January 4, 2013

"Brief Encounter" by David Lehman

My favorite chick flick is "Brief Encounter," David Lean's black-and-white 1945 tearjerker starring Celia Johnson as a respectable middle-class housewife and Trevor Howard as the married doctor whom she meets in a train station. The first meeting is accidental, the second is deliberate, the start of a love affair, intense though not quite consummated, that is told from Celia Johnson's point of view and in her voice, to the lushly romantic strains of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. (And btw, according to the London Telegraph of 25 April 2011, Rocky's Second remains the United Kingdom's favorite piece of classical music, besting anything by Beethoven or Mozart, undoubtedly because of this film.) Railway stations, and the tea rooms in them, which were still ubiquitous in my own time as a grad student in England, are a perfect setting for the lovers' furtive meetings. They are dreary, ordinary, impersonal places, although back then, in even the meanest of them you could get an excellent cup of brewed tea rather than the teabag variety. The love affair is, in effect, an interruption, a delay, and a slight detour in the journey of two lives that will never again intersect. The restraint and dignity of the characters (and the actors who portray them) give the film its terrific resonance. They communicate that something significant is at stake: the movie pushes the idea that in the matter of sexual relationships between consenting adults, there is no free lunch (and if there is, it isn't love). A psychoanalyst would look at the same picture and argue "yes, of course, the amount of repression varies directly with the heat of passion," but what fun is that? My wife singles out the last meeting of the lovers, which gets interrupted by an insipid, yammering woman who has spent the day shopping. I also like what happens when Celia Johnson returns to her amazingly compassionate husband, who intuits what has happened, though she has said nothing. An incidental pleasure is hearing, in the background of one scene, Schubert's "Marche Militaire," which I have never been able to resist.

David Lehman initiated The Best American Poetry series in 1988. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His books of poetry include When a Woman Loves a Man, The Daily Mirror, and Valentine Place. He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook/Schocken), the most recent of his six nonfiction books, won the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 2010. He teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City.

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