A few weeks ago Dad and I went to see the San Francisco Symphony perform the score of The Matrix (1999). A rattling experience quite different from the soothing soundtrack of Casablanca (1942) or the cheery tones of The Wizard of Oz (1939), we reached a point of exhaustion that I imagine could be topped only by the musicians themselves. At one point early in the film, one character asks another if he believes in fate. “No,” the second man answers. “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” Coincidence, fate, destiny, a cosmic sense of humor – all convenient concepts appropriate for when life is extremely fantastic or painful and gruesome. Setting aside my feelings about the actor and his range, I must give some credit to the character he’s trying to play, for I never could answer such a question. Belief in fate may force me into a terrifying surrender of control, or it could push me into a relieving surrender of responsibility.
If everything in life is a choice, then I choose to surrender nothing, unless I’m told to by black smoke written in the blue sky.
Early one morning I was walking to my car when I saw $40.00 on the sidewalk. There was no one I could designate as the poor soul who dropped it, so I put the money in my pocket, said the words “thank you” out loud to no one in particular, and kept walking to my car. After a few giddy steps, I was filled with absolute certainty that something had happened to that Honda of mine. I felt as sure as a legitimate psychic must feel when the Energies of Prediction surge through her veins – the message was clear, because it arrived not in words but in knowledge. Perhaps the window had been smashed again; maybe the car had been stolen and taken on a joyride to the East Bay; it’s possible the neighborhood artists who work only in the evening decided to give it a new paint job with their spray cans. My crystal ball was telling me that although those 40 bucks had been destined for my wallet, the exhilaration they brought was to last for seconds, not minutes. I turned the corner, and there was the car, parked right where I had left it with its windows intact and the silver paint its usual silver. Absolutely nothing was wrong, I had no future career as a psychic, and thank god that wasn’t my side mirror lying there on the pavement . . . oh . . . ehhh, crap. Well, so much for that Barbara Stanwyck boxed set.
The night before the universe decided to do its here-smell-this-flower-before-I-squirt-you-in-the-eye thing, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) for the first time. If I had to take a stab at it, I would imagine it’s the eerie performance of Robert Walker that causes many to single out Strangers on a Train as their favorite Hitchcock film. Already familiar with a plot adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, my popcorn and I were ready to follow a tale of two men who meet on a train and discuss the possibility of swapping murders. Having no past or future ties to one another, the two travelers would go through the rest of their lives legitimately as strangers, and it would be impossible for authorities to track down either man. Hitchcock would never forgive those who revealed any details, but we’re all willing to bet, say, $40.00, that eventually something is going to derail this plan.
When Strangers on a Train gets a little spicy and I move into the unconscious oral-manicure phase of watching a Hitchcock film, I wonder if our old friends Fate and Destiny decided to show up for work that day. Were these two men destined to meet one another on that train and fated to have these horrific, terrific, and life-altering experiences? Or maybe Fate and Destiny both called in sick that day, and everything unraveled when Coincidence had to cover for both of them. The Hitchcockian universe never promises a happy ending, but isn’t an ending happy only when we don’t know what Fate has in store for us? They all lived happily ever after, until five minutes later when they opened the truck found a dead body rotting inside.
I guess 40 bucks doesn’t go as far as it used to . . .