it streams it online, on TV and on other forms of media.  (The book, upon which The Irishman is based, I Heard You Paint Houses, was published 15 years ago.)

As it turns out, the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls was released in the theaters in the summer of 1943 when Barbara was four years old.

Barbara remembered going to the film with her mother.  If I am remembering correctly from Barbara’s description, Barbara could recall lying on her belly between her mother’s legs, splaying out her own feet nimbly, each one to the opposite side of her mother, and gazing up at the screen.

In particular, Barbara remembered the scene where Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper kiss in a field.

That was a romantic moment in a film about war, a film, where Cooper’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, often cited by politicians as a role model, shows grit and character, even though, or perhaps because, he knows he is going to die.

Barbara probably also knew that she was going to die, and she likewise showed character, as well as twinkly-eyed love.

Maybe, I too was sensing that Barbara could pass away.

That must be why I made sure that we got in touch with Reverend Susie before Barbara’s breast cancer surgery in July.

And that must be why Barbara made sure that I bonded with our new cat, whom we rescued in April.

Barbara convinced me, with her pixie-like smile, to bring our orange-splotched boy with us on our last trip to San Francisco in August.

We did not stop off at the address of Lauren Bacall’s Irene Jansen.  And we did not see a poster of Bogey in the window.

But, like our sweet pet, who perched himself on the inside ledge of our hotel window, Barbara and I did look out from our room and gaze at the Transamerica Needle and San Francisco Bay.

We did not hear the sirens at Alcatraz or San Quentin, a sound that opens Dark Passage, as Bogart’s character, an escaped convict, rocks back and forth in a barrel on the back of a truck.

But we did remind ourselves of that film.

I had always been impressed that Barbara knew the film, an obscure one in the Bogey canon, and she had likewise been delighted that I knew it.

Oddly enough, we did not talk much about the music in Dark Passage, which features the Jo Stafford version of Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer’s song, “Too Marvelous for Words.”

That tune plays on a victrola throughout the film.

It is a jazz standard, a swing number with a major horn section and a melancholy, haunting quality, much more melancholy and haunting than the Frank Sinatra version, which Barbara and I played as the last song at our wedding.

I have always loved the song, particularly the Stafford version, but I am not sure that I agree with the lyrics.

Yes, Barbara was and always will be beyond marvelous, exquisitely so.

But I disagree with the concept that words are limited in some way.

As Barbara once said, “Language is where we meet.”

She was exactly right, and she could not have expressed her view with more brilliance.

Words are not like numbers, which tend inherently to be limiting.

Words and individual letters allow us to soar, like the dove at Barbara’s gravesite, into the ether, above the Warner Brothers studio, into the realm of imagination, where the possibilities for meaning, where the possibilities to express love, are endless.

I don’t mean to be harsh.  But when people utter the cliché, “words cannot express,” those people, as well-intentioned as they may be, not only suffer from a poverty of imagination; they are absolutely wrong.    

Joan Didion would no doubt concur.

It should go without saying that, when faced with tragedy, a good writer–someone who truly cares, someone who has a gifted memory and a sublime imagination–will be able to summon the words that can express his or her sorrow. 

But a good writer can do more than that.  Words can conjure periods of time.  Words can transport us to different places.  And, yes, words can even bring a person back to life.

In fact, according to the Zohar, the most authoritative text of Jewish mysticism, words may not only have created the world.  Words, indeed letters, in the Torah, may have predated the world by 1,000 years.

And words, especially those that resonate with and exude love and wisdom, will outlive our corporeal forms too. 

Language is where we will meet again, my angel.

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