Wednesday, December 19, 2018

ALWAYS: For the Living and the Dead


I like to think I have a fairly decent knowledge of movies, at least those by really quite famous directors and especially those released within my lifetime. So I was a little surprised to learn of the existence of Always, a 1989 Steven Spielberg film based on 1943's A Guy Named Joe. And I don't mean as in "I forgot and then remembered," I mean as in "I had no idea that this was a thing that existed, and was still a little on the fence about its existence until my friend brought out his LaserDisc copy."

Scratch the surface of Google, as I did while in search of images for this blog, and you'll see Always referred to as everything from "a forgotten classic" to "Spielberg's worst movie." While it hasn't gone on to be particularly memorable in the zeitgeist—and while admittedly maudlin ghost/human romance is a divisive subgenre—I'm not sure it warrants placement below the 2005 War of the Worlds.

But again, your mileage may vary. Apparently the remake came about because Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss both stanned hard for A Guy Named Joe, and honestly if two guys are so in love with a weepy wartime ghost love story that they wanna do it themselves, I'm here for that. Go, boys.

While one would think the plot of Always—guy gets girl, guy nearly loses girl, guy dies horribly in fire, guy is forced to watch girl move on to other guy and then move on himself—would be widely accessible to the hopeless romantics and those who have loved and lost, there's a grim little twist that keeps it from being a proto-What Dreams May Come: our hero, daredevil aerial firefighter Pete, is kiiiiiind of a dick. And that dickishness, while paving the way for the character development requires, also becomes the core factor in the character development of his love interest, Holly Hunter's Dorinda.


Looking at Pete in Always from any sort of analytical standpoint requires us to do two highly contradictory things: assume Pete is really there after his death, and assume he isn't. Because both setups tell two important facets of Dorinda's story.

In public, Pete and Dorinda are silly, cute, and frankly made for each other. Behind closed doors, he calls her an idiot. His (occasionally quite accurate) observations that she is too unskilled for certain tasks are delivered more like a disapproving father than a concerned lover. He never says "I love you" where she can hear it. And her needs and wants in their relationship are only acceptable once she has negotiated for them to the point of tears.

Pete is in no way a knowingly abusive person—and thankfully we have his heavenly guide Hap in the form of Audrey Hepburn to remind us in so many words that he really is "one of the good ones." But his rakish egotism doesn't do him any favors when it comes to navigating real feelings, a lesson he only learns once his plane explodes and he's forced to observe her life with limited effect a year afterward.

See, he's back for a reason: it's his turn to serve as "inspiration" (in the Always version of death-and-what-comes-after, inspiration comes from a recently deceased person paying it forward to help someone else realize their full potential before they themselves move on). He believes he's back to help actual human Labrador retriever Ted Baker become a better pilot, despite Hap telling him in advance that that's 100% not what he's here to do.

In fact, he's here to free Dorinda's heart and his own from each other, so that she can find love and move on. As can he.

If you guessed that he really doesn't like this setup and in fact chooses to work against it, then you get zero points because that's a total gimme.


Here's where I hit the first version of the movie: the one where Pete is there as an active and acting presence. The ones where the words Dorinda and Ted and everyone else hears are his actual spoken words he's directing to them in the moment. As the movie would have it.

This presents to us one version of Pete: an actively controlling one. One that actually does border on knowingly, willingly emotionally abusive. One who attempts to influence his surroundings in order to push Dorinda into a corner psychologically where she isn't allowed to forget him. One who, for the love of God, sits next to her, telling her over and over that she belongs to him and she knows it. Imagine that sort of situation taking place between two normal people day to day.

The one mitigating factor—that he's dead and can't actually "have" her—only makes it worse. Now he's in her head, and she can't stop him. The one thing that theoretically gives it a pass actually makes it more garbage.

Fortunately for all of us, the narrative isn't that Pete's a great, misunderstood guy who's never made a mistake and is just doing his best. This is about him letting go, and about freeing her. Hap even lays out for him just how serious his actions are: her life is in a holding pattern until he gets over himself. Thankfully for her, for Ted, for everyone, he finally gets there. And he does absolutely eventually get that, both in life and in death, he was being selfish. It's what allows the movie to end, and for him to walk down the airstrip to whatever comes next.

But let's look at this in the other way the film presents these moments: with an absence of Pete. Because no one truly sees him, and while some people do give the cues he requests to prove they hear them, that doesn't necessarily mean they believe he's there. They're performed in that sort of "I know it's not true because that's crazy, but I'm the only one here, so sure I'll brush my hair out of my eyes just on the off chance."

Once in a while, we even see scenes where he's completely absent. No clever cuts or pans, no dimly-lit Pete blending into the background, nothing. Just our living, breathing characters... occasionally doing little things that seem like they ought to coincide with a word from Pete.


Most notable is a scene just after Dorinda and Ted's first date, where she traces over his name in a log book over and over again... and then, bit by bit, starts to write over it, turning his name into Pete's. But Pete is completely absent from the scene. We don't hear an angry mutter over her shoulder trying to force thoughts of Ted out of her mind.

These moments could very well be Spielberg slyly hinting at Pete's omnipresence while letting other scenes play out. But it also gives us a foothold for a Pete-less reading of Dorinda's scenes: one where, overarching plot of the film aside, he's not really there, and the intrusive thoughts and scoldings really are just coming from her own mind. One where Pete's presence over everyone's shoulder is purely metaphorical, ingrained in people's minds based on his behavior prior to his death.

The really sucky part is, that makes the movie all the more realistic. A person who ground certain thoughts into your head (whether deliberately abusive or unwittingly so) does an amazing job of holding sway over you, even in their absence. And their absence isn't necessarily death—though it often can be. After a separating, a good old-fashioned Facebook block, a restraining order, or even a less permanent separation like a psychologically domineering friend or partner who doesn't live with you but still holds real estate in your brain.

Anyone who's had a difficult friendship or relationship end knows that someone who's done an especially effective number on you doesn't have to be around—or even alive—to mess you up. A Pete-less reading of Always shows Dorinda bogged down by seemingly innocent words, more fights like the one we see early in the movie, and who knows what else.

It's not uncommon or unrealistic to feel stuck, even when the person in question is no longer around. You feel as though you need permission to move on. Even in cases where you yourself affected the separation and death isn't on the table, it's not always as easy as "just forgetting."


Pete was eventually one of the good ones, releasing his hold on the ones he left behind in a way that, for us, generally must come from within. Permission from the one holding us back isn't necessary for moving on, but it's not wrong or uncommon to be stuck believing so.

This is not a lesson for the Petes of the world; if they, like Pete, are one of the good ones, they'll need to understand for themselves what their influence does. This is one for the Dorindas, whether the words holding them back are being spoken here and now, or echoing in memories. It's natural to feel as though you need permission to move on. But you don't. The only permission you need is your own.


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