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Friday, January 7, 2011

Unlikely Friendships

Christmas day, I watched The Wizard of Oz. Actually, I only watched part of it; I went to bed before it was over. The only thing lamer than watching an old children’s movie raptly, a movie about a little girl for Chrissakes, it wasn’t like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, the only thing lamer than grown man’s watching Oz, is not finishing it because it’s past his bedtime.

I love the movie partly for its cinematography; the scenes in Kansas, not quite black and white, but a warm sepia, are gorgeous, really better than the eye-glutting Technicolor of Oz. So many shots are classics: the mise en scene when Dorothy sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow, sitting on a tractor with high metal wheels, Toto above her in the upper left corner of the screen, or Miss Gulch pedaling furiously down the dirt road accompanied by furiously-pedaling music, her face so stern and stubborn you can’t believe that chin is all her own, or the tornado – Lord, the tornado – it really is great; outside of Night of the Living Dead – I say this without irony – there is no movie that uses the inexorable approach of something wandering back and forth across the horizon to such terrifying effect. And then that marvelous sleight of hand when we leave behind sepia-tone Kansas and enter Technicolor Oz. The inside of the house is painted in blacks and grays, and a body double for Dorothy in a gray and white gingham dress – her back to us – opens the door to reveal the candy-store colors of Oz on the other side. The understudy steps back as if in awe – out of the shot – and Judy Garland in her blue and white dress and suddenly red hair steps forward into the scene. And the flying monkeys. And the Scarecrow’s dancing. And the Cowardly Lion.

And Judy Garland’s singing; she would never equal that role, of course. Over the Rainbow is a difficult song for anyone to sing, especially a young woman; it starts from a low some and the next note soars up, where – “some-where over the rainbow.”

Okay, at this point even my gay readers are thinking, “Man, you are so gay,” but I don’t care. I love that movie, and the thing I love best about it is the unlikely friendship between Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. At first, it’s all self-interest. The Wizard’s munificence is presumably boundless and there’s no reason he can’t give someone a heart as well as brains, as well as courage, as well as passage back to Kansas, but soon the four are genuine friends, risking their lives for each other, happy for each other’s happiness, and sad for their sadness. One is furry, one is metal, one is straw, and one is a little girl.

I first discovered the narrative power of Unlikely Friendship when I was deep into comic strips training myself to be a cartoonist. Johnny Hart’s BC featured a series of conversations between a bird and a turtle. From a cartoonist’s point of view, part of the appeal was it was so easy to draw: four panels, essentially the same, a bird standing on a turtle’s back. Most of the time the turtle’s head was the only thing sticking out of the shell. But to the reader, there was something magical in the combination. Why should a turtle be friends with a bird? And for that matter, why shouldn’t he? Why should Snoopy be friends with Woodstock? Why should Porkypine be friends with Pogo? Why should Pogo be in love with a skunk? (Although to be fair, she was a really hot skunk.) Why should Krazy Kat be so smitten with Ignatz Mouse? Why should Offissa Pup be so solicitous of Krazy?

So much for the funny pages. Literature is also rife with Unlikely Friendships: Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Quequeg, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Holmes and Watson, Bertie and Jeeves, Telemachus and Odysseus (I know they’re father and son, but their friendship is unlikely nevertheless: they haven’t seen each other in twenty years; to all intents and purposes Telemachus has never seen Odysseus) Ester and Ruth, Maturin and Aubrey, Nick Carraway and Gatsby. (I’ll stop now, but the list goes on.)

I decided one interesting and very entertaining thing as a cartoonist – or writer – I wanted to do was create an Unlikely Friendship. It seemed to me if I could create two characters with as little as possible in common (Another example: Mutt and Jeff) and convince the reader that they were the fastest of friends, I could not only create a world my readers would be interested in, it would be a world they would love.

Why do these Unlikely Friendships matter so much to us? What do they tell us about our expectations as readers? About ourselves?

We enter the fictional dream to meet interesting characters, and the characters we meet also meet interesting characters. Having distinct, even antithetical, personalities crowded between the pages of a book enriches our experience. But that much could be said for a party with a broad and catholic guest list – a book does more. Nabokov says we don’t have to identify with the characters in a book, but I think he’s wrong; we can’t help identifying with them; the mere fact that their thoughts flow directly through our consciousness, that we are alone with them in their private moments, that our own world is shuttered off and silent as we read, tricks us into identifying with them at least to some extent.

I had a class in Jungian psychology from a teacher whose name I can no longer recall, but he had an interesting and I believe valid interpretation of The Wizard of Oz. This interpretation applies only to the movie, not the series of books. In the books, Oz is a real place and Dorothy journeys there on several occasions, but in the movie it’s all just a dream. Since it is only a dream, all of the characters Dorothy meets are not only symbolic representations of the three farmhands she has left behind in Kansas, but projections of Dorothy’s own personality. The Scarecrow represents Dorothy’s own lack of knowledge, being a child in an adult world. The Tin Woodman is her failure to empathize with the problems her uncle and aunt face, her failure to realize that in spite of their apparent harshness, they truly and tenderly love her. The Cowardly Lion is Dorothy’s own fearfulness. At the end of the story, when the Wizard reveals that each character possessed all along what he most desired – courage, wisdom, compassion – he is revealing that Dorothy herself possesses those things, and when Dorothy goes “home,” she has successfully integrated these different traits into her own personality. Sorry for the jargon in that last sentence, but that’s the way my teacher put it.

One reason I love the Unlikely Friendship is these opposite characters are not only companions, but friends, suggesting all the wonderful variety of personality traits I contain in myself, and – even better – that these, as opposite and sometimes oppositional as they are – all belong to me and can even like each other and contribute to each others’ wellbeing. I think if you go back and watch the film, you’ll agree my teacher hit on something very true. We know the real turning point in the story isn’t melting the witch, or exposing the humbug Wizard, it’s meeting these friends that are aspects of who Dorothy is, and therefore – since we are at least temporarily in her mind – aspects of we are. In Don Quixote, I am at once the mad don and the earthy, foolish and yet worldly-wise Sancho. I am Jim shivering in fear, hiding concealed on the raft from the slavers, and Huck risking hellfire to save him. I am the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy. I am the bird and the turtle.

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