Thursday, September 7, 2017

Beautiful and Brilliant

Finally, I've got a partner in playing cultural catch-up.

We'd knocked off "Easy Rider" a couple of months ago and tonight, after a meal in service of my hired mouth, we made a bee line for the Byrd to take in the romantic and sexual wisdom circa 1969 of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."

Walking into the lobby, the manager called out a greeting to me and I reluctantly admitted that I'd never seen the film. "What? Maggie Smith won an Academy award for this role!" he said accusingly.

But it was my own fault for saying it out loud, especially after my date and I had agreed to keep our cultural shortcomings to ourselves. No need to advertise our cinematic ignorance.

Because the new seats still haven't been installed at the Byrd, side seating is the only option given that the center section is still nothing but a big concrete slab. We thought it was just ugly, but it also turned out to be a massive hard surface for the film's sound to bounce off of, problematic when Dame Maggie Smith began speaking shrilly in a Scottish brogue.

Or maybe that's just a middle-aged auditory problem.

So while I knew absolutely nothing about the film, I had read Muriel Spark's novel from which it came and I immediately recognized the theme song "Jean" that played over the opening shot of Miss Brodie riding her bike to the exclusive girls' school where she teaches.

Granted, I knew the Top 40 version by Oliver and not the Rod McKuen-sung movie version, although we chuckled over the unlikelihood of hearing another Rod McKuen-penned song two days after we'd heard another one.

We're just praying no one makes it a trifecta by playing "Joanathn Livingston Seagull" for us anytime soon.

It wasn't hard to see why Dame Maggie had won the Oscar with her portrayal of a modern woman (in 1969, that apparently meant she'd slept with two men, neither of whom she was married to) determined to teach her girls more than just sums and the succession of the Stuarts.

And really, every young girl could use a teacher who instills a mantra of following your heart and never losing your youthful idealism. That she also heralded the brilliance of Mussolini and Franco to them was considerably less desirable, but understandable given the era depicted: 1932.

But what especially resonated with me was her insistence to her students and friends that she was in her prime. Smith was only 35 when she made the film, although it was suggested by her lover in the film that she was well past her prime.

Hold it right there.

I wouldn't think that being in one's prime should be something decided by others. Who knows better than yourself when you're in your prime?

When I was in my mid-forties, the publisher I worked for me told me more than once that he thought I was just reaching my prime physically and professionally. I recall agreeing that I was just hitting my stride in a number of ways.

Yet by conventional assessments, an argument could have been made that I was well past my prime. Potatoes, po-tahtoes, prime is a matter of self-determination, no?

The film was notable, too, for the dozens of casually tossed off lines that Smith delivered, many of them coming so quickly on the heels of others that it was almost impossible to catch them all.

When Miss Brodie gets a request from the headmistress to report to her office, she's told to be there at 4:15. "Not 4, not 4:30, but 4:15. Hmm, she thinks to intimidate me by the use of quarter hours?" Hilarious.

And there were so many more.How about, "Six inches is perfectly adequate! More is vulgar!" Or, "I do not intend to devote my prime to petrification!" Amen, sister.

But the main thing "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" did for me was galvanize my desire to curate a late '60s/early '70s film festival focusing on films that were trying to sort out the new world order as the sexual revolution took hold.

I'm talking about films such as "Carnal Knowledge," "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," "Myra Breckinridge" and "Midnight Cowboy." I'm inclined to think such films were instrumental in introducing middle America to a whole lot of new possibilities and it would be fascinating to see them with 21st century eyes.

So while I may or may not be in my prime, I do agree heartily with Miss Brodie that there's no contradiction in being both ridiculous and magnificent.

And any smart man worth his salt can easily spot a woman in her prime. Among other things, she's the one not intimidated by the use of quarter hours.

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