I make no secret of my pop culture obsession. I am like some kind of entertainment turkey baster, sucking in all the artistic juices, all the spices and the garnish I require, and then spraying it on whatever it is I have cooking. My books are full of references, a doffing of the cap to those who came before me, my influences worn on my dust jackets.
Usually, these are the product of happenstance. I don't go out looking for something to fit into a certain space so much as the reference just comes to me and I slot it in. Imagine my head as a kind of lotto machine, with all of these plastic balls being tossed around on the hot air I call my thought processes. On each ball is inscribed a particular pop culture nugget. As I'm working, I tug on an ear and one of the balls drops down, travels some metaphorical chute, and emerges on my computer screen. "The girl Julia meets is wearing a Garbage T-shirt," I type, realizing that this is the right shirt band for her. Girl power without denying the insecurities. Hey, baby, can you bleed like me.
There are times, though, of absolute serendipity. I won't be looking for a touchpoint, I won't even know I need it, and yet it will come strolling by nonetheless. Such is the case of the intersection between David Lean's 1946 weeper Brief Encounter and the fourth issue of the comic book I write, Love the Way You Love.
I had owned the DVD for Brief Encounter for at least four years. It was one of those amazing finds that collectors always love. I picked it up in a used bin at a now closed Portland record store, paying a measly amount. $8, I think. (Maybe $12. Those are the two numbers that come to mind.) That's an amazing deal, and there was no hesitation on my part, I snatched it up. Once I was home, I watched it almost immediately. Used discs always get priority in case there is an imperceptible-from-the-outside defect lurking in its second-hand nether regions.
In all honesty, the film didn't blow me away. I think part of it was that I was watching it less to be watching it and more to be checking it out, and so I probably tried to squeeze it into my schedule at an inappropriate time. Also, I don't think Brief Encounter is one of those films that does hit you right away. It's certainly not a mind-blower. When it ends, you're not going to turn to the cat, eyes wide with disbelief, and ask, "What the hell just happened to me?"
Rather, Brief Encounter is better as it ages. You need to take some time with it and let it settle. Its aftertaste is a big selling point. I know that as time passed, my memories of it grew increasingly fond.
David Lean, better known for epics like The Bridge Over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, adapted this intimate portrait of two lovers from a play by Noël Coward. Originally called Still Life when on the stage (and predicting some of the housewife longing in the Suede song of the same name), the play moved to the screen under the pens of Lean, Coward, and Anthony Havelock-Allan. It stars Celia Johnson as Laura and Trevor Howard as Alec, two lonely people who are married to others but find love in each other's arms.
Or, more precisely, they find love avoiding each other's arms. Theirs is an affair that never quite gets going, consigned to safe meetings in public places, the companionship more important than the sex. Their same-place, same-time appointments in a confined area reminds me a lot of another favorite of mine, Visconti's Dostoevsky-adaptation Le notti bianche (#296). Unlike that film, however, the affair in Brief Encounter isn't driven so much by hormones and romantic gesture as it is by loneliness and past mistakes. Neither Laura nor Alec ever foresaw that their lives would become so passionless, that they would end up with mates that weren't right for them. Social mores and familial obligation demands they stay the course and not indulge in the violence of emotion that adultery can foment. Neither of Visconti's lovers is married, and it's the violence of emotion that proves their downfall. Then again, perhaps it is also what keeps Lean's couple apart, as their efforts to be alone are what end up pointing out how foolhardy they are being.
Lean keeps the setting cramped in Brief Encounter. The locations of the story feel stifled, closed-in. Even when the ceiling is high or the room empty, he has his actors lean in, substituting the cramped quarters of conspiracy for the cramped physical quarters. Lean, working with director of photography Robert Krasker, shoots in black-and-white, capturing every dark shadow and white pillow of steam, a psychological landscape not unlike film noir. In fact, Brief Encounter could almost be considered a noir of the heart, what with its voiceover, the emphasis on the past (including how it's structured as flashback) and inescapable fate. Hide a sack of money somewhere in the train station, put a gun in an avenging husband's hand, and you've got a B-vehicle tailor-made for RKO.
I no longer remember what inspired me to watch Brief Encounter again last year, but when I did, I couldn't have been more pleased. Not only did I enjoy it immensely, but it also dovetailed perfectly with where I was at in Love the Way You Love.
For those of you who haven't read the comic book I do with Marc Ellerby (and published by Oni Press), it's a rock 'n' roll romance serial about Tristan and Isobel. When the pair meets, Isobel is engaged. Finding their attraction undeniable, however, they decide to risk it and indulge their passion. Unlike Laura and Alec in Brief Encounter, they go for it, and they must suffer the consequences the cinematic lovers decide to avoid. At the conclusion of chapter 3 (now collected in one volume as Love the Way You Love, Side A: Songs of Faith), they are together, but other things are falling apart. Momentarily worried by the speed at which they came together, Isobel asks Tristan a series of "get to know you" questions. He attempts to still her fears, saying, "There's time enough, though. Time enough to learn everything about one another. That's the adventure."
In its way, that's a pretty standard Jamie S. Rich line. In the first draft, I had him saying "We have all the time in the world," hearkening back to the My Bloody Valentine cover of that old James Bond theme mentioned earlier in the issue. Only problem was, I realized I already had the main character of my prose novel The Everlasting say the same thing. That's how standard a thought it is for me.
So, I am sure you can hear the kind of bells that went off when I heard Noël Coward's more fatalistic version of the same sentiment in Brief Encounter. Laura asks, "There's still time, if we control ourselves, behave like sensible human beings. There still time to--"
Alec cuts her off. "There's no time at all," he says.
I was in the middle of writing Love the Way You Love #4 when I heard that. I couldn't believe it. It was too perfect. My script had Isobel dealing with the fallout of her broken engagement, what it means for her and for Tristan's career. I had already intended to have her hiding from her new boyfriend, avoiding the phone, avoiding all the activity surrounding this new love. What better thing to have her doing than watching Brief Encounter, alone with her misery and tears?
It laced up the situation, a perfect fit. It served as a connector between what Isobel was feeling and what she was about to do, and it added resonance to lines that had come before. By choosing to show the moments we did, we gave those not familiar with Brief Encounter enough to get the point of their inclusion, and I would hope that anyone who recognized David Lean's movie in the pages of our comic would get an added jolt from the recognition.
Art informing art. It's the kind of thing I wrote about when I set up this venue. There are invisible threads connecting so many of these things. In writing about Brief Encounter, I also saw a link with Le notti bianche, old James Bond themes, and the rock group Suede. It may be hubris to insert myself into this, I can only hope to be so fondly remembered one day, but the thread is there for me whether I deserve to wrap it around my typing fingers or not.