When I heard that Robert Altman died, I went to the very last neighborhood video store, a funky, run-down place with a curtained adult section in the back I never went into, and rented a VHS of The Long Goodbye, the Altman movie in which Elliott Gould plays a smartass Jewish version of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. The clerk who checked me out was at least thirty years younger than I, with a ring through his lip and a purplish glaze in his hair. As he typed my drivers’ license number, expressionless and mute, into the computer, I wondered who had last rented The Long Goodbye and how old they were. I wondered when they had last seen it. I wondered if it was hip for young people such as the lip-ringed clerk to watch Robert Altman movies, or Elliott Gould movies, or versions of Raymond Chandler detective movies. I decided probably not.
This evening, I picked up a DVD of The Long Goodbye at my local library and went home and made myself some popcorn and curled up in the recliner with the warm, ratty quilt wrapped around me, the same ratty quilt that used to lie on my bed in my college dorm room, where my husband and I first slept together, and watched the movie once again. My husband is gone since six months ago, and my daughter Janie is staying over at a friend’s house. At least I hope that’s where she is, because I don’t always know whether she’s telling me the truth. Tattooed, suspect boys are on the scene, and I’m frankly scared to think of all the places she might be, doing God knows what. And besides worrying about all of that, as I’m watching Elliot Gould, I keep getting a disorienting, time-travel feeling: it’s right now, in my living room in 2016, and it’s forty years ago, and it’s all the times in between I’ve seen this movie.
There on my TV screen is young Elliott in his black suit — slim and tall, his black hair luxuriant and tousled, his expressive face lean and hang-dog. He can move, too. He dashes out into the waves trying to rescue Sterling Hayden, and he really chases after Sterling’s wife, Nina van Pallandt (there’s a flash from the past), in her car—he’s racing for blocks. So even though he’s smoking in every single scene, he can move, he can really run. And he has all those expressions — grimaces, frowns, and that rare, wry smile that knocks me out.
And all the time, as I’m watching the Elliott Gould of 1973, the year I entered junior high school, my mind flashes forward to now, to more recent times, to just a few years ago. To, for instance, the TV show Friends, itself now twenty years old. I wish I could say that I don’t watch TV at all, or that I watch only the History Channel, or only classic films on video, or all those great HBO shows, or only Charlie Rose. I do, in fact, watch all of those, especially in the last six months, but I have also watched Friends, and keep on watching reruns, both because they interest me and because these days I don’t do much else.
I started watching Friends with Janie when she was in grade school and shouldn’t have been watching Friends. But her friend Kelli watched it, and I allowed it against my better judgment. Just as I allowed her to stay out tonight, at a friend’s house or perhaps not.
I watch Friends because I like Matthew Perry’s slick timing and Lisa Kudrow’s wit and the methodical rhythm of the writers’ jokes. But at the same time sometimes I’m appalled at the sleazy dialogue. How the characters talk about wanting to get laid. How weird it is that my twenty-year-old daughter grew up watching attractive people on TV talking about going to bed together and waking up in bed together. How weirdly different our upbringings are, hers and mine, though this is not supposed to bother me because I’m a member of the sexually liberated generation, the generation blasé about a movie, for instance, in which Elliot Gould’s next-door neighbors are a bunch of topless young women lounging outside on their balcony.
I’m bothered by the casual sex of Friends, despite my liberated sensibility, because I’m afraid for my daughter. I’m afraid she doesn’t understand that sex is not merely fun and sometimes funny, but also serious and disappointing and complicated. A friend of mine who teaches at a Catholic girls’ school told me the following story. A girl in her math class called across the room to a friend, “Hey, I did James this weekend.” This was in a classroom in front of a teacher. It’s okay now, apparently, to say things like this in a classroom. And to do things like this on the weekend. Watching Friends, or, God-knows-what online, girls such as my daughter don’t easily learn how some man or boy can hurt them. When moms tell them, they don’t believe us. When I tell Janie how easily a guy can hurt her, she groans and rolls her eyes.
Back to The Long Goodbye. Here’s where the time travel thing comes in. While I’m watching this movie and thinking about Friends and worrying about my daughter, my own teenage self is right here with me, too. For example, I’m remembering the movie Joy in the Morning and how very shocking and interesting it was to me, as I watched it on TV with my older sister, unbeknownst to my mother, because, clearly, Yvette Mimieux and Richard Chamberlain were having sex, even though you didn’t exactly see them having it. That shocked and titillated young person is still always inside of me, while I’m watching the Friends joke about sex, while I have watched my young daughter idly watching the Friends go to bed together in their jokey way, when I’m hearing the vulgar things that high-school girls say in homeroom in 2016.
My mind travels everywhere as I watch The Long Goodbye, but there’s an actual bona-fide reason why this movie reminds me of Friends. Its star Elliot Gould reminds me of David Schwimmer, who plays Ross on Friends. Like Elliott Gould, Schwimmer is dark and Jewish, with the same sad-sack demeanor, and Schwimmer is also slender and fit like Elliott Gould used to be, though not as tall and skinny. They have the same elastic face and the same nasal, smart-aleck voice, and Schwimmer is rueful and deadpan, like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye. And now, many years have passed, and the trendy show Friends has ended, and those attractive young actors all look older every time we see them.
And, if you’ve stuck with me this far, and if you watch TV and you also watch Friends, you know where I’m going with this. Because Elliott Gould, old and thick in the waist, grey-haired and doughy-faced, played Ross’s father on Friends—a bumbling, foolish, tactless sit-com dad. He delivered his lines over-precisely, enunciating them slowly. Maybe this is how he was playing the character, or maybe he didn’t think highly of the TV audience. But he never mumbled and tossed off lines or spoke as gracefully as in The Long Goodbye. On Friends, Elliott Gould was an older man, playing an older man.
And it is not lost on me. I am an older woman watching him in 2016.
I first saw the film when I was in college, ten years after it came out, at a repertory theater with sticky floors and broken armrests. It was my first date with my husband. I liked the movie and found it strangely moving, in fact. We went out for ice cream afterwards with our friend Kirk who had a deep voice and squeezed “mise en scene” into conversations more often than you’d think possible. My major memory from this evening is that my husband was shocked (shocked) that I hadn’t noticed the film’s music. In retrospect, I realize he focused much more on this lapse than on my liking the film. As I learned that evening, Altman and his composer John Williams had conspired to play a little trick on us. The soundtrack consists of only one theme, and it’s repeated over and over throughout the film. My husband-to-be was shocked, as I think I already said, shocked that I hadn’t noticed this.
On subsequent dates, we saw bleak German films and recondite Swedish ones. We waited a long time to get married, while we were seeing all those films, and waited even longer to have Janie. We used to joke that after twenty years, we were sure it was going to last. And it did, until my husband ran off with a junior professor in the film department. I met her once, and this is the truth: she wears her hair in a ponytail.
So now, as I sit curled up alone watching The Long Goodbye, all these things past converge in my mind, while the actors keep merging like a double-focused snapshot — the youthful David Schwimmer and old Elliot Gould on TV and the lithe, youthful Elliot Gould in the movie. At the same time, my own younger selves combine with my older self now, and then split apart again.
It gives me a constant headache, if you must know, this perpetual time travel in my fifties. Because you carry the past with you all the time. Myself at twenty and twenty and thirty and my memories and images of people I know and people I used to see on TV are all up here in my head, all the time. Dick Cavett, Katharine Hepburn, my sister and her ex-husband, my baby niece born in 1975 who now has a baby of her own, my nephew who died in a car accident, my absent husband and his long-haired hippie college self taking me to Twilight Zone: The Movie—they’re all walking around in my head talking to me, appearing like ghosts if I happen to see any of them now in person. I look at old pictures, from the 1970s, say, and my lungs hurt and my heart aches. A photograph “hurts merely by being over,” says Phillip Larkin in a poem, and I know exactly what he means.
And songs, how can I describe the effect of songs? I sit around playing the Laura Nyro album that my husband bought for me in 1981, and I weep. Or I’m playing the decades-old James Taylor songs that I listened to while I walked my infant daughter to sleep around the living room. The past hurts merely by being over. Janie walks through the room looking disapproving and disappointed as only daughters can.
Tucked in my desk drawer is an old picture of Janie, where I don’t have to look at it all the time but can reach it easily when I want to. She’s four years old. Her long dark hair is in pigtails, and she’s wearing a green turtleneck. She’s posing beside the blue dollhouse we built together from a kit. This was back when I used to do things.
She was just old enough to put glue on the little wooden pieces and, sometimes, to set them gently in place. She was eager to get into everything, just as she is now. Always the brave kid, she would climb up the long slide and splash into the pool, jump on the roller coaster, try a two-wheeler. So she didn’t let me make the dollhouse for her—she had to be right next to me, asking questions, touching things. When we painted it, she really went to town. I quickly gave up the idea of painting the trim neatly in white. No, the whole thing, trim and all, was smeared by her unsteady hand in thick blue paint.
In the photo, she’s sitting on a bench in our basement next to the dollhouse, with a confident smile. She looks pretty, smart, and bold. Sometimes, I gaze at the picture and can’t catch my breath when I realize that that little girl is gone. And in twenty years, if I’m still around, photos of her at twenty in 2016 will make me feel exactly the same way.
Now I understand why older people have furrowed brows. It’s not from aging, drying skin, or gravity. It’s the constant effort to keep ourselves steadily in the year we’re living in. We have to concentrate to maintain our equilibrium while carrying so much detritus in our heads. F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly said that the quality of genius is being able to maintain two opposing ideas in your mind. If that’s so, all of us of a certain age with any memory left at all, are geniuses, because we’re carrying the young Elliott Gould in our heads along with the current frumpy one, and the young, slim, graceful, miraculously handsome Cary Grant along with the white-haired fellow with those obtrusive black glasses he wore near the end. We’re carrying all of our present and past selves. We have our tiny toddler children in our minds, along with our more grown-up children in their terrifying and disappointing incarnations. We’re carrying our parents when they were youthful and trim, and then wasted and gray, lying in hospital beds.
And, while this riot of past activities goes on in our minds, we always have to act as though things in the now are the real things. I fear for my daughter, for instance. I would be scared in any case, because I would naturally worry about being a single mother, and STD’s and pregnancy, and getting her through community college, where she’s currently maintaining a 2.5 grade average. I would worry about boys and sex and drugs, and so on. I would be scared anyway about her dying, because my teenage nephew was killed in a car accident ten years ago when his friend, the driver, had been drinking, and I saw my sister within minutes of the accident.
I got to her house soon after she got the phone call from the police and saw her sitting at her dining room table unable to move, with her forehead resting in her hand, her hair clenched tight in her fist. She had to hold very still, or she would have flown into a million pieces. I don’t want this to happen to me. I want my daughter to grow up hating me and then becoming my friend. I want her to have babies and feel sad and nostalgic like me when she’s fifty.
But my fears are now not merely the normal imaginings of a normally worried mother. Because I happen to know that Janie drinks too much on the weekends and goes to parties when she tells me she’s staying at a friend’s. My daughter is beautiful and brave and daring and funny. She loves her friends and she loves amusement parks and movies and swimming and food. And now, apparently, she also loves alcohol. But I can’t confront her about this, because I learned about the parties from her friend Sarah, who took me aside to confide her worries about Janie getting trashed every weekend, as she delicately put it. I can’t tell my daughter that her friend ratted on her.
And so what do I do. I watch TV. I rage against Janie’s father in my mind. I lie awake at night and imagine my girl drunk. That she gets drunk makes me sad and that she lies to me makes me sad. And I say prayers so as not to imagine Sarah, whom she’s known her whole life, driving into a tree, or Janie herself driving Sarah into a tree. I have to do something about all this, but what.
Here I am, half the time only twenty in my own head, remembering getting kissed for the first time and hating my bad skin and having crushes and watching Joy in the Morning. And I’m jerked back and forth in time, like Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, racing back and forth to Mexico trying to figure out what to do about his friend Terry‘s supposed death. In The Long Goodbye, Elliott is jerked around everywhere, by everything. He never knows what to do.
Every last dog in The Long Goodbye, and there are lots of them, are long dead, including the pair breeding in the Mexican street, as well as all the puppies born from those dogs. But you can see them all right now in your own living room. You can order the movie on Netflix and see Nina von Pallandt’s Doberman pinscher barking at Elliott Gould, and the dogs at Malibu getting in the way of his car and the dogs copulating in the Mexican street. When the movie’s over, they’re gone, and yet, there they are, cavorting in your consciousness, alive and barking and copulating. It’s only in present-day real life, as we like to call it, that they’re dead. And the rangy, witty, compassionate Robert Altman is also dead. The maverick, the actor’s director, whatever else the obituaries called him. But you can watch his movies. There they are—all those actors, some of them also gone now—in your own living room and still sidling along through your memory when the movie’s over.
So, I wonder, how does it work? In some eternal present, are all the dogs that ever lived still running around? Is my nephew still throwing baseballs and driving cars, and Robert Altman still dreaming movies, and Elliott Gould still in his twenties? Is David Schwimmer yet to be born but also starring in some forgettable future movie as well as Friends with the aging tyro Elliot Gould?
As I watch The Long Goodbye, my mind ping-pongs all over the place, and I worry. In a single moment, in my mind, there’s the birth of Robert Altman and Elliott Gould and David Schwimmer, their various movies, their deathbeds. There’s my grandmother and my mother and I being born, and Janie being born and handed to me in the delivery room wearing that cunning knit cap and her own furrowed infant brow. And my husband, who loved me then but doesn’t any more, his grinning face covered with tears.
I am, all in all, a lucky person. So far, the third worst thing that has ever happened to me, after my nephew’s death and my divorce, is that my daughter is growing up and moving away from me. But, you will say, this is the normal thing, a good thing, the way it is supposed to be. Exactly right. But this does not make it a nice or pleasant. It is common and natural for children to separate from us. I say, like many common and natural things, it is very hard to bear. And I suppose I should acknowledge that it has been worse coming just a couple months after the unexpected departure of her father, who emptied out his sock drawer and packed up his sizeable collection of DVDs.
And what of Janie? What about her? Because that’s all that matters. Despite all I’m saying, I don’t care about Elliott Gould and David Schwimmer and what happens to them and their children and their children’s children. In God’s omniscient present, is my daughter’s car wrapped around a tree? Is it Sarah’s fault or her own? Am I in the back room at the funeral home choosing a casket, as my sister had to do for her son? In that future, did I question Janie about her drinking? Did I reveal what I knew, search her car and her room for damning evidence, risk all the good feeling we share, demanding an explanation, young lady? Did it do any good? Or is Janie, in some future moment, groaning in a labor room, delivering her own daughter in the year 2025, with me waiting eagerly by a phone to hear the good news, or, even better, weeping in the delivery room myself? Or, am I instead sitting by the phone some night when she’s out too late, dreading a phone call from the police?
After the end of The Long Goodbye, I imagine that phone call all night long.