There is a bird called the Eastern Screech Owl and it is masterful at hiding and using the wit of camouflage to perch safely in the bark of a tree. It’s not a tree. It’s a feathered bird. But it looks like a tree. It’s protected from its predators by a visual pun.
This is the kind of thing that got me thinking about the story of an administrative employee at a private school in Manhattan. Read on to see what I mean.
Imagine working as an Admissions officer at an exclusive school for girls. The families of the girls who apply, whom you meet and assess, day after day, are hoping to be accepted. Those whom you choose will enter the halls of the place that you work. They’ll start their ‘career’ in kindergarten and learn the ropes of excellence all the way through 12th grade.
But this is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Many of these families are not in the habit of dealing with the kind of vulnerability and need they feel in your office. A lot is riding on your decision. So you’ll have to show authority with some very over-confident people, even if only briefly, in this one circumstance between you. You better not show that you’re nothing like them, that your life is nothing like theirs. When you walk into work, you better look the part you’re playing. And hide who you really are.
The script is spun around this idea. It centers on Ruth Duffy, who is working to build her own life, and Jonny Collins, who can’t get her out of his mind, even nine years after a line between them has been drawn.
Nine years is a kind of ‘rhyme’ with nine months, and the line that has divided them has also tied them profoundly together.
Is Jonny a wily bastard or a wonderfully romantic hero? He’s both. He spots Ruth after all these years, and she instantly re-captures his fraught and compulsive attention. She is the one who moved up and out after high school, who has worked to establish career aspirations, alone in a small apartment.
In her new life, she keeps much of her past, her talents and losses, her record of trouble, hidden from view. For the personal and the professional assertion of authority, she has had to devise a costume.
But when Jonny crosses paths with her, he sees the owl within the bark.
And then, insult to injury, the transformation that Ruth has been gradually undergoing, over the past nine years, Jonny creates in a day.
He changes his clothes. He plots fresh mischief. Ruth sees it; he’s mocking her life and conjuring a plan that plays loosely upon the class divisions that she contends with every day. He seems to be enjoying himself but, for Ruth, the menace and maneuvering hurts.
And yet Jonny has also felt injury.
It’s easy, even intuitive, for him to slide himself into Ruth’s life, trespass into a role, hide inside an effective costume, stage a heist, have some fun but, ultimately, these games are beside the point.
The script plays on the format of The Shop Around the Corner (1940). A movie I love. The Lubitsch romance is the story of anonymous letters exchanged between two lonely strangers (Margaret Sullavan, Jimmy Stewart) only known to each other as “dear Friend.” No one is dearer than the writer of those letters for either of these two characters. But of course the story reveals, before they know it themselves, that they do know each other. They work together in a Budapest luggage shop, and they can’t stand each other.
This simple device seemed useful for a story set in a private school with spiraling themes of money and access. Ruth receives an application written in a voice that transcends the sameness and sense of entitlement lurking in many of those that come across her desk.
Ruth has no idea this application was written by Jonny, the man she’s most determined to avoid.
Once again, appearances are deceiving, and mischief is both disruptive and romantic.
– SC. 2.2.2019
(More on ‘them’ – those chosen families and gamblers, and especially the characters of Nan and Steven Noble – in a later note.)
We met when we were in school
Never took no shit from no one, we weren't fools
The teacher says we're dumb
We're only having fun
We piss on everyone
In the classroom
When we got thrown out I left without much fuss
An' weekends we'd go dancing
Down Streatham on the bus
You always made me laugh
Got me in bad fights
Play me pool all night
I practiced daily in my room
You were down the crown planning your next move
Go on a nicking spree
Hit the wrong guy
Each of you get three
Years in Brixton
I did my very best to write
How was butlins?
Were the screws too tight?
When you lot get out
Were gonna hit the town
We'll burn it fuckin' down
To a cinder
'Cause years have passed and things have changed
And I move anyway I want to go
I'll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you'd got home
An' I'll never forget the smile on my face
'Cause I knew where you would be
An' if you're in the crown tonight
Have a drink on me
But go easy...step lightly...stay free
Songwriters: Joe Strummer / Mick Jones /
Paul Simonon / Topper Headon
Stay Free lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group