EDITOR’S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father’s death. Peter’s series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don’t Leave and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to the series, Pictures of Loss: Introduction, click here. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: The Darjeeling Limited, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Men Don’t Leave, click here. — Matt Zoller Seitz
This last one is going to be hard to explain. Bear with me. It all goes back to a book of short stories by Gordon Lish called What I Know So Far, and the question, “Why do I think so often about What I Know So Far?”
I’ve never read the book. I’ve never read anything else by Lish. Yet it has a hold on my imagination.
Of course, I know why. My father gave me a copy of What I Know So Far for Christmas when I was thirteen. I asked for a lot of books that Christmas, and this was one of the few I received that I hadn’t requested. I wondered then, and now, why he selected Lish’s book, but I never asked him. I thought about it every so often. I suppose I always imagined that the title appealed to him. What I Know So Far. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I imagined the title appealed to him for me. I mean: He would want me to read a book with a title that was about imparting knowledge.
In my youth, I was always asking my father to get books for me for Christmas or my birthday or just on his way home from work any old average Tuesday. But he was always trying to augment my choices with books he felt would mean something to me, even if I did not see it at the time. I remember when I asked him to buy me a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. When he came home and I looked inside the sack, I saw not only the blue trade paperback, but also a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he had purchased along with it. I hadn’t yet read The Catcher in the Rye and he briefly explained that he thought I would like it more than the book I had asked for. After skimming the first three or four pages of Infinite Jest, I could see that he was right.
I wish I had read What I Know So Far. Maybe the title was what turned me off. What did Gordon Lish know that I didn’t? I thought I knew everything, but it wouldn’t be until I was 26—the age I was when my father died—that I realized I knew nothing.
There were many books like What I Know So Far and The Catcher in the Rye, books that
my father liked the idea of my reading. This Side of Paradise comes to mind, as does
Slaughterhouse-Five and anything by the Beats.
Given that he was first an officer in the Air Force and later a banker, my father’s love of literature—this kind of literature—might sound unlikely. But I grew up with it. I was probably the only twelve-year-old who, on seeing Annie Hall for the first time, knew who Marshall McLuhan was. It sticks in my mind that I saw Annie Hall primarily because
Marshall McLuhan was in it! I knew who he was because my father referenced him so often when he gave speeches or was interviewed by the press or wrote articles.
The Medium is the Massage is another book he gave me without my asking for it.
If I didn’t explain some of this, I don’t think my enthusiasm for James Ivory’s A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries would make a lot of sense. You see, my family is nothing like the family in the movie—the expatriate novelist Bill Willis, his freethinking wife Marcella, and their children Channe and Billy—but I see us all over it. And I see my father in Bill Willis, a character that Kaylie Jones (from whose novel the film was adapted) based on James Jones—her father.
The differences between Bill Willis and my father are too obvious to bother listing. After all, my father was a banker, not a novelist, and when I was a teenager, we moved from New Orleans back to Columbus, Ohio, not from Paris back to America, as happens in the movie. Yet Bill Willis is just like my father. Some of it must have to do with the fact they had both been in the military; my father could get firm, like Bill Willis does when, as a young girl, Channe is caught forging his signature. Some of it has to do, too, with the love of books I was talking about. What other banker has even heard of Marshall McLuhan, let alone Gordon Lish?
In one of my favorite scenes in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, the Willises are having dinner together, sipping soup and saying nothing in particular, when Channe asks if her unconventional best friend from school, Francis (Anthony Roth Costanzo), can sleep over. There is some back-and-forth between Channe and Billy about where Francis will sleep, which Bill finds so funny that he cannot contain his laughter. He leans back in the Louis Treize chair he is seated in, which Marcella warns him not to break. As Channe finalizes Francis’s sleeping arrangements—“Can we put the cot close to my bed so that he won’t feel so far away?”—Billy gives his father a wild-eyed look, almost as though he is egging him on. Bill again laughs uproariously, utterly bemused by his children and their little quarrels.
When Billy turns from his father and asks his mother to pass the bread, he has a satisfied grin on his face. He got his father to laugh, yet what they just shared was even more profound.
How many times my father laughed in similar circumstances. This is how he was with us. He often said that the four of us were all we needed, and the film presents an us-against the-world attitude about family that I find very pleasant. In Marcella, a certain militancy comes across when her family is imperiled. Billy was adopted in France, and when there are some rumblings about the adoption’s legality, Marcella says she’ll go straight to the president—not de Gaulle, but Eisenhower. A friend protests, “I thought you were this big principled pacifist.” She replies, “Not when it comes to my kids I’m not.”
Midway through A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Bill decides it is time to leave Paris and return to America. Channe, who has grown up overseas, wonders why. He says that his last checkup wasn’t so good, and that he wants to be home “when—if—something goes wrong.” Channe understands. Before the family departs, there is a shot of Channe walking through one of the narrow corridors of her family’s Paris apartment. It looks empty—we can imagine crates of furniture and boxes of books in adjacent rooms—and Channe asks, to whoever might be listening, “No one’s home?” The film then dissolves to a shot of the same corridor, years earlier, the camera cocked at an angle to indicate the shift in time, as young Billy and young Channe ride their bikes on the well-worn wood floors. I can’t think of two images that express as succinctly what it feels like to say
goodbye to a place you love.
It turns out that Bill Willis had a ghastly premonition: once home, his health goes south. In the hospital, as he dictates the novel he is working on to Channe at the typewriter, he admonishes her that a soldier’s daughter never cries. She violently disagrees: “I’m a writer’s daughter!” That’s how I feel: I’m not an Air Force officer’s son or a banker’s son, but the son of someone who loved the arts and encouraged his son to go into them.
One of my favorite things is Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. After I first listened to it, I found myself returning to the final song “Make Our Garden Grow.” One line above all others bewitched me: “And let us try before we die / To make some sense of life.” I thought of it whenever I faced a big decision or found myself in a jam. I’m reminded of the manic-depressive character in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, who says he once took as a mantra the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”
I thought “Make Our Garden Grow” was that for me—a mantra—but of course I hardly needed one. I can’t even remember what big decisions I might have faced or what jams
I might have found myself in. They really were that trivial. Everything is different now, and I’ve started to listen to “Make Our Garden Grow” again.
This is the lesson I have learned: to try to allow art about loss—whether a movie or a novel or an operetta—to enter your life. Don’t do it for art’s sake—do it for your sake. A number of years ago, my friend Bilge Ebiri said something that startled me: “Get ready for the day when movies themselves seem less interesting than they used to. It’ll happen, to some degree or another.” At the time, I dismissed this notion without a second’s thought. Needless to say, it turned out to be so absolutely true. But I would revise Bilge’s words as follows: As life goes on, and we lose people, most movies do become less interesting, but certain ones become more interesting than we could ever have imagined.
After their father dies, Channe asks Billy if he can remember the last thing Daddy said to him. He does. I do, too, and there’s no way I could forget it. The agony of losing him means I have tried to commit so much to memory, and there is so much more I want to
say. I feel like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote, “Listen, little Elia: draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I’ll tell you a story.”
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter’s website here.