Primum non nocere
Norman Maclean was two men: an English and Literature professor at the University of Chicago who was highly thought of and a multiple award winner from the university. Though his academic writings were few, they were considered important and academically rigorous. The other Norman as the Norman of his youth, a Montana lumberman, forest service fire fighter and a fly fisherman, whose life met with tragedy at a young age. Though he spent most of his adult life at the University of Chicago, he would always return to Montana in the summers. After Norman retired in 1973, his family convinced him to write his stories for publication, which he did. "A River Runs Through It" received high critical praise and was very successful. Two years after his death in 1990, Robert Redford made the movie which, in my opinion, is Mr. Redford's best work. I hope you enjoy it!
It would seem that I am partial to quiet, thoughtful stories, and "A River Runs Through It" is another one of these. Craig Scheffer is a talented young actor here, and I loved his portrayal of Norman Maclean. Brad Pitt was tremendous as the talented, gifted and fiery younger brother. I loved the interaction between the brothers, and the music and scenery were very meditative, and quite beautiful. The scenes of the boys fishing were hypnotizingly lovely, and gave you the feel of the beauty and grace of fly fishing, the quiet peacefulness of being out on the water, and the exhilaration of getting a fish to rise. I enjoyed the quiet competitiveness between both the boys, and to an extent between the boys and their father. All these things rung true for me.
I am so glad you suggested this. It is so beautiful, and almost haunting in the way it looks at a difficulty we all face, to love those close to us even when we see that the paths they have chosen are terribly -- and incomprehensibly -- wrong. As Reverend Mclean concludes in that last sermon, the challenge "to love completely, without complete understanding."Doesn't everyone know someone who destroyed his own health, or relationships, or future, with the choices he made -- in spite of everything you tried to do or say to change his course? Like Jessie, and her desolate "Why is that the people who need the most help, won't take it?" -- which Norman understands all too well.Poor Norman, to have to be the one to steady wild Paul, while still trying to find his own footing. Their differences were not so important when they were happy companions in childhood, but being so far apart in temperament as young men made it almost impossible for them to be close. Norman always so contained, Paul always flying apart at the seams. Norman always either allowing himself to be persuaded to join Paul in his madness -- like the "shooting the chute" exploit, or defying the rules and the community at the speak-easy with his "Indian woman" -- or dealing with the fall-out afterwards -- whether it was getting Paul cleaned up and home from the police station so their parents wouldn't find out, or having to be the one to tell their parents the terrible news they had to know. But in spite of the anger or resentment or whatever it was that boiled over in the fight after the "chute", Norman kept loving, kept reaching out, kept offering the help that was always rejected.Poor Paul, such a contradiction within himself. One side of him constantly searching for more -- more fun, more excitement, more trouble -- alternately high on his latest run of luck, good or bad, and searching for his next fix. So independent, so scornful, if not amused, at Norman's offers of help. But also still loving, still reaching out, still trying to make things right with efforts to please his family or recapture old happiness fishing with Norman. He does love his brother, and when everything is coming together for Norman -- Jessie returning his feelings, the University position, deciding to marry -- it broke my heart to see Paul take it all with a smile and congratulations, even though every piece of news was another loss, another degree of distance from him his brother was moving.But as much as Paul loved his brother, he needed the river more. There was the other half of himself, so completely complete when he was fishing, so much the master of himself and his world. And he gave to his art as much as he took what he needed from it, like a great actor who needs the play, and the stage, and the audience, as much as he needs air, and in turn gives grace and honor to the calling he loves.Was it knowing he couldn't be happy away from the river, and the "fish he hadn't caught yet," and the perfection he could achieve, that made Paul so certain about not going to Chicago with Norman? Or was his "I'm never going to leave Montana, Brother" more prophetic, a recognition that all of his living dangerously was going to catch up with him sooner rather than later?(Continued)
(Continued)There was foreshadowing earlier, anyway. I loved the scene, Norman having just received the job offer from Chicago, when he walks into his father's study and joins him in lines from Wordsworth's "Recollections of Early Childhood" -- that moment of shared love of the written word, that moment of understanding. Yet it is also a device, a foreshadowing of the great loss to be withstood that they would also share.Actually, even the opening of the film carries the hint that there will be sorrow in the story that now-eldery "Norman" is to tell us. He says at the outset that his father urged him to write the story of their family, as "Only then will you understand what happened and why." (Isn't this, also, true for any of us? Sometimes it takes processing what we've been through enough to relate it to someone else, to see our own experiences clearly, and make sense of our own lives.)And considered separately from the content of the story, I thought the narration worked very well; it suited the film, shaping the story as being told from a distant future. Like Jane Eyre, reviewing the events of her youth with the unblinking eye of the adult she had become. And, like Jane telling her story with an understanding of herself and those she cared about that she didn't have when the events she relates took place.This is such a beautiful movie, in every sense. Visually, it was absolutely magical. From the glorious scenery -- those bewitching images of the river, lined by enormous evergreens, with the mountains just beyond -- to the slowed images of the fishing lines unfurling and returning, back and forth, like a ballet just over the surface of the water. "Hypnotizingly lovely" -- that's it perfectly. (I love Arts and Crafts design, so the Maclean home was a pure delight. I'll spare you my raptures over the wallpapers, etc., but that house, and the set decoration, were truly a work of art, down to the copper bowl on the hall telephone table.)The music was great, both the score and the performed music -- especially the bits that had that Highland sound, like you hear in Appalachian music. And the quiet moments, with no music, and in the absence just the little sounds of the natural world going on about its business. I loved the language of the film --- so many beautiful lines, so much quiet poetry, both in the narration, and in Reverend Maclean's instruction and sermons. (I need to go through the whole thing again, to note the bits that want looking-up.)And the craftsmanship of the story. I realized how well-written it was when I was feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of narrowing down the number of scenes that I wanted to talk about, and I couldn't. There is no moment that drags, no scene without a purpose, no dialogue that isn't necessary-- if not for the information conveyed, for the illustration of where the characters will and will not engage. I'm sure the screenwriter and the director deserve a measure of credit here, but I suspect it is mostly Norman Mclean's, who mastered his father's "thrift" of the written word, and distilled the essence of lives shared into the story he told.And you're right -- it has got to be Redford's best work.
Is there something you'd like to watch, to preserve the vacation mood a bit longer? (If not, I have one or two in mind)Not to rush things -- as I would be happy to dwell on the "River" a while longer!
I am so very glad you enjoyed it. It has been a great favorite of mine for years.There is much in Paul I can relate to.. the self-confidence, the willingness to bet on himself, the quick desire to help others or ease the burden on them, the tendency to delay committing, for fear of...what? It is a contradictory set of traits that can surprise and confuse in how they play out. Paul was a good man. He made some poor choices and hazarded the consequences, and as time went by the stakes rose higher, and the choices were fraught with greater difficulties. Of course, he couldn't allow Norman to make it all right for him. That could never be. He would much rather bare the consequences. But he did appreciate that Norman loved him and wanted to help him, and that was enough for Paul. The two boys were alike in many ways. They were both fine men with ability. They were bright and generous, self-reliant and capable. They had a sense for beauty and an artistry to them. They took pride in what they did. They loved their family, they loved Montana, and they loved being on the river, hoping for a fish to rise.The double story of the destructive nature of alcoholism helped to add insight, for it allowed us to see many of the troubling aspects about Paul in a different light. The tendency for Neal to always have something on his mind distracting him and pulling him away from his family, making him look to slip away and isolating him from the people that loved him was right on the money. The worry in Jessie and her mother when they saw Neal attempt to slip away soon after his arrival home was later echoed in Norman and his own family with Paul, a character far more cherished in the story. I thought that was very helpful in allowing us to see how alcoholism or drug addiction ends up creating a double life for those caught up in it, with the second life being secretively always on the mind of the abuser, and ultimately it pulls them away from everything they love. There were many very good scenes in the movie, but perhaps my favorite was the two boys talking along the river after their attempt to take Neal fishing ended up with a hot day that nearly skunked them both, and Paul, finding Norman asks him:"Couldn't you find him?" "The hell with him." "Well, I thought we were supposed to help him." "How the hell do you help that son of a bitch?" "By taking him fishing.""He doesn't like fishing, he doesn't like Montana, and he sure as hell doesn't like me."And Paul, squinting up into the sunny summer sky, responds to Norman, "Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to to help him." It was perfect.
Yes!! And the look on Norman's face, considering something that had not occurred to him before.Oh -- I wanted to amend something. Paul was NOT "scornful" of Norman's offers of help -- I should have said "scoffing" although that's not quite right, either.And you're right about the two being alike in many ways. Certainly the more important ways, the values and the good hearts. The differences in temperaments made it challenging, but their essential natures kept their love for each other strong.(Gee, I wonder what else I'll modify after the third viewing.)
OK, Nick -- Once you've caught up with the "real world' could I interest you in My Favorite Year ? It's a comedy about early days of television, and, though somewhat dated in some ways (made in the 80s, about the 50s), is made quite palatable by being laced liberally with Peter O'Toole.
I will put it to the top of my queue list on Netflix, and should get something up in a couple of days. It sounds like something I should have watched but never did. Let's give it a go!
One of the first shows we did here at the movie club was Splendor In The Grass, which ties in here, as they both made use of the William Wadsworth poem "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" that Norman and his father recite from memory. The poem poignantly ties into the loss of things good and eternal that is this life of ours, and reminds us that those things most excellent with time are dimmed from our vision, but are never lost to us. Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be; In the soothing thoughts that spring Out of human suffering; In the faith that looks through death, In years that bring the philosophic mind. And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, Forebode not any severing of our loves! Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might; I only have relinquish'd one delight To live beneath your more habitual sway. I love the brooks which down their channels fret, Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they; The innocent brightness of a new-born Day Is lovely yet; The clouds that gather round the setting sun Do take a sober colouring from an eye That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality; Another race hath been, and other palms are won. Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.Good stuff for us to hold onto.
I had the pleasure of reading Norman's story "A River Runs Through It", and enjoyed it a great deal. Norman Maclean has a creative and very dry sense of humor which enriched his story, though ultimately, of course, the story was tragic. A brief glimpse of Norman's writing style can be found in this letter to the editor he wrote regarding his pleasure at the prospect of submitting his work to a publisher who had played with his first stories for a time and then rejected them. Good stuff.