Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Movie love

Recently I flipped to Turner Classic Movies to watch Picnic, the 1955 film with William Holden and Kim Novak. I've been curious to see it ever since it was rereleased in 1996 and I caught a preview for it at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. That preview has stayed with me all these years, not least because Morris Stoloff's wonderful song "Moonglow / Theme from Picnic" plays continuously under it. If you don't know the tune, it's a jazzy piano instrumental with an improbably splashy hook, and it's also the most romantic song ever.

I can't precisely remember, but I suspect one reason I did not see the rerelease is that Roger Ebert panned it. In a two-star review in the Chicago Sun-Times, he decried the film's retrograde gender politics and said it lacks self-awareness: "Clunky and awkward, with inane dialogue, it's a movie to show how attitudes have changed." I think it's more than that. It's perhaps not a work of genius, but it's marvelously entertaining.

Set in a small Kansas town on Labor Day weekend, Picnic is about a soulful drifter (Holden) who shows up looking for work. It's funny how, at any particular moment, our reactions can have so much to do with what's happening in our lives: I found myself identifying with Holden who, in his 30s, is literally adrift. He has no family and no career, and his best days as a college football star are long behind him. "There's gotta come a time in a man's life when he quits rollin' around like a pinball," he says at one point. I understand that: at the moment I am lucky to have terrific relationships and satisfying work, but I've done a fair amount of rolling myself, from calling to calling, from bad habit to bad habit.

And is that William Holden something to look at! He spends much of the movie with his shirt off, and hubba. Also lovely is Novak as Madge, a working-class girl who dates the son of the wealthiest man in town. Madge's mother, who runs a boarding house, pushes her to land the rich guy, sort of like in the Reba McEntire song "Fancy." Sad.

There's an arresting moment when everything stops, "Moonglow / Theme from Picnic" starts playing, and Holden and Novak dance slowly. Ebert describes this dismissively as the "famous sexy scene"; I think it's not only sexy, but also gorgeous and heartbreaking in the way many great movie pas de deux are.

The plot of Picnic is archetypal: as in Shane, and Mary Poppins, and Footloose, and the New Testament, a stranger comes to town and shakes everything up. This is evocative. I can think of so many people who briefly came into my life and changed me. Wonder where they all are?

Yes, I'm just a silly guy who cried while watching Picnic in bed on a Sunday afternoon. Is that so wrong? I'm working up "Moonglow / Theme from Picnic" on the accordion.

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