The Guitar

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Once there was a girl who walked straight, but she was truly lame.
She walked upright in new boots, yet I tell you her feet were bare.
She walked and she lived forever.
Yet there she is, buried in a vault of fertile air.
And if she, shaken from her torpor,
should rise to write …  what would she write?

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Poster It’s with these lines from Patti Smith that the film opens, providing us with a word-portrait of her conundrum, both celebrated and mourned, just as we see the beginning of her fateful day, one that will change the very texture of her life and the meaning she has assigned to it. Forever.

For within a matter of hours she will be handed three deathly blows, each of which topples the uneasy balance she had established for her fragile existence. Three blows that will require that she make some changes, if not for herself and her life, then at least for divining a sense of what it is that she has been missing.

Her doctor will tell her she has a malignant tumor in the larynx, a growth that will – in a matter of weeks or months – cause her to lose her voice and constrict her breath, eventually causing her to die. So, although we can already see and hear the signs of the malignancy in her tortured breathing and the voice of a whisper, the worst is yet to come. Moments later, she will learn that she has also lost her job. Excised from their existence, leaving her without an income and a means for living. And when, in a panic, she turns to her boyfriend for comfort and consolation, even before she can get in a word edgewise, he too will let her go, saying he needs time apart, time for himself. Time to discover who he is really is. For when he’s with her, he says, he’s swallowed by suffocation.

And so, mere minutes into the beginning of this story, we will find her utterly alone and undone, unsure what exactly has come to pass, and uncertain as to what she should do, if anything at all. Indeed, if any question could be asked, it would surely be this: if shaken from her torpor, what kind of story would she rise to tell?

Appropriately enough, her name is Melody.

Laryngeal Cancer

Her face already provides a portrait of her life’s story. As a canvas, it already carries the signs of an unbearable weariness, one that preceded the news her doctor was so reluctant to tell. But even at that moment, her eyes seem to register how this is but the latest shock she’s had to endure, another disappointment and assault she seems destined to bear alone. Her mouth and throat already contorted in their need for air, even as she remain unable to take it in, denied the most basic of elements necessary for survival. Strangled by her own sense of desperation and despair.

We are not told how things came to be this way. For us in the audience, those bits of information have been withheld. Only she is privy to what has come before. But, if the knowledge to be gleaned from those familiar with this kind of malady are to be believed, her affliction may result from any number of assaults and abuses, many of which might have nothing to do with her throat at all. For the organ of speech resides at the top of a body that follows its own logic of existence, and any violation of its integrity is likely to impact the voice, as well.

Her symptoms could mirror a threat to her very right for existence, since assaults on the body – or extreme forms of neglect – produce a soul unsure of its very being, much less its right to inhabit this earth. Aggressions that deny the body its own feeling, much less the right to experience its own pleasure, could also leave a body collapsed, robbing a young life its ability to define itself. A shrunken chest and the shortness of breath also indicate a body consumed by grief, signaling the kind of drought that far too many are asked to endure. And strange as it might sound, her strangulation could also signal a tortured relation to the truth or, more precisely, of having being forced to live in its absence, because others have been so committed to her deception or, worse, unwilling to allow her truth to be told.

Her Residence Below

The impact of such accretions make their mark on the physical body in ways most of us are unwilling or unable to tell. And the effects run deep, for these are nothing other than the sedimentations of experience, particularly of what has been denied public existence and, as a result, forced from consciousness itself. For it’s not only the mind but the body that suffers as a consequence, creating an armor that protects against what’s too dangerous to name but which also – ironically and quite painfully – contains and constrains the one who has survived life’s toll.

And so, as she returns to her basement apartment – a hole in the ground that passes as her space for living – we will see Melody descend into the cocoon of protection she has made for herself against the outside world. And it is in this, the most unlikely of places, that she will hatch a plan for what is to come.

For just as she’s beginning to wallow in an overwhelming sense of helplessness and despair, even flirting with the idea of hastening the arrival of her death, her eyes will fall upon an advertisement for a different kind of abode than the one she calls her own – "The Best of Loft Living" – and in that very moment she makes a decision that will forever change her life. However few her remaining days may be.

The Path of Ascension

It’s the kind of decision that few of us have the courage to make, yet it’s one from which many of us can learn. For in that instant, she decides to abandon her hole in the ground so that she may live in the sky. With her severance pay in hand, as well as the entirety of her life savings, she calls the realtor, already knowing the path she has chosen. And when she meets him, she will rent the loft, sight unseen. For it matters little what she will find there, the path being more important than the goal.

And as she stands on the ground, on the precipice of her adventure, we are given the first visual clue about the nature of her journey and a foreshadowing of the guitar that will become the center of her story. For arranged in a stack of discs above her is the path of her ascension, like frets on a guitar.

A ladder unto heaven, marked by the kind of rungs that help make the kind of music that has suffused her dreams ever since she was a little girl.

Frightful Capaciousness

At first, when she reaches the space in which she has chosen to die, she’s overcome by fear, not quite sure what it is she’s gotten herself into. It would seem that she’s overwhelmed by its capaciousness, completely vacant and absent of any signs of life, much less the kind of objects that might reassure her that she still remains among the living rather than the dead.

It’s because she has consciously decided to make a break with her past, leaving all personal belongings and attachments behind, she finds herself completely alone in this unfamiliar place. So large and empty that she’s not quite sure what to do with herself: nothing to provide distraction, nothing for her amusement. So bare is this newly adopted home, she spends her first night sleeping on the floor, with nothing other than an overcoat to soften her rest.

If this space is to be filled, it will have to acquire its shape and character from her own hand and imagination. And while, for some, such a prospect might come across as nothing short of a fantasy or a dream come true, we should not allow ourselves to forget the events leading to this lonely moment in her empty heaven: the nature of a life slowly coming to its end, a throat constricting against its host, leaving her breathless, without the element most necessary for sustaining any existence.

Banana Phone Nourishment

In the morning, still surrounded by empty space, the Phone Man will arrive to make his installation. She wants none of their special services: no call waiting, no call forwarding, no internet. Her only desire is an unlisted number. For if she’s leaving this world, all she wants is the luxury of traveling the final legs of her journey incognito, free of the hassle of the unwanted and the forsaken.

Her only tie to the outside world will be by phone, using the ridiculous "banana" left by the man who helped with its installation. Some kind of promotional offer, he says. And as we immediately see, this banana will come to be her only source of nourishment, relying upon deliveries brought to her door, for she’s made a vow to never leave this place until she’s met her Maker, face-to-face.

Her first call is to a restaurant, asking about their specials for the day. And even though she’s been a committed vegetarian, this will mark another turning point, ordering their Golden Beef Happy Family and the spare ribs that come as its side. In fact, what we witness appears to be another reversal, changing her relation to food, almost ravenous in what her body has been denied. During the days and weeks that follow, she feeds an appetite that seems to have been starved of nourishment for far too long. Finally giving in to a hunger that she hardly recognizes as her own.

Inhabiting Her Space

Only then does she begin to populate the space she has come to inhabit – all by way of her trusty banana – making the most of the cash and credit still under her name. For no cost will be spared, it would seem, as one new acquisition leads to another. As if one allowance for herself gave way to another, leading to a torrent of objects and things to fill this aerie abode.

Her first order of business is to acquire a bed. A king sized Vera Wang, no less. What the salesperson calls "Return to the Womb." And once this has found its place in her new home, she will turn to other indulgences: a dozen of their softest towels in white, and another dozen in silver, a six by nine foot rug from their Mums in Silk collection, and an even larger one in Camilla Blue. These are soon followed by string of other orders – a pair of lucite lamps, a lantern vase, and a thistle vase from the Relief Collection – the allusions to light and relief, as well as to Mother, a measure of what has been missing, perhaps in her very own home.

And as her orders begin to arrive, she will throw all her clothes out the window, ridding herself of the last belongings defining her previous existence. For even though she has staged this place as the scene for her demise, it is also the site of her transformation, where the old is relentlessly stripped away. Her nakedness cast against a palette of white, an effort of achieving some kind of rebirth. Asserting her God-given right to an existence on this earth, however brief it may be.

Mourning Trapped

In other words, just because she "allows" herself certain objects of luxury doesn’t mean this is the fulfillment of some frivolous fantasy, free to purchase anything and everything her heart desires. For the lines on her face carry the same sense of weariness, her breathing just as tortured and constricted as we had already seen before.

So while all her activity might appear like a shopping spree of a carefree woman, what we are witness to is something decidedly different. Cashing-in all that she has earned (and learned) from her previous existence with the expectation that it will lead to the fulfillment of a different kind of promise.

For she still remains in that in-between place, that halfway point between where she’s been and where she hopes to be. Still encapsulated by the armor that has both protected her and kept her trapped, dreaming of a life beyond its walls. So, as she continues the work of her reclamation, her time in this indeterminate space will vacillate between these poles, swallowed by quiet desperation and, alternatively, lifted on wings of joy.

Changing Colors

As the packages continue to arrive, it will be difficult not to notice the new colors being introduced into her palette of white. As if she were creating a painting, with different shades and hues slowly added along the way. And as her story continues, this trend will deepen, giving way to what couldn’t have been seen before, at least for those of us who are witness to her journey.

For while she may have wiped the slate clean, this was never a journey into an empty oblivion. The things that she has collected give evidence of something else, what she only later comes to verbalize. For the objects "speak" to her, whispering to her in a strange but familiar tongue.

[It’s] the language of objects.
They give me hope …
whispering rumors of my redemption.

Her only regret is she no longer has the time to collect them more slowly, no longer possessed of the luxury of listening to their secret language and the "rumors" that they bring at a more leisurely pace. For her time is quickly running out.

Dreaming of Her Guitar

At night, her dreams are filled by the same vision: the guitar she had pined over as a little girl. The one in the storefront window, seemingly calling out her name. One belonging to a palette so different from her own, but one that seemed to point her in the direction of her life’s calling. For that image never fails to return, a certain kind of haunting. Suggesting, perhaps, that it’s never too late to follow its path.

And so, Melody will finally heed the voice that speaks to her every night. It will be her last and final purchase, probably because its "speech" is more attuned to the rhythm of her own body. And once the decision has been made, her enthusiasm will not be restrained, ordering the same model as found in her dream, a Fender Strat 1963 reissue. And it’s with the same gusto that she will order all the "trimmings" to go with it: one hundred picks, two triple-stack Marshall amps, extra long cords, wah-wah pedals, humbucking pickup, and a black strap.

During the days and weeks that follow, Melody will divide her attention between her new instrument and the two who will soon become her lovers, and it will be difficult not to notice a shift in the scenery and the air. Pale white now saturated in deeper hues. As Melody learns to play, the quiet moments of anguish become less frequent, as she takes in the delight found in the music of her own making and, which often amounts to the same thing, the joy found in bodies other than her own.

Roscoe Wasz

His name is Roscoe. A funny name for a child of immigrants, one taken from the city in which his parents met. And this will be the first thing they find in common, for her family also spent time in upstate New York (Tonawanda, to be exact), thankful that she was given a Hawaiian name, instead. One that she was told means "graceful."

At first, he was just the delivery man, bringing each of the packages she ordered through her "banana" to the door, ever professional and courteous. Until her ice began to thaw, that is, and he felt comfortable enough to chide her about her spending as if there were no tomorrow. At which point, perhaps because she had begun to see him as a man, she notices his wedding ring and expresses her regret, only able to say that other women seem to have all the luck.

So, when he comes back to her door with flowers in hand, worried about the silence that has replaced the stream of packages, it’s clear there’s something else in the making. And she will jump at the opportunity, knowing that any happiness she might find can only be temporary, and knowing that he’s already bound to another. Ever conscious of the limited time she has remaining on this earth, she will tell him, "If you come back, just come back for the moment. That’s all there is."

Constance Clemente aka Cookie

Constance "Cookie" Clemente will also make an unannounced visit, bringing a pizza Melody hadn’t ordered along with a bottle of wine. She had also come to grow fond of the strange woman living a solitary life up in her loft, and worried about why she hasn’t called.

Unlike Roscoe, she’s less sure why she finds herself at Melody’s door, knowing only that she’s drawn to the woman with the tortured voice. Which is probably why Melody uses this as the opportunity to explain her relation to the objects she has collected, those that whisper of her redemption.

The girl who calls herself "Cookie" rather than Constance has witnessed the loft’s transformation, intrigued by what its owner has made of its emptiness. Perhaps it’s an unrecognized affinity that draws her to Melody, sensing there’s something to learn from this woman who seems so self-assured. After all, she’s been promised to another more powerful and connected than she – Vito the Cat – although he can’t help but find the nickname vaguely insulting, as if he were being called a pussy. But with Melody, there’s no need for such caution, as if it weren’t necessary to apologize for being a woman.

Melody's Soulmate

When her lovers are gone, it’s the guitar to which Melody returns. Her recently discovered soul-mate. One that has supplanted all others that came before, becoming her constant companion, even as she sleeps.

For as we are introduced to more of her nighttime visions, we discover that the images from childhood are not a dream but actual memories from a long time ago. Memories of a time when music was her sole companion, blotting out the noise that filled her family’s home. Her sole means of escape and her only means for divining beauty when all else failed.

And the image of a young girl running with the red guitar in hand is nothing other than the younger version of herself, the one who – on a whim – decided to take matters in her own hand, to take what she already knew would never be given. The pavement but a memory beneath her feet, flying toward heaven. The music that she would make! The music that would be hers!

Until this, too, would be taken. And life was returned to deathly silence.

The Lovers

One day, as if by accident, her lovers will meet. And for a brief moment, everyone holds their breath, wondering what would come of this unplanned encounter, when what has been kept separate collapses into a single place.

But rather than the "scene" we might have expected, the two actually get along, a conciliation facilitated by Melody’s intervening hand. And for the briefest of moments, the three of them will share in their mutual delight, two halves of the one on her way to becoming whole. Their playfulness and joy a measure of a long-deferred reunion, one in the making since time before memory began.

For fully embodied love recuperates the deepest of longings, where reflections and fusions run up against each other. Where the desire to see – and the desire to be seen – recalls the most fundamental rhythm of all, to apprehend the face of god in oneself and the other. To play with the boundaries that separate and unite. To touch and to be touched. To disappear into the other’s embrace, only to find oneself reconstituted, again.

For one who’s breath has been cut short, uncertain as to her own footing, this can be nothing other than paradise found. To gain a sense of belonging through the act of play, nothing short of her task of reclamation.

Playing Alone

But even this comes to an end, as she knew it would, leaving her alone, once again. Except now, she has mastered her instrument, able to play its music without the aid of others. And so, as she stands in the otherwise empty room with the amplifiers faced her way, she will, for the first time, give voice to a Melody that had yet to be heard. Singing out loud, as only an electric guitar can do, its plaintive song filling the night sky.

For Roscoe, looking a little more timid than usual, will have come to say goodbye, saying that his wife – until now, unable to beget a child – was finally pregnant. The joy that had been missing, had finally been found. And Constance will find reason to leave, as well, the impetus found in a lover’s quarrel. For Vito the Cat will have taken offense at her lengthy sojourns with the lady in the sky, insulted that the woman he was to marry was turning into a "dyke."

What we are to make of these break-ups, we are not told. But Melody already knew they were coming, since rings of marriage and engagement seemed a prerequisite for the affairs, however abbreviated. And yet, it will be difficult for us not to ponder the nature of those departures, archetypical in a sense, each pointing to their invisible "other" by way of explanation. For one, a previously infertile wife now happily pregnant and, for the other, a jealous fiancee fearful of what happens to a woman in his absence. Perhaps, for the first time in her life, Melody is able to greet these goodbyes with sadness rather than desperation, perhaps even recognizing their echoes in earlier departures – the voice of the opportunist and the voice of a fear possessed – that had also left her standing all alone.

Finding Release

No, there’s no crying when her lovers leave. Despite what she had come to believe about herself, she’s found a peace that can withstands such loss. Instead, her crying comes at the most unexpected of moments. When, out of the blue, her "banana" calls her back.

She had just ordered dinner from a favorite restaurant, even leaving a generous tip for the one who had answered the phone. But just as she began heading toward the shower, the phone would ring for the first time since her arrival in this lofty prison. After overcoming the sense of trepidation that immediately follows, wondering who had found a way to pierce her self-imposed isolation, she discovers that her credit has reached its limit. Not just one card, but all the plastic at her disposal. And when she asks what day (and month) it is, it slowly dawns upon her that she’s outlasted her sentence of death. And not only has she survived the doctor’s prognostication, she now finds herself with no money and – after what will surely be her eviction – no place to call her home.

At first, it sounds like an attempt at singing, accompanied by the kind of breathing we’ve come to recognize as the sign of her affliction. Vocalizations so tentative, one wonders what she’s trying to do, even as she grasps at her neck, protesting the knot that’s still stuck in her throat. But rather than resign herself to the dictates of her body, she produces something short of a bellow, absent any feeling but still resonating, as if from a pit below. Gradually, as if through by power of incantation, it finally arrives, as if on the wings of a dove: the tears she was never able to shed for fear of collapsing under the weight of grief they would surely bring her way.

Except this time, upon their arrival, the tension begins to drain from her face.

Remission

For the first time in months, she will leave her apartment, marching to the doctor who so recently – and with such assurance – announced the inevitability of her earthly demise. Melody is nothing short of furious at being misled. Of being led to believe that she had better put her life in order before the life was squeezed from her corporeal body.

But when she arrives at the doctor’s door and the tests are run and other doctors are consulted, she will be told that the tumor is gone. A complete remission. Which leaves the experts in the room at a complete loss, for her case is nothing other than a statistical impossibility. But because Melody still finds herself in the grips of rage, she insists that the doctor explain herself: how she could do this to her own patient? But the doctor, finding herself confronted by a miracle, turn the question around, instead, asking what Melody has changed about her life since her last visit, whether it be diet, habits, or anything else. Of course, the answer, as we already know, is "everything."

Since the doctor is still left with a conundrum that even medical science cannot explain, she is forced to rely on rumor and hearsay to account for Melody’s turn-around.

I’ve heard of something similar, a type of remission
wherein the person changes so much
that the tumor no longer recognizes the body as host.

I Call Upon My Soul within Thy House

Because her days in the loft are numbered, Melody will spend her remaining nights alone with her guitar. But rather than her amped-up music, it’s a different song she seeks to hear, more introspective and more attuned to the novelty of her own body, as if this candle-lit evening were the scene of a different kind of homecoming. For if the tumor no longer recognized her body as its host, there’s another home that has arrived, even if she had yet to recognized it: her own liberation.

And during those quiet moments, she will turn to Emily Dickinson, giving voice to another conundrum – a sense of inability and regret – each contributing to her prison in more ways than one.

I cannot live with You
That would be Life
And Life is over there
Behind the door

I could not die with You
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s gaze down
(You could not)

But lest we take this as a sign of retrenchment or retreat, it’s worth noting the fact of its vocalization, brought to consciousness and articulated without shame. And with this realization, however belated it might seem, she finds herself ready to descend to the world below, panic-stricken by the need to vacate the apartment and insulted by the meager offerings exchanged for her "whispering" objects. And yet, quite certain of what must be done, and how.

Searching for Persephone

This long journey of hers, the one that began with a meticulous and thorough preparation for her demise, quite ironically ends with the death of something else. For it was precisely her constriction – what Dickinson called the Gaze of the Other – that had lodged itself in her throat. And while she might not have realized it, during the course of this story, Melody’s focus on the rumors of her redemption, as well as the joy of her playing, laid the ground for a different sort of becoming. Free of the armor installed so long ago, the sedimentation of experience, and her "protection" that no longer served its original purpose.

According to Kathie Carlson, author of Life’s Daughter, Death’s Bride, many of today’s women are faced with the dilemma of living Persephone’s journey backwards. Whether by virtue of the dictates of biography or, more generally, the displacements of history, they are left without an experience of Demeter, the Mother. And so, in this absence, they find themselves wedded to Death instead, absent the memory of the one who brings the harvest, unable to become enraged at their own abduction.

Stealing Hope

But should they, later in life, find the Mother – either in oneself or another – only then can the journey be made. For it’s only the lucky few, having rediscovered the source of Life, who are granted access to a different mode of sight, who are finally able to recognize the nature of their premature entombment. For Melody, this comes when she finds the wherewithal to follow the contours of her nightly visions in which a young girl found the courage to chase her dream.

The fact that this glimmer of hope was later denied, the fact that subsequent accumulations ("life’s daughter") pounded that awful lesson into her body with more severity, accounts for the state in which we find Melody at the beginning of this story ("death’s bride"). The fact that she finds the wisdom – even in the face of certain death – to trace the whispered language of objects and the yet-to-be-learned lessons of the heart, this marks the transformation whereby she becomes her own Mother, giving birth to a self different from the one borne of experience.

Space (and Guitar)

And it is this which gives her the strength to leave her perch in the sky, once again emptied of all signs of her presence. For in the end, the objects she had gathered were nothing but manifestations of a voice rarely heard and often forgotten. The voice that speaks to the truth of one’s very existence.

But now, with her transformation complete, Melody will descend once again to the earth below, no longer captive to death’s embrace. And the sole "object" she will bring with her during this journey of return is her guitar, both her instrument and her salvation.

The fact that she carries it on her back, made more explicit in the film’s posters, invites us to think of it as something more than a musical device, for it mirrors the shape of her body and traces the line of her ascent. The "neck" of the guitar punctuated by oval inlays – sometimes nine, at others, seven – marks nothing other than the means by which her music can finally be made. The conditions which give rise to a voice other than the one bequeathed by life’s accretions. They are the rights, previously denied but now forcefully reclaimed, that allow for an abducted maiden’s transformation: the right to exist, free from fear and want; the right to one’s own bodily sensations and feelings; the right to define oneself; the right to love and be loved; the right to speak one’s own truth without reprisal; the right to other forms of sight; and the right to develop one’s own understanding and the kind of wisdom that it brings.

Death Transformed

The fact that we will see Melody singing with her newfound band mates over the closing credits is but a representation of the outcome of this more invisible transformation. Her struggle with Death, less about the lump in her throat than the reasons it came to be there in the first place. And her struggle to overcome Death, less a matter of combatting what had come to seem inevitable than succumbing to that fate, perhaps knowing – on some level, at least – that her demise was also the condition for her renewal.

And as our peek into the world of another fades to black, we’ll hear snippets of their singing that gives voice to a different kind of redemption.

I’ve been around for a long time in the shadows
I’ve been thinking ’bout the daytime in the hollow
I need to let you know, I’m on your side
Yeah, please don’t read my mind, I’m on your side

I wanna take a dive with you
I need to take a dive with you
Yeah, I think I could take a dive with you
Take a dive, take a dive, yeah-yeah

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~ by mistified on November 8, 2010.

One Response to “The Guitar”

  1. Awesome insight into an extremely powerful piece of cinematic art. Your rendering is nothing short of poetic speech. Thanks for sharing it!

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