George Webber’s story is old and common, but like all very common and very old stories it endures precisely because it speaks to fundamental patterns. Its earliest known relative is the Homeric Odyssey, that great epic of heroic self-definition, middle age and transitions. Blake Edwards’ “10,” a hugely funny and comic film, is in its way a spectacular variant of the general type and, like all great comedy, no laughing matter but essentially serious.
Like Odysseus, George Webber is on a quest for self-identity, and his journey is fully understandable in the traditional terms of heroic undertakings, complete with feats of daring, temporary inadequacies, monster battles, transitions and descents into the lower world.
Begin with the last. The movie opens in darkness. George knocks at the door and is met by the black butler who hands him a candle that barely illuminates the tenebrous hallway in which the two men meet. In a brief sequence emblematic of the entire film’s portrayal of his murky journey, George walks uncertainly through the longish entryway with his fluttering flame. The bright transition to the hero’s birthday (he turns 42) is a traditionally ritualistic launching of the hero on his great journey. At the end of the evening as George is trying to explain to his lover Sam(antha) some of his feelings about his age, a flickering fireplace dominating the background picks up the imagery of illumination already established in the opening and suggests that though darkness is still there, light also exists, as it were.
George, physically shorter than all the women with whom he becomes involved, is defined for us variously as shy, insecure, bumbling, self-indulgent (pills, booze) and “that little son of a bitch.” He can’t win arguments with Sam and is (at first) unhealthily dependent on his psychiatrist. The latter, like the butler, is black, another true psychopompos [see here] for the debilitated hero; in a very brief but highly significant scene when George at last decides to act, he finally renounces further dependence on his guide by calling him but refusing once more to talk his way into change. George is terrified of the ogre-dentist (father of the woman he thinks he’s fallen in love with), tumbles down a hillside, fears the sea, has to be piggy-backed across the hot beach where he has sand kicked on him by the Charles Atlas-type married to his “vision,” falls into a pool, and in general carries on in a most unheroic manner. But it is of course precisely from this kind of anxiety-ridden stuff of middle age that the modern hero must refashion himself.
To find further guidance in his search for the woman of his sudden vision, George pays a visit to a Teiresias-figure, the pastor who officiated at this wedding. The man is served by an ancient crone near death’s door, and has a Cerberus-like great Dane in his study. After the riotously amusing scene in the pastor’s study, he walks with George down the dark, cavernous aisle of the church as he imparts to him the name of the bride and her father, the dentist. Equipped with the necessary knowledge for the continuation of his quest, George enters the dentist’s lair, a veritable torture chamber of picks, long anesthetizing needles, grindingly loud drill bits and the ogre’s beautifully distracting assistant. Afterwards, not only can’t George talk or drink, but his lover does not recognize his voice; and he has difficulties establishing his true identity to two policemen. The hero is now at that traditional stage of his journey where his true identity is gone, and the process of establishing – or re-fashioning — himself must begin. This he does first to the authority figures, the two policemen. This matter of identity is of course a crucial aspect of the process of heroic definition.
After an unsuccessful orgy of properly Dionysiac dimensions, George impulsively decides to fly to Mexico, and his journey proper begins. Traveling not on a winged steed or magical ship, but in an Aero Mexico jet, George finds his vision, Jenny, stalks her in his mind, tries to substitute with another blond, has gorgeous fantasies about Jenny on the beach in the whitely spurting surf, and generally suffers from being odd man out in the erotic triangle. But his heroic activity takes place.
Jenny’s husband has fallen asleep on a surfboard and drifts out to sea, bound for the coast of Peru. Prior to rescuing him, George is standing between two husky, macho oldsters, one a former Marine, a scene which purports to point up George’s insignificance. By contrast, the ensuing rescue is all the more heroic, including the near encounter with a genuine monster in the form of a great shark. The news of George’s heroism is broadcast internationally on television, and he become something of a pan-American hero. Now the stage is set for his meeting with Jenny, a scene which is the thematic and moral center of the movie: what is the meaning of this heroism?
George, probably like most middle-aged men, had certain fantasies and notions about sex with a beautiful young woman. The true sense in which George is refashioned in a heroic image emerges only from the forced realization that, as he himself puts it, Jenny isn’t at all what he had thought she was. Among other things, she thinks nothing of sleeping with George while her husband is in the hospital, calls him on his own hypocritical and puritanical ideas about sex, and, finally, demonstrates that her youthful style is alien to George’s middle-aged view of the world.
Penelope was still waiting for Odysseus back home on Ithaca (despite the suitors), and George recognizes that Jenny on a beach in Mexico just doesn’t measure up, for him, to Sam (being escorted out by a suitor as George come back) in Beverly Hills. The final scene, viewed through the long-range magnifying lenses of the neighbor’s telescope, surely suggests that George’s marriage proposal and promise of more attentive love-making with Sam will take hold and last a long time.
Like the story itself, its point is trite, worn out with repetition through the ages. Nonetheless, and in fact just for that reason, it is an issue worth examining. Each man will come to, is at, or has passed that age and that time in which he must remake himself in his own heroic mold in such a way that he can deal with the next stage.
Now, women may object that they are left out in the cold in this film and such behavior by middle-aged men is wrong, unfair, sexist, prurient and whatever else happens to be politically incorrect today in the ever expanding feminist universe of proscribed sexuality, but if the reality is, apparently, that men do go through this stage, and a woman is in some way or another connected to such a man, better to face that fact than simply dismiss him as a pathetic imitation of an adolescent or a dirty old man with a final spurt of rogue hormones. He is, after all, probably just acting his age.
Contrary to the mindlessly Pavlovian notions of doctrinaire feminists, this stage in a man’s life is not a time of carefree fun and games and T&A quests.
How nice if all couples, married or not, could make this difficult but perennial passage with the same archetypal verve that George and Sam do, with the same bitterly funny humor, and with the same ultimate honesty about their emotions.