It’s said that a picture can say a thousand words. Who knows how many words a film, at 24 frames/second, can say? Delmore Schwartz suggests that a reel of film (or the memory of a single life experience) has the power to say many things, invite many interpretations, and express and stir up many emotions, in his 1937 short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” The entire ten-page story is a dream sequence. In his dream the nameless 21 year old, first-person narrator imagines himself in an old (1909) theater, watching a film in which his two parents are the stars. They’re young and (seemingly) in love. The action of the film appears to be based on one of his parents’ real-life experiences.
It’s the night his father proposed to his mother on Coney Island. In this one memory, a memory which the narrator had no first-hand experience with, for he was not yet in the picture, we see hints at a failed relationship. In this one trip, which lasts only an hour or so, we see the highs of young love, and the lows of foreshadowed unhappiness.
At several points, the narrator weeps at the happenings on the screen. When his mother accepts his father’s proposal, the narrator rises from his seat and screams, “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.” From this moment, we can gather that the romance on screen won’t have a Hollywood ending. It’s a powerful moment in the story, one that reveals shame in one’s parents, as well as shame in one’s self, shame in one’s existence.
The story’s ending sees the narrator being escorted out of the theater after throwing a tantrum, this time showing deep concern for the characters on screen, when his father angrily storms away from his mother after she suggests the two see a fortune teller:
[…] I keep shouting: “What are they doing? Don’t they know what they are doing? Why doesn’t my mother go after my father? If she does not do that, what will she do? Doesn’t my father know what he is doing?” – But the usher has seized my arm and is dragging me away, and as he does so, he says: “What are you doing? Don’t you know that you can’t do whatever you want to do? Why should a young man like you, with your whole life before you, get hysterical like this? Why don’t you think ofwhat you’re doing? You can’t act like this even if other people aren’t around! You will be sorry if you do not do what you should do, you can’t carry on like this, it is not right, you will find that out soon enough, everything you do matters too much,” and he said that dragging me through the lobby of the theatre into the cold light, and I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.
I remember an adult counselor from film camp (SOCAPA) suggesting that a fellow camper use the title “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” for his short film. I think he ended up doing so, but that’s unimportant. I remember the counselor (Jacob, I believe) describing the plot of Schwartz’s short story, and thinking it sounded genius. I still think it’s genius and I think it’s a great story about film and its power. Taking into account that the story was published in 1937, before films were widely accepted as anything besides commercial entertainment, Schwartz was ahead of his time in his thinking.
The narrator could’ve dreamed up the memory of his parents with any medium he wanted (there’s no limitations in dreams), but he chose to make their memory a scene from a movie, one that he couldn’t stomach watching, at times out of anger, and at other times out of remorse for the characters on screen.
The message of the story (accepting responsibility, I suppose) is very apparent in the final paragraph, as posted above. I particularly like the preachy, “man up!” monologue of the usher, who speaks as if he were the voice of one of Schwartz’s many poems.