FOR A long time I believed the connection of film and philosophy to be a private crossroads of my own. It became explicit for me during that period in my life I learned later, in a calmer period, to call my identity crisis. I had, after college in the late '40s, entered the Juilliard Conservatory as a composition major, following some two years of increasing doubts that music was my life.
Almost as soon as I arrived in New York and established myself in school, I began avoiding my composition lessons. I spent my days reading and my nights in a theater, typically standing for the opera or a play, and then afterwards going to a film revival on 42nd Street, which in the late '40s was a rich arena within which to learn the range and randomness of the American talkie. What I was reading all day I privately called philosophy, though I knew no more about what other people meant by the word than I knew about why it was in philosophy that I was looking for the answer to the question my life had become.
Since I had spent my undergraduate years torn between the wish to be a writer and the fact of composing music for the student theater--for anything ranging from numbers for our annual musical revues to incidental music for nothing less than "King Lear"--what I learned would scarcely, I mean by European standards, have added up to an education at all. But I was encouraged to go on learning from the odd places, and the odd people, that it pleased my immigrant, unlettered father and my accomplished mother to take me--he who was in love with the knowledge he would never have, and she who, while I was growing up, made a living playing the piano for silent movies and for vaudeville.
The commonest place we went together was to movies. So before I entered college I would not have heard a performance of, say, the Beethoven Ninth, and lacked obvious preparation in the history of music and of German culture to know fully what to make of it. But I had known enough to attend carefully, for example, to the moves of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Jerome Kern, so that when the chorus in the last movement of the Ninth sings the two principal themes in counterpoint, the ecstasy this caused me had been prepared by my response to the closing of "Swing Time," in which one of the pair is singing again "A Fine Romance" while the other is singing again "The Way You Look Tonight."
This would not have constituted the preparation I claim for high art unless it had gone beyond cleverness. It is essential that each of the Kern songs is as good individually as it is, so that when the pair cast them together in the reprise, each can be seen capable, so to speak, of meaning the separate song he and she have on their minds. In the same way the lyrics of such songs were preparation for the high poetry I had yet to discover. In my early adolescence, lines I heard such as:
Heaven, I'm in heaven
And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak
When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.
A stanza such as this was what I thought of as poetry--nothing else will be poetry for me that cannot compete with the experience of concentration and lift in such words. It seems to me that I knew . . . the drama of using the vanishing of the streak, which is a bad thing, as a simile for the vanishing of cares; and the access of heaven, which is a good thing, as if to get beyond bad and good and hence to purify the thought that intimacy of an absoluteness emblematized in the dancing of Astaire and Rogers is irreducibly a function of luck, whatever that is. Eventually I would be able to note that happiness and happenstance spring from the same root, that the pursuit of happiness--whether this is an occasion for a step into selfhood or into nationhood--requires the bravery to recognize and seize the occasion or, as Emerson put it, "the courage to be what you are."