17 November 2014

Misreading a story

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a post on Bill Murray Stories. I said:

Bill Murray: the only person in the world who is truly free

I said that because I've long been fascinated by the legend of Pablo Picasso. Late in his career, the story goes, Picasso realized that his fame meant that he could stop handling money. He would go to a fancy restaurant, and when the cheque came, rather than pay it he would draw a little doodle on it and sign it. The restauranteur would be able to sell the cheque with the doodle for much more money than the meal cost ... and likely wouldn't even sell it, but keep it as a memento and curiosity.

It is widely reported that Bill Murray is among the few people who have entered into a similar space, traveling around having little adventures enabled by his fame. This is connected to Murray's eccentric, funny, unthreatening persona.

That persona affected how I read the story, and helped me miss something really important.

Bill said, “Look a wedding — I think we’re all invited”. So we all followed Bill over to the wedding.

That's a setup for a classic Bill Murray Surprise story. He's gatecrashing a wedding. Now here's the bit that I misread:

Bill walks right over to the bride and groom, takes the bride in his hands, leans her over and sorta kisses her, stands her back up and says, “There, now she’s all warmed up for you.”

Picturing Murray, I imagined all this as a quiet, surreal, silly moment. Most of Murray's performances as an actor have him delivering a kind of deadpan calm at his own nuttiness that still winks at us that he knows that we think his behavior is bizarre. And he moves slowly, letting other actors react. So I saw Murray approaching the Bride, her bemusedly accepting his lead into a little faux dancer's dip, him feigning a light kiss on the cheek. When he declared her “all warmed up”, it was funny in my mind because I imagined the joke as being that the “kiss” was deliberately awkward and sexless, making “warmed up” the furthest description possible from the truth. Sweet and silly.

But that reading of the story is not a safe assumption at all. If heard this story about Not Bill Murray, maybe some big dudebro, that story is skeevy as hell. It is, in fact, sexual harassment and assault. He grabbed her and kissed her and declared her “all warmed up for you”? Ugh.

Now Murray is not a big dudebro, he's a slight, scruffy-looking old guy. But picturing Not Bill Murray primes one to think of all the ways that this scene could have been ugly. Real Bill Murray isn't Movie Bill Murray. He doesn't have rehearsals and multiple takes and a director's eye to help him get to the version of this scene that reads as safe and goofy. So while I submit that there are ways that we might imagine that scene which are innocent, there are a lot more ways that are creepy and wrong. And they're a lot more likely.

I don't mean this exegesis as an indictment of Bill Murray. I'm not even certain that any of this took place; there's a very good chance that the story on the website is a misrepresentation, or even an outright fabrication.

I mean this exegesis as an indictment of me. I was bewitched by the legend of Murray's adventures and his persona into being able to conceive of the innocent version of this encounter. And since the author of the post wasn't horrified, I subconsciously presumed that it wasn't horrifying, taking the innocent version as the obvious way to imagine the story. But that's not a safe presumption at all. Why didn't I see it? In large part because I'm a fella and don't need to worry about it, and it took Facebook comments from a couple of women to bring it up for me.

So that's my unhappy reminder of rape culture for the day.

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