It Was Mother

It Was Breaking

It Was Breaking
Wayras Olivier
AUGUST 2016


Breaking character occurs when it is "better," if not wiser, to be sorry rather than safe. This happens off stage more often than on, evidenced in the summer of 1945, when a raving thunderhead of concentrated spotlight lavished New Mexico's Alamogordo skyline with nuclear bravura. One character so shaken by the herculean performance went "off book" and responded less like a scientist and more as a humanist when he ad-libbed lines from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Seen by some as a blunder, along with the grammar of the line ("I am become") Julius Robert Oppenheimer, witnessing the blast, did indeed—transitioning from Sanskrit to English—correctly deliver the line for "I have become Death." A breviloquent utterance for what America continues to take a recurrent curtain call for: detonating the world's first nuclear blast.

Character, as it were, in Revolutionary Road's opening (two years after little boy and fat man rewrote Hiroshima & Nagasaki), is first broached with stealth by April (Kate Winslet) when she calls out Frank (Leo DiCaprio), for his quotidian answer to what he does in the world: "I don't mean how you make money, what are you interested in?" April prods Frank after he dropped a dud. She is asking, and rightly so, is this man, fresh from the war, armed with the power of imagination? Possibly at the burgeoning Actors Studio, which did open its doors in 1947, or some other New York atelier to hone her craft; which would either be—if not directly—under the Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg's syllabus; April reveals her interests to Frank: acting.

Although never explored in the film, Adler and Strasberg, in spite of purportedly reaching the same destination, are two completely different "roads" for an acting student (April) to travel down. Adler's nuclear thesis for releasing untapped potential was imagination whereas Strasberg championed memory. Adler, at one point early in her career, was even under the tutelage of Strasberg. In the PBS documentary Awake and Dream, Adler echoes the quarrel she had with her teacher who was intransigent about Adler developing her roles through exploring memories from her intimate past. When she insisted that: "the theatre exists ninety-nine percent through the facility of the imagination" Strasberg would simply asseverate "imagination was auxiliary."

It wasn't until the mid 30's, when Adler went to Paris and crossed paths with Konstantin Stanislavski—from whom both Adler and Strasberg had architected their burgeoning theories—that she learned Stanislavski had long ago abandoned emotional memory from his model and concretized imagination's primacy for an actor's art and trade. Nonetheless, Strasberg pressed forward with his theories for "method acting," and when alumni are asked to distill what the method is, as Martin Landau did in the 1997 documentary The Method Man, he responds laconically:

"Find it, express it, suppress it. Find the emotion, and then find a way to allow it out, and then hold it back the way the character would and if stuff leaks out that's what's supposed to happen."

The film's inciting action regresses April, coming across an all too familiar photo of Frank as a GI stationed in Paris, to a memory of her seeing it for the first time:

April: (re: photo) Is this you?

Frank: Ya. You been to Paris?

April: I've never really been anywhere.

Frank: Well, maybe I'll take you with me then, huh? I'm going back the first chance I get. I tell ya. People are alive there. Not like here. All I know, April, is I want to feel things. Really feel them. You know? How's that for an ambition?

April: Frank Wheeler, I think you are the most interesting person I ever met.

A few scenes later, April, no longer operating from her memory, attempts, with her pullulating imagination, to ignite Frank:

April: You always said it was the only place you'd ever been that you wanted to go back to. The only place that was worth living. So why don't we go there?

Obviously, unaware of Hindu lore contained in the hymns of the Bhagavad Gita, both April and Frank have, with their commitment to travel to Paris, just conscripted a Karma Yoga. Inaccurately described as simply "going through the motions" it is one, the absence of fear or desire when initiating an action, and two, having no attachment to the outcome. Easier said than done, but this, in and of itself, leads to liberation. (The other two Karmas: Bhakti and Jnana, devotion and knowledge, respectively, are more mental and less action oriented.) But Karma Yoga must be correctly understood as antithetical to acting blindly on "mere impulse" or making "uniformed decisions." A call for April and Frank to go to Paris that, according to Lord Krishna's precepts, would have been their "duty." One that, indeed, perhaps to the "western mind," would appear selfish, self-serving and unrealistic but is nonetheless a necessary role for them to play if they aspire to keep their corner of the universe intact. Notice how Frank's "luck"—believing he's Paris bound—begins to change when he's offered a promotion at work. A consequence of an imperceptible shift in his actions, anteceded by a perceptible loosening of his psychology: one of self-concept. Frank never says this of course but his acting style has changed: "I am a Knox man" became "I work at Knox." Such a shift always seems to change the dimensions of one's stage.

The destructive and creative forces in nature, separated by a mere hair-line, analogous to April and Frank's moment in the kitchen, has a beautiful, and once again eerie evocation of the Gita's war torn battlefield when Frank regales his wife:

"You know what this is like, April? Honestly. Just talking like this? The whole idea of going off to Europe this way? This is the way I felt going up to the line the first time, in the war. I mean I was probably just as scared as everyone else, but inside I never felt better. I felt alive. I felt full of blood. I felt...everything just seemed more real. The guys in their uniforms. The snow on the fields, the trees. And all of us just...walking. I mean I was scared of course. But I kept thinking: this is it. You know? This is the truth."

April validates Frank's sentiment when she tells him she's felt it too: "The first time you made love to me." One sees from Frank's aforementioned monologue and April's response—scribe Justin Haythe—that life's destructive and creative forces can conjugate with one another. Take care, however, in noting culpability. Men and women both carry an interchangeable charge; masculine is not entirely destructive nor is feminine exclusively invigorating. Watch when April and Frank bind on the kitchen counter, April blenches for a fraction of a second, a wince of contrition. Naturally, she knows. They have just sown the seed of their own destruction. With April's pregnancy, their own personal version of Krishna has been created; who will, in nine months, bear forth to arrant, chapter 11 verse 32: "I have become Death. The destroyer of worlds." In various other translations of that verse, Death is a proxy for "time."

In your mind, wind back to the beginning when April questioned Frank: "I don't mean how you make money, what are you interested in? Frank answered: "Honey, if I had the answer to that one, I bet I'd bore us both to death in half an hour." One sees that disappointment and heartbreak was inevitable. Reserved not for the finale but rather halfway into the film when husband managed to ventriloquize his wife into aborting their plan to go to Paris. Prudently, so they may raise their expected third child with relative ease in America, given Frank's new salary.

Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road, while set in 1955 but released in 1961, was not the first to explore cognitive dissonance in Connecticut; novelist Sloan Wilson wrote of the Raths (Tom and Betsy) in his 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the couple's quiet struggle to find contentment in their well-to-do life in Westport Connecticut. Wilson writes:

"I don't know what's the matter with us," Betsy said one night. Your job is plenty good enough. We've got three nice kids, and lots of people would be glad to have a house like this. We shouldn't be so discontented all the time."

But April is more in water with Margaret Sanger than Betsy. Sanger, nurse and sex educator, whose mother had eighteen pregnancies—seven of which miscarried—attributed this over-taxation of the body as the cause of her mother's death (at the relatively young age of forty nine). She became a birth control activist and opened the first clinic in the US in 1916. Years later, when interviewed by—none other—Mike Wallace in 1957, Wallace got the interview going by citing the Catholics' view on contraception from one of the Church's publications, "The Question Box":

Wallace: It says the immediate purpose and primary end of marriage is the begetting of children, when the marital relation is so used as to render the fulfillment of its purposes impossible—that is by birth control—it is used unethically and unnaturally. Now what's wrong with that position?

Sanger: Well, it's very wrong; it's not normal it's—it has the wrong attitude towards marriage, toward love, toward the relationships between men and women.

Wallace: Well the natural law they say is that first of all the primary function of sex in marriage is to beget children. Do you disagree with that?

Sanger: I disagree with that a hundred percent.

Wallace: Your feeling is what then?

Sanger: My feeling is that love and attraction between men and women, in many cases the very finest relationship, has nothing to do with bearing a child. It's secondary.

Frank, forgoing Paris, must now also forgo his own interests (though he never had any to begin with), making him weak and susceptible to the interests and influence of others. That's right, his boss—Pollock. "One thing interests me Frank and one thing only. Selling the electronic computer to the American businessman," he tells Frank over lunch. But really, was disappointment and heartbreak foreseeable? John Givings (Michael Shannon), the unsound and shivery lunatic, does come off as a slight and obvious contrivance to give a cudgeled voice against Levittown style living. And assuming it is true that only those who are "crazy" have the nerve to recognize the perils of conformity, Givings is more valuable to the viewer when he's seen solely as an earnest mathematician. One capable of acknowledging the sheer audacity required to self-determine one's life, as moving towards destiny is absurd. Even she can't guarantee outcomes.

Prior to the war breaking out, computer pioneer and mathematician Alan Turing had grappled for years with his "Halting Problem"—what logicians and mathematicians lesson as the original (as far as computer science is concerned) decision problem. Given a set of inputs for a computer to run, is it possible to determine, in advance, whether the computer will or will not pattern the inputs indefinitely? Filmmaker David Malone, in his documentary Dangerous Knowledge, summarizes this particularly provocative dilemma:

"At least with [mathematician] Gödel there was a hope that you could distinguish between the provable and the unprovable and simply leave the unprovable to one side. What Turing does is prove that in fact there is no way of telling which will be the unprovable problems. So how do you know when to stop? You will never know whether the problem you are working on is simply extraordinarily difficult or if it is fundamentally unprovable."

I couldn't help but whistle with agreement when I heard that one. A resounding metaphor to the great mystery of why some relationships are instantly "solvable" and, without effort, go on to become terrifically successful; while others "crack" only after great effort, determination and commitment; while others still, in spite of crying effort remain totally insurmountable and "unsolvable."

Psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, recounts the day in 1949 when he decided he was not going to conform to the expectations of his parents. Phillips Exeter Academy was, and remains, one of America's most burnished boys' preparatory schools to which thirteen- year-old Peck was expected to rise and excel after enrolling. Along with transferring increased self-esteem to his family (his older brother has graduated from PEA) this was a school of culture, privilege, and license that would unquestionably secure Peck's place in one of America's eight Ivy Leagues, further immunizing him from a future of economic uncertainty. Stabbed with feelings of unhappiness that this was simply not the right "path" for him to take, he resisted his parents, who feeling they had no other alternative, paid to have their young son recline on a sofa. The psychiatrist advised that Peck be admitted to a mental hospital. On the night that Peck had to choose how the following day would unfold for him, entering a mental hospital or Exeter, he confides to the reader that he contemplated suicide. He writes:

"If I returned to Exeter I would be returning to all that was safe, secure, right, proper, constructive, proven and known. Yet it was not me. In the depths of my being I knew it was not my path. But what was my path? If I did not return [Exeter], all that lay ahead was unknown, undetermined, unsafe, insecure, unsanctified, unpredictable."

By all means, his decision comes as no surprise to the reader, considering the chapter's title, The Risk of Independence. Still, one can't help but snigger with relief (as I did) that he elected the mental hospital.

At the end of the book, Peck examines entropy (the arrow of time invariably moves in the direction of disorder), and shares his fascination with how the life force always moves in direct opposition to entropy's inclination for materializing confusion and disarray. Although entropy's victory—over the course of a lifetime—eventually wins (death), it is a victory that is hard won. At any given moment, the life force can overcome entropy, and confer what he calls grace. Its corollary, Peck notes, can be found in the peculiar condition called "accident-proneness." He goes on to explore the idea that humans are not "accident-prone," they are born with and have "accident-resistance." One who constantly and continually finds her- or himself "prone" is merely experiencing a lack of grace that normally would strengthen their "resistance" to accidents. Reading this chapter one automatically has their definition of accidents broadened. Spilling a can of paint or falling down a flight of stairs is equal with decision making, meeting people, and arriving at certain destinations as unalterable accidents. (This is not the same as a mistake, which can be learned from.) And although he doesn't explicitly make a connection between his Exeter story and his idea of accident-resistance, I'm going to go ahead and make it. It was Peck's so called accident-resistance that protected him from choosing Exeter. A resistance that was, for April and Frank, too weak and penurious to shield them from their accident. Suspending Paris.

What Revolutionary Road, similar to the film adaptation of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, surreptitiously warn us against are the ideas on TV we're conditioned to conform to. The conditioning process itself produces myopia. Dramatized in both (RR) and (TMITGFS) is a scene where a father is rendered a non-entity to his own children, who are too busy watching TV to greet his "hello" when he enters the room. But that's excusable. Because myopia is the secret to happiness. Remember Annie Hall? Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), traumatized in the seventies by the mere thought that love can fade, interrupts a couple joined at the hip (roughly in their mid to late twenties)—ripe from the baby boom of the fifties—stops and asks them:

Alvy: You look like a very happy couple. Are you?

Woman: Yah!

Alvy: Ya? So how do you account for it?

Woman: Uhhh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.

Man: And I'm exactly the same way.

It was no accident that Adler took the chiseled inscription at Delphi one-step further, when she taught the actionable insight: "Don't try to know who thou art. It is much better to know what you can do, and do it like Hercules."

W.