Bright Lights Film Journal

After Love: Alan J. Pakula’s <em>The Sterile Cuckoo</em>


I just awoke, and wondered where you were.

It was the strangest feeling, like I really expected you to be there. Eventually my mind unclouded, and I recognized you were gone. Gone, gone. I’ve been dealing with your absence ever since.

In case you were wondering, I’m writing from here, where we first made our bed together, because it’s the only way I’ve found I can be at rest. I only have a couple hours, anyway. Come Saturday morning, I’m going away with my friend. So I’d better get to the point.

Turns out somebody’s made a movie about us. Which makes sense, since our love was like a movie already. From the distance of time, maybe it really was just a fantasy at that, something I thought had happened to you and me but really only occurred between me and a blank screen. A white sheet.

They called it, punishingly enough, The Sterile Cuckoo, from John Nichols’ novel of the same name. Yeah, someone went and wrote a book about us, too. Like we existed to be made into art. Of course, the names have been changed to protect the – presumed – innocents. Which is fine. Helps gain perspective. These kids seem like different people, anyway. One they call Pookie, which is I guess some weirdo East Coast upper-middle-class Princess thing. Rhymes with “kooky,” a play on cuckoo, though I’d wager she wasn’t the only goony bird here. The cuckoo, she is a pretty bird, and she lays her eggs in others’ nests for them to deal with. Sounds like someone else I know. The other they just called Jerry. Payne, because he’s a window onto what Nichols and the director Alan J. Pakula and his writer Alvin Sargent saw in us.

And what did they see? The whole mad, sad story, from hello to good-bye, fall to summer, youth to fitful experience. We met, we shared, we fell in love. Fell into bed. Had our falling out. And I guess somewhere along the way one of us fell apart. I wish I could tell you more, but that really was basically it.

You know what they called Pakula and his films? “Watchful.” Both were Yale-smart and, while not revolutionary in any meaningful sense, like few others, partly because the man himself was possessed of no special madness, no sizable ego (honestly, has anyone ever said anything bad about him? in Hollywood?), no overt will to manipulate. Only the desire to connect, to understand why people behave as they do. To the extent that he makes you want to do it, too. And because you can’t really understand a made thing without knowing why it was made (and because we are that thing), I have to ponder at the man’s motives.

Before he turned to directing, he was a boy-wonder producer – as in, Boy, wonder what happened to him. Started out with a bang making Fear Strikes Out and To Kill a Mockingbird, then had a bad run with the five other pictures he did with his director, Robert Mulligan (never liked the guy, myself), before striking out on his own with our tale of woe. So I guess it’s no surprise that it begins when we met – like we were some sort of origin story – at that bus stop, on the way to our freshman years. It ends at another depot when Jerry consigns Pookie to the heavens, so it’s about transition, right? A rite of passage. A time and a feeling that’ll soon be gone, so the movie wants to hang on to it. Memorialize it. Because it was a precious time, and it’s hard to let these things go without you going with them.

Funny thing is, it was hardly perfect, anyway. (I don’t have to tell you.) Pakula got this much right: it’s set in the 1960s, though you’d hardly guess it. All the campus unrest you’ll see, we brought there. And from the movies he made after, paranoid dramas the likes of Klute and All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and The Pelican Brief, it doesn’t take a genius to figure what he was putting in this box was naïveté. Unforeseen divorce. His split from Mulligan. Producing. He couldn’t stay innocent and make those thrillers any other way.

When people asked him what he did, he told them he was a psychiatrist, to get them to open up about themselves rather than having to hear himself talk about his own life or career. Because their stories informed his own. But like any good psych student (which he was, originally; he never did the film-school trip like his contemporaries), he would have had to admit that by telling others’ stories he was really describing himself and what he’d learned about life and the mind. Projecting an idea, emotion or experience onto somebody else – in this case his characters and actors – to see himself more clearly.

Since ours was a college love story, I can see why he was drawn to us. College is all about finding yourself, isn’t it, love about finding yourself in an other. When one of you declares that union an illusion – that’s alienation. So as one of Pakula’s co-creations, I can’t help but play at a little psychoanalysis myself, to come to an understanding of why he brought us together only to tear us apart. The point being, you understand, to find that connection we once shared, and live it again. To write you back to me. Where, frankly, you belong.

What Pakula was going for, as always, was character. He specialized in the Odd Couple, from us two to uptight detective John Klute and his prostitute-subject Bree Daniels, Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men and Lee and Hubbell in Rollover, the Orphans boys and beyond. Reconciling the two sides of himself that led him to be both a producer and a director, with a little writing thrown in to bind them. Alchemy. Combining elements to produce something new and, hopefully, golden. To do this, he had to do what anyone hoping to resolve a formless concept does: he gave it form, by finding analogs to carry his projections. He couldn’t have found two more useful dummies than us.

To look at Pookie now all I can see is her in her first scene, lagging behind her father on the way to our bus station, like Walter Elbertson in the beginning of Pakula’s Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing. She’s got some catching up to do. So out-there and exposed and weirdly optimistic. Paranoid to the teeth, like Bree, Woodstein, and Parallax’s Joe Frady. Going on and on about “weirdos” (meaning anyone who wasn’t her and Jerry), telling those nuns on the bus and that boardinghouse matron about “our dead mother,” even hoaxing the mailman that she was going to die. Blame it on her real mom’s childbirth death; call her the original cuckoo, leaving poor dad to raise this wounded bird himself. That’s why she was so at-home with the dead, in that first romantic scene in the graveyard (yeah) and when she buries herself in autumn leaves. (And don’t forget Bree, living above a funeral parlor, or Sophie Zawistowska and her choice relationship with the dead. Love and Pain’s Lila Fisher, who really was terminal.) You’d think that’s all she was to Jerry in the first place: a relic he had to get to know fully before he could fully shake it off. An attachment to a phantom mother we all carry with us on our journeys away from home.

Jerry! What a Payne. Sitting fussing with his camera in our first scene; guess who he’s supposed to be. So uptight and inward and oblivious to the phenomenal world except as an object for study. It’s a screwball setup, right? Cuckoo-bird invades and takes over Milquetoast’s life and wakes him up to chaos and joy. Like Love and Pain, Bree and Klute. Of course, this being the ’60s, it was going to end badly. But it didn’t need to. That’s the tragedy in Jerry’s putting her on roller skates in the end: she was there to help him see, and he could have done so much for her in return. Instead he threw her on that bus like she wasn’t his problem anymore, like Dad in the beginning. His inability to loosen up forced Pookie to carry the burden of spontaneity and eccentricity till it finally blew her out. In the scene at the dorm – the one scene that really doesn’t work – when she gets plastered and lets loose and alienates everyone around her who didn’t know to shun her already, what she was really doing was acting out. Whenever someone does that they’re trying to show you something in yourself. That’s where the “unrest” comes in: Letting fly on all those partiers who were there just to learn and learn how to fit into civil society and find a place among all the weirdos who weren’t going to upset everybody’s sense of decorum when monks were burning themselves alive overseas was her protest, her demonstration, while they were getting hammered and taking skiing vacations and sitting in their rooms warbling “Greensleeves.” What she was telling Jerry, especially, was This is what you want to be a part of, this pageant of meaningless frivolity. What you need to know, Mr. America, is that your abandon is leading those born without the luxury of looking away from death to have a public and emotional breakdown.

Klute took Jerry’s reticence off its pathological deep end, its namesake and his antagonist’s tape decks like that camera, a method of documenting the world while keeping a wedge between them. As Pakula gained confidence in his medium these devices took on heroic dimensions with the typewriter in President’s Men, the dream researcher’s VHSes in Dream Lover, and the various technical tools for truth and justice in Pelican Brief. Here it only gets in the way when Pookie and Jerry want to get in a clinch. To him she was just another bug to study anyway, like those Common North American Insects he’s reading about when we meet. (Like the people Pakula would talk to on planes.) As we’re reminded by the VW “Bug” she turns up in at his dorm weeks later. The gloriosa maledictis real-beetle she gifts him with. Not to be obvious, that means “glorious doomed.” How could we not have seen it? What were we doing, that we weren’t paying attention?

Oh, yeah. That.

Can you believe our bed is still here? Sitting in this characterless room like floating in space, it feels like the still center of some lost universe, where all things come together. Where the possible becomes the actual. Where two birds as different as you and me could be one. This gravestone-shape, this movie screen, this frame we both chose to occupy; this monolith, this touchstone, this force-field against the world. Lightning struck that bed time and time again, my god. And us. Sharing our bodies as if sharing a body, then after exchanging that way talking and talking and talking some more. When words were exhausted, kissing, till sleep overcame us. Neither one wanting to be the first to drift. But someone is always the first. Roll credits. Git along, little dogies.

Anyway, I forget myself. I was talking about people failing to see what was before them. Pakula – that other guy behind the camera – said he disliked our film’s title, but he kept it, meaning he knew it said something uncomfortable about himself and his work till then. Maybe it had something to do with the references to semen in his films – three of them; some kind of a record. Always as evidence. It’s in the soiled undies Bree finds in her apartment, Dream Lover’s incriminating bedsheets, and in the dead body of Carolyn Polhemus in Presumed Innocent. A lot is made in that last one about its dead sperm. “Sterile,” they called its progenitor. Could it be that the childless director realized that, following his initial successes with this Mulligan character, he had laid enough eggs already? It was time to move on.

Which brings up our song. Who can be heartless enough not to love “Come Saturday Morning” and its endless repetitions in our story? Each time with nuances different than the last, from hopeful tone-setting in the titles and opening sequence, to joyous affirmation when we saw our attraction confirmed, finally bittersweet acceptance as we prepared to part. Sure, it’s sophomoric; we were freshmen. Of course it’s foolish; what was your first love like? Its eccentricities (“we’ll Saturday-spend till the end of the day”) are in keeping with our characters, its portents (“but everyone knows how a Saturday goes”) tell you that like any good cosmogonic tale the end is encoded in the thing itself. And that refrain, “and then we’ll move on,” repeated every stanza, will not let you forget that this gloriosa is utterly maledictis. And then to have those velvet-voiced Sandpipers coo it at you like it was some kind of reassurance. “And then we’ll move on. …” How can you deal with this? How can you look back and relive such moments and see where everything went wrong and return to daily life and still function? “And then we’ll move on. ….” If anyone takes issue with its recurrences (and they do), aren’t they really objecting to its nagging implication, that we start out hopeful, have our optimism validated at times in life, but know all along that that happiness will come back to prod us, elbow us, possibly even betray us?

Betrayal is central to Pakula, and like “Come Saturday Morning” if you watch enough of his films you know it’s gonna come back like a familiar irritant, and it isn’t gonna make it any better that you know. After a point it’s as if the betrayals validate the paranoia, rather than cause it. Isn’t that the idea behind Pookie’s ramblings? If we didn’t get it from Bree and Joe Frady, by the time we go through Pelican Brief’s grand conspiracy we understand that Pookie was right after all. The weirdos are real. Maybe Pakula realized that when he and Sargent fashioned this aspect of her personality, different from the book. She was, like any enigmatic oracle (think Deep Throat in the shadows of the parking garage, Pookie making her last desperate call to Jerry, or Bree’s shrink, insinuating there in her half-light), put there to warn the observer that it would happen again – that the personality itself was about to make it so. The inevitability! If Pakula’s films were all about starting over, he would have to have known that at some point we run out of second winds. We all have to face the unfaceable.

Seeing a movie or book wrapping up having spent so much time in another’s mindspace is like coming to the end of a romance. If you witnessed a part of yourself in the characters, it’s as much a wrenching from that identification as anything. You hold in one hand the scant few pages left, in the other the bulk of your history together, all the words and images you toiled over simply to get to the end, all those memories, and you think maybe you won’t finish it, maybe you’ll save the last bit for another time, maybe start another one in the interim. But by then the story is its own propellant, and before you know it it’s over and you must begin the careful work of putting it all together. Of making it all make sense.

The point of Nichols’ line from the Pookie poem – the one that gave the novel its name, so you know it’s the thing – “Oh, Hi-ho in the Lavender Woods/A Sterile Cuckoo is dying” – which is not in the movie – is that Pookie may have been a scatterbrain, but she saw herself and understood what was going on between her and Jerry. Much more than he did. But without this context the title seems a judgment on her. This girl was the world’s wastebasket. Keeping the title, despite Pakula’s qualms, even suspecting what we do about the man, is a betrayal of his own character. And what is betrayal but a breaking of a bond? A divorce. When you come right down to it, Pakula’s separation from Hope Lange was the real epochal event that made a director out of him and brought us to light. So let’s talk, you and me, a little bit about betrayal.

It doesn’t have to be massive. It doesn’t need to be political. It’s always personal. The one-sidedness – that’s what gets you. That sensation of powerlessness that backbones paranoia, that realization I didn’t have a say in this thing of signal importance. When someone sets you free it’s a refutation of everything you stood for and shared – the secrets, confidences, affirmations you’d internalized and allowed to become a part of yourself, so that the separation becomes like a removal of a transplanted organ you had no claim on but had come to depend on to function day-to-day. After two become one they don’t become two again. They become none. When Pakula divorced he literally lost Hope, and all his films and all my writing since became an engine to get it back, if only in illusion. Putting Pookie on the bus in the end was his coward’s way of pretending agency in an impotent time.

I guess this is where we understand each other.

You and me. We were never so happy as when we were making love. Without you now there’s a part of myself I can no longer communicate with. I am in a continual state of disunion. What I never understood then was that what we were really celebrating when reveling in all that two bodies could do for each other in discovery and play wasn’t life, oneness, or the conquering of time so much as youth itself. And what better thing to offer praise to? What could be finer than that drive, that urgency, that need to create, to be that thing which is the thing itself, whose only point of existence is existence. I am that I am, indeed. Only for this moment “I” happens to be you, too. Lover and lover. Picture and audience. Maker and receiver. And when we betrayed that – when I put me on that bus – it was like splitting Earth and heaven. Mind and body. Time and consequence. You and me.

When I watch our movie now – the only way I can be whole again – I feel like Delmore Schwartz in “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” I can see it all happening, and it makes me want to pound tables, throw pencils, but there’s nothing I can do to make it stop. That’s why I find myself waking up to you more and more in the shortest hours of the night, disoriented, not knowing if I’m without you or it’s just that I’ve finally succeeded in caging you inside my ribs. I’m not Pookie. Not Jerry Payne. Not Alan J. Pakula. I’m us. And we’re so lonely without you.

How strange now to feel your presence when I do, knowing it’s only light through a moving cell, a projection through a film of chemicals, a thing that shouldn’t even be. To realize that was me, too. A figure in a book. A character in a film. Now the movie’s over, and what am I? A memory? What happens After Love?

What happens after love?

Aw, hey, look. There’s a rim of light over the horizon. It’s that day again.

Did it work? Are you there? Have you come back to me like I hoped you would – like I hoped and dreamed and wrote you would?

Is that you waiting outside for me, just beyond the cabin wall? All I can see is me in the glass. Come closer. Come nearer.

Come back to me. My youth. My life. My love. My self-away-from-self.

Come, lover. Come, mystic. Come, cuckoo bird. Come, sorrow. Come, anger. I’m ready for all that, now.

Come, heavy sleep. Saturday morning’s been and gone.

I’m letting you go. Let me go.

I loved you. I love you. I will always miss you.

My ride is here. There’s nothing left to say. It’s time to move on.

Wish me godspeed,