January 23, 2013

“A Different Kind of Total Wreck: Reflections on White Palace" by Jaime Corbacho

[Note: Jaime is an antiques appraiser.]

i.  “Hey, Max, some of these boxes are empty?”

Whether I choose to acknowledge it or not, my apartment is haunted. Call it an occupational hazard. I have shelves full of other people’s books, other people’s things. In the kinetic unraveling of life, someone forgot to psychically let go of something. And it is here, in my living space. It doesn’t affect me or others especially, I can just feel it there. Like the sensation of having gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. I could look. Or I could just keep walking. I really like to walk.

I’m watching White Palace tonight, a favorite. It’s a 1990’s May-December romance starring James Spader (Max Baron) and Susan Sarandon (Nora Baker). It takes place in St. Louis and opens with a view of the Gateway Arch, designed by Eero Saarinen. The last time I saw this movie, the arch was merely an arch. Now Eero Saarinen regularly visits my life in the form of Tulip and Womb chairs. His furniture is mostly plastic, cheery and vacant. It reminds me a lot of Janey, Max’s dead wife in the movie. I don’t personally own any Saarinen pieces, but if I did, they would be dismissed as suspects. No one would haunt a Saarinen chair.

It is strange to feel this, yet not really believe in ghosts; as if I have used my imagination so much over time that it has developed a refined suspension of disbelief. I respect the possible existence of ghosts, have closed and locked my bedroom door before starting the movie so as not to disturb them. But I have no interest in thinking about ghosts, their vapor hands still clutching with confused passion something once belonging to them. One of the reasons I like this movie is that it shares this attitude. Max is not haunted by Janey. He is the one reminding everyone else in the movie that she is dead. He does so without any resistance to its science. His tone is as complete as the circumpolar arch of stars that first informed thinkers and dreamers that the world was round, turning them into observers of beginnings and ends.

ii.“I’ll give you a hint, Fred, I ain’t exactly Ginger Rogers.”

Max charges into the White Palace where Nora works, irate. It is worth noting that both the movie and the novel it was based on sought permission to be called “White Castle” but the restaurant chain refused on both accounts and threatened to sue. Like the restaurant chain and the studio, Max and Nora argue on principle. Only Elfriede Jelinek would classify this as a meet-cute.

Max enters shouldering his dry cleaning and snail-trailing his apartment in tidying arcs. He is fastidious and appropriate. Cleanliness appeals to me in ways I was indifferent to before I worked in antiques and discovered other people’s houses. If hording and vilified hygiene become a living heightened mob, then it follows that there is a loneliness to people who are neat that Spader portrays simply. I don’t know if there is a psychological condition where a person has trouble distinguishing actors from their roles, but if one does exist, I have it. When Max stops to correct the fringe of his Persian rug or place his watch at a right angle to the glass water carafe on his nightstand, it endears me to Spader.

Like Nora, I am older. It’s odd for me to say this as I felt like I was 40 when I was 16. But it’s easy to feel old when you are young because even though your promoted maturity and power can be stripped in two words (“You’re grounded”), you are still left with the poetic asymmetry of youth and more life to make amends. I once asked one of the flying trapeze artists on the Santa Monica Pier why, when they fell, there was a ripple underneath the net: “That’s the safety net for the safety net.”

You don’t flirt when you are older. You are sexual and your sexuality makes men uncomfortable to the point that they are intrigued. Annie Proulx observed: “There are four women in every man’s heart: the Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman and the Tall and Quiet Woman.” And then there is Susan Sarandon.

Nora sees Max later that night at what, by her seductive slump and the shade of lipstick on her highball glass, must be her local watering hole. Now almost extinct, there is a certain way older women smoke that is commemorated in black and white movies and pulp fiction. Nora drags on her cigarette, sizing Max up from across the bar. There is always a “sizing up” quality to the older female smoker: the slight squinting of the eyes on the inhale, the chin resting languidly on the hand during the exhale like a Mucha poster girl framed by the smoke in art nouveau swirls. When I was younger, Nora made me proud to be a smoker and now that I am older, she makes me disappointed that I quit.

She crosses the bar and performs an indelicate étude of arbitrary questions and observations, suggestive Billy Wilder quotes and irreverent handsiness. This is a difference between younger and older women. A young woman would steal glances like light through stained glass. A young woman would be still, rather than be rejected. Their power lies in their inaccessibility, the possibility of compromising their restraint. The older woman offers tenacity, an almost military indifference to failure and the possibility of discovering what has made her this fearless. I remember watching this movie when I was younger and being bolstered by her success. Nora was so old and managed to seduce Max who was so debonair in his tuxedo. Had so much hair. I felt her resolve as otherworldly, magical, and something I would only briefly encounter in this film as I would surely be married by her age.

So much hair.

So this is what I am becoming…someone magical. I recently went to see a young man who wanted his uncle’s magic trick collection appraised. It was what you would expect: yellowed card tricks, a collapsible bouquet, a box with a false bottom, silk kerchiefs whose alter ego doves had long since passed. Lastly, there was a vintage “Saw the Woman in Half” box. As I approached it, the young man touched my arm: “Can you appraise that from here?” “Why?” “Because I think it’s worth more with the secret intact.”

iii. “I don’t think you should be so fast to judge other people’s blow jobs.”

After a good laugh at the expense of the dead and a fender bender with a mailbox, Nora manages to convince Max to come in for a cup of coffee. Her place is a settled cyclone of old magazines, wrappers, potato chips and Lawrence Schiller photographs of Marilyn Monroe with whom she shares a name and a lifestyle: “She’s so fucked up and glamorous and losing and fighting all the time. Losing and fighting.” Max passes out on the couch. Nora is awake in bed in her bathrobe, smoking.

I love bathrobes, especially contemplative ones. Because I am reptilian in my metabolism they are necessary for a good night’s rest. A bathrobe, lime green, once saved my life in a fire. I have, at any given time, 6 different robes of 6 distinct natures on the hooks of my bedroom door: a sexy robe, an after shower robe, a dress robe (something that can be worn out in public for brief periods), a bedtime robe, a summer weight robe and a guest robe reserved for visitors. I am currently wearing the after shower robe, even though I showered much earlier. It is unusually soft in color and composition and is also my contemplative robe. The movie is paused and I am in the same position as Nora, both of us in our robes. She with her cigarette, me with my laptop. I think we are thinking precisely the same thing.

For a moment, Max thinks the woman on top of him is Janey. It is the only time in the movie we see her: supple, gentle, faithful…a robe that would save your life. Then the stabbing chords of Spanish guitars alter the mood to a deeper more exonerating sexuality and the gloaming of pale hair tenses to a dusky red. Max tries to fight Nora off but eventually acquiesces beneath her mouth, her hands and their stale polish, the poster of Marilyn, like the woman herself, coming in and out of focus.

It is difficult to write love scenes for a film. You not only have to make the audience believe that these two people are attracted to each other but you must convince two actors who may also be complete strangers to pretend to want it even more.

Fero Saarinen had a son he named “Eames” after his equally famous contemporary Charles Eames. There is a man out there named Eames Saarinen. In certain circles, this man must get blown all of the time. I am convinced that Max was never that lucky. When he cums, he moves the hair from Nora’s face like you might do for a loved one with a fever. He asks politely for more. When they are finished, he turns her face to his and Susan Sarandon looks the most beautiful I have ever seen her look before or since. It is hard for me to believe that in that second, they were not in love. But I suppose that is normal for talented actors. They wear different kinds of emotion like different kinds of robes. Their occasions are temporary and private.

iv. “They’re supposed to pull the leaves off. It’s in the contract.”

Jason Alexander plays Neil, Max’s best friend, whose wedding will later cause friction between Max and Nora. He calls Max “Miss Havisham.” At Neil’s bachelor party, a photo of Janey gets mixed into the slide show. Max looks up at the screen as he might at a living Janey. Neil is concerned for his friend as the mood of the party plummets. Even the stripper senses it.

At the time this movie came out, I became concerned with leaves. My grandmother had a pool in her backyard. After my grandfather died, leaves arranged themselves like daisy chains on its surface; striking at first, the reds and yellows against the receding turquoise. Seasons continued to come, sometimes uninvited and with more leaves until the pool finally had to be drained. Thereafter the pool’s tide was completely autumnal and slowly rising. I was growing up and my grandmother was giving up. It was hard for me because it meant something to be near her.

Her house was entirely mid-century modern and she hated it. She was an interior decorator operating under my grandfather’s aesthetic. It must have been torture. I remember some of it: no Saarinen but a Knoll sideboard, an Edward Wormley sectional, a Paul Frankl lacquered cork coffee table shaped like a kidney bean and a marimba. After he died, she would turn this place into her tomb.

It is the second year anniversary of Janey’s death and Max’s mother drags him to the cemetery. She is angry at the leaves, so many goddamn leaves. This scene always makes me angry, too. When the wind would fortuitously visit the pool, the leaves would just swirl in its confines, puff out proudly like a courting bird. When the rain would come, it would serve only to bond them together. Even if it snowed, the leaves were never completely hidden, their tails and fingertips pitching in the white broth like an ogre’s stew. And the more there were meant the more time had gone by without change.

Then something strange happens. It is my favorite part of the film. Max’s mother busies herself with other relatives laid to rest there leaving Max alone with Janey’s tombstone. He is looking at the tombstone but hearing Nora and the sounds she made when he made love to her. The camera tightens on his face as her climax grows louder. He mouths something, a few words, probably not in the script.

I have a lot of things from my grandmother, none of which I believe to be haunted. It is mostly jewelry and I think if there is an afterlife, Elizabeth Taylor, Marie Antoinette and Barbara Hutton have all put the kibosh on haunting gemstones. I wish it was her, because she said would look after me. She would watch me frown at the leaves in the pool and promise me that when she died, she would send me messages only I would understand.

v. “I don’t gobble and I don’t lie."
I’ve been having interesting conversations with people regarding what constitutes a movie being labeled a “chick flick.” Rightfully accused of seeing almost every movie ever made, I have an opinion. For me, a chick flick is either a movie with a predominantly female cast focusing on what are considered female topics (e.g. gender bias, female puberty, mother-daughter relationships, etc.), or a film that a woman chooses to watch when she wants to feel like she is in love. In the latter designation, the woman will pick a “chick flick” based on her similarities to the female protagonist but more often on her attraction to the male paramour.

This is how Max falls in love with me. He is quietly expressive, smiles secretly and often. He opens drawers knowing I am only pretending to sleep. He brings me a new mailbox. He spills coffee on clients, forgets to fix the headlight of his car. Keeps forgetting to fix the headlight of his car. He buys me an insulting gift and immediately returns it for a better one. He ties my shoelace, buckles my seat belt, makes me dinner and flowers and flowers and sex that smells of flowers. And he doesn’t leave. Not when we fight, not when I push him away, not when all of his friends try to set him up with women his own age, not when our differences rear up like threatened animals between us. He is calm. He makes my fist into a hand again.

vi.  “I only know that when I’m not with you, I’m a total wreck.” “And when you are with me?” “I’m a different kind of total wreck."

Nora finally leaves because she is sure Max is ashamed of her age, her poverty, her edges. Every encounter with Max’s friends has ended badly due in large part to her insecurities. In the past, her character has been hemmed by misfortune and failure. She only thrives now in an implausible Marilyn-land of candid seductions and perilless romance. As a relationship develops, she fears its reality and what it might require of them both to sustain it.

Max goes to Nora’s house after an argument to discover she has vanished. There is a note on the couch. I don’t know who on the set wrote this but it is in blue pen and some of the words are crossed out. Initially, one of the writer’s I’s looked more like a “T.” It is an authentic touch.

What has always fascinated me with this scene is that Max just walks into her house. The door is unlocked and she lives in Dogtown. I don’t know much about St. Louis, but I have learned that any section of a city earning the epithet “Dogtown” is unsafe. I can understand why she left, but I can’t comprehend why she wouldn’t lock her house. She would have to trust that he would come looking for her before likely consequences arose. This is a powerful way to say good-bye.

I might also place too much emphasis on the sanctity of locks. Last week I watched a video on how to make a bump key. The man began the demonstration by stating “the general public does not know they are not safe.” I have lost the key to my storage locker and instead of looking harder for it, I have decided to replace it by employing the methods of criminals. To make a bump key, you must file a key that fits into the lock to its lowest ridge. The trick is to also file the peaks to display less erratic behavior. If the peaks are too steep on one side, the key won’t go in. If they are too steep on the other, it won’t come out. He goes on to describe the energy transferred from the ridges into the pins of the lock. I hope whoever loves him does not take this tendency to wax poetic for granted.

I have a key fob that was formerly used for Ward B of the Camarillo State Hospital. I believe it may be the haunted item. My plan is to attach it to the bump key when I try it on the lock. If the key works, maybe the spirit will let go of the key fob. I don’t hold out a lot of hope based on my skill and the plan’s sensibility. It is a disappointingly literal way to rid oneself of a ghost.

The movie ends with Max moving to New York to find Nora. It is a little cloying, but I am always relieved. Usually I like films in spite of their happy endings. This one I like because of it. I can picture Max and Nora getting a small place in Boerum Hill. They grow old together, making love on Sunday afternoons. Max is widowed again but it is expected this time. It is different and the same. His walks through Prospect Park are slower with a cane. The late afternoon sun quiets the leaves overhead like a tittering classroom, and he repeats a few words he spoke as a younger man to no one at all.

Jaime Corbacho is an antiques appraiser and writer in Los Angeles, California. Lately, you can see her work on National Geographic’s America’s Lost Treasures, thirtysomethinginvestor.com and in the offices of Beverly Hills’ accountants this tax season. This year she will be authoring monthly articles on antiques and collecting at www.corbachoappraisals.com.

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