Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"And Images So Strange and Foreign Came Flooding In Like Raging Waters"

I didn't want to see my grandfather die. Watching the process, such as it was, happen slowly, and from a distance, was hard enough. This was May 2005. I had just returned from studying abroad, and the still undiagnosed illness that led to my paternal grandfather's death finally overwhelmed him. The great Robert Abrams, a WW2 vet and the founder of the Levvittown Tribune, died of complications from dementia-like symptoms. Bruce Abrams, my father, told me that the immediate cause of death was pneumonia. I still remember the impatient, distracted way he said, "pneumonia."

Prior to his death, Robert suffered from memory loss for months. It wasn't Alzheimer's, but it might as well have been. Eleanor Abrams, my grandmother and his wife, lived and took care of him. But Robert was also cared for by his two children, Bruce and Beth. They put up with his mood swings, helped Robert when his body failed him, and doted on him with all the love and attention he deserved.

I was not there. There were several times when I could have been, but I wasn't. When he was rushed to the hospital for the last time, my dad offered me the chance to go (he didn't really ask). But I didn't want to go, and said as much. It hurt too much to see my grandfather in pain, confused, angry, helpless.

A year after that, my maternal grandmother, Ellie Moschou, died. Again, I didn't want to be there. I had lived with that stubborn 95 year-old Greek woman for a couple of years, though some of those years were predominantly spent at college dormitories in Manhattan. Again, nobody expected  me to help in an extraordinary way. My mother, Catherine Abrams, constantly cared for Ellie, especially when the caretakers she hired couldn't do everything she needed them to. But again, while I did as much as I could bear to, I regret not having been more present, nor more patient.

I thought of this yesterday as I watched The Angel Levine, a 1970 film adaptation of a Bernard Malamud story. The film reminded me of Will Eisner's Contract with God since both are essentially about grief and faith. The Angel Levine is a deeply moving, and not at all morbid fantasy of a man that must let go of his wife. Zero Mostel plays Morris Mishkin, a tailor with a bad back. Morris lives alone with his ailing wife Fanny (Ida Kaminska). He tells a welfare representative that God has cursed him because everything bad in his life has happened to him all at once. His wife fell ill, his back started acting up, and his daughter married an Italian, and is therefore now dead to Morris. So Morris wants to die, and to leave his responsibilities behind. He says all of these things to a social worker before trudging up the stairs of his walk-up apartment, and seeing Fanny. She's not well, but she's also not in great pain. She wants Morris to open the window, to talk to her a little, to mend a neighbor's son's suit, and to forget about a trifling debt he's owed. She exhausts Morris, but he can't say no to her. So he dreams of death, of escape.

But Morris's fears manifest in a very strange way. Because he just saw (and inadvertently caused) a black thief to get hit by a car, he's visited by a black (but Jewish!) angel. Harry Belafonte, who also produced the film, plays Alexander Levine. Alexander is a messenger from God, though he can just barely make out God's message as it's transcribed onto some crumpled pieces of notebook paper. But Morris doesn't accept Alexander's help. He just wants his new friend, a black guy in a leather jacket that shows up in his kitchen without invitation, to go away. Fanny needs Morris's undivided attention: she and Morris just had a fight ("the way we usually talk"), she's collapsed, and the doctor's on his way. And now some guy claiming to be an angel has crept into the apartment?! What can Morris do? More to the point: what can Alexander do to help him?

That second question is a little problematic. Even if Alexander isn't an angel, he is real enough. His existence is confirmed by Arnold Berg (Milo O'Shea), Fanny's doctor, who sheepishly confronts Alexander in Morris's kitchen by asking Alexander to pass him the phone so that he can call the cops ("Do you want me to leave the room?"). With this confirmation in mind, we have to return to the first question: to what extent can Alexander help Morris and vice versa? Morris needs Fanny to be well again (he never hopes for his back to be fixed). And Alexander needs someone to make him feel responsible after his girlfriend Sally (Gloria Foster) gives up on him. Alexander and Sally inevitably try to reunite, but their story is a subplot. They're real enough, as you can see in a moving scene at a local bar, or a later scene in Morris's spare bedroom. But Alexander's problems aren't as important as Morris's problems.

Fanny's also a secondary character in Morris's story, even though The Angel Levine is about what Morris feels when he thinks about her. He's having a crisis of faith because he can't bear to be in the same room as her. He shouts at her, bargains with her, gives in to her demands, pesters her doctor, and yes, even tries to help Alexander after he gives Fanny an indescribable gift (the scene in question made me cry, so I don't want to ruin it). Morris does so much for his wife, so much and more. But when Alexander asks Morris to acknowledge the small moment he and Fanny shared as a miracle, Morris can't. His heart is too hard, and he can't see the blessing of tranquility that Alexander gives to Fanny. "God be with you," Alexander tells Fanny after they lock eyes, and she reflexively accepts Alexander's presence, his blessing, and his love. In a flash, Alexander gives her everything Morris is too spiritually constipated to surrender. And Morris hates him for that. "I will never forgive Him," he shouts, effectively banishing God, and Alexander from his house.

I thought of my mother and father when I watched The Angel Levine. Morris's story reminded me of my own struggle to give more time and attention to my grandparents. But the film also reminded me that after Robert passed, my father attended temple more regularly. The same is true of my mother: after Ellie died, she visited St. Nicholas more often, too. The fact that my parents returned to their respective faiths isn't remarkable unto itself. Still, I think I understand that habitual impulse a little better now.

Morris is only capable of indirectly dealing with his problems. He needs to get outside of himself, and his faith is his anchor. He needs to know God exists so that he can blame Him, or maybe even receive His blessing. The Angel Levine ends after Fanny politely asks Morris to leave the apartment. She wants to die quietly, away from her husband. He agrees, and spends his time trying to confirm that Alexander existed. He's clueless, so he stalks around Harlem looking for somebody that knows Alexander. Nobody can help Morris, though he does find a temple, which gives him some cold comfort. Then, while Fanny dies off-screen, Morris sees a small black feather, and tries in vain to catch it. Symbolically, the scene is heavy-handed, but it still resonates. We often look outside of ourselves for compassion, and sympathy. But it's impossible to see those qualities for what they are. For a moment, I saw them a little more clearly, if only indirectly.

No comments:

Post a Comment