Friday, 18 June 2010

Play Your Heart Out

I recently re-watched Mike Leigh's brilliant Happy-Go-Lucky, a film--it seems to me--that emphasizes the crucial role of play in daily life. Play, not just as a form of creativity, but as exploration too and ultimately as a form of coping, of attending to life in all its joys and sadness. This means making light of situations and relationships, not in order to forget them, but rather to see them more clearly.

'It is good to remember always that playing is itself a therapy...that play is an experience, always a creative experience, and...a basic form of living.--D.W. Winnicott

One of the underlying details of the Happy Go Lucky is how well-read and worldly these modern young women living in London happen to be. Poppy's sister is studying criminology, and at another point, we find Zoe reading Esther Freud's Hideous Kinky in bed. But one thing that I didn't catch when I first saw the film at the cinema, was a surprising Paul Auster reference that occurs early in the film.

Poppy and Zoe are constructing prototype bird-costumes for the classes of young children they teach.

POPPY: Be amazing to fly, wouldn’t it?

ZOE: You reckon?

POPPY: Just - phooo!

ZOE: What, like Mr Vertigo?

POPPY: Oh yeah. I love that book.

Mr Vertigo, as it happens, is the story of an orphan named Walt Rawley who is taught the secret art of flying by a strange magician named Master Yehudi. It begins with a Paper Moon scenario that similarly takes place in the Mid-West of the early twentieth century. Magical, dark, wildly playful, and in places heartbreakingly sad: it is, for me anyway, rather like a re-imagining of Peer Gynt in America. A story, like all great stories, really about a quest for selfhood, about trying to find one's place in the world.

It is one of Auster's more open, unselfconscious, and (dare I say) truly playful novels.

This is slightly unrelated, but I did happen to run into Mike Leigh one evening in London, crossing the street. I had just come from the Rothko show at the Tate, so this would have been February last year. As a young (and ultimately unsuccessful) film student, I was obsessed with Leigh's work. Particulary the twin-poles of Naked and Life is Sweet. Anyway, I was still too in awe of him to know what to say. I just stood there on a street corner in Pimlico thinking, I'm standing next to Mike Leigh. If I'd only known about the Auster reference, I think I might just have had enough nerve to ask him about it.

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