Friday, October 22, 2010

Nana and the Monsters

I watched TCM's 2006 print of The Hunchback of Notre Dame tonight, 1923, Lon Chaney. What a movie it is. I never realized that until tonight. Tonight was comparable to the 4th or 5th time I saw Vertigo, a movie I'd thought was ponderous and dated until it grabbed me by the throat and held me against the back of the couch.

For all sorts of reasons, we don't see things right away, and most things we never see. The night Vertigo became my favorite Hitchcock movie (next to Secret Agent, which no one else seems to love), it was the only movie I wanted to watch for several months. I'm convinced I have Broken Embraces on my DVR simply because I suspect it might take me to a place as singular as Vertigo, because those are the comparisons people make. Unfortunately, I may not get to Broken Embraces for a while. I want to stick with Lon Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Of course, as Robert Osbourne tells me, this movie was not just Chaney's, Irving Thalberg (at 23) pushed for its production, the very-familiar-to-any-Universal-Fan Carl Laemmle produces it, Wallace Worsley directs it, and the later, greater William Wyler served as one of 6 assistant directors.

It's one helluva movie. First, there are those incredible sets (16 acres, according to Osbourne), which served as the backdrop for many a Universal horror movie, this being the first where villagers (in this case Gypsy Parisians) run through the streets with torches. It is about as grim as movies get, but it also features wonderful comedy bits, most notably the scene where Phoebus won't let a starving Gregoire eat because Phoebus is too busy enthusing over Esmerelda (if this is not the model--forget Bride of Frankenstein as funny as that is--for Mel Brook's blind man scene in Young Frankenstein, I'll buy a hat and eat it). There's also the mirroring of tightly linked but disparate images. Phoebus slips Esmerelda's dress off her shoulder when he initially pushes to seduce her and then slips it back up when he is shamed out of his predation, later echoed by Esmerelda slipping Quasimodo's shirt up over his shoulders, showing him the only kindness after his public whipping. And it's a movie about complex, tragic social conflict which culiminates in Quasimodo pouring molten lead on Esmerelda's loved ones who are really only trying to do the same thing he is, save her life.

But what I think about, more than anything else, when I watch this movie, is my Grandma McKinnon...Nana, the one who first told me about it, the one who inadvertantly ignited my fascination with Lon Chaney, in particular, and with horror, in general.

I write about Nana a lot. She works her way into fictional stories I write, and if anyone goes to the trouble of checking these archives back to (hmm...) 2006 when I wrote my 13 days of Halloween blogs, she's prominent there as well. Nana was the storyteller of my childhood. I heard some other stories from other members of my family, but Nana was the person I turned to for The Stories. Nana is the one I think of when I try to figure out why I'm compelled to tell stories....

And the funny thing about that? No adult who knew Nana. I doubt my own mother, her daughter, would have perceived her as a storyteller. Mary A. McKinnon was a quiet, dignified woman who worked as a secretary for Cities Service Company...first in Shreveport, Louisiana (I believe), then in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, then in Tulsa. Her husband died of a heart attack in 1944. He was the gregarious one, the musician and the entertainer of entertainers (I mean, quite literally, he brought circus folk home to dinner). And she was the woman who put up with him, and loved him, and made sure that I loved him though I never had the chance to meet him.

But, alone with her grandsons, myself and James McGraw (holla), Nana McKinnon was many things. She was a superb sharp chedder cheese on toast broiler, she made the best scrambled eggs I ever had, and she was the only person you really wanted to be with when that ball dropped on New Year's Eve.

She was also our storyteller. I often say that she told me World War II stories, tornado stories and ghost stories as if they were all equally true, they were all part of the tapestry of our family. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez says that he tries to write stories that pay homage to the stories his grandmother told, I recognize magic realism in the world my no-nonsense grandmother handed me.

But sometimes I forget the simpler things. The stories about movies, the stories about being a child. And that's what a whole series of things have brought back to me this week, and what The Hunchback of Notre Dame really brought home....

Nana was born in 1909, which would have made her 14 years old when she saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and she would have been in her late teens when she saw The Phantom of the Opera. She would tell me about that moment in Phantom when the mask was pulled off of Lon Chaney's face, and she would make sure I understood the wonder of The Man of a Thousand Faces. But when she talked about Lon Chaney's Quasimodo, she went somewhere particular. It was a theme that ran through the way she would talk about other movies, even Phantom, but particularly things like Frankenstein. She made it clear to me that these monsters were not creatures to be frightened of but characters to be pitied because of the way society turned against them. Early on, and I'll give Nana McKinnon credit for this, I recognized the monster as someone or something that is not understood and is, wrongly, hated by society.

She had clear personal reasons for understanding this. As much as she was always the champion of my brother and I, always seeing us as the innocents who meant well no matter what we did, she tended not to romanticize childhood. She couldn't. Her brother, Louis, had been treated for a childhood speech impediment by a method that involved cutting away part of his tongue. Ironically, but not surprisingly, this barbaric treatment left him unable to speak clearly for the rest of his life. She had vivid memories of protecting her brother against bullies. In this week of media talk about bullying, I hear her time and again. She would cluck her tongue and say, "children can be so cruel," and I knew she was using that phrase to ride out a flood of terrible memories.

Nana understood the complexities of childhood, and one of those contradictions included her understanding why Louis spent much of his time teasing his sister and protector. One time he threatened to throw a can of worms on her, and according to her, he slipped and did it. She was horrified....but (and this is the important part) she only felt sympathy for him. She'd laugh and say, "He felt so terrible for doing that."

What I recognized tonight, watching Lon Chaney and thinking of Nana, is the reason why I am fundamentally turned off by our society's desire to shelter childhood from the realities of this world. Yes, we all want to protect our children from danger, and we want them to feel safe. We want them to feel carefree, and we want them to have space to dream big dreams. My grandmother gave me all of that, but she didn't pretend the world was pretty or safe. Most of all, she didn't try to hand me any idealized concept of childhood. She knew it was tough..... And, on some level, she knew I needed to empathize with the monster so, in the present or the future, I wouldn't feel so alone.