film: Neilan: Stella Maris (1918)

1918. I fall in love with Mary Pickford every time I see one of her films, and it’s difficult to remember that her hands were smooth and delicate, her body serenely curvaceous ten years before my grandfather was born. I cannot imagine her slacks torn, her belt broken, and yet watching her, how she loves, and how her heart breaks, I wonder how indebted I am to her for knowing the motions of love–is it she who taught me to slump in the corner or hold your hand to my chest or kiss the top of your ear and bury my face in your hair? Is it she who taught me that when the deus ex machina feels Aristotelian that’s just what we call love?

There was a three year age difference between us, me and the 15-year-old girl with whom I’d fallen madly in love. It was a very large gap at the time. To make things less awkward the first time we went out, I brought my best friend along and she brought some other girl, I don’t remember who. The moment she set eyes on my friend, she fell for him. Maybe they might have ended up together, but at first he loved me too much to hurt me like that, and later he ended up falling in love with some sexless knockout who nearly drove us all off a bridge in an attempt to spite his love. You can see photographs of the four of us looking painfully lovesick as we carried on in such torment for nearly three years.

Horatio Alger does not always prevail: the character Unity has an unfortunate face, a poverty of intellect, and a dearth of grace. But she’s played by the stunning Mary Pickford, who also plays Stella Maris herself. If the name Stella Maris indicates nothing but the character’s untainted purity, the choice seems a bit heavy-handed because the character is so predictable and empty; Unity, on the other hand, only lives up to her name by saving the day in the last five minutes of the film. It seems obvious that the drug-addict-wife needs to die, but it doesn’t seem entirely apparent why Unity has to commit suicide also. Stella Maris was born into misfortune, and upon rising from it becomes disenchanted with humanity. Unity is born into comparably bad circumstances, and only rises far enough to be a servant seemingly doomed to become an old maid. But the fact remains–underneath all that makeup is a very pretty Mary Pickford. So couldn’t the story just…you know, let her turn out happy? Of course not…The real turning point came when we went out on a date, the four of us, and then went back to her house to watch a movie or something–she asked me to get her a drink, and I walked to the kitchen before, looking back onto the sofa, I saw the two girls clinging to my best friend. It had been a set up! I was just a vehicle for propriety, and now they realized there was enough of him to go around all at once. I stormed out.

I find it easy to remove myself to the year of the film, to appreciate the maturation of photography, the use of the iris and the close-up and special effects (like two Mary Pickfords on screen at once, or a dog imagining another dog). After seeing the earliest Chaplin and Feuillade films it’s not difficult to be swept away simply by how the camera tracks away from the embracing characters in the closing shot, bumping along the road one can see appear just before the picture fades out; it’s not difficult to laugh or cry or lose your breath at the way Unity creeps through the shadows darkening all but a luminous stripe across her eyes, foreshadowing everything noir. These things become habit in later years, and if analogous to our own lives, we would, ideally, focus on intellectual pursuits; and so it seems natural that film should become more edifying as it grows less clunky. But not everything appreciates with time.

So, I left the house to cool off, take a walk. I removed my shoes because the air was so warm. And then my socks. And then my shirt. And my pants. And then through the populous suburban wonderland I marched a mile and a half down the center of the street in my underwear. I made it back to the house crawling, my feet swollen with blisters, bloody where I was lucky, and my best friend carried me to his car and drove me home, where they lanced my callous feet, again and again, blisters over blisters, a hundred times, and set me in an easy chair to dry. I was an eccentric, and he was a man, and that’s why they loved him and looked upon me as no more than a curiosity.

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