Monday, February 10, 2014

The Great Craptastic

I was coming from Uptown Bill’s, where three men were playing their guitars and one woman was playing her banjo and thirty people were singing along. I hadn’t wanted to go, but Ethan and Barb were there, and I wanted to see them. It was one of those things where you don’t want to go and then you go anyway and then you’re glad you went because it was where you actually wanted to go even though you didn’t know it, and I was driving downtown to meet Xavier, a writer from California, whom I’d had lunch with a few weeks previous and liked very much. But it was only 5:15. I had 45 minutes to kill before the movie, so I parked on Dubuque Street across from Prairie Lights Bookstore. It had snowed earlier in the day, and the parking spaces hadn’t been plowed, so when I pulled in, I thought there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to pull out again, but I didn’t care. I had been singing songs about The River Jordan and Moses going down and stuff like that for the past hour or so and I had entered into one of those phases where I didn’t mind the winter anymore because the snow was so beautiful and I loved everyone regardless of the long, cold winter and my abiding misanthropy. Jan, who owns the bookstore, and Paul, who is a fixture there, were lucky they weren’t on the job because I probably would have tried to give them both a big hug if I would have seen them, being so filled with goodwill, and they might have felt uncomfortable with that. Instead, I riffled through a book by Carson McCullers and then went next door to Daydreams where I riffled through a book by Jack Kirby. There was a whole section of Jack Kirby, and it seemed like a miracle, to have so much color and so much narrative so close together on the same shelf.  

The film was The Great Beauty. I had seen it once already and I had been astounded and also a bit dumbfounded by it. This time, I thought, I was going to figure out how Sorrentino did it. How did he make a film that moves like a novel? And if I couldn’t figure out how he did it, I was at least going to try and figure out what, exactly, it was about. I arrived at our new little fine arts theater and bought three tickets. One for me, one for Xavier, and one for my son, William, who had texted me that he and two of his friends were going to join us. The goodwill was fraying a bit at the edges, but it was still there. I could feel it. Partly, it may have been due to the caffeine. I’m not used to it anymore, having gone decaffeinated a number of years ago, so the large half-caff I had splurged on before the sing-along was certainly still jotting through my bloodstream.

The film, I think, is about a man who has denied his purpose for the past thirty years, and in doing so has become superfluous. Jep Gambardella, the hero of the film, is a writer who doesn’t write. He does, however, party a lot. He likes to dance and talk and smoke cigarettes and drink just enough to lubricate things but not so much that he passes out and misses the fun. He appears to be a success – devastatingly intelligent, handsome, socially astute, morally upright – but he feels empty. He questions his purpose. Why has he never written that second book?

He tells the one-hundred-and-three-year-old nun it’s because he was waiting for The Great Beauty. But is has never come.

Being among the first to arrive for the show, I have my choice of seats. The little theater, although much needed and appreciated, is lacking in one way: there is a class-structure when it comes to seating. There are two general sections, the upper section and the lower section. The lower section has a shallow pitch, which, in order for the patrons to see the show, requires them to slouch in their seats and crane their necks upward at the screen. In the first row of the upper section, there are eight or ten black, Naugahyde comfy chairs. These are the Brahman seats. No craning required. Behind the Brahmans are a few steeply-pitched rows of seats. Wanting to leave the Brahman seats for the elderly or overly fastidious, I choose two seats in the middle-class section behind the Brahmans, which are far superior to the lower section seats.

So, I’m sitting in the middle-class section feeling lucky as the theater begins to fill up, sipping on my cup of wine, waiting for The Great Beauty, when it occurs to me that Xavier, my writer friend from California, doesn’t know that I have a ticket on will call for him. I leave two coats to save my middle-class seats and walk to the lobby to watch the entrance.    

The beauty of art, even that anticipation of it, is that it allows us to rise above our lives and to view them from another perspective. I write this not to be pedantic or trite, but rather for the purpose of narrative. A cornfield in August, when you’re in the middle of it, looks like an impenetrable jungle. When you pass by it on the highway, it looks like a collapsing series of rows, as if someone has drawn a comb over the land. When you see it from an airplane, it looks like a square patch of green. 

After a few minutes, Xavier arrives with his wallet out. I tell him to put it away. I’ve already paid for the ticket and I’ve saved two seats for us.

“How did you save the seats?” he asks.
“I just threw two coats over them,” I say.
“Oh,” he says. “How. . .advanced.”

I don’t know what he’s talking about (he told me later, however, that if this were LA, the coats would have been gone by the time we returned), so we chat about the shitty winter as we make our way to our middle-class seats. When we arrive, I notice that the entire middle-class section is booked. Including the seats I saved. My coats have been thrown aside. I look at my discarded coats. A pretty, blonde woman, who is sitting where my blue fleece used to be, says, “We didn’t know whose they were.”

“Um,” I say, “they’re mine.”
A large, attractive man with a voice like Christopher Lee, stands. I stand. Xavier stands. We all look at the discarded coats.
“What shall we do?” says the large man in his booming, professorial voice.

I don’t say anything because I don’t like the large, professorial man and partly because I don’t want to tell him to “get his ass out of my seat” and to take his “tawdry hooker with him.” A few seconds go by in which I am silent. I know why he’s not saying anything. What I’m supposed to say is, “Oh, that’s okay. You keep the seats. I’m sorry. I’ll move.” But I’m not going to say this. Partly because it’s what the large, attractive man expects.

After a few beats, the guy says, angrily, “Well, that’s just craptastic!”

To this, again, I say nothing. Partly because, "Well, that's just craptastic" is such an unclever thing for him to say and I think the silence frames it nicely. I wait. The blonde woman stirs. The craptastic couple are gathering their things and preparing to move when two young people who are seated beside them suddenly stand. The large, attractive man places his hand on his partner’s shoulder and says, “Hold on a minute.” The young couple makes their way past us, saying something like, “Oh, that’s okay. You keep the seats. I’m sorry. We’ll move.”

I don’t know why I allow this to happen. If I were viewing this situation from an airplane, I’d recognize that it would be my place to tell the young couple that I didn’t want their seats. That we would be happy to sit in the lower section. That two seats in a little movie theater were not worth any ill will or inconvenience. But it all happens too fast and my mind isn't fixed upon them. 

The young couple move. The good-looking couple takes their seats. I pick up my coats and Xavier and I take our seats. The movie begins. It’s about a guy who has focused the attentions of his life on things insignificant.    


  1. A coat on a seat is universal. At least I thought it was.

  2. Framing any sentence with the word "crap-tastic" in it with silence is the best way to respond, just ahead of murmuring "Isn't it, just?"


    1. It's kind of a catchy word though, isn't it?