Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Philadelphia Story (5)

Do you want to be yare? It's spelled that way by the way. It rhymes with "are" and that is probably why most websites discussing the movie spell it incorrectly. It's been the curse of many a movie fan who has gone looking for "yar" in the dictionary and found nothing.

I guess the answer to the question would depend a lot on what we think "yare" means. Don't feel too bad, I don't think Philip Barry was entirely certain either. Here is the definition he has Tracy give in the play/movie:
"my, she was yare... it means, uh... easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot."
Here is what Oxford says:

(of a ship) moving lightly and easily, easily manageable.

I suppose it's okay to say that sort of thing about a boat and it would be a compliment but not about a woman. Or would you? The "dry rot" bit is rather harsh and vulgar really. Only a pig of man would say such a thing but perhaps it is different when a woman says it? But what of the rest of the definition, the part we might take to be a compliment? Well, it's tricky isn't it?

If we were talking about sex it would be easier but we're not talking about sex in The Philadelphia Story. Or, to be more precise about it, we're not talking only or even primarily about sex. Sex is certainly there but the thing that daunts Tracy so is not exclusive to sex but rather applies to her whole life.

It might also be acceptable to say a woman was yare on the dance floor if we were doing ballroom dancing. A woman who moves lightly and easily and responds quickly is everything a dancer should be. But you wouldn't want those qualities in a  woman running a business, conducting a research project or raising a child. And I'm absolutely certain you wouldn't want those qualities in the woman you were going to unite yourself to for the rest of your life. You'd want her to be able to do that in some situations but there are other times when you want her to be pigheaded and stubborn about how she stands up to you even to the point that you might not appreciate it so much at first.

Class boats. Very upper class.
I do hope my gentle readers will forgive me if I assume that, like Mike Connor, you don't know what a class boat is? Even most sailors will get it wrong. Ask them and they will tell you about something called a one-design class and that is not what Dexter designs, builds and owns.

Most large sailboats are raced according to a handicapping system. A bunch of parameters are put into an algorithm and a number comes out and that denotes the expected performance relative to other boats. To win you have to do better against the expected performance of your boat than the other guys do relative to the expected performance of their boats. The tortoise only has to move fast for a tortoise, he doesn't need to be faster than the hare. This way, everyone can bring the boat they want to the race. It makes sense, as yachts are terribly expensive, that you pick the type that suits you rather than buying a boat that is specifically for racing.

In class boat racing, all the boats are designed so that they have the same handicap. To win you have to be first over the finishing line and every other boat is a Cheetah. It's a no compromise approach that, generally speaking, only very rich people can afford. In fact, nowadays bigger class boats are owned by syndicates and sponsored by advertising. The day when individuals could afford to own such things is mostly over.

But here is the thing, a class boat is quick and responsive but no one would call them easy to handle. Sailing one is like riding a tiger; in a breeze they will give you a white knuckle ride you'll never forget. They are brutally unforgiving boats. "Unforgiving" meaning that if you make a mistake you are likely to end up wet and perhaps much poorer.

Which yare is the yare that we really want?
 Yare could mean different things in different contexts. Forget about boats for a while and think about cars because more people have experience with cars. You could call a sports car yare in that it responds quickly and you can feel every sway or bump in the road. But on a long trip you might not want that. It would get kind of tiring after a while. On the other hand, a car that was too easy to handle might get boring.

And which kind of yare was the True Love? We get a hint when Dexter says:
Well, I'm designing another one anyway, along more practical lines.
Except that practical doesn't quite sound like true love does it? Would you love Tracy Samantha Lord if she were altered so as to be along more practical lines? Miss Pomeroy 1926 is certainly different from the Tracy we've seen up until then but no one would call her practical and neither George nor Mike find Miss Pomeroy 1926  "easy to handle"—although Mike does get to do some "handling".

(None of which he regrets and that opens up an interesting sidebar: so it's okay to enjoy yourself a bit when a drunken woman responds to your sexual overtures but you're supposed to draw a line somewhere. So where exactly is that somewhere? Mike admits to kissing but he pressed himself up against her, which had to feel good, and he got a squeeze or two in and maybe ... well they did change into bathing suits, maybe he got a little more specific about what and where he squeezed and, gentleman that he is, he is leaving that out of his report. It's a fascinating question isn't it? And it's a different question for, say, three women discussing it while working their way through a bottle of Pinot Gris than it is for a couple of men bragging over scotch? And it would be a different question again in front of a judge and jury wouldn't it?)

I promised to say more about language today but I'm not going to get to it just yet. I started on this yare thing and it seems more important. (Someone asked me the other day, "I'll be interested to see where you go with this?" Well, so will I.)

Another thing I said yesterday is that the movie is rather easy on men. We never get any notion that men might be expected to be yare. The men in this movie win Tracy's favour by being, well, by being father figures. Even Mike, who kisses her, must be the responsible one when they are both drunk to win her deepest appreciation. At the same time, however, these men all do rather caddish things that no one holds them to account for and that is troubling. It bothers me anyway.

But it matters less than it might because this is really a movie about women. It's about a particular kind of woman, a woman who aspires to and achieves class. Difficult word class. For the most part people who have it don't use it, at least not in a positive sense. The women I know who actually have it only use the word ironically when referring to women who don't.

Class is exclusive and we don't like to be exclusive. We spend a lot of time telling ourselves not to think of ourselves as better than others and we spend a lot of time trying to be better than others. For women, it's a particularly daunting proposition. A woman who achieves the sort of virtue that would justify distinguishing her in this way is often brought down a peg by being called cold, or hard or distant or unforgiving.

She gets called that by guys who feel rejected and intimidated by her.

But here is an odd puzzle for you. Millions of people love The Philadelphia Story. For approximately 110 minutes we watch the rather hard Tracy and love her. And then, in the last two minutes, Tracy promises she will be different from now on. Is that really what we want of her? Did Mike fall in love with a woman who promised to be easy to handle? Did we?

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