Pale Wire (Popscene)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Alec and I
Inside an Actor's Studio


21,000 more days. That's the best I can hope for. Or at least that's what Dr. Thomas Perls MD's survey at the The Healthspan Calculator told me. It determined that 83.8 years is as far as I'm likely to get, which means I've already spent 28 percent of my life.

It would be easy to panic about something like that: engraving a big black italic 'X' into my calendar sometime in autumn 2065; shouting questions into the rush of the abyss; shaving my head; joining a millennial cult; investing in some sort of digital countdown clock. But if you look at it sunny-side up, it's not so bad. If the shaky hustings of civilization hold up another century, and I manage to avoid any grisly auto accidents and the Avian Flu, I can look forward to another 60 years of ice cream sundaes, pop music, and blogging for you, dear reader. Cool!

I don't know how he felt about ice cream sundaes, but by most measures Alec Guinness had a nice, long life. He won an Oscar, excelled in a career that required daily interaction with beautiful women, owned a light saber, and lived to be 86 years old. Plus, near the end he got in the habit of taking up the sort of sincere self-reflection I so casually dodged above.

In his brief journal A Positively Final Appearance, Guinness looks back on his life from the vantage provided by the spare time he found in retirement and the cultivation he developed during a literary life. New York Times Notable Book or not, it often reads more like a blog than a book, with the distinguishing characteristic being perhaps its depth and elegance more than anything else. Mundane tales of the everyday—reactions to the day's paper, indulgent commentary on his pets' foibles, musings on the latest movies so tossed off you might expect to find them at SirAlec.blogspot.com—are enlived by a generous spirit and embroided with marvelous anecdotes from the life of a truly cosmopolitan man.

And besides having a bunch of cool stories about Noel Coward and Greta Garbo, Guinness is also a skilled stylist. His wicked sense of humor and gift for the brand of restrained understatement practiced by the best of his generation makes for a pleasant traveling companion. But just like your crotchety old grandfather, Sir Alec sees much to criticize in the world around him—the loss of the prim British manners he labors so hard to uphold first on that list—and a good deal in his own life to regret, yet nothing to be ungrateful about. In a typical bit of self-conscious British humility, Guinness continually inists his life hasn't amounted to much, always mindful to mention that his blessings have been many, more than any polite gentlemen could rightly expect, or dare to demand.

It's probably good he didn't live for the Star Wars revival that coincided with the new series, because it seems like he was getting a little tired of the attention towards the end:

A refurbished Star Wars is on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy's eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

"I would love you to do something for me," I said.
"Anything! Anything!" the boy said rapturously.
"You won't like what I'm going to ask you to do," I said.
"Anything, sir, anything!"
"Well," I said. "do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?"

He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. "What a dreadful thing to say to a child!" she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.