photo by Emily Zieg
I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater, the long arm of the light crossing the darkness and spinning my eyes, fixed on the screen.
—Delmore Schwartz, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities
There’s truth in patterns of nature that endlessly replicate, like the Fibonacci spiral, the syntax of language, the simple act of sexual reproduction. With so many recurring patterns in our world, only a lack of overlap, or coincidence, would be remarkable. The best overlap occurs when artists translate the invisible—pain, joy, loneliness—into a book or song or film. We take that art, superimpose it on ourselves, and suddenly it belongs to us.
Here is a scene: a girl, 16, lies on her bed, eyes closed, in a house alone. Music plays at an ear-splittingly high volume on her brother’s stereo. She gets up only when the needle scratches the center. When the song ends, she plays it again. When it ends, she plays it again.
A good question to spring on friends is this: at 16, what was your song—the one you listened to lying on your bed, eyes closed? The one you blasted when it came on the radio while you drove aimlessly through the night? It’s a knee-jerk kind of question—instantly everyone has an answer.
Mine was “Love Reign O’er Me,” the furious and anguished beast lying in wait at the end of the Who’s rock opera, Quadrophenia. Thanks to a Who-obsessed boyfriend, I’d imprinted on the band at 14; after I saw the movie Quadrophenia a couple years later—all that angst and vulnerability and rage on the screen—there was no going back.
It’s laughable now I suppose—I wasn’t a confused and angry boy in 1960s England, I was a confused and angry girl in 1980s New Hampshire—but Pete Townshend translated my yearning and frustration into music, giving me words before I had my own.
I hadn’t listened to Quadrophenia for decades, but I called it up on my iPod while reading Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments a couple of weeks ago because I was gearing up to see the band—one of their last dates on their 2013 Quadrophenia tour, where they were playing the album beginning to end. I joke that my favorite Who songs are any that reference water, and Quadrophenia is where they all live, waves of music crashing then receding, the four themes rising to the surface and sinking, until everything bursts forth with the finale of “Love Reign O’er Me.”
Nick Flynn’s memoir The Reenactments also has an ebb and flow, but for Flynn it’s memories that rise to the surface and sink to the depths. Flynn conjured these memories up for his first memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and The Reenactments tells of witnessing those memories through a different lens when the book morphs into the film, Being Flynn.
The process of moviemaking is disjointed and nonlinear, but also remarkably similar to our memories. Memory and dreams play out like films in our heads, popping up unexpectedly and requiring twenty takes or more as we process the meaning of events. The Reenactments reads like a series of these clips—methodical mediations on memory and film, film and memory—and of course on the filming of Being Flynn, which serves as backdrop, then comes into focus, before retreating again.
Flynn watches director Paul Weitz translate his story to film, witnessing his mother disappear into drugs and depression, her failed attempt to drown herself, her successful attempt to shoot herself; she went away one day, carved a door in the air. Flynn also watches the deterioration of his father’s life—a father he never knew except from his letters—as he gets evicted, then sleeps in his cab, then sleeps on the street, before he shows up at the shelter where Flynn happens to work, asking for a bed for the night. (Only a lack of overlap, or coincidence, would be remarkable.)
But Nick Flynn is not witnessing his mother, he’s watching actress Julianne Moore, and that’s not his father, drunk on vodka, shouting Nicholas Flynn, where are you? Nicholas Flynn, FATHER MURDERER, come out and face me. It’s Robert De Niro—Robert De Niro!
And Nick Flynn is not watching himself working at the shelter, writing, smoking crack, giving his father a bed for the night—he’s watching the actor Paul Dano. But wait, Nick Flynn is in the movie, just for a split-second—but he’s not playing Nick Flynn. Or is he? And Nick Flynn’s wife, actress Lili Taylor, also is in Being Flynn. But she doesn’t play Nick Flynn’s wife, she’s his coworker at the shelter instead. And again, Nick Flynn is not Nick Flynn, he’s being portrayed by actor Paul Dano. Can you see the real me?
Mixed with the pain and rage and confusion of The Reenactments is the redemption of Nick Flynn’s present—his wife Lili and their daughter Maeve, the art he’s created, and the way he’s engaged in evolving through his past rather than letting the past drown him. Redemption comes because Nick Flynn makes the invisible—love, pain, fear, forgiveness—into something we can see and read and feel.
Pete Townshend also is that kind of artist—one who, instead of offering escape, insists on engagement—but I admit I was worried about seeing this concert. I wasn’t sure, at 67, he was still capable of the reenactment.
Plus, I’d never seen the band play live. That might sound ridiculous since they were my first favorite band and their live shows are stuff of legend, but it always seemed I was too young or too broke or too far away. Then they were too old, too angry, or just gone, disappeared. How could I see the Who without Keith? Without John?
Truthfully I was afraid—I’ve seen bands who were bored or drunk or way past their due date and I couldn’t risk that. Pete Townshend’s not the only person who translated my life into music, but he was the first. If he stunk, that might trash those memories forever.
I shouldn’t have worried. This wasn’t the Who in their prime, but it may have been the Who at their most human. And as they played, a video memoir put together by singer Roger Daltry played behind them. The film began with boys in short pants and ballcaps running rampant through the rubble of post-war England, then moved into the history of rock n’ roll, the band, then life around the world. As time passed, the film sped up—it dwelled on the ‘60s and ‘70s, but by the end of the concert the images flipped more and more quickly—the 21st century was just a blur.
Both Pete and Roger often turned to look at the screen behind them; Roger in particular stopped moving altogether as he watched, arms down and palms open, as if he were trying to answer the question of how he got there in the first place. For the signature songs of the two missing band members—“Is it Me?” for John Entwistle and “Bellboy” for Keith Moon—the screen filled with just their images alone, and audio kicked in so we could hear them play their songs. At that point both Pete and Roger turned their backs to the audience entirely, focused on the screen, and played with the ghost audio track as if the band were back together.
And we all stared at the screen with them, considering how much has passed us by, even though—because it was up on that screen—that past is now larger than life.
In the last chapter of The Reenactments, Nick Flynn leaves us with this:
Phantom limb pain is pain someone feels over something that is no longer there. . . . The only way, the only way (so far) we’ve found to relieve this pain is through a resurrection—you step into a mirrored box, which makes it look like your missing arm has come back. The mind has a hard time understanding—the arm (my fucken arm?) is gone—it might never understand. But inside the box the body is whole again, and the mind can understand. Once the mind sees the arm returned, resurrected, it can then, slowly, let go.