Art is Our Friend, Part 399

Last night I stumbled across something I forgot I even had, a copy of the color version of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête, so I popped it in the ol’ player. I’d only seen the black and white version, which was the only version available for decades because the lab in ’49 couldn’t process the color negative correctly, and I’d wondered if I was going to find it half as funny as I did when I saw it back in ’91. At least I think it was ’91; anyway, whenever the hell it was, I remember the circumstances well enough because the night before I’d been assaulted by some jackasses in North Beach. They roughed me up pretty good—broke my schnozz and knocked four teeth out, just for the sweet hell of it. The good news, if you could see it that way, is that I was so drunk when it happened that afterward I kept cracking jokes for the E.M.T. who happened to be on the scene, and who kept glumly shaking his head while he checked out my shredded gums. Because that was the other angle to it all. I’d spent the previous two years in A.A. and had just a week earlier decided to try drinking again; and, since this night represented my first trip back into the bars, it certainly felt like the universe was sending me a message reading YOU ARE A DOLT in big block letters.

So between falling off the wagon and having my ass handed to me, I definitely wasn’t cracking any jokes when I woke up the next morning. In fact my first conscious action of the day, even before opening my eyes, was to burst into tears. It was the most surprising, most spontaneous outburst of grief I’ve ever experienced; one moment I wasn’t crying, and suddenly I was sobbing my guts out. It was a perfect little squall of emotions that was blistering while it lasted—but it lasted only a minute or so, and then I was ready to start the day. At some point that morning I talked to my friends M. and D., who offered solace in the form of soup and company. I did not say no to this offer, and they showed up around noon bearing a quart of miso, a couple of joints, no moral judgments, and a copy of Jour de Fête.

I’d never seen any Tati, and when the movie started I was thinking Jesus, some old French movie, played largely in pantomime, about a mailman out in the provinces…Man, I don’t think so…But about 20 minutes into it Tati, while pedaling his bike down a country lane, is attacked by an invisible bumblebee. By much frantic waving of the arms and whipping his legs in circles, he drives the bee away, and one perfectly timed moment later a farmer standing on a nearby hilltop begins waving his arms, and when the farmer’s waving drives the bee off, Tati—who in the meantime has ridden his bicycle to the opposite corner of the frame from whence he entered—again begins waving like a madman.

I would’ve said you were crazy if you’d told me five minutes earlier that I’d be laughing hysterically that morning, but I was laughing so hard by the end of that bee scene that I thought I was having a stroke. There are a lot of good reasons to love Jacques Tati, but I’ll always owe him for the flood of endorphins that spilled through me on one of the shittiest days of my life. As for Jour de Fête, it’s still a wonderful movie.

And since I’m getting stuff off my chest here…I’ve always been a morbid sonofabitch, and I long wondered if my fascination with certain true crimes wouldn’t someday come back to bite me—and then one day it did. I’m not detailing the murders of the musician Bryan Harvey and his family here because they don’t bear thinking about—which was exactly my problem. The two killers had, to use Colin Wilson’s phrase, made a decision to be out of control, leading them to commit crimes so brutal that even the lead killer, in his police confession, seemed stunned by his own actions. I had a harder time processing the Harvey murders than I did Columbine, and it was only when I chanced upon the Drive-By Truckers’ loving and intelligent tribute to them that I got a handle on what went down. As a container and an organizer for a lot of raw emotion, this song is unbeatable.

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