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Writing the Wrong

That White Dress

Sharbari Ahmed

I recently re-watched a film that I have seen many times before, but now suddenly am seeing for the first time, as a filmmaker and storyteller who is starting to gain control of her instrument. Operative word here is, starting, as there are still many false notes played at any given moment by said instrument.

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in "Splendor in the Grass" (1961).

Here is what I discovered: there is a quiet moment in the marvelous film “Splendor in the Grass”, when Natalie Wood's character pauses and looks down at the pretty, white frock she is wearing. Her brow knits into a puzzled frown as she touches the collar and shakes her head ever so slightly. She smiles, but it is not a smile of pleasure, more of realisation of the futility of her efforts. She is standing in the doorway of the home of the young man she onced loved desperately, and for whom she was driven mad. He is married now, to a woman who is markedly different from the svelte Natalie Wood in appearance. This is a working class woman, in a simple, worn dress, her hands and hair dusted with flour, and an apron covering her swollen belly.

Natalie's character had gone to visit her former lover after a stint in the loony bin. She had powdered and perfumed herself, I assume to show that she had moved on. And, in fact,she had, as she was engaged to another. But the efforts she had made showed that she was not completely detached and when she saw the reality of what she had pined for, indeed driven herself mad for, she was taken aback.

I feel the director, Elia Kazan, guided her to move very little in that shot. I imagined him whispering directions in her ear: “Stand very still, barely graze the collar with your fingertips and then stop,” he might have said. There were no words, as words in this instance would have been inadequate. Kazan shot her from the waist up, her luminous face topped by a hat. It was at that moment, when she looked down at herself, but not in the way she had been, with self loathing, and self recrimination, but, rather, with total self realisation and understanding of the culmination of her journey with these feelings, that I believe all her pain ebbed away. Clarity flooded in and lit her up. Best of all, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the man and his wife, and everything to do with her.

It was not that the Warren Beatty character's life was inferior in any way to Natalie's more upscale existence and this gave her satisfaction. It was the very fact that she saw him for the frst time, through the eyes of truth, and that is what healed her. Her love for him was still intact, but now I think it was encased in glass, like a museum artifact, for her to peruse, take out, dust off, stare at and then replace in its case when she was done feeling nostalgic.

I feel the white dress she wore is a symbol of what many of us do to get over something quick or to prove something to others about our how strong we are, how much better, bigger, more important; how impervious to pain. I also believe, as is evidenced by that inspired moment of self realisation in the film, that it is an exercise in futility more often than not. One of the greatest, in fact.

We all have our white dresses. We use them as armour. For some it is money, or even a carefuly constructed persona of detachment that makes people seek out our company. This is what is worn to hide a deep loneliness. In others it is manifested in an escape, through drugs, or addictive behaviors. For others still, their white dress appears in the form of self-destructive relationships that lead them in circles and repeatedly force them to be inauthentic. What I am beginning to understand is that inauthenticity is tantamount to soul self annihilation, i.e. Murder. What is it they say? “To thine own self be true.” Why is it so hard to be true to oneself? I suppose, first, one has to identify who one is or, more importantly, who one is not. When Natalie had that moment in the doorway, she finally knew who she wasn't.

Everyone has the relationship they feel they deserve. Our relationships are essentially mirrors of our self worth. In that white dress, no matter how well it is draped, no matter how flattering the cut, it will attract precisely the thing you fear the most. Because it is worn as a shield. You think you are protecting yourself, even cherishing yourself, but actually what you are doing is effectively shutting out light, love, magic. You are deflecting laughter, the real kind that orginates in the belly and gently pokes fun at your own folly.

Director Eli Kazan with Actors Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood from "Splendor in the Grass" (1961)

My personal white dress comes in the form of being confrontational, and feisty. This is definitely one of the less imaginative armours, however, I was told recently that people buy it. It is not fake, mind you. I am fiery, there is no doubt about that, and that may never change but I also get nervous when I find myself in a conflict that I know is not really worth it. I am starting to see that I dread that. It then occurred to me that maybe I should try and stop causing conflict. Now there's a thought! My fiery nature is not inauthentic, but I can see now the way it manifests itself is inauthentic. Instead of explosive outbursts, it should be disciplined to a slow burn that knows when to show itself and to the greatest benefit of as many people as possible. This will not happen overnight as I have a few dresses hanging in my closet cut from the same pattern as the original.

It is time, though, to start the process of casting off that armour and welcoming in some light and relieving my overstuffed closet of its burdens. I urge you all to do the same. Get rid of that dress, (or pants, or whatever) and walk into the world as naked as possible. I am serious, help me out. I don't want to be the only one out there, alone, without a stitch on. It can get chilly.


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