Friday, May 20, 2011

The Bridges of New York County

By Nicholas Stix

July 13-19, 1995
The Chelsea Clinton News/Westsider.
(The Bridges of Madison County spoiler alert.)

(Sniff.) I just saw The Bridges of Madison County, which turned a roomful of cynical New Yorkers into mush.

By now, everyone who hasn’t seen the movie has had it ruined for them by a film critic (hey, they don’t call them “film friends”), or casual acquaintances. A tale of romantic adultery, Bridges is a fable for our time.

“I know you had dreams of your own, but I do love you,” Francesca Johnson’s husband, Richard, whispers on his deathbed.

Director Clint Eastwood does well to portray Richard as a big-hearted, caring farmer of a guy, rather than as some boorish bumpkin. That makes Francesca’s choice so tough, and so worth making.

A limited actor, Eastwood has nonetheless grown into one of our most gifted directors. And in Streep, he has our most brilliant actress, more emotionally resonant and sexier than ever.

Francesca’s problem in 1965 is as nostalgic as fins on a Chevrolet: To run away with the romantic, vagabond National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, a man who “loves everyone, but no one in particular,” or stay with the teenaged kids who take her for granted and her sweet but unexciting husband who loves only her, and who “never hurt anybody in his whole life.”

Francesca’s problem is not that of her viewers, or of those who have read Robert James Waller’s sentimental schnulze. For Streep’s Italian war bride from Bari, swept off her feet in Naples and on to America (not knowing that that would mean Iowa), is susceptible to the charms of a Robert Kincaid, while being torn by the deep-set roots of the obligations of “a thousand details.” By moving to America, she thought, in part, she was leaving the old world behind, not just adding new obligations – to children, a drone of a husband, neighbors.

The tears are tears of nostalgia. Both “sophisticated” New Yorkers and patrons across McDonaldland, in their Visa-clutching hearts, long for the roots that tie Francesca to the Iowa soil. But not so much.

After all, we have had the sexual revolution, the divorce revolution. Women have been liberated. Men liberated. Children, too. We all have our rights. We all can float, loving everyone, and no one in particular. Before AIDS, in single bars you could love everyone and no one in particular every night, and in bath houses you could love a whole Madison County of strangers in the course of an hour or so. How’s that for making every minute, every dollar count?

We don’t stay together for the sake of the kids because that’s no substitute for “happiness.” We rationalize that they’re better off in a broken home than one held together with bailing wire and promises. We hardy vagabonds.

We stand people up on dates, leave others who depend on us in the lurch, don’t meet our financial or personal obligations, because we have found a moment of “happiness” somewhere else.

I recall the sexual revolution. At first I was a conscientious objector, then I was drafted into the struggle, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with strange bodies in unsatisfying, anonymous sex.

In college and later in New York, I came across so many people who were never lonely because they did not need in any real way. Love was excess baggage.

And yet we weep for Francesca and Richard as, to a slow piano accompaniment, the closing credits pass review. Why do we weep? People who can blow as dust in the wind, to China, to the Amazon, and then throw parties where they show slides to their friends, do not know, cannot know, Francesca’s passion. Maybe none of us deracinated, 1995 sophisticates can.

I once knew a Francesca. A German sharecropper’s daughter, she hung a prose poem on her wall on a long scroll in her exquisite calligraphy:

Abenteuerlich ist auch das Leben derer,
die einen Brief in den Kasten werfen,
im Zug sitzen,
oder eine Tasse Tee zu sich nehmen.

Adventurous is also the life
Of those tossing a letter in the mailbox,
Sitting in a train,
Or taking tea.

I didn’t buy it, and even my Francesca, long loosed from her father’s soil, ended up a computer expert, backpacking through the mountains of Nepal. Be careful what you pray for.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

When I read the synopsis, I knew I did not want to see the movie.

A romance movie for men? Yuch.

The attractive farm wife couldn't be a native Iowan but a transplant from overseas? Insulting.

A kind loving husband and father is not enough and a comospolitan cocksman is wonderful?

Just makes me want to run out of my house and get married...(sarcasm)

The msm was gaga over it. Oh get me a ticket...(more sarcasm)

And people wonder why I prefer old pre-90's movies.