Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
Work in Progress
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2015
Winter Vitalism: Driving Miss Daisy
As we approach Driving Miss Daisy, obvious questions come to mind: How is a film about an old woman progressing to death’s door and a middle-aged man becoming an old man comedy at all, much less Vitalist Comedy? It certainly challenges the centuries-old comedic convention of the senex (old man) as an obstruction to the romantic coupling traditional comedy is wont to create, which coupling symbolizes fertility and ongoing societal life. In Miss Daisy, there are no marriages or new generations on the horizon. Even Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie, is childless and by the end of the film retired. And there are no children from the start as in Sound of Music. No babies introduced into the plot to celebrate new generations, as we see in Steel Magnolias and Fiddler on the Roof. No little Forrest Gumps suggesting new starts. Not even a step-grandchild like Billie to give a fresh new perspective and relight the fires of life in a bitter old man like Norman in On Golden Pond.
Driving Miss Daisy is what we have in other works termed Senior Comedy. Not all Senior Comedy takes on the Winter vitalist form that we shall be discussing in this chapter. But all Senior Comedy focuses on a success or survival of one or more older characters, beyond child-bearing years if not beyond marriage. Senior Comedy forces us to consider the meaning of success within limited potential for the future, within the reality of declining physical if not mental abilities. And the presence and pressure of limitations would seem to make Senior Comedy at least well suited for Winter Vitalism which in its Langerian humors sees little Potential, has little capacity for Performance, and even has to let go of Tenacity, yet still may exercise life-affirming Creativity.
At the outset of the film, based on a play by Alfred Uhry, Miss Daisy, a southern Jewess (played by Jessica Tandy) can be seen as a female senex figure, an older character standing in the way of her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd), an up-and-coming business leader. Miss Daisy stubbornly refuses to admit that given her age and recent driving accident, she needs Hoke, a black person, (played by Morgan Freeman), whom Boolie has hired. She does eventually acquiesce, grudgingly. Over several decades, Miss Daisy is forced to accept the increasing limitations of age and her increasing dependence on Hoke, culminating in the final scene in which she willingly accepts Hoke feeding her Thanksgiving pie. Yet the triumph is not Boolie's—the son, the man with the good idea—but Miss Daisy's. For in the struggle with age, which she must eventually lose, she has taught Hoke to read, she has taken steps towards overcoming racial prejudice, and she has retained self-respect. Miss Daisy is no longer an impediment to a comedic hero but rather the heroine herself.
At the same time there are two other heroes in Driving Miss Daisy. Hoke demonstrates comedic success in a somewhat more traditional manner. Through patience, grace, and humility, Hoke wins Miss Daisy’s confidence, he learns to read, he becomes a respected advisor to Boolie on Miss Daisy’s affairs, he replaces Boolie as a personal guardian to Miss Daisy, and he eventually becomes Miss Daisy’s best friend. And his granddaughter has become a biology professor at Spellman College.
Boolie too is something of a hero, a very nontraditional hero. Throughout the film, his business grows and changes to adapt to new economic realities, so that by retirement he has received special recognition from the Atlanta business community.
Yet this success is mere background to his greater personal success. Boolie exercises extraordinary patience and humility throughout, letting his wife push him around and letting his mother scold and insult him. In the end, he accepts graciously being dismissed to charm the nurses. Hardly the strong hero. But early in the film, Boolie makes the crucial decision, an investment decision if you will, to hire Hoke to be his mother’s chauffeur, helper, and friend. And that decision, despite his mother’s opposition, has paid off in extraordinary growth and profit to his mother, to Hoke, and to himself. In the ensuing years, Boolie comes to accept gratefully Hoke, his formerly illiterate employee, as a wise friend and confidante in his mother’s affairs.
The great success of all three of these characters, all of whom are past retirement age by the end of the film, has little to do with society’s future, of rearing new generations, even of political progress, though the Civil Rights movement is documented throughout. It has to do with inner growth. That growth is related to the wearing down of racial and religious barriers but extends much beyond it to learning to see oneself and those around in new ways. In short, it is Re-visioning. Miss Daisy, Hoke, and Boolie all come to see themselves and those around them differently. And we as audience also re-vision their world. Re-visioning, of course, is the re-form of Winter Vitalism.
At the start of the play, Miss Daisy suddenly needs a new view of her world: she has just backed her car over an embankment and thus wiped out not only her car but also any chance of being reinsured. She has gone from mobile to immobile, from driver to passenger, from independent to dependent in a matter of seconds. Seeing herself as driven around by a chauffeur is not merely challenging; it is offensive.
Miss Daisy does not re-vision easily. She is accustomed to seeing things her way and enforcing it. Throughout the film, she resists re-visioning, despite respectful coaxing from Boolie, tactful indirections from Hoke, and heavy clobbering from reality. It takes her six days of sullenness and insult toward Hoke, who is trying to make himself useful, before she is willing to see the chauffeur solution to her situation as even worth a try. And within minutes of getting into the car, she is forced to recognize that she had never known the shortest route to the grocery store, and worse, that Hoke did.
Miss Daisy is bent on seeing Hoke as incompetent and dishonest. It is a brutal reality check for her to discover that rather than stealing a can of salmon (as she has presumed), Hoke has merely eaten of it and then purchased a replacement. And this revelation occurs only after she has demanded that Boolie come to confront Hoke with theft. She makes no apology or admission of error to anyone, resisting re-vision. But she must learn to see Hoke as honest. She later must recognize that Hoke is practically very capable—that he does indeed know how to cook fried chicken. In fact, he has numerous skills and strengths, but those strengths do not include reading. Miss Daisy meets all re-visioning of reality with resistance. Yet as time goes on, her resistance wears thin. She adapts with protest.
At a deeper level, she must learn to see herself as having responsibilities towards Hoke as a person, not merely as her son’s employee. Despite her stereotypical prejudice against Hoke, she is surprised to learn that he has not been taught to read. And going a step further, she recognizes that, as a former first grade teacher, she has a responsibility to teach him. Hoke is a good driver, but his illiteracy means that she is responsible for reading the map. What is even harder for her to learn is that if she reads incorrectly, it is not Hoke who has made a wrong turn.
And at a broader level, Miss Daisy needs to recognize that her synagogue can be bombed because of anti-Semitic hatred, and that puts her is a class with Hoke, whose church could be bombed because of racial hatred. Her wealth and her whiteness do not protect her from the prejudice of others, nor do they justify prejudice on her own part.
Miss Daisy’s Re-visioning is always through resistance, rebellion, and retort. She has insisted all along that she is not racist, while her actions have belied her. When she has an opportunity to join the cream of Atlanta at a dinner honoring Martin Luther King, she feels morally superior to Boolie who shuns attendance in fear of business loss. Yet she has not overcome prejudice enough to offer her second ticket to Hoke, rationalizing that Hoke would not really want to go. Then not only must she deal with Hoke’s hurt, she must recognize that Hoke will not cover for her this time with a submissive “Yessam.”
Miss Daisy accepts none of these realities gladly. Yet by the end of the film, Miss Daisy has come to see that Hoke has been her best friend, that she relies on him and trusts him more than any other. This is a key revelation for her and a great comedic success. Yet she never achieves the understanding that her son has for decades persisted in tough love, paying Hoke not only to chauffeur his mother around but also to meet numerous other practical needs while simultaneously putting up with her insults and stubbornness. Thus Miss Daisy’s re-visioning comedic success is partial, but very real.
To a lesser extent, Boolie and even Hoke have also been re-visioning. Boolie has been re-visioning his business. Intermittent scenes of the Wertham textile factory show that Boolie is re-visioning not merely his factory but his business model and product. As a Chamber leader in Atlanta, he has helped re-vision Atlanta itself and is honored for it. On a more personal level, Boolie has come to see Hoke not merely as a skilled employee but as a trusted advisor for his mother’s affairs and truly a friend. Boolie can truly rejoice on learning that Hoke’s granddaughter teaches biology at Spellman. He even graciously accepts dismissal and insult from his mother. At the start of the film, Miss Daisy has made constant and inconvenient demands on Boolie; by the end, she dismisses him entirely, letting Hoke meet her needs. Boolie has the vision to accept this dismissal for the best in it rather than the most hurtful.
Re-visioning comes much more naturally and easily to Boolie. It is essential for business success. At the same time it has come at a certain cost to his Jewish background; his wife’s conspicuous, even garish, adoption of Gentile holiday trappings suggests that his own household has lost touch with its Jewish background.
Hoke in one sense has the least to revision. He has a remarkably clear picture of reality, both personal and socio/political, and he is astutely in tune with changes, particularly through the Civil Rights movement, which he follows on the kitchen television. Yet even he must revise his understanding of his own position. He does it little by little, with some help from news broadcasts covering the Civil Rights Movement. He also comes to see the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of a Jewess. And by the end of the film, he sees himself as the grandfather of a college professor, a standing which he could only have dreamed of in his early adulthood. And he recognizes himself as a valuable friend and advisor to one of Altanta’s former business moguls and his boss. The dream which Martin Luther King so boldly shared with the nation, which Hoke adopted in faith, has to some degree been unfolding in Hoke’s own life.
In some senses, Hoke’s is the most conventional comedic success. He has persisted with humility, faith, grace, along with self respect and shrewd insight, and he has risen in stature and arrived at a higher plane. Yet in another sense, he always lived on a higher plane of grace, for he has a friend in Jesus, (that reality twice articulated in the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”) who is unchanging, even as the world changes.
Hoke’s more conventional comedic success notwithstanding, the comedic success of Driving Miss Daisy as a whole and of Miss Daisy herself is primarily in Re-visioning. As Senior Comedy, the film provides a model of comedic success for an older hero who cannot reasonably be expected to marry the right person, bear and raise children, win a war, an election, or a court case, or succeed in business. What seniors can succeed at is to see the world, and perhaps more importantly see themselves, more clearly.
There is another success they can achieve, something that many of us have never thought about and that needs a Winter Vitalist explanation: ultimately, in Senior Comedy as in Winter Vitalist Comedy, the old can put themselves to “coming down right.” We will be much concerned with coming down right as we consider Winter dynamis it later in this chapter.
As the film presents a pattern of Re-visioning successes, admittedly balked, resisted, and partial successes on Miss Daisy’s part, we as audience are also re-visioning. The film takes us step by step into a deeper understanding of the complexity of racial and religious prejudice. The repeated scenes of the modernization of Wertham Textiles allow a primarily non-Southern audience to re-vision Atlanta during a period of extraordinary growth and change. At the start of the film, Atlanta still was viewed by northerners through the lenses of the Civil War. Its name invited images of the gracious Old South, of red-neck recklessness, of prejudicial corruption, of virtual single party rule, and of good-ole-boyism, of Gentile exclusiveness, of total desolation. By the end of the film, Atlanta had become a rapidly growing corporate center, where a Jewish businessman can be honored by the Chamber and a black woman can teach at a college, admittedly a college for blacks. The film asks us to re-vision the south.
But at a deeper level the film allows us to re-vision the face of prejudice. Prejudice cuts many ways. Miss Daisy is a victim of anti-Semitism. Yet she as much as possible hides from this reality, in part by maintaining a superiority over Hoke, a black man. As Miss Daisy grows in respect for Hoke and lets go of stereotypes, she becomes more vulnerable to red-necked prejudice articulated by Alabama’s highway patrol which rather than distinguishing between Miss Daisy and Hoke, lumps them together in compounded inferiority. And we must recognize the vulnerability she must accept in order to live in reality.
In the bombing of her synagogue, we recognize that racial bigotry and religious bigotry wear similar masks. But we also recognize the challenge it is for Miss Daisy to realize that Jews are as vulnerable as blacks to such hatred. And we recognize the depth of character in Hoke, character built from decades of facing bigotry with his eyes open, character which allows him to deal gently with Miss Daisy from a perspective of experience.
And finally the film asks us to recognize the inadequacy of so many who think of themselves as on the right side of racism, pointing the finger elsewhere. As Miss Daisy smugly enjoys dinner with Altanta’s elite, Hoke is waiting outside with the car, listening on the radio as Martin Luther King is castigating “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” The film asks us to challenge and revision our own understanding of bigotry in all its complexity, scope, and social infrastructure and even to reconsider our own part in it. At the same time it asks us to recognize that things are not as black and white as they might seem and that hasty divisions between the children of darkness and the children of light are misled and misleading.
Thus in comedic form, Driving Miss Daisy, a Senior Comedy, is clearly dependent on Re-visioning for it to be a comedy at all. The film is patterned to demonstrate Miss Daisy’s success in learning to see her world differently, incrementally, recalcitrantly, yet inexorably. And Re-visioning is the Winter vitalist humor form. But if the film is to be an exemplar of Winter Vitalism, it must also exhibit a Spirit of Dance.
Quickly the senior character of the film raises the obvious challenge: how does a comedy about an old woman being chauffeured around exhibit any sense of the kinesthetic, much less of Dance?
A significant clue to the kinesthetic in Miss Daisy is the car itself. It is the loss of her car that brought Miss Daisy to a crisis point, and the introduction of a new car and a new means of moving that begins her comedic journey. The introduction and credits of the film focus on moving wheels, and the musical theme, articulated in rollicking clarinet, suggests energy and life spirit channeled through the movement of the car. Miss Daisy gets around; she’s on the move—as long as Hoke is driving.
But more to the drive of the film, more intertwined with the pattern of Re-visioning is another dance: the entire relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke can be argued to be a dance, a couple’s dance, with appropriate protocols. Hoke has been hired by Boolie to chauffeur his mother. Yet to actually drive anywhere, Hoke must successfully persuade Miss Daisy to join him. So he invites Miss Diasy to dance: he approaches her with cautious respect, coaxing her, never truly accepting refusal, until she finally accepts.
And from their first ride, Miss Daisy wants to lead; she tells Hoke he is going much too fast and that he is going the wrong way. But for there to be a dance, Hoke must lead, and he tells her so.
The car rides are always smooth; Boolie buys quality cars with good suspension. But the dance between Miss Daisy and Hoke is awkward. She frequently steps on his toes with insults and insensitivity; she frequently wants to lead when she should follow. Sometimes Miss Daisy doesn’t want to dance at all. Many times Hoke sits out while Miss Daisy goes off with others—her Alabama relatives, Boolie’s Christmas party, the synagogue, the Martin Luther King dinner. Yet Miss Daisy always returns to Hoke and her car. Hoke has the last dance.
Through the progression of the film, more and more the two move together, not just in the car and on the road, where they must navigate the dangers of Alabama bigotry and Georgia anti-Semitism. They are moving through life together, through ice storms, through the death of Miss Daisy’s cook, Idella, through the gradual decline of physical and mental abilities for both of them.
With the loss of Idella, Miss Daisy and Hoke must navigate food preparation together. She does not receive graciously Hoke’s recommendation to turn down the heat under their fried chicken. But when she thinks he won’t notice, she turns down the heat. And later she proclaims, “Hoke and I know how to make fried chicken.” It’s not Dancing with the Stars. But, in fact Hoke and Miss Daisy are moving through life together.
Gradually Miss Daisy is learning to move in tandem with another, to trust and respect Hoke, to risk being less in charge, to give up some independence of mind, to be vulnerable, to have and to be a friend, to move from “I” to “we.”
In the final scene at the nursing home, when Miss Daisy walks only with a walker and can barely maneuver a table fork and Hoke no longer drives, they are still dancing. She easily allows Hoke to feed her pumpkin pie. Hoke is having the last dance.
As we turn to the Bergsonian/Langerian dynamics of what we have called a Winter vitalist film, we will need to discuss Langerian Creativity. In other writings, we have illustrated Langerian Creativity humor as the “light bulb” idea depicted frequently by cartoonists indicating a brilliant, clever, unexpected—and expectedly humorous—idea. Langerian Creativity should be thoroughly consonant with Re-visioning. Re-visioning may even come as a sudden bright idea, an epiphany. As a new vision, it may enable new ideas to spring forth as new ways to handle challenges.
If, as we have claimed, Driving Miss Daisy is an example of Winter Vitalism, we will have to make some argument for Langerian Creativity humor in the film itself. Yet we readily concede that at least superficially, Miss Daisy doesn’t affirm life very much at all. She is backward looking, rigid, scornful of just about everyone else, stubborn, and inflexible. In short, she has attributes of a Bergsonian clown, exhibiting particularly Bergsonian tenacity (stubbornness) and Creativity (of a fixed mind). When Hoke reports his first successful drive with Miss Daisy to his employer, Boolie, both men enjoy something of a laugh at her expense: “It took the good Lord six days….” Respect for her status as Boolie’s mother restrains laughter in them, and also in us. But clearly Miss Daisy is clinging to the mechanical, the dead. And she is laughable in the sense of being laughed at. And even that laugher is not very loud in Driving Miss Daisy. Finding the Langerian Creativity humor in the film is going to be challenge.
Thus as we look for such momentary Langerian vitalist humor in the film, we must recognize that humor in Senior Comedy is frequently fragile. Serious consideration of advancing age requires that we recognize the fragility of age, and perhaps such consideration demands a respect for our elders and even for our own mortality. The humor in Driving Miss Daisy is fragile.
Furthermore, any Langerian humor coming from Miss Daisy will have to be life breaking through some very heavy armor of self-defense, self-justification, and inflexible habits of mind. And given that Miss Daisy herself has all the trappings of non-aliveness, we will need to look, at least initially, at other characters for Langerian Creativity.
Hoke is alive, deeply alive. It is not that his physical performance inspires cheers—that he drives the impossible course with not a scratch to the car. Rather his humble stance minimizes any sense of physical prowess, and as the film progresses he very gradually grows more stooped and lame. It is certainly not that he oozes youthful potential. Rather he is middle-aged at the start of the film, skilled but illiterate, and of a disadvantaged race. He is steadfast towards Miss Daisy and dependable. Yet his steadfastness does not feel like a tenacious holding on or slogging forward but rather a quiet state of being. And he allows Miss Daisy to win or seem to win many a dispute where Hoke clearly has the truth on his side. This humility is a key to the form of Langerian Vitalism expressed in Hoke. Hoke quietly, self-effacingly, inexorably exercises creativity. And in a quiet way, we come to smile in recognition of Langerian, life-affirming, Creativity.
This Langerian Creativity is not easily recognizable because part of Hoke’s creativity is not to let it show, not to appear smarter than Miss Daisy, not to seem to be getting his way. Yet in the end the results tell all. Hoke has managed to stay employed by Boolie, chauffeuring his obstinate mother for decades: he has won her trust and friendship, as well as Boolie’s; and he has helped Miss Daisy to re-vision her world without losing face. And he has done it not by being dogged, but by being highly creative. The first shared joke between Boolie and Hoke over Miss Daisy is a clue to Hoke’s creativity: the time it took Hoke to win the first round with Miss Daisy was the time it took God to create the world. (In fact, this joke points deeper to the source of Hoke’s aliveness—his faith in God.)
We smile to learn that when Boolie trades in for a newer model the car Hoke first drove for Miss Daisy, Hoke has the quickness of mind to buy the car himself, knowing how well it has been cared for. (We also smile when Miss Daisy typically protests that the old car was just fine. Miss Daisy is still locked in an idée fixe.) Yet for the most part, it is not Hoke’s actions but the results of his actions that testify to his creativity. Hoke’s creativity comes from a long tradition of effective subservience, of solving problems in such a way as not to show up the employer (master), of being self-effacing but not self-deprecating, of respecting one’s own intelligence without demanding that others do so. Hoke has the creativity to lose the first round, often with a “Yessum,” in order that in the long run he may win the battle. Such is the case with the little altercation over fried chicken and also Miss Daisy’s denial of the synagogue bombing.
In this, Hoke follows the dictum of Emperor Augustus: make haste slowly. Like a highly skilled diplomat, Hoke often moves by indirection but without deceit, by discretion but without disguise. Hoke’s manner is restrained, yet we can see in the light in his eyes and the pucker of his lips that his mind is constantly working on tactful problem solving, not merely for his own benefit but for the benefit of Miss Daisy. And we smile to sense the alive mind at work.
Hoke has a gentle sense of humor himself, which can be a form of Langerian Creativity. He has a buoyancy of spirit which allows him to see the humor in a situation which could otherwise be angering, frustrating, or hurtful. And we smile, recognizing the creativity of his sense of humor which allows him to transcend the situation and the grace to keep his sense of humor within the bounds of respect.
Boolie too filters his mother’s demands and dismissals with a sense of humor, which he is blessed to be able to share with Hoke. Far more important than the employment agreement between the two is their tacit agreement to respond creatively to Miss Daisy with a sense of humor, a gentle sense of humor that blends Bergsonian laughing at with Langerian appreciation of Miss Daisy’s hold on life. It is a creative attitude that brushes aside insults, criticisms, and injustices to love her anyway, to maintain respect for her and for themselves. Theirs is not a scornful laughter but rather an affirmation of life in Miss Daisy despite and through her rigidity. They know that even as Miss Daisy is recalcitrant, her stubbornness and her mechanical defenses are a platform for adaptation.
Looking then at Miss Daisy herself in light of Langerian Creativity, we acknowledge that Miss Daisy, in contrast, is not a typical embodiment of strong Langerian Creativity. In fact, she could said to be a model of Bergsonian idée fixe. She is hardly quick to change her attitudes as life brings in new troubling realities. In fact, Miss Daisy is never completely reconciled to the aging process. She stubbornly resists admitting her limitations. If Miss Daisy exhibited no Langerian Creativity at all, the Creativity of Hoke and Boolie in themselves would be sufficient for Winter Vitalism.
However, a case can be made that Miss Daisy, in fact, exercises her own kind of Creativity. She is stubborn, yes. Yet inwardly, surreptitiously, on second thought, she adapts and grows. And herein—in her stubbornness and pride—lies the key Miss Daisy's Creativity.
And in this pattern is the potential for double-edged humor: we may laugh at Miss Daisy's stubbornness, in Bergsonian defiance of death, but as the movie progresses, we are more likely to laugh—or rather smile—in response to the life force asserting itself, growing out of stubbornness and then overcoming it creatively. Stubbornness and pride are a platform for adapting, Langerian Creativity, sprung from Begrsonian idée fixe.
This pattern is well illustrated in the scene in which Miss Daisy gives a gift to Hoke at Christmas time. She insists that she is not giving Hoke a Christmas gift. Jews don’t give Christmas presents as far as she is concerned, and she is not about to let up on her castigation of her son’s and particularly her daughter-in-law’s flirtation with Gentile traditions. Yet the gift of a writing manual represents growth of character far more powerful than Miss Daisy's adherence to tradition. And in it is implied her willingness to help Hoke learn to read.
We laugh at her for her stubbornness and childishness, and we smile with her Creativity.
The case for the Langerian Creativity humor of Miss Daisy is perhaps tenuous. Her creativity is subtle, in some senses minimal, in many senses childish. And yet in some senses it is extraordinary. It costs her a great deal. It far surpasses Drum’s outside-the-box martial creativity in Steel Magnolias or even Clairee’s creatively recommencing a running war with Ouiser amid the solemnity and pain of the graveyard in the same film. Miss Daisy’s creativity grows from her weakness, and it opens her up to ridicule and scorn in order that she be able to take the next step, to stave off stultification and death. And it is this creative, complex formula of resistance, vulnerability, and adaptability that provoke a humor response in Boolie and Hoke—a humor that responds finally not to her foolishness but to her affirmation of life that is so strong that a proud, stubborn woman is willing to look foolish in order to be alive. Theirs is a humor of deep respect and affection.
We need to recognize too that Miss Daisy, as she adapts, moves away from independence to a stumbling, awkward cooperation with Hoke. She could not have changed at all without the prompting of a Hoke, her very graceful dancing partner. More and more it is the two of them who navigate the challenges of getting older. As Miss Daisy says, “Hoke and I know how to make fried chicken.” It is a measure of Miss Daisy’s creative adaptation and change that she is willing to dance with a black man.
Like Fiddler on the Roof, then, Driving Miss Daisy prominently emphasizes the three Winter vitalist humors: Creativity momentary humor, Re-vision form humor, and the Spirit of Dance. Compared to Fiddler on the Roof with its robust Winter vitalist humors, Driving Miss Daisy is greatly subdued. Like a great deal of Senior Comedy, its momentary humor is fragile, particularly exhibited in the extremely subdued Creativity humor apparent throughout the film and attested to by extremely muted-to-suppressed smiles rather than in boisterous laughter. At the same time, its Re-vision form Vitalism is persistent, driving, and enduring. And the Spirit of Dance in the strong kinesthetic sense of a couple’s dance, notably a dance between a recalcitrant partner and a graceful expert, contributes to a hauntingly enduring dynamis.
With two very distinct examples of Winter Vitalism before us, then, we are ready to consider the associated dynamis of Winter-variant Vitalist Comedy.
All Vitalist comedy is characterized by an emotional dynamis, a strong inner sense that we as audience should arise, moving toward some incipient action. Since life responds to life and since Vitalist comedies are redundantly humorous precisely in their presentation of extraordinary vitality, this sense of incipient action in some sense parallels the life we have just been witnessing throughout the artistic production. Since Winter-variant Vitalism embodies the kinesthetic Spirit of Dance, dance provides a likely starting point for the investigation of dynamis.
We have noted that dance involves a repeated loss and regain of balance. There are many turns, many twists, but in the end there is balance. And there is ending well. In gymnastics we call it “sticking it.” Our emphasis being Vitalism in American film, it is perhaps natural for us to turn to an American source for a definition of the Spirit of Dance. The Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” written by Joseph Brackett, appropriately set to “a quick dance” puts it thus:
the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
“Turn” in Brackett’s poem seems to suggest the essence of dance, and dance as turn is certainly appropriate to accompany Re-visioning, a mental turning. Dances turn and turn again. Even a simple dance has many turns, and complex dances need a special field of choreography simply to describe their turns.
So the Spirit of Dance is intensely kinesthetic, intensely involved in turn and turn again. But paradoxically, all the kinesthesia, all the turning is there in order to come down in “the place just right,” to achieve stasis and the appropriate culmination of action in non-action. in the right cessation of the turn.
Dances are art products, and the great majority of them like the vast majority of art products through the ages, need to come to some definite culmination and end. They can’t indefinitely go on being manufactured. They have to come off the production line as some finally completed thing, some unity, some oneness. The stasis of coming off production is also the certificate of oneness.
Something similar, we believe, is the key to the dynamis of Winter Vitalist comedy. As Winter, it does not go on to a next stage; it culminates, it ends, and it comes down right.
Brackett knows this at a foundational level:
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.
As Brackett also highly suggests, this dynamis frequently, perhaps always, is trying to find the simple and the free. It finds these to some degree in the turning and turning again, but the ultimate gift of the dance is the simple and free, appropriate stasis. In Driving Miss Daisy we sense this simplicity particularly in Miss Daisy, at rest, being fed pumpkin pie by Hoke.
So the spirit of Dance moves toward “sticking it,” toward an at least momentary cameo stillness before the dance dissolves and the dancers leave the floor. This is as true of line dancing as of couples dancing, as true of the Broadway chorus lines as of figure-skating Olympians.
And thus Winter Vitalist comedy lifts us out of our seats to be “about it,” to get the job done, to move toward an appropriate, balanced, often simplified, free—appropriate—stasis that can be held and that demands nothing further.
But when does the dynamis begin? In Fiddler on the Roof, we are not ready for the dynamic as the Jews of Anatevka pack their belongings and say their final farewells to their homes and to each other. This is still turning and turning again. And as Chava and Fyedka appear on the road, we are even further from the release of dynamis. All is tension; Tevye is frozen into inflexible religious attitudes even while he intensifies all the kinesthetic activities of tying down his cart with all the family’s remaining worldly possessions.
And then Tzeitel intervenes. And in Tzeitel’s intervention, Tevye breaks out of his frozen attitudes in favor of his living faith, even as the kinesthetics of his preparations are left in abeyance.
From that moment, the dynamic is allowed to build, through silent scenes of trudging refugees away from Anatevka, over a river and into, hopefully, new life. The roads deepen into quagmires, quagmires that suggest a breaking of the frost, an inevitable if cruel movement toward spring.
But the dynamis is not of that suggested coming spring. The movie ends with Tevye alone, pulling his cart—and then joined by the Fiddler, with a dance tune and a dance step.
And the dynamis is fully developed. Tevye has turned and turned , and a true simplicity has been gained. He hasn’t been ashamed to bow and to bend, and after all he has come ‘round right.
And we are lifted out of our seats to seek just that simplicity, that freedom, to “stick it,” to come down simple, free, and right. The dynamic for us is just such incipient action, action that is nonsensical in its turning unless it can come to an end, to a place just right.
Do we really leave the theatre for such turning, turning that comes down right? Perhaps for some of us we do. But the dynamis again is of incipient action, it is the urge to be about it, life imitating life, to get where Tevye has gotten. It is one of the strongest dynamics ever created in drama.
Turning to Driving Miss Daisy, the dance here has again a central figure, most certainly, but it is not a solo dance of Miss Daisy herself. It is in many ways a partner dance with Hoke and in some very important senses a dance of three with two male partners, Boolie and Hoke, in support of the prima donna.
The dynamis cannot take over even as Miss Daisy moves to the nursing home, while her home is vacated and sold. It can’t move to the dynamis as Boolie drives Hoke out to the nursing home, the two now close friends celebrating a joint venture that has evolved over decades rather than years. It can’t even kick in as a dynamis as Miss Daisy crosses a sitting room in her walker to meet them or as she dismisses Boolie to “charm the nurses,” It can’t yet be said to exist as Hoke leads her to a table and sits with her as Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is served.
But immediately after, and most because of a look in Miss Daisy’s eyes, the dynamic rapidly mounts. Her attitudes have all softened. She is in the presence of her true and best friend, whom she has acknowledged to be such, and she will not go back on that momentous decision. It has always been that simple; her turning, turning made it seem hard.
And all of this finally comes down to a simple truth that only the free can share with themselves and with each other. Things are far enough along that Miss Daisy cannot lift a fork to her mouth successfully.
And now in a finally graceful, grace-filled gesture, Miss Daisy accepts Hoke’s friendship in lifting a fork to her mouth—and Hoke is as he has ever been graceful and grace-filled in his half of the dance.
Together, they have stuck it—and Boolie too has stuck it, stuck it as he has throughout by gracefully exiting the stage before the final cameo. Turning, turning they’ve come down right, they’ve come down where they ought to be and remarkably, as Brackett predicted, they’ve found themselves in the valley of love and delight, the simple delight of thanksgiving pumpkin pie gratefully and gracefully offered and accepted.
Winter Vitalism’s Spirit of Dance creates the sense of having turned, turned, and come down right and now being ready for a next step into a world that is not choreographed, into an undefined future. It is helpful to consider Winter’s dynamis in relation to the concept of virtual future. A great deal of comedy looks forward to a virtual future beyond the final curtain, that is, some implicit but not stated extension, some happily ever after—or not-so-happily-and-with-challenges—ever after. Karl of The Student Prince will marry the Princess of Nordhausen and rule as a humane, wise king who respects his people and his wife, even if he is not in love with her, carrying in his heart the treasure of having loved Kathy. Princess Ann in Roman Holiday will return to her role, sadder but stronger and richer for her experience. We are confident of such a future because the work in its entirety without claiming such a future, projects it implicitly.
Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t project a virtual future. There is no suggestion of a reasonable future beyond the accepted Thanksgiving celebration. There is nothing shocking in the idea that perhaps Miss Daisy dies immediately after the final curtain, though neither is an immediate death projected or artistically required.
Similarly, in Fiddler on the Roof, there is no need for a virtual future though the refugees have been allowed to state their destinations—Yente for the Holy Land, Lazar Woolf for Chicago, Tevye’s family for New York—“we will be neighbors!” as Lazar enthusiastically emphasizes.
There may be a virtual future in Fiddler for Tevye; there almost certainly is for members of his family. Virtual futures are typically hazy. They are defined more by what is excluded than what is included. The virtual future in Fiddler is that some will make it, because not all of them fail to make it. Some have a future in America because not all fail to get there. Some will probably be urban dwellers in places like New York and Chicago, metropolitan giants at a far extreme from Anatevka, but also at a far extreme of religious freedom without fear or coercion. And in such places, a Russian Jewish community will be allowed its own flourishing life because not all communities will fail. And some like Tevye’s family will have their own idea of Tradition and adaptation, and perhaps will move further and further from the Hasidic realities of their Russian origins.
History, in short, the history into which the film is set, fills out a diverse and divergent virtual future for the Jewish community at large. So with difficulty, a great work of Winter-variant Vitalism like Fiddler on the Roof can have virtual future elements.
But Winter-variation Vitalist comedy doesn’t need a virtual future, and it would seem theoretically that any virtual future would be a difficulty given the relationship of the dynamic of Winter variation with cameo stasis.
Neither does Winter dynamis adhere to the virtual future, whether in Chicago, New York, or the Holy Land. The dynamic in Fiddler is the dynamis generated by Tevye, statically if you will—static as in a snapshot photo—leaving Anatevka, pushing his cart, accompanied by the Fiddler, the song, and the dance—Tevye who has ceased from the vigorous kinesthenics of tying down his cart to return to his faith and to a blessing on his daughter, Chava, the little dove, the poor man’s sacrifice of biblical Judaism.
Driving Miss Daisy and Fiddler, neither one needs to go on. Both are about having come down right.
Yet we will go on. We will leave the theater. And the dynamis calls upon us to leave the theater ready to take the next step into our own murky, pedestrian futures, ready to execute the dances and turns that come our way, and then, when the times comes, to come down right.