It is time for a bit of magical writing, I believe. I must do something to make February come to an end, and have decided that the only way to do that is to get a certain book out of my head by writing about it.
All winter long I have had Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin on my bedside table. I read about 400 of its 688 pages and then heard the movie was coming out, so I stopped. There’s no point reading a book right before the movie comes out; you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Last weekend I went to see the movie by myself, and I was delighted by it. Magic! A flying horse! A love story with a very hot heroine (sorry, couldn’t help myself there—in the movie she melts snow with her feet which is funny even in the face of imminent great tragedy, kind of like the scene in The Princess Bride when Westley’s mostly-corpse is asked what’s so important and it says “true love” but it sounds like “to blave.”)
And that, in a nutshell, is what’s making lovers of the book and serious critics groan about the movie. The book is long and multi-layered and crammed with characters and symbols, and the movie takes a couple of the storylines and pumps up the characters like inflatable dolls and poses them for a couple of the most spectacular scenes. I love that! But a lot of what I love about it is that it’s funny. Will Smith as Lucifer? I’ll pay money to see that!
It’s also full of scenes that you wouldn’t think you’d ever see. Someone actually filmed Peter Lake’s lair above a train station complete with pinholes that look like stars if you think to look up? I want to look at it! And the flying horse, well. Let’s just say that you get more than one look at its wings.
This movie could be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, if we would just give it a chance. Preferably at midnight, and well-fortified with whatever fortifies you.
Lovers of the book would probably like to see more of the unlikely scenes, like the places where the bad guys (“short tails”) meet early on:
“They felt privileged to convene on the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, waist-deep in not entirely empty water tanks, nestled in terror between the spars of the Statue of Liberty’s crown, in the cellar beneath an opium den on Doyer Street, or at the edge of the central sewer fall, sitting like picnickers in the dark by the side of Niagara.”
Or the scene in which the good guy, Peter Lake, does what his mentor asks:
“’With all your strength, Peter Lake, strike now!’ Peter Lake struck an enormous blow, and waited for further instructions. He waited and waited—and when finally he looked behind the shield, he saw Mootfowl, smiling alertly, unusually still, serene, pinned through his heart to an oaken log.
‘Oh Lord,’ Peter Lake said, too shocked to feel any grief even for a man he had loved so much. He had stuck Mootfowl like a butterfly.
You could not drive an iron stake through the heart of a man of the cloth, and expect to go unpunished.”
Although the trappings are mystical, take any one of the elements from the book out of its immediate context, and it’s funny. Take for example the mysterious “Baymen,” who know the secret name of Peter Lake’s magical white horse and tell him that “there are ten songs….one learns them, beginning at age thirteen, one each decade….the third song, Peter Lake, is the song of Athansor.” Peter reflects that knowing the horse’s name doesn’t change their relationship, but…
“something had changed, or was changing. Everything always did, no matter how much he loved what he had. The only redemption would be if all the tumbling and rearrangement were to mean something. But he was aware of no pattern. If there were one great equality, one fine universal balance that he could understand, then he would know that there were others, and that someday the curtain of the world would lift onto a sunny springlike stillness and reveal that nothing—nothing—had been for nought….”
The great human romance of the book, between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, is over by page 188, which gives you an idea of the great swathes of the book that are cut out and completely ignored by the movie.
The other romance is with the city of New York. Having just spent months playing a rather difficult and yet unrewarding twentieth-century composition for symphony entitled “Reflections on the Hudson” by Nancy Bloomer Deussen, I was uninclined to respond sympathetically to rhapsodies like this one:
“On the Hudson, there was always the opportunity to be educated deeply in the heart. The beauty of the landscape did the rest, along with the magic of the moon, the river’s hot and reedy bays, the glittering silver ice, days of summer or days of snow submerged in an ocean of clear blue air, fields never-ending, the wind from Canada, and the great city to the south.”
I am, however, delighted by chapters like “Nothing is Random,” which begins with the image of
“a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another”
and ends with
“any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.”
I’m delighted in spite of the mention of the dead being brought back to life, even, as the magic in this book is of the sort that would shine a bright light on necromancy and reveal it entirely as a dirty, rotten parody of life.
Dark and light come together at the end of the book, with a new mayor who “was the first mayor ever to be elected without the bosses….they did not know what to expect from him. He might speak about winter’s charm, excoriate the evils of television, or wonder out loud about the city’s destiny….with exactly a month to go before the millennium, he chose in his inauguration address to discourse upon the metaphysical balance that informed all events and was so characteristic of the city as almost to be its hallmark.”
This is not to say that New York does not experience an apocalypse:
“Afraid to leave their cars and venture into the city of the poor, especially since pillars of fire were now twisting amid the rubble, most people locked themselves in, petrified with fear, as thousands of marauders streamed onto the highway. Cars were rocked, windows smashed, and lighted pieces of wood dropped into gas tanks. Families were pulled from their cars and dragged separately into the darkness. The shoulders of the road became a slaughterhouse in which trembling victims and shining blades met to produce rivers of blood.”
But a new city rises. One might almost say there is a vision of a city upon a hill.
The movie makers actually capture some of the tone of the book well, in the miniscule bit that they decided to tackle. And tackle it they did, pulling it down, keeping it there, succeeding in stopping it from getting across a goal line.
Still, though, they must have expected magic. And what we get is…Will Smith as Lucifer!
So, an end now, to Winter’s Tale. Time for spring…as I write, so mote it be.