When Death of a Salesman opened in 1949 there was a newspaper cartoon of a couple leaving after the show; the husband turns to his wife and says, “I’ll get you for this!” And it’s true: people rarely have a good time watching Death of a Salesman. A play about failure and death and how very frail we all are is depressing; unless we see those qualities as essential to life. We’re unused to seeing our frayed edges and our worry as part of us. They’re meant to exist off-stage (where no-one can see). Synecdoche, New York begins with a production of Death of a Salesman. Both see beauty in our fears for our lives.
Movie love stories are about memory, mostly. Think of Love Story, Annie Hall… even Titanic is about a recollected love affair. Why? Because we’re idiots, frankly. Most people can’t go five minutes without fondly remembering the previous four. In love, it’s times a million. Are we wrong? In what we remember: yes. But misremembering is part of what makes us human. If we all thought the same, we’d be ants. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind asks the age-old question: if you had your life to live over, would you live it differently? Its characters decide they wouldn’t. Their bad memories fade… Who’s to say what makes a “bad” memory anyway.
Is great writing worth a life? Great writers are mostly depressed, or prematurely dead. Would Hemingway have put that gun in his mouth if he weren’t a writer? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d never picked up a pen? Though great books bring light and understanding to thousands of readers, it’s seldom their authors (or their characters) who fare well. In Stranger than Fiction Emma Thompson plays a great writer, called Karen Eiffel, who is losing her wits. Karen writes books about death, but her latest book has no ending. She needs to work out how to kill a character named Harold Crick. Trouble is, unbeknownst to Karen, Harold Crick exists in the real world. And he’s started to hear her voice.