Friday, January 21, 2005

The Hours

Two years ago I went to see The Hours with a friend. It was the first of many movies we saw together. I left the theater a bit unsettled and pensive. There was something about the intertwining of the lives of the three women portrayed that left something with me. I decided to get the movie when it came out on tape and bought a second-hand copy the first chance I had.

The movie is about three women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughn. Since these women lived in different times it would seem they had nothing to bind them together. Virginia Woolf's book, Mrs. Dalloway, is the tie that binds.

Woolf decided to tell the story of a woman's whole life in a day and Mrs. Dalloway is the result of that vision. It is a tale of a very confident woman who chose a life of society and parties and safety instead of a life where passion ruled her days as well as her heart. Shortly after the War to End all Wars, WWI, Clarissa Dalloway throws a party, one that will end in disaster and someone's death.

The Hours begins with Woolf's day, the day she began writing Mrs. Dalloway, segues to a pregnant Laura Brown's day in Los Angeles in 1951 where she wakes up and picks up Woolf's book and reads the first sentence--"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."--and on to 2001 to the beginning of Clarissa Vaughn's day where she decides to buy the flowers herself for the party she is throwing her friend Richard who has just won a prestigious poetry award. Each woman's life is defined by the book and one day, telling the story of their lives in that one day just as Woolf envisioned it in her book.

I watched the movie again the other day and it struck me that Woolf's words to her husband Leonard at the end of the movie define not only the book but the lives of the three women: "Someone must die so that the rest of us should value life more." This from a woman who took her own life because she could not bear the burden of her mental illness any longer and saw what it was doing to her friends. She died so that those she loved would value life the more--and have a life to live. Death is the current that runs through each of the character's lives. It is an ever present specter that haunts their thoughts and steps.

At the end of the day someone is dead, but the story is not finished because Woolf must also decide Mrs. Dalloway's future. In so doing the futures of all three women are also decided. Woolf writes her strongest book. Laura Brown sets the course of her future. Clarissa Vaughn sees and finally knows true happiness. And in the final moments of the movie the real theme is revealed.

Death is an ever present specter in all our lives, although we manage to ignore him quite handily until he is about to put his skeletal claw upon us or someone we love. Then death becomes all too real and we realize we can no longer postpone the inevitable. What follows is a frantic binge of life.

All too often we mortgage our present for the future, a future that may not come, but a future that will surely end in death. Death is the only sure bet. But we postpone thinking about death until it touches us and continue to pile up our treasures for the future and old age, forgetting to live in the moment. We don't value life.

We put up with unhappiness and discomfort waiting for some bright future that may never come. We live for appearances, doing what looks right but never feels right. We follow guidelines and paths set down by others even when they aren't right for us. We do everything but what our hearts tell us to do. And we lose life, letting it slip through our fingers believing that there will be a tomorrow and a tomorrow after that, and so on, when we will finally be able to do what we really want to do, what stirs us and makes us happy. Too many of us are dead inside and just haven't figured that out, walking dead who haven't the sense to lie down in the graves they have dug so carefully and furnished so well, like the Etruscans who left only their beautiful and well appointed tombs to show the ever existed.

We furnish our tombs with the latest and most cutting edge technology, the brightest and most expensive furniture and tools and toys, with fancy china that never makes it out of the cupboard because it's too nice for every day, with 500-thread count sheets that lie in plastic in the linen cabinet, and beautiful clothes for special evenings that are continually postponed until later. We spend money on vacations to exotic locales and fill the days with an itinerary that leaves us breathless and gasping for a moment's rest. We trim the verge and mow the lawn, lavishly casting chemicals and fertilizers about, ruthlessly waging war on ants and bugs and crab grass that spoils the look of the perfect lawn. We richly furnish rooms that no one is allowed inside. We collect toys and lures and all manner of things just to leave them in the boxes because they're worth more that way. We work longer hours for bigger, fancier, and more expensive houses, cars, and luxuries that we never enjoy. We put everything into our tombs without ever having lived. We choose death in life when we should walk away from all that makes us unhappy, from living for someone else or someone else's expectations.

One of the characters tells another that when he dies she will have to face living.

Who has to die to make us value life and face living?

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