Okay, not a neo noir but it has a lot of the characteristics of one. And this movie had a huge impact on men. There is no room for dispute about this fact. The sales of fly fishing equipment spiked upwards after it came out. (This is the first of a series of posts. Here are the links to part two and part three.)
Given that, I think we can leave aside the question of whether or not the movie is any good for a while. The movie exposed millions of men to fly casting and wild rivers and trout and they loved it. An appreciable number of them loved it so much they ran out and bought the kit and set out to learn how to do it. My guess is that most of that equipment is now packed up and stored next to the guitar they never play, the golf clubs they never use and a few other similar items. But there was dream here and there was something that struck a lot of men as good and pure about this dream.
And it still does for those who discover it for the first time even now.
But even if you like the dream, the story has troubling ... what, shall we say discrepancies about it. Or shall we say, Maclean lies a lot in this story, both to us and himself.
The semi-repentant apostate
I think the place to start is with the lies.
This is a story that was told so the author could maintain a certain image of himself in the face of loss. There is no secret about the loss or his sense of failure related to that loss, by the way, he let's that slip right away. He failed as a brother; or he believes he failed, which amounts to the same thing. And now he needs to tell a story about it.
He says he is telling a story about his brother in order to understand. As if sticking someone into a story with a beginning, middle and end would help you to understand them when you'd failed to understand them in real life.
If you were a fly fisherman before seeing this movie it would become obvious as soon as he tells us about learning to fly cast that this story is a mythology. He just drenches his account of how he learned with mysticism, telling us that there was no clear distinction between fly fishing and religion in his family and even having his father pull out a metronome to help he and his brother with their timing. And then he goes on to describe a lesson that is so utterly conventional that only someone who knew little or nothing about fly fishing could be impressed. The mystical method he has spent so much time building up is exactly the one that you will find in any How to Fly Fish book published any time in the last century and a half that you can find.
And I think we can deduce a related bit of mythology here: young Paul Maclean isn't a smart fly fisherman. A lot of reviewers imagine that Norman is intimidated by his brother but there is a key scene here where Norman tells us that he is the better of the two. It's the scene where the two brothers and their father go fishing for the last time together. And young Norman slaps a bug on his neck and pulls off this big orangey-pink stone fly that is colloquially called a "Salmon fly". Later, Paul isn't catching anything and Norman is and Paul has to ask what fly Norman is using. That is what fly fishing is really about. Having the observational skills to notice what is happeninga nd the knowledge to apply a solution, in this case Norman uses a Bunyan bug which was a salmon fly imitation.
All the stuff that the movie praises in Paul, the ability to cast exceptionally well and the fight where he follows the trout through the rough water is something else that I'll get to in the manliness lesson below. But note that he appreciates Paul on a more animalistic level: Paul's skills are more instinctive than acquired.
If fly fishing really is like a religion, then Norman Maclean was the true devotee and later he was the apostate. He moved east an abandoned it all. And then he returned repentant.
But it is equally important to note that he was an apostate to both of the family religions.
I suppose that in any conventional sense I’m a religious agnostic. There are things that make me feel a lot better. I don’t particularly find them in a church. I find them in the woods, and in wonderful people. I suppose they’re my religion.Here is what I think really happened. Maclean abandoned his father's religion and has retroactively made fly fishing into a second family religion so as to shift the guilt from his true apostasy which was from his father's faith. In fact, the person for whom fly fishing was a religion was always Norman himself. Returning to Montana to fly fish is a replacement for the faith his father gave him in and that he lost.
You can see the shift in two quotes. Here is what he says his father taught him about the the rocks on the riverbed:
Long ago, rain fell on mud and became rock. Half a billion years ago. But even before that, beneath the rocks, are the words of God. Listen.And here is what he made that teaching into:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.I put it to you that the father's words are the more profound ones. What Norman makes them into is just bad writing. He takes many more words than his father did because he has less to say.
Among other things, there is a painful antecedent problem here: "some of the words are theirs"? Who are they and what words are they speaking under the rocks? At best, that is trite. He means the "wonderful people" in his life who have died: his brother, his wife and his father. Their memory has become his god. And he wraps it up in a cheap mysticism that any dime-story Bhodavista could crank out by the yard: "all things merge into one" ... gag.
Was he his brother's keeper?
There are two staggering omissions in the novella and the movie. The first is that there is no mention of Norman and Paul's five sisters. You'd never know they even had existed. The second is that the Maclean fails to tell us that Paul actually did move to Chicago and that is where he died. The novella very emphatically tells us that Paul could never leave Montana and that he died there, and the novel hints that he did so at the hands of gamblers to whom he owed money. None of that is true and, more importantly, none of it could be true.
But to admit this would upset the whole logic of the story. If fly fishing really was a religion it would be hard to believe that both brothers would move to Chicago. That is why the story sets it up such that Paul is supposed to be the true believer in this fly fishing religion who can never leave it or Montana. In fact both brothers left both behind for the big city.
Beyond that, we can't really say but Norman was living in Chicago when Paul was murdered. He was the family member closest to him. Was he a good keeper for his brother? Did he, in fact, induce his brother to move and later feel guilty for convincing him to move to the town where he met his end? Or did he know about his brother getting deeper and deeper into trouble in Chicago but was unable or unwilling to do anything about it?
Paul, by the way, was clearly an alcoholic and he was an alcoholic with a mean streak. That must have had a lot more to do with the stress between him and his family than the issues raised in the novel and the movie. The way Maclean tells the story, Paul is defined by something outside of him and outside of the family.
The title story, “A River Runs Through It,” was the big tragedy of our family, my brother’s character and his death. He had a very loving family, but independent and fighters. We were guys who, since the world was hostile to us, depended heavily upon the support and the love of our family. That tends often to be the case with guys that live a hostile life outside.The problem can't be what he claims here. I think we can see that it probably was reading between the lines: that Paul had behaviourial problems right from the beginning that became much worse with his drinking.
In retrospect, Norman is tortured by his having been unable to help but we might wonder if the two boys were really as close as he wants to remember. Paul must have been a real trial when he was alive. We can reasonably wonder whether he really liked him as much as he says here. Again, if we pay attention to the way the story is told, there are lots of hints that the two did not see much of one another even while living in the same place together. Pay close attention and you'll notice lots of hints that suggest they did not fish or socialize together very much. Not the least of these hints is that it is a big production for them to actually get together to fish.
The manliness lesson and the Serpent in the garden
One of the all time great titles is the one Robert Frost gave to his first book of poetry: A Boy's Will. The key, of course, is the double sense of "will" meaning volition and a document declaring how wealth accumulated will be dispensed. We start of thinking we're reading about the former but learn we are really reading about the latter.
In our culture, every boy must die to allow the birth of a man. And we feel the loss of that boy all our lives. That is what this story is really about.
A story of paradise lost needs its serpent and Maclean had one a little too readily made in the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Anaconda had a grip on Montana not unlike what the KC Irving company had on New Brunswick where I grew up. It was the dominant employer, the largest economic force, a huge player in backroom politics and it owned a slew of newspapers. They used the political and journalistic influence they had to maintain their grip on the state.
Maclean gave that as his reason for leaving:
I love Montana with almost a passion, but I saw I couldn’t live here really if I was going to be a teacher; I’d have to be degraded and submit to views that I couldn’t accept. I felt that this was imposed upon us from the outside—that wasn’t our true nature. I tried to figure out a way to continue this two world thing that I had begun by going East.I don't believe that. But notice that he does the same trick with himself as he does with his brother: he situates all the threats to his bliss on the outside. He wants to believe that nothing about his leaving this paradise comes from him.
When I saw the movie in the theatre, one of the big laugh lines was when young Norman and Paul are talking about what they will be when they grow up. Norman says he will probably be a preacher and Paul says he wants to be a professional fly fisherman. People laughed very hard at young Paul's answer as soon as it was out of his mouth. The thing is, there are professional fly fisherman and there have been for a long time. It didn't quite exist when Paul is supposed to have made his remark but it was being pioneered.
But it is Norman's answer that should stick out. And we learn that "preacher" was his nickname as he grew up. Consider his education. Norman tells us that his father made considerable sacrifice to send him to Dartmouth. And of course he did because he thought that Norman would follow him and become a preacher. The story of that rebellion never gets told. The way Norman tells the story, it is his father who suggests that he take up being a professor. There has to have been more to it than that.
When Norman sits down with his father to discuss his career after returning from Dartmouth, the career he wants to follow is with the forestry service. That is what he really wanted to do. In real life, Norman wanted to do something not unlike being a professional fly fisherman.
I don't think it was so simple as his father wanted him to do something else and they fought and Norman went east after the fight. There were all sorts of forces at work. He was teaching about a religion of nature whose scripture was romantic poetry and he couldn't do that while living close to his father. He wanted the girl and she was the sort of girl guys in the forestry service didn't get. And he'd had taste of a kind of social status out east that also didn't come from the forestry service. But the dream was always Montana and the boy who could live there forever and he betrayed that dream. So he wrote a story about it.
There are two follow up posts coming.