Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Favorite Films: "The World According to Garp"

Robin Williams died.

It's not the reason I should be writing about The World According to Garp, because if there's any film that qualifies for the moniker "Favorite Films" in my book, it's Garp.

A lot of people don't like The World According to Garp.  These are mostly, I've discovered, people who love John Irving's source novel.  They would have preferred the film to be a more faithful, literal filmization of the book, but anyone who has read the sprawling, beautiful, unforgettable novel knows that would have been impossible.  It would also have offended and repulsed people, it would have seem stilted and contrived, much in the way that the film version of The Hotel New Hampshire did.

The World According to Garp takes most of the novel's sharpest, most dangerous edges and smoothes them out, but never dulls their impact.

George Roy Hill, who directed The World According to Garp when he was in his 60s, had mostly been known for movies that took genre conventions and turned them on their ear -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a Western that had a real, believable relationship between two men at its core and is mostly known for a sweet interlude featuring Burt Bachrach singing "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head."  The Sting was a film with wall-to-wall men but that resonated with women, if only because they fantasized about Redford and Newman.

So, when it came to Garp, maybe those films blinded audiences to the idea that its director understood the conventions of gender -- and how to play with them.  In Garp, no one is what he or she seems.  Each character is fully realized, with on-screen time that is so vividly portrayed you can imagine what these people do when they leave each other.  The most important characters, of course, are T.S. Garp (Williams) and his mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close).  They are the ones we become closest to, and that's due in large part to the way Close plays the role.  As in the novel, Jenny plays with the expectations of what a feminist is -- and in the 1970s, a feminist was generally either a beautiful woman who derided men about focusing on her beauty, or a stout matronly woman shouting about the inequalities of gender politics.  Jenny was neither.  She was a mother to Garp because she wanted a son -- and, boy, did she ever want one.

T.S. Garp.  The bastard son of Jenny Fields.  Writer of short stories no one buys.  ("The same nobodies who lined up not to buy my first book are going to line up not to buy my second.")  Garp and his mother (though mostly Garp) have their ambitions, their visions of what life will be.  They are warped, unusual visions, perhaps, but visions nonetheless -- variations on the same kind we all have, imagining what will happen in two years when we get that promotion, or in 30 years when our parents die, or next month when the obnoxious guy down the street finally moves out.  We see into our lives looking only ahead, not thinking about the things that fling themselves at us from the sidelines.

In The World According to Garp, some of those things are little -- a dalliance with a babysitter, a gardener who drives too fast down the street, a chance encounter with a prostitute.  Some of them are big; bigger than big -- cars that kill young boys, women who carry lifelong grudges, men who want to influence politics.

Helping us navigate the course are the people we would never have consciously selected for our own crew: the overbearing mother, the sexually confused football player, the son whose brother died, the wife or husband who has every possible, every valid, every entirely justified reason to leave us forever ... but doesn't.

The World According to Garp makes something more clear on film than it ever did as a novel, a simple lesson: We do not choose where our life goes or who helps us along the way.  The variables that influence our lives are random, and they will be there with us until the end -- an end that will come whether we are ready or not.  Death is inevitable.

The World According to Garp is not a movie about death, but it recognizes, with kindness and even joy, that death is part of life.  Some people are murdered.  Some people are in horrible accidents.  Some of the dead are people we know well, some are people we never met but whose influence lasts long after they are gone.  Some people, the actor who plays Garp in the movie reminded us this week, even take their own lives.

"You know, everybody dies," Jenny Fields tells her son, quite matter-of-factly but with a look of saintly love and caring that perhaps only Close could have brought to the role, "My parents died.  Your father died.  I'll die, too.  And so will you.  The thing is to have a life before you die.  It can be a real adventure, having a life."

And many of those adventures will end far too prematurely.  There is no way to know when or why.  Only those not ensnared by death are left to worry about such petty questions.  For the others, they have only one last request, the one uttered by Garp at the end of the film:

"Remember, Helen."

"What, my love?"


"Yes, my love."

"I'm flying ... ta-ra-ta-ra-ta-ra."

Robin Williams died.

He is one of those rare people who had a real adventure.  In his last minutes, I hope he remembered everything.  I hope we will, too.  It isn't all wonderful, this life.  It doesn't go the way you hoped.  But it all ends up the same and, if you're lucky, in your final, final moment, you'll look up in the sky and realize that finally, at last, you are flying.

Robin Williams was, perhaps, never again as honest and effusive as he was in The World According to Garp, where Williams played the character and didn't allow it to play him.  To watch the arc of Garp's life is to mourn, finally, for Garp's last moments ... the way we will mourn for Williams.

It matters little how either of them -- how any person -- dies.  What matters is how they lived.  To have a life before you die.  Garp did.  Williams did.  I am forever grateful that more than 30 years after it was made, The World According to Garp will still instruct me on how to do just that, will remind me in the non-adventurous moments that I am not doing it right, and in the moments in which I can seize the courage or have the heart, living a happy life is its own reward.

It won't seem happy at the time, most likely.  There will be impossible developments.  You will turn around one day and find someone has been shot.  Or lost an eye.  Or divorced.  Or changed sex.  That is what happens.  It's what makes it all so much more interesting.

The World According to Garp should be mandatory viewing for anyone affected, in any way, by Williams' own death.  This fine, I might almost say perfect, film version of the novel will serve only as a reminder that even in the darkest, most inconceivable moments, there will, in the end, be a smiling baby ... in the end, if you look for it (and mostly if you anticipate it), there will probably even be a laugh, because what other end could there possibly be?

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