Some weeks ago Katja and I went to the Mariemont Cinema to see a Norwegian movie called O’Horten. We don’t go to Norwegian movies very much (i.e., we never went to a Norwegian movie before) so we didn’t know what to expect.
The lead character, Odd Horten, is a train engineer who is retiring after 40 years of service, having lived a simple life, mostly performing his responsible but routine job. (Odd, incidentally, is a common name in Norway and does not have the connotations we associate with it). Beginning on the night of his retirement dinner, he has a succession of disorienting experiences: he visits his demented mother who is mute and virtually catatonic; he climbs a scaffolding to try to get to a party in a locked apartment building, but a little boy insists that Odd sit by his bedside while he falls asleep, then makes him an all-night hostage by threatening to play his drums; misadventure causes Odd to miss his final train run; he goes to his tobacco shop to replace his pipe but the proprietor is dead; he gets lost in an utterly baffling airport, then is taken into custody as a suspected security threat; he watches well-dressed businessmen slide on their rear ends down an icy Oslo street, while another man walks up the street without difficulty carrying a salmon; he befriends a distinguished old man who demonstrates his gift of driving his car around town while blindfolded; he takes a nude swim in a public pool but is interrupted by lesbian lovers and finds himself escaping down the street in red high-heeled boots. The next to last scene shows Odd in the cab of his train going through a pitch black tunnel with a bright light at the end. I told Katja that I thought this depicted Horten’s death, but she rejected this idea. Though I was quite certain about this, I couldn’t find a single critic who agree with my interpretation.
I’m sure O’Horten elicited very polarized reactions. At first I gave it a C+. It’s perhaps the slowest movie I’ve ever seen. I have come to favor movies starring Bruce Willis that have explosions in them every few minutes, so I initially felt that absolutely nothing at all happened in O’Horten. Over the next few days, though, the movie nagged at me. Among other questions, what did Horton’s strange experiences have to do with his having just retired? Horton had left a completely familiar, highly structured world and now was confronted with a bewildering array of unfamiliar situations which took on a surreal character. I’ve had occasional experiences of this sort recently, having lost about 80% of the deeply ingrained foci of my conscious life. What do these bizarre experiences have to do with aging? If Horton’s perceptions didn’t signal the early stages of dementia, they were at least consistent with some of the confusion and bewilderment that accompanies the loss of gray matter. Maybe this wasn’t such a boring movie after all.
The film did remind me of going to the Museum of Modern Art for the first time as a college student. It had just rained as I left, and the entire wet streetscape took on a Picasso-esque flavor with bizarre juxtapositions of odd shapes and colors, strange fluctuating events. It was both eerie and thrilling, a demonstration of how our senses can be substantially altered by art. As I walked down Ludlow Avenue for the next few days after seeing O’Horten, I became aware of how many quirky and inexplicable things were going on around me. Ludlow is a very rich and rather unpredictable place. So I started keeping track of some these in a diary which I titled “Strange Experiences.” Here are a few of the recent entries -- what Odd Horten might have seen if he came to Cincinnati and took a walk on Ludlow Avenue and environs:
A robin stood stock still in our front lawn. When the dogs ran toward it, it didn’t fly but hip-hopped thirty feet over to our neighbor’s yard.
A group of six young men in gym shorts raced past me on the other side of Ludlow Ave. Within a second or two, four young women in gym shorts raced past me on my side of the street.
A young couple walked by, speaking animatedly in Czechoslovakian or perhaps Egyptian.
Someone left a large watermelon in a green recycling bin on the sidewalk with a slice cut through its upper half. Out of curiosity, I lifted the top up, and hundreds of tiny fruit flies flew out at me.
A gray-haired balding man walked down street holding four dalmations who tugged at their leashes and pulled him in three different directions.
A young woman in jeans sat on the sidewalk soliciting money with a large sign and basket while she was completely absorbed in what looked like a 600-page philosophy book.
A man helped unload furniture from a moving van across the street while wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
A woman picked her teeth while chatting with a companion in the front window of the new coffee shop.
An African-American woman walked by wearing a multi-colored baseball cap that read “I Love Barack.”
As I passed a neighbor’s driveway a rooster stood there looking at me.
A teenager walked by and the rooster turned and followed him down the street.
A complete stranger across hollered to me from across the street, “We were just talking about your dogs, and there you are!”
Two giggling Chinese girls asked if they could take photos of one another with the sheepdogs (which they did).
An SUV drove by, its every square inch from top to bottom covered with thick mud.
A thirtysomething woman stood at Sitwell’s bus stop grasping the string of a very large helium balloon that proclaimed “Happy Birthday.”
Duffy pooped on someone’s lawn and I’d forgotten to bring a plastic bag. Though I didn’t notice anyone in the vicinity, I bent over as if I was holding a bag, made the fake motions of picking up three poops, shook my invisible bag up and down and pretended to tie a knot it, then nonchalantly walked off carrying my supposed acquisition in front of me to avoid the imaginary smell. (Unfortunately there was nobody there to fool.)
A six foot tall dark-skinned woman with reddish-purple hair walked out of the parking lot, and I wondered if the woman were a man.
A Pakistani man outside of Graeter’s asked if he could use his laptop to Skype an image of the sheepdogs to his friend in Pakistan. The guy in Pakistan got to watch Mike and Duffy for a couple of minutes. Given their first and only international stage, the dogs didn’t do that much of interest.
An elderly man squatted outside Kellers IGA with the top of his head hairless and bloody red, appearing as though his entire scalp had been removed to about a quarter-inch depth. I wanted to ask who had done that and why, but was too embarrassed and hurried on instead.
I walked into Burnet Woods, and a young couple lay side by side on their backs in the middle of the path. I carefully stepped around them, and they didn’t seem to notice me.
By and large, we experience the world as a meaningful, orderly, and familiar place. I think that this is particularly the case when one is working full-time at a profession, since one’s thoughts tend to be centered on goal-oriented tasks and one is prone to screen out peripheral and meaningless distractions. My theory is that retirement changes things One loses their center, their cognitive boundaries become more permeable, and consequently more random, meaningless, and uninterpretable things enter in. I don’t know whether this is good or bad – probably a bit of both. I do know that walking down Ludlow Avenue is both more perplexing and more entertaining than it used to be.
Ami G. (11-2-09): Dear David, This is one of your best.
JML (11-3-09): Love that post Dad.
Vicki L (11-11-09): Hi David, Thanks so much for this heads up on retirement. On the one hand, reading your account, I felt I was transported back to my experiences in the 60's...days which have profoundly informed my life without the cost of losing all my teeth or going to jail (as in T. Leary's case). On the other hand, I live in this environment which is daily filled with the most unexpected, random events imaginable (despite my goal-oriented determination). I wonder what my retirement will look like in Santa Cruz? Perhaps instead of being consumed by the strange phenomena which I now mistake for ordinary life.....I'll see things like; dandelions or a man petting his dog on the porch or a yellow taxi cab driving by. These things would be so refreshing, would remind me of the world I once knew. I do agree .... both subjectivity and the world at large are very mysterious. Love, Vicki PS How is Katja doing?