Four Seasons: Variations in American Vitalist Film Comedy
by Paul H. Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe
© Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies 2018
Winter Vitalism: Driving Miss Daisy
As we approach Driving Miss Daisy, an obvious question comes to mind: How is a film about an old woman progressing to death’s door and a middle-aged man becoming an old man comedy at all, much less Vitalist Comedy? Driving Miss Daisy is what we have in other works termed Senior Comedy. Not all Senior Comedy takes on the Winter vitalist form that we shall be discussing in this chapter. But all Senior Comedy focuses on a success or survival of one or more older characters, beyond child-bearing years if not beyond marriage. Senior Comedy forces us to consider the meaning of success within limited potential for the future, within the reality of declining physical if not mental abilities. And the presence and pressure of limitations would seem to make Senior Comedy at least well suited for Winter Vitalism, which in its Langerian humors sees little Potential, has little capacity for Performance, and even has to let go of Tenacity, yet still may exercise life-affirming Creativity.
At the outset of the film, based on a play by Alfred Uhry, Miss Daisy, a southern Jewess (played by Jessica Tandy) can be seen as a female senex, an older character standing in the way of her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd), an up-and-coming business leader. Miss Daisy stubbornly refuses to admit that given her age and recent driving accident, she needs Hoke, an African American, (played by Morgan Freeman), whom Boolie has hired. She does eventually acquiesce, grudgingly. Over several decades, Miss Daisy is forced to accept the increasing limitations of age and her increasing dependence on Hoke, culminating in the final scene in which she willingly accepts Hoke feeding her Thanksgiving pie. Yet the triumph is not Boolie's—the son, the man with the good idea—but Miss Daisy's. For in the struggle with age, which she must eventually lose, she has taught Hoke to read, she has taken steps towards overcoming racial prejudice, and she has retained self-respect. Miss Daisy is no longer an impediment to a comedic hero but rather the heroine herself.
At the same time, there are two other heroes in Driving Miss Daisy. Hoke demonstrates comedic success in a somewhat more traditional manner. Through patience, grace, and humility, Hoke wins Miss Daisy’s confidence, he learns to read, he becomes a respected advisor to Boolie on Miss Daisy’s affairs, he replaces Boolie as a personal guardian to Miss Daisy, and he eventually becomes Miss Daisy’s best friend.
Boolie too is something of a hero, a very nontraditional hero. Throughout the film, his business grows and changes to adapt to new economic realities, so that by retirement he has received special recognition from the Atlanta business community.
Yet this success is mere background to his greater personal success. Boolie exercises extraordinary patience and humility throughout, letting his wife push him around and letting his mother scold and insult him. In the end, he accepts graciously being dismissed to charm the nurses. Hardly the strong hero. But early in the film, Boolie makes the crucial decision, an investment decision if you will, to hire Hoke to be his mother’s chauffeur, helper, and friend. And that decision, despite his mother’s opposition, has paid off in extraordinary growth and profit to his mother, to Hoke, and to himself. In the ensuing years, Boolie comes to accept gratefully Hoke, his formerly illiterate employee, as a wise friend and confidante in his mother’s affairs.
The great success of all three of these characters, all of whom are past retirement age by the end of the film, has little to do with society’s future, of rearing new generations, even of political progress, though the Civil Rights movement is documented throughout. It has to do with inner growth. That growth is related to the wearing down of racial and religious barriers but extends much beyond it to learning to see oneself and those around in new ways. In short, it is Re-visioning. Miss Daisy, Hoke, and Boolie all come to see themselves and those around them differently. And we as audience also re-vision their world. Re-visioning, of course, is the Regain form of Winter Vitalism.
At the start of the play, Miss Daisy suddenly needs a new view of her world: she has just backed her car over an embankment and thus wiped out not only her car but also any chance of being reinsured. She has gone from mobile to immobile, from driver to passenger, from independent to dependent in a matter of seconds. Seeing herself as driven around by a chauffeur is not merely challenging; it is offensive.
Miss Daisy does not re-vision easily. She is accustomed to seeing things her way and enforcing it. Throughout the film, she resists re-visioning, despite respectful coaxing from Boolie, tactful indirections from Hoke, and heavy clobbering from reality. It takes her six days of sullenness and insult toward Hoke, who is trying to make himself useful, before she is willing to see the chauffeur solution to her situation as even worth a try. And within minutes of getting into the car, she is forced to recognize that she has never known the shortest route to the grocery store, and worse, that Hoke does.
Miss Daisy is bent on seeing Hoke as incompetent and dishonest. It is a brutal reality check for her to discover that rather than stealing a can of salmon (as she has presumed), Hoke has merely eaten of it and then purchased a replacement. And this revelation occurs only after she has demanded that Boolie come to confront Hoke with theft. She makes no apology or admission of error to anyone, resisting Re-vision. But she must learn to see Hoke as an honest and very capably responsible workman.
At a deeper level, she must learn to see herself as having responsibilities towards Hoke as a person, not merely as her son’s employee. Despite her stereotypical prejudice against Hoke, she is surprised to learn that he has not been taught to read. And going a step further, she recognizes, as a former first grade teacher, that she has a responsibility to teach him.
And at a broader level, Miss Daisy needs to recognize that the anti-Semitic bombing of her synagogue puts her in a class with Hoke, whose church can be bombed because of racial hatred. Her wealth and her whiteness do not protect her from the prejudice of others, nor do they justify prejudice on her own part.
Miss Daisy’s Re-visioning is always through resistance, rebellion, and retort. She has insisted all along that she is not racist, while her actions have belied her. When she has an opportunity to join the cream of Atlanta at a dinner honoring Martin Luther King, she feels morally superior to Boolie who shuns attendance in fear of business loss. Yet she has not overcome prejudice enough to offer her second ticket to Hoke, rationalizing that Hoke would not really want to go. Then not only must she deal with Hoke’s hurt, she must recognize that Hoke will not cover for her this time with a submissive “Yessam.”
Miss Daisy accepts none of these realities gladly. Yet by the end of the film, Miss Daisy has come to see that Hoke has been her best friend, that she relies on him and trusts him more than any other. This is a key revelation for her and a great comedic success. Yet she never achieves the understanding that her son has for decades persisted in tough love, paying Hoke not only to chauffeur his mother around but also to meet numerous other practical needs while simultaneously putting up with her insults and stubbornness. Thus, Miss Daisy’s Re-visioning comedic success is only partial, but very real.
To a lesser extent, Boolie and even Hoke have also been re-visioning. Boolie has been re-visioning his business. Intermittent scenes of the Wertham textile factory show that Boolie is re-visioning not merely his factory but his business model and product. As a Chamber of Commerce leader in Atlanta, he has helped re-vision Atlanta itself and is honored for it. On a more personal level, Boolie has come to see Hoke not merely as a skilled employee but as a trusted advisor for his mother’s affairs and truly a friend. Boolie can truly rejoice on learning that Hoke’s granddaughter teaches biology at Spellman College.
Re-visioning comes much more naturally and easily to Boolie. It is essential for business success. At the same time, it has come at a certain cost to his Jewish heritage; his wife’s conspicuous, even garish, adoption of Gentile holiday trappings suggests that his own household has lost touch with its Jewish background.
Hoke in one sense has the least to revision. He has a remarkably clear picture of reality, both personal and socio-political, and he is astutely in tune with changes, particularly through the Civil Rights movement, which he follows on Miss Daisy’s kitchen television. Yet even he must revise his understanding of his own position. He does it little by little, with some help from news broadcasts covering the Civil Rights Movement. He also comes to see the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of a Jewess. By the end of the film, he sees himself as the grandfather of a college professor, a standing which he could only have dreamed of in his early adulthood. And he recognizes himself as a valuable friend and advisor to one of Atlanta’s former business moguls and his boss. The dream which Martin Luther King so boldly shared with the nation, which Hoke adopted in faith, has to some degree been unfolding in Hoke’s own life.
Hoke’s more conventional comedic success notwithstanding, the comedic success of Driving Miss Daisy as a whole and of Miss Daisy herself is primarily in Re-visioning. As Senior Comedy, the film provides a model of comedic success for an older hero who cannot reasonably be expected to marry the right person, bear and raise children, win a war, an election, or a court case, or succeed in business. What seniors can succeed at is to see the world, and perhaps more importantly to see themselves, more clearly.
As the film presents a pattern of Re-visioning successes, admittedly balked and resisted, and partial successes on Miss Daisy’s part, we as audience are also re-visioning. The repeated scenes of the modernization of Wertham Textiles allow a primarily non-Southern audience to re-vision Atlanta during a period of extraordinary growth and change. At the start of the film, Atlanta still was viewed by Northerners through the lenses of the Civil War. Its name invited images of the gracious Old South, of devastation and Sherman’s March to the Sea, of red-neck recklessness, of prejudicial corruption, of virtual single party rule, of good-ol’-boyism, and of Gentile exclusiveness. By the end of the film, Atlanta has become a rapidly growing corporate center, where a Jewish businessman can be honored by the Chamber and an African American woman can teach college biology. The film asks us to re-vision the South.
But at a deeper level, the film allows us to re-vision the face of prejudice. Prejudice cuts many ways. Miss Daisy is a victim of anti-Semitism. Yet she as much as possible hides from this reality, in part by maintaining a superiority over Hoke, an African American. As Miss Daisy grows in respect for Hoke and lets go of stereotypes, she becomes more vulnerable to red-necked prejudice articulated by Alabama’s highway patrol which rather than distinguishing between Miss Daisy and Hoke, lumps them together in compounded inferiority. And we must recognize the vulnerability she must accept in order to live in reality.
In the bombing of her synagogue, we recognize that racial bigotry and religious bigotry wear similar masks. But we also recognize the challenge it is for Miss Daisy to realize that Jews are as vulnerable as African Americans to such hatred. And we recognize the depth of character in Hoke, character built from decades of facing bigotry with his eyes open, character which allows him to deal gently with Miss Daisy from a perspective of experience.
And finally, the film asks us to recognize the inadequacy of so many who think of themselves as on the right side of racism, pointing the finger elsewhere. As Miss Daisy smugly enjoys dinner with Atlanta’s elite, Hoke is waiting outside with the car, listening on the radio as Martin Luther King is castigating “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” The film asks us to challenge and revision our own understanding of bigotry in all its complexity, scope, and social infrastructure and even to reconsider our own part in it. At the same time it asks us to recognize that things are not as black and white as they might seem and that hasty divisions between the children of darkness and the children of light are misled and misleading.
Thus in comedic form, Driving Miss Daisy, a Senior Comedy, is clearly dependent on Re-visioning for it to be a comedy at all. The film is patterned to demonstrate Miss Daisy’s success in learning to see her world differently, incrementally, recalcitrantly, yet inexorably. And Re-visioning is the Winter vitalist humor form. But if the film is to be an exemplar of Winter Vitalism, it must also exhibit a Winter Gladness Impulse, the Spirit of Dance.
The senior character of the film raises the obvious challenge: how does a comedy about an old woman being chauffeured around exhibit any sense of the kinesthetic, much less of Dance? There are no choreographed dances in the film, not even marching units. Arguing for a Spirit of Dance in Driving Miss Daisy seems a bit audacious.
A significant clue to the kinesthetic in Driving Miss Daisy is the car itself. It is the loss of her car that brought Miss Daisy to a crisis point, and the introduction of a new car and a new means of moving that begins her comedic journey. The introduction and credits of the film focus on moving wheels, and the musical theme, articulated in rollicking clarinet, suggests energy and life spirit channeled through the movement of the car. Miss Daisy gets around; she’s on the move—as long as Hoke is driving.
But more to the drive of the film, more intertwined with the pattern of Re-visioning is another dance: the entire relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke can be argued to be a dance, a couple’s dance, with appropriate protocols. Hoke has been hired by Boolie to chauffeur his mother. Yet to actually drive anywhere, Hoke must successfully persuade Miss Daisy to join him. So he invites Miss Daisy to dance: he approaches her with cautious respect, coaxing her, never truly accepting refusal, until she finally accepts.
From their first ride, Miss Daisy wants to lead; she tells Hoke he is going much too fast and that he is going the wrong way. But for there to be a dance, Hoke must lead; if he is the chauffer, he must drive—and he tells her so.
The car rides are always smooth; Boolie buys quality cars with good suspension. But the dance between Miss Daisy and Hoke is awkward. She frequently steps on his toes with insults and insensitivity; she frequently wants to lead when she should follow. Sometimes Miss Daisy doesn’t want to dance at all. Many times Hoke sits out while Miss Daisy goes off with others—her Alabama relatives, Boolie’s Christmas party, the synagogue, the Martin Luther King dinner. Yet Miss Daisy always returns to her car and to Hoke, her primary dancing partner.
Through the progression of the film, more and more the two move together, not just in the car and on the road, where they must navigate the dangers of Alabama bigotry and Georgia anti-Semitism. They are moving through life together, through ice storms, through the death of Miss Daisy’s cook, Idella, through the gradual decline of physical and mental abilities for both of them.
Gradually Miss Daisy is learning to move in tandem with another, to trust and respect Hoke, to risk being less in charge, to give up some independence of mind, to be vulnerable, to have and to be a friend, to move from “I” to “we.”
In the final scene at the nursing home, when Miss Daisy walks only with a walker and can barely maneuver a table fork and Hoke no longer drives, they are still dancing. She easily allows Hoke to feed her pumpkin pie. Hoke is having the last dance.
We turn, then, to the Bergsonian/Langerian dynamics of the Winter vitalist film, Langerian Creativity. In other writings, we have illustrated Langerian Creativity humor as the “light bulb” idea depicted frequently by cartoonists indicating a brilliant, clever, unexpected—and often humorous—idea. Such Langerian Creativity is thoroughly consonant with Re-visioning. Re-visioning may even come as a sudden bright idea, an epiphany. As a new vision, it may enable a new idea to spring forth as a new way to handle challenges. And it makes us smile
It is important to recognize, however, that Langerian Creativity is not a bursting forth of a chaos of ideas, a reveling in non-conformity, a delighting in the unconventional for its own sake. Rather it is the generating of a new and unexpected idea and at least the beginnings of setting it into motion, bringing it toward fruition. A creative idea needs more than itself: someone needs to at least start to to see it through.
Normally, the momentary humor of a film exists only in the moment, moving from one good laugh or smile to another, perhaps in close succession or perhaps intermittently, and the sum of such “jokes” creates a feeling, a texture, or a dynamis. But occasionally a film or play is structured in its whole as a particular form of momentary joke. Such is the case with both Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Shakespeare’s Henry V. Both are structured as grand Gotcha jokes. In the case of Driving Miss Daisy, the entire film is structured around a grand Langerian Creativity joke:
Boolie’s mother totaled her car and has become uninsurable and thus housebound. Boolie got the bright idea to buy a car and hire a chauffeur. Since the chauffer would be paid by Boolie, Miss Daisy could not fire him.
From there it is all history. All of the dance and much of the re-visioning of the film exists within this Creativity joke. All of the subtle humor of the film, Langerian and otherwise, exists within or coexists with this grand Creativity joke.
This joke could be played at the expense of Miss Daisy, in Bergsonian fashion, inviting repeated condescending laughter at Miss Daisy. But instead, Boolie and Hoke play the joke with gentle respect for Miss Daisy, allowing her as well as the two of them to be refreshed, to re-vision, even to dance. The fact that a clever solution to a sticky problem over decades turns into deep and lasting friendships all the more attests to the vital, life-affirming character of this grand joke. The persistence of this grand, gentle Creativity joke creates deep smiles throughout, despite many challenging and even ugly episodes.
Yet within the framework of that grand life-affirming Creativity joke, we have Miss Daisy, who, we readily concede, at least superficially, doesn’t affirm life very much at all. She is backward looking, rigid, scornful of just about everyone else, stubborn, and inflexible. In short, she has attributes of a Bergsonian clown, exhibiting particularly Bergsonian Tenacity (stubbornness) and Bergsonian Creativity (addiction to fixed ideas). When Hoke reports to Boolie his first successful drive with Miss Daisy, both men enjoy something of a laugh at her expense: “It took the good Lord six days….” Respect for her status as Boolie’s mother restrains laughter in them, and also in us. Clearly Miss Daisy is clinging to the mechanical, the dead. And she is technically laughable. Yet her laughability is muted by the grand Langerian Creativity joke.
As we look for momentary Langerian vitalist humor in the film, we must recognize that humor in Senior Comedy is frequently fragile. Serious consideration of advancing age requires that we recognize the fragility of age, and perhaps such consideration demands a respect for our elders and even for our own mortality. The humor in Driving Miss Daisy is fragile.
Furthermore, any Langerian humor coming from Miss Daisy will have to be life breaking through some very heavy armor of self-defense, self-justification, and inflexible habits of mind. And given that Miss Daisy herself has all the trappings of non-aliveness, we will need to look, at least initially, at other characters for Langerian Creativity.
In contrast to Miss Daisy, Hoke is alive, deeply alive, even though his humble stance minimizes any sense of physical prowess, and as the film progresses he very gradually grows more stooped and lame. The key to his aliveness is his humility. Hoke quietly, self-effacingly, inexorably exercises creativity. And in a quiet way, we come to smile in recognition of Langerian, life-affirming, Creativity.
This Langerian Creativity is not easily recognizable because part of Hoke’s creativity is not to let it show, not to appear smarter than Miss Daisy, not to seem to be getting his way. Yet in the end the results tell all. Hoke has managed to stay employed by Boolie, chauffeuring his obstinate mother for decades: he has won her trust and friendship, as well as Boolie’s; and he has helped Miss Daisy to re-vision her world without losing face. And he has done it not by being dogged, but by being highly creative. The first shared joke between Boolie and Hoke over Miss Daisy is a clue to Hoke’s creativity: the time it took Hoke to win the first round with Miss Daisy was the time it took God to create the world. (In fact, this joke points deeper to the source of Hoke’s aliveness—his faith in God.)
We smile to learn that when Boolie trades in for a newer model the car Hoke first drove for Miss Daisy, Hoke has the quickness of mind to buy the car himself, knowing how well it has been cared for Yet for the most part, it is not Hoke’s actions but the results of his actions that testify to his creativity. Hoke’s creativity comes from a long tradition of effective subservience, of solving problems in such a way as not to show up the employer, of being self-effacing but not self-deprecating, of respecting one’s own intelligence without demanding that others do so. Hoke has the creativity to lose the first round in order that in the long run he may win the battle.
In this, Hoke follows the dictum of Caesar Augustus: make haste slowly. Like a highly skilled diplomat, Hoke often moves by indirection but without deceit, by discretion but without disguise. Hoke’s manner is restrained, yet we can see in the light in his eyes and the pucker of his lips that his mind is constantly working on tactful problem-solving, not merely for his own benefit but for the benefit of Miss Daisy. And we smile to sense the alive, creative mind at work. In all this, Hoke is playing at the center of the grand Creativity joke.
Despite her Bergsonian proclivity, Miss Daisy herself learns to exercise her own kind of Creativity. She is stubborn, yes. Yet inwardly, surreptitiously, on second thought, she adapts and grows. And herein—in her stubbornness and pride—lies the key Miss Daisy's Creativity.
Such is the case with a little altercation over fried chicken. With the loss of Idella, Miss Daisy and Hoke must navigate food preparation together. She does not receive graciously Hoke’s recommendation to turn down the heat under their fried chicken. Nevertheless, when she thinks he won’t notice, she, in fact, turns down the heat. And later she proclaims, “Hoke and I know how to make fried chicken.” We smile at her relational creative adaptability.
And in this pattern is the potential for double-edged humor: we may laugh at Miss Daisy's stubbornness, but as the movie progresses, we are more likely to laugh—or rather smile—in response to the life force asserting itself, growing out of stubbornness and then overcoming it creatively. Stubbornness and pride are a platform for adapting, Langerian Creativity, sprung from Bergsonian idée fixe.
The case for the Langerian Creativity humor of Miss Daisy is perhaps tenuous. Her creativity is subtle, in some senses minimal, in many senses childish. And yet in some senses it is extraordinary. It costs her a great deal. Miss Daisy’s creativity grows from her weakness, and it opens her up to ridicule and scorn in order that she be able to take the next step, to stave off stultification and death. And it is this creative, complex formula of resistance, vulnerability, and adaptability that provoke a humor response in Boolie and Hoke—a humor that responds finally not to her foolishness but to her affirmation of life that is so strong that a proud, stubborn woman is willing to look foolish in order to be alive. Theirs is a humor of deep respect and affection.
We need to recognize too that Miss Daisy, as she adapts, moves away from independence to a stumbling, awkward cooperation with Hoke. She could not have changed at all without the prompting of Hoke, her very graceful dancing partner. More and more it is the two of them who navigate the challenges of getting older. It is a measure of Miss Daisy’s creative adaptation and change that she is willing to join an African American in this dance of life—and ultimately to let him lead.
Like Fiddler on the Roof, then, Driving Miss Daisy emphasizes the three Winter vitalist humors: Creativity momentary humor, Re-vision Regain humor, and the Gladness Impulse Spirit of Dance. Compared to Fiddler on the Roof with its robust Winter vitalist humors, Driving Miss Daisy is greatly subdued. Like a great deal of Senior Comedy, its momentary humor is fragile, particularly exhibited in the extremely subdued Creativity humor apparent throughout the film and attested to by extremely muted-to-suppressed smiles rather than in boisterous laughter. At the same time, its Re-vision form of Vitalism is persistent, driving, and enduring. And the Spirit of Dance in the strong kinesthetic sense of a couple’s dance, notably a dance between a recalcitrant partner and a graceful expert, contributes to a hauntingly enduring dynamis.
For Spring, Summer, and Fall variants of Vitalist Comedy, the dynamis we as audience take away from the film is related to what we expect would be the implied future of the film’s story, film’s virtual future—that is, some implicit but not stated extension, happily ever after—or not-so-happily-and-with-challenges ever after. Karl of The Student Prince will marry the Princess of Nordhausen and rule as a humane, wise king who respects his people and his wife, whether or not he is not in love with her, carrying in his heart the treasure of having loved Kathy. Princess Ann in Roman Holiday will return to her role, sadder but stronger and richer for her experience. We are confident of such a future because the work in its entirety, without claiming such a future, projects it implicitly.
In contrast, Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t project a virtual future. There is no suggestion of any life for Miss Daisy beyond the Thanksgiving celebration. There is nothing shocking in the idea that perhaps Miss Daisy dies immediately after the final curtain, though an immediate death is neither projected or artistically required.
Similarly, in Fiddler on the Roof, there is no need for a virtual future, though the refugees have been allowed to state their destinations—Yente for the Holy Land, Lazar Woolf for Chicago, Tevye’s family for New York. There may be a virtual future in Fiddler for Tevye.
Yet virtual futures are typically hazy. They are defined more by what is excluded than what is included. The virtual future in Fiddler is that some will make it, because not all of them fail to make it. History, in short, the history into which the film is set, fills out a diverse and divergent virtual future for the Jewish community at large. So with difficulty, a great work of Winter-variant Vitalism like Fiddler on the Roof can have virtual future elements.
But Winter-variation Vitalist Comedy doesn’t need a virtual future. Neither does Winter dynamis adhere to the virtual future, whether in Chicago, New York, or the Holy Land. The dynamic in Fiddler is the dynamis generated by Tevye, statically if you will—static as in a snapshot photo—leaving Anatevka, pushing his cart, accompanied by the Fiddler, the song, and the dance—Tevye who has ceased from the vigorous kinesthetics of tying down his cart to return to his faith and to a blessing on his daughter, Chava, the little dove, the poor man’s sacrifice of biblical Judaism.
Driving Miss Daisy and Fiddler on the Roof, neither one needs to go on. Yet all Vitalist Comedy is characterized by an emotional dynamis, a strong inner sense that we as audience should rise, moving toward some incipient action. Since life responds to life and since Vitalist comedies are redundantly humorous precisely in their presentation of extraordinary vitality, this sense of incipient action in some sense parallels the life we have just been witnessing throughout the artistic production.
But when does the dynamis begin? In Fiddler on the Roof, we are not ready for the dynamic as the Jews of Anatevka pack their belongings and say their final farewells to their homes and to each other. And as Chava and Fyedka appear on the road, we are even further from the release of dynamis. All is tension; Tevye is frozen into inflexible religious attitudes even while he intensifies all the kinesthetic activities of tying down his cart with all the family’s remaining worldly possessions.
And then Tzeitel intervenes. And in Tzeitel’s intervention, Tevye breaks out of his frozen attitudes in favor of his living faith, even as the kinesthetics of his preparations are left in abeyance. From that moment, the dynamic is allowed to build, through silent scenes of trudging refugees away from Anatevka, over a river and into, hopefully, new life. The roads deepen into quagmires, quagmires that suggest a breaking of the frost, an inevitable if cruel movement toward spring.
But the dynamis is not of that suggested coming spring. The movie ends with Tevye alone, pulling his cart—and then joined by the Fiddler, with a dance tune and a dance step.
And the dynamis is fully developed.
Turning to Driving Miss Daisy, the dynamis cannot take over even as Miss Daisy moves to the nursing home, or as Boolie drives Hoke out to the nursing home, or as Miss Daisy crosses a sitting room in her walker to meet them or even as she dismisses Boolie to “charm the nurses.” It can’t yet be said to exist as Hoke leads her to a table and sits with her as Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is served.
But immediately after, and most because of a look in Miss Daisy’s eyes, the dynamic rapidly mounts. Her attitudes have all softened. She is in the presence of her true and best friend, whom she has acknowledged to be such, and she will not go back on that momentous decision. It has always been that simple. It all finally comes down to a simple truth that only the free can share with themselves and with each other.
Things are far enough along that Miss Daisy cannot lift a fork to her mouth successfully. And now in a finally graceful, grace-filled gesture, Miss Daisy accepts Hoke’s friendship as he lifts a fork to her mouth—and Hoke is as he has ever been, graceful and grace-filled in his half of the dance.
What then is this Winter dynamis? All three of the Winter vitalist humor forms contribute to the Winter dynamis. Re-visioning has throughout the film contributed a strenuous sense of the work of dealing with the past, turning from it, and facing the challenges of the future through new lenses. The burden of the past has been somewhat lifted, but the strenuousness of facing the future remains. And there is now a sense of bearing down as characters take the next step.
Langerian Creativity during both films creates a sense of buoyancy, even a sense of riding above the challenges. Yet as the films move toward their final scenes, this sense of buoyancy dissipates. The creativity which was conceived in humorous delight must move toward fruition, calling for focus and concentration in seeing it through. The characters of Miss Daisy are seeing through the grand Creativity joke all the way to pumpkin pie. Tevye is seeing through his own, vital response to life, his own creative theology.
The Spirit of Dance has throughout contributed a sense of buoyancy, of concentration, of cooperation, and a striving for balance. But the end, buoyancy has dissipated, leaving concentration, balance, and again a sense of seeing it through.
We have noted that dance involves a repeated loss and regain of balance. There are many turns, many twists, but in the end, there is balance. And there is ending well. In gymnastics we call it “sticking it.” Our emphasis being Vitalism in American film, it is perhaps natural for us to turn to an American source for a deeper exploration of the Spirit of Dance. The Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” written by Joseph Brackett, appropriately set to “a quick dance” puts it thus:
the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
“Turn” in Brackett’s poem seems to suggest the essence of dance, and dance as turn is certainly appropriate to accompany Re-visioning, a mental turning. Dances turn and turn again. Even a simple dance has many turns, and complex dances need a special field of choreography simply to describe their turns.
So the Spirit of Dance is intensely kinesthetic, intensely involved in turn and turn again. But paradoxically, all the kinesthesia, all the turning is there in order to come down in “the place just right,” to achieve stasis and the appropriate culmination of action in non-action, in the right cessation of the turn.
Dances are art products, and the great majority of them like the vast majority of art products through the ages, need to come to some definite culmination and end. They can’t indefinitely go on being manufactured. They have to come off the production line as some finally completed thing, some unity, some oneness. The stasis of coming off production is also the certificate of oneness.
Something similar, we believe, is the key to the dynamis of Winter Vitalist Comedy. As Winter, it does not go on to a next stage; it culminates, it ends, and it comes down right.
Brackett knows this at a foundational level:
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.
As Brackett also highly suggests, this dynamis frequently, perhaps always, is trying to find the simple and the free. It finds these to some degree in the turning and turning again, but the ultimate gift of the dance is the simple and free, appropriate stasis. In Driving Miss Daisy, we sense this simplicity particularly in Miss Daisy, at rest, being fed pumpkin pie by Hoke.
So the spirit of Dance moves toward “sticking it,” toward an at least momentary cameo stillness before the dance dissolves and the dancers leave the floor. This is as true of line dancing as of couples dancing, as true of the Broadway chorus lines as of figure-skating Olympians.
And thus Winter Vitalist Comedy lifts us out of our seats to be “about it,” to get the job done, to move toward an appropriate, balanced, often simplified, free—appropriate—stasis that can be held and that demands nothing further.
And we are lifted out of our seats to seek just that simplicity, that freedom, to “stick it,” to come down simple, free, and right. The dynamic for us is just such incipient action, action that is nonsensical in its turning unless it can come to an end, to a place just right.
Do we really leave the theatre for such turning, turning that comes down right? Perhaps for some of us we do. But the dynamis again is of incipient action, it is the urge to be about it, life imitating life, to get where Tevye has gotten. In Fiddler on the Roof it is one of the strongest dynamics ever created in drama.
Tevye’s version of the dance and of the dynamic is muscular. His dance has been of constant passionate turns, with his God primarily and with an often-vicious world secondarily.
Contrastingly, Miss Daisy, Hoke—and perhaps most instructively Boolie—have turned and turned with a minimalist sense of turning at all. And yet, at the final curtain they have reached a distant star for which Martin Luther King had a dream.
Together, they have stuck it. Turning, turning they’ve come down right, they’ve come down where they ought to be and remarkably, as Brackett predicted, they’ve found themselves in the valley of love and delight, the simple delight of thanksgiving pumpkin pie gratefully and gracefully accepted.