Monday, January 16, 2012

Look, everybody: it's Harold Lloyd!

It's not every day that you open a dusty old book and discover a treasure trove of sheer magic.

But the laws of the probable can take an unlikely turn, if the subject matter happens to be Harold Lloyd.

Though I finished writing my Lloyd-inspired novel The Glass Character about a year ago, my research (if you can call such an enjoyable pursuit research) continues. I just keep winkling out more books, most of them very old and long out of print. On a Harold Lloyd message board, I saw a discussion of a book called Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy by William Cahn. I had never heard of the title or the author, but I started digging on the internet, and before I knew it I was ordering a copy.

It's sad but understandable why most books about Harold Lloyd are yellowed and musty and rather out of date. For a very long time he was viewed through a pretty inferior pair of glasses (so to speak). He was always seen as a distant third to Chaplin and Keaton, which confounds me every time I watch one of his charming and wonderfully-crafted pictures. 

There's only one reason I love Harold Lloyd so much (well, two, but I'll get to the other one): he makes me laugh. He makes me laugh myself teary-eyed, and gasp as I laugh, at his subtlety and insight and tremendous gift for creating audience identification.

But for decades, it seemed that nobody knew where to place him in film history except as an "also-ran". Richard Schickel wrote an unflattering book about him several years after his death, so I guess that was considered the last word on the subject.

Someone had the gall to say he "lacked tenderness",a barb which was completely inaccurate (for obviously that critic had never seen Girl Shy or The Kid Brother). He was labelled a "go-getter", for reasons that still confound me. Go-get what? All his struggles were motivated by love, usually unrequited love, which is why critics now believe that Harold Lloyd invented the genre of romantic comedy.

I don't know why it has taken all these decades to blow the dust off this magnificent comedic legend and restore him to his rightful place. That brings me to the other reason I love him so much: he is sweet and fierce and almost supernaturally beautiful, as witness the photos in this post. And he stayed that way all his life.

Today I received a fat brown parcel in the mail, an old cloth-bound book with no cover on it and that mellow, old-papery smell that I love. It was the Cahn book, dated 1964. I began to flip through it, disappointed that the photos were so small, and most of them not even of Lloyd.

When I isolated and tinkered with a tiny, smudgy photo of his famous glasses, however, they leaped off the page and almost scared me. These are the glasses that transformed Lloyd from a so-so Chaplin imitator into a comic genius, not just for the silent era but for all time.

What a shock! They're hardly there. Though they look dark on-screen, they appear delicate, with no glass in them,  and when I lightened the exposure, I saw that they weren't black at all but tortoise-shell. It's eerie to look at these: you're seeing the essence of a unique talent, someone who knew that an everyman figure would engage audiences as never before. It's as if his antics, struggles and disappointments say to his viewers, "Has this ever happened to you?" Ah, yes - it has - and that's precisely why we laugh so hard.

I had a bonus surprise when I opened the book: a yellowed, very neatly-creased newspaper clipping fell out of the middle. It's a review that appeared in the Washington Star on Sunday, January 8, 1978, not of the Cahn book but of another Lloyd biography by Adam Reilly (which I also have). Is this a sign? Of what, I wonder? There was something a little spooky about this, and the strange little masthead stub that the reader must have used for a book mark.

Who originally owned this book, and carefully preserved that neatly-clipped, yellowed review? Obviously it was a Harold fan, perhaps long dead. I look at the clipping now and realize it's unlikely anyone has seen it for 34 years. But when I take a closer look, I see something even more bizarre. That little Evening Star "bookmark" is dated August 24, 1964, making it nearly half a century old. 

Why this enigmatic time capsule; what could it mean? Why do such strange things always seem to happen around Harold Lloyd?

Harold, you pop up in the darndest places.

What's the difference between ignorance and apathy?

Tell me, quick – without thinking for even a second – what is the opposite of love?

You may wonder: does love have an opposite? Isn’t Love the force that guides and governs the Universe?

I wish. But let’s get back to your answer.

85% of you will have quickly responded, before you could think about it, "Hate.”

I know, because I can hear you.

If in fact that's your answer, I consider it part of “conventional wisdom”, something I analyze and criticize as a regular theme on this blog. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.” “If I did it before (usually something good), I can do it again." And, most of all, "You should forgive him. You'll feel so much better if you do."

What is hate, anyway? A violent form of – well, dislike. Of being offended by, or made angry or furious by. Of not wanting someone or something around. Of aversion. Of – and now you know why Tom Robbins once famously said, “There are no synonyms.”

We all know what hate is. We hear it’s not good for us, that it eats us up. It has a smoldering, even violent quality to it, a nastiness. Hate. Hate Hate.

So surely this must be the opposite of Love, the softness, sweetness, the warm enveloping of another soul (or thing), the wanting someone around, all the time. Oh, I don’t need to tell you.

It’s supposed to be the stuff that makes the world go ‘round, and it certainly seems to be the subject of at least 85% of popular music (and not a few classical pieces: Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz being a standout).

Personally, I know that I couldn’t get along very well without it. I don’t make it happen, do not will it to happen, or even make it go away. It seems to have a life of its own.

But consider this.

Love is a wanting, a caring, a need to be near. Affection.  But the root word affect is a pretty loaded term.

Most of the dictionary definitions are kind of baffling, but here’s one that might make a bit of sense:

A person's affect (please note, in this case affect is a noun, not a verb; it is also not a misspelling of effect) is the expression of emotion or feelings displayed to others through facial expressions, hand gestures, voice tone, and other emotional signs such as laughter or tears.

Not necessarily love. Just emotion.

This is a clue to what I consider the opposite of love. If affect(ion) is emotion, laughter or tears or other such displays of human vulnerability, then what’s the opposite of affect?

A lack of affect, even an absence of affect, a disaffection?

We’re getting close. The way I see it, the opposite of love couldn’t be hate, because hate is so “hot”. Hate means you are emotionally engaged. Hate means that, in a bizarre sort of way, you care. You may even care enough to want to rip the other person’s face off or scream abuse at them.

It means the other person, or perhaps the other ideology or even object, has a mighty and powerful hold over you, much as they might have if you were feeling . . .


OK, so what am I getting at in my usual convoluted way (for it’s Monday, after all)? The opposite of love could be only one thing.


Not giving a shit.

Not even noticing. Staring right through and not seeing. Ignoring. Brushing past without recognizing or saying hello.

Not acknowledging or even caring to acknowledge.

In its more malignant form, indifference (not caring) can lead to devastating emotional abandonment (the kind that leads a mother to leave her child’s name off her obituary, things like that). Humans are like puppies, much more than we want to admit. We just crave nurture, not just when we’re babies but through our entire lives.

If we don’t get nurture, we grab for whatever we can find: booze, drugs, overwork, overshopping, compulsive gambling, and (apparently a favorite, by all the evidence) eating too much, which used to be called gluttony and was considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. (And by the way, whatever happened to sin? But that’s another post.)

Indifference. It’s the empty space where a heart should be, the ultimate self-protection, the not-caring that we think will keep us safe. It’s the “I don’t care much one way or another” that you hear so often in a world which is both overly touchy-feely and completely iced-over.

In a culture where you can unfriend someone at a click, indifference is becoming more popular than ever. If there is love, and I would hope that love will survive anything that could happen to the human race, indifference is “not-love”.

It's the cool shrug (which I saw every day of my childhood), the turned head, the letting go of my hand as if she forgot it was there.

And in my case, Ultimately, it’s “you don’t exist” or “you were never born”. Do you think people can’t do things like that to each other? Guess again.

I posted on this subject already as “fiction”, but I guess I need to come clean. My mother died in 2010. To say we were estranged is an understatement. I recently stumbled upon her obituary on-line, and couldn’t help but notice that two family members were not mentioned in my mother’s official, published life history.

My brother Arthur, and me.

It still shocks me to realize that my beloved brother and I were shut out, erased, stricken from the record like Moses in exile. I’m not even sure why it happened to my brother, who never deliberately did anything to hurt the family. Maybe it was just a way to hurt me even more, because he was the only one who offered me any genuine, unconditional affection. If the rest of the family voted not to do that, then obviously he was breaking the unspoken, unwritten rule.

Was it his mental illness? Did they think he could casually turn that off with a switch? Just how ashamed of him were they?

I think I know. 

I’m sorry, I just can’t keep myself out of this post, though I tried. I’m not some sociologist. When I married at age 19, I landed safely in a family whom I know loves me, even in the face of the usual day-to-day irritations and annoyances. I walked out of one system (because I had to), and into another, of my own free will.

My husband didn’t fall from the sky; I picked him out of all the men I could have given my life to.  He isn’t an alcoholic or violent or abusive or mean. His family doesn’t even drink. When his Mum died recently, it would not have even occurred to them to leave my name off the list of close kin.

According to my mother, or her wishes at least, she had two children, my eldest two siblings. And that’s all. I always thought she had four. Funny how that works. A friend of mine, appalled at what they did, said “If someone from your home town read that obituary, wouldn’t they wonder where you and your brother went?”

Oh, but my brother and I were never born, never even existed! Thus my husband, kids, and grandkids don’t exist either. Stricken from the record, permanently. Perhaps it's because we dared to think that we were treated less than lovingly as children. Surely that's grounds for permanent dismissal.

And people get all upset and legal if they're cut out of the will!

There is nothing my children could do, nor my grandchildren either, even viciously slandering my name, even murder, that could cause me to cut them dead like that (or, worse, declare them never-born). The omission renders the whole thing a lie. If someone can casually obliterate two pregnancies, two births, two lives, how can you trust anything else they say?

I think there must be a name for this that’s a lot stronger than mere indifference.