Snowy Night, Crazy Heart

The clouds hung around all day long in that brooding yet charged with anticipation sort of way that I remember from my childhood. The weatherman wasn’t predicting it, but when I was out in the park this morning I said to myself that there’s got to be some snow on the way.

Then later the old weatherman changed his tune and said, well, maybe there’ll be a few snow showers tomorrow morning, but this felt like more than a shower and not at all like the sort of thing that could hold off until the next day. Sure enough, when I emerged from a get-together on the Upper West Side around 8 pm a few windblown flakes were already stinging my face, and by the time I’d finished dinner at my favorite (primarily because it’s fast, cheap and thoroughly undistinguished) Cuban-Chinese restaurant, there was a regular old snowstorm going on.

Nothing like the brief but potent blizzard that roared through here back in December, when for a few hours walking through Times Square came to resemble a dogsled trek (minus the dogs and the sled) through the Yukon Territory, just an old-fashioned, run of the mill February snowstorm, the kind that reminds you, yes, it’s still winter and it’s going to be for a while yet.

By way of contrast, while the sky was full of snow tonight, the streets around Times Square were only a bit damp, as if heat were radiating up from the sidewalks and stopping the flakes in their tracks. I ducked into one of the multiplexes for a late night showing of Crazy Heart, not because I’m a big fan of Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski cured me of that), not because he’s got an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for this film, though I supposed that helped a bit, but mostly because I love country music, especially the kind that features tragic, hopeless drunks. Or tragic hopeless anything: David Allan Coe’s version of the “perfect” country song that starts out, “I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison” is right up my street even if it’s supposed to be comedy. In fact, that’s the genius of country music; even the worst tragedy can end up sounding hilarious, and vice versa.

If, as Oscar Wilde said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing,” the same is true when Tammy Wynette sighs about she and little J-O-E having to go away because of that nasty old divorce. It doesn’t even matter if you’re fully aware just how awful and painful a divorce and child custody battles can be; her way of telling about it is just so over the top cathartic that you can be crying tears of laughter and grief all at the same time.

Unfortunately, while there were a few moments of comic poignancy in Crazy Heart, it was mostly pretty grim going. On the one hand, I’d say Jeff Bridges is a worthy candidate for the Oscar for the way he not only inhabits but pretty much becomes his character, but the verisimilitude he brings to the role may actually hurt the film: the simple fact is that it’s not a lot of fun, nor is it uplifting, to watch a man drinking himself to death.

There were only about 15 people in the theater, and nearly half of them had walked out before the movie was over, so that might tell you something, if only that this is New York City, where country ways may not make a whole lot of sense to most people. But having spent my formative years in Detroit, the most northerly Southern town in these United States, and Ypsilanti, aka Ypsi-tucky, Michigan, and having then spent another ten years in the true hillbilly country (albeit with a marijuana twist) of Mendocino County, I’ve got enough country in me that when an annoying couple in the back row persisted in talking loudly through some of the most intimate and dramatic scenes, I found myself calling out, “Would y’all please be quiet back there?”

Of course I’ve got my own history of disappearing into a whiskey bottle, and even though I’d like to think my brand of choice was a more tasteful one than that favored by Bridges’ character, the results were much the same: inwardly, a lot of sturm und drang at the spectacle of a life going hopelessly down the pan; outwardly, a sloppy, aging drunk sitting around pissing, moaning, puking and passing out. Inside our heads, the Grand Ole Opry, outside, perpetual reruns of a show no sane person would want to watch in the first place.

I’ve been off the booze for eight and a half years now, and I probably won’t be spoiling the movie by telling you that in the end the Bridges character gets clean, too, and in both cases, while we didn’t get the rewards we might have hoped for (Bridges does collect a fat check of the sort that has thus far continued to elude me), we found others that at the time we were still drinking, we wouldn’t even known to look for.

All right, all right, I know it’s just a movie and that Jeff Bridges’ character and I were not really drinking nor recovery buddies, but it’s a testimony to his acting ability (and/or, possibly, some serious experience on the drinking front in real life) that I felt nearly as much kinship with him as I do with friends I now see fighting – and not always winning – the battle with alcohol.

It’s been long enough now since my last drink that I often go days or even weeks at a time without fully remembering just how awful it was at the end, and just how lucky I am to still be here with body and mind reasonably intact and healthy. Quite a few people I’ve known haven’t been so fortunate, and given the way things go, I expect I’ll be attending a few more drunkards’ funerals before my time is through.

Well, what the hell: I didn’t enjoy Crazy Heart in the way I thought I would, as pure entertainment, but I enjoyed it – though “enjoy” doesn’t really seem like quite the right word – a great deal in an uplifting, thank God I made it out of my own drunken nightmare kind of way. I walked back out onto 42nd Street well after midnight, and though the sidewalks still didn’t have a lick of snow on them, overhead it was like a picture postcard. By the time I got back to Brooklyn, where apparently the pavement is several degrees cooler, a couple inches had piled up, enough so that I can count on being awakened no later than 7 or 7:30 by the super shoveling away. He’s not the kind of guy to let the sun rise on a less than spotless sidewalk in front of his building, no sirree.

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