Sunday, 21 March 2010

Revolutionary Road

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."


From this particular quote, you would think I have decided on what to do and yet I still find myself ricocheting between one feeling and another- total joy and delight to suspicion. A strange mix but I think one affirmed by tonight's film "Revolutionary Road". I even commented that it seemed strange how quickly a relationship could deteriorate. Really that is quite sad that one should be transported from total love and devotion to blind hatred but I suppose love and hate are two sides of the same coin and as I always like to quote Paulo Coelho "At every moment of our lives we all have one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the abyss". Life changes so fast, just a second can alter the very course of our existence.

I learnt many things this week which I think have changed my outlook- to lose my inhibitions, to live for the moment and not be tied down by the classic ideals- which brings us back to Revolutionary Road. 

Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road was published to considerable acclaim in 1961, just as the complacent Eisenhower years were giving way to the brief Kennedy euphoria that then modulated into that heady period of liberation, experimentation and destruction known as The Sixties. The book is set in 1955 and describes with great subtlety the breakdown of the seven-year marriage between Frank and April Wheeler, a middle-class couple approaching 30, living with their two small children in the Revolutionary Road Estates, a housing development in Connecticut inhabited largely by well-heeled commuters working in Manhattan. The book gives the Wheelers a detailed specificity and the reader comes to know them - their doubts, deceptions and ambitions - from the inside. They are individuals in their own right, suffering and inflicting suffering. They also represent a general malaise peculiar to the bourgeois world of the affluent postwar years, and are victims of what Yates sees as the human condition, a tragic isolation summed up in the title of his next book, a collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

WH Auden called those postwar times The Age of Anxiety and, beneath the seemingly placid, self-satisfied surface, there was a seething discontent about conformity, social manipulation, consumerism and the future of a world threatened by nuclear extinction and environmental pollution. The bestselling cultural and sociological works that provided the intellectual fuel for the 1960s all appeared in the 50s: David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, C Wright Mills's The Power Elite, William H Whyte's The Organization Man and J K Galbraith's The Affluent Society among them. Lionel Trilling described Riesman's study as "one of the most important books about America published in recent times", and there was a widespread feeling that sociology had taken over one of the key functions of fiction. Endless symposia were devoted to "the death of the novel". So it was some relief perhaps that a novel touched with greatness should have come along to dramatise these themes in personal terms, though in retrospect many would now consider Updike's Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy (that began in 1960 with Rabbit, Run) to be a larger achievement than Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes's film, based on a faithful screenplay by Justin Haythe, is beautifully crafted, The handsome Frank, who's working discontentedly for the same company with which his father spent 30 years, believes himself superior to this lonely crowd. His wife, April, once had ambitions to be an actress. She now feels stranded out in the split-level house with its picture window she once loved. Like most people around them, they drink too much (this was the era of hard liquor and the two-martini lunch), smoke incessantly (socially, post-coitally, to counter anxiety) and drift into casual adultery.

The couple's frustration is registered from the start, with an explosive row driving home after a local amateur dramatic performance starring April has gone hopelessly wrong. It is evident that they hate each other, and everything thereafter is a cover-up, a sweeping of bad faith under the carpet. Then she has a plan to retrieve their lives. They'll pack everything in, move to romantic Paris, where she'll get a well-paid secretarial job and he'll think great thoughts and write them down. Like Billy Liar when invited by the alluring Liz to quit the industrial north and accompany her to liberating London, Frank soon gets cold feet. The offer of promotion and an enticingly luxurious corporate life prove irresistible. April, however, is hooked on her pipe dream, but tragedy lies ahead. They cannot confront their real problems, and neither can stand the accusatory words of the mentally disturbed John, the brilliant, intellectual son of middle-aged neighbours, a brutal truth-teller who's stepped right out of an Ibsen play.

Mendes's film is a lesser thing than Yates's novel, lacking the book's biting wit and larger resonances. For instance, it's never stated that the amateur production April appears in so disastrously is Robert Sherwood's pretentious 1935 pseudo-classic The Petrified Forest, where she plays an idealistic girl given the opportunity to escape to Paris during the Depression by an Eliot-quoting intellectual disillusioned with modern life. Nor do we get any sense of April and Frank being more than mismatched malcontents. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which arrived a year after Revolutionary Road, Edward Albee called his sterile battling couple George and Martha to suggest a symbolic association with George and Martha Washington, who had no children together. Yates's title also takes us back to the 18th century, implying that in Frank (whose full name Franklin evokes the Founding Fathers) and April (Eliot's cruellest month) we see the search for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ending with the corruption of the American Dream.

Heavy stuff perhaps- though I like o think the message is much simpler, pointing to the dire implications of not following your dreams. Do you love me really? Do you just wish to enjoy me? Or is there some more practical end to all of this? Only time will tell but I will try and live my own dreams....

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