Tennessee Williams and Yasujirô Ozu: Stillness and Solitude

An image from Ozu.

The following is comprised of notes Tennessee composed on pages torn from a legal pad and several index cards. Tenn read them to me, and then gave me the opportunity to copy them down in the examination booklet I had brought with me to take notes of our times together.

I wrote these notes in 1982.

Life narrowed, crystallized, shrank in 1963. There is much discussion among so many as to when the decade we call The Sixties ended. It ended for me in December, 1963--the decade as well as most of what can be called my emotional life.

We can live without certain organs of the body, and we can lose certain senses and gain an abnormal strength in those that remain. We can also lose limbs and feelings and stumble along, shadows of ourselves, attenuated and animated by the weakest signals of survival. 

On September 21, 1963, Frank Merlo died--my second skin, my second heart, the warm, simple, sweet partner who understood me without accepting all of what I gave and all that I had. Frank Merlo loved me. 

Frank Merlo died surrounded by cups containing all that he had brought forward in pain and rejection, but none of it was anger or fear: All of that was inside of me.

Frank Merlo died, and I walked and talked and wrote things down and kept appointments and all of the outward signs of living and being.

I remember very little of it. I do remember kindnesses. I remember Ava Gardner and her profane kindness and rough hugs and acknowledgement of how untenable life can be. I remember Kim Stanley and pills delivered in envelopes, and I remember her presence as I spoke and spoke and spoke and made no sense at all. Kim Stanley gave a great performance in appearing to understand and accept what I was saying. I remember Ruth Gordon explaining that I had to live, to go on, to make everything I did, if necessary, a testament to Frank, to all the people I had loved.

I remember being very sad, very still, but I never considered suicide--not out of any moral duty, but because I have always believed--all philosophical arguments aside--that suicide is, above all else, a terribly rude act: Someone has to find you, and so many others have to be told, through your actions, that they had failed to make the silent, slow walk you now call life possible.

Suicide was out of the question.

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated, and in the days we all spent morbidly, silently stuck to the television images of the world grieving and suspects gathering, I began to mourn for Frank Merlo. When I was not in a theatre arguing and laughing with Tallulah Bankhead and Tony Richardson, I was dealing with the large hole in my heart that had once been filled by Frank Merlo, and I filled that hole with riderless horses, streets full of kings, and a young boy saluting his father's casket, and I cried for that, because I could not, did not, accept that Frank Merlo would not return.

Frank Merlo and Tennessee Williams.

In December of 1963, Yasujirô Ozu died, neatly, exactly, on his sixtieth birthday. I knew Ozu's work, and I took myself, in that dark Christmas season, to the cinemas that were endlessly playing his films--in tribute, in a confession of the loss we all felt. These were not visits to movie palaces like my youth--with bottles and flasks and the warm hands of sweet and lonely men high in the eaves that flickered with the light of the screen: These were vigils.

Ozu crystallized life--his and ours--as strictly as I had, but while I turned brittle and mean, smaller in stature and heart, Ozu burned away all the waste of men and revealed the core values--love and companionship, duty and honor, the constant struggle to matter, to earn a place in the small, still hearts that are all around us.

A mother asking to be remembered. A man hoping for a partner and a noticed place in the world. Perfectly placed shoes, perfectly placed people, perfectly placed intentions--all hoping for a place to land.

Yasujirô Ozu with the Sutherland Trophy for his Tokyo Story.

I had a photograph of Ozu above my desk for a time. I removed it once in the foolish belief that I was delivering more pain to myself by focusing on the stories of his films. In other words, I did what so many people tell us to do, all the time, almost always in error: Move on.

Eternity is within all of the actions of every day. Of course we are changed when things happen to us--death, life, success, failure, rejection, acceptance, poverty, riches. We feel things, blood rushes to parts of our bodies in new ways. But the basic person remains the same, wants the same things, seeks the same things, aims for eternity...and then nothing. And again we begin. The joy is in the beginning. And another joy is in the ending, the final breath, the long sleep.

Years later, in the company of the brilliant, unbalanced, vivid Anne Meacham, I stood at the grave of Ozu. Gifts were strewn across and around the site, and I thought of graves in New Orleans, festive and active and alive with visitors. A desperate visit with someone dead but not dead.

There was a symbol on the grave. I did not understand it. Yukio Mishima translated it for me: The symbol meant mu, which is to say nothing, nothingness, the void. Ozu had earned it, was grateful for it, and left everything to others. The work had been done.

I remained very still and very alone. I remain these things today.

Frank Merlo: 1922-1963
Yasujirô Ozu: 1903-1963

(You understand that these notes require a great deal of work.)

The grave of Ozu.

© 2014 James Grissom


Popular Posts