In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 4: The Same River Twice

“A lot of times things were really normal, as if you were in a movie.” Easy Travel to Other Planets

“What is it people in America say, Paul, when they feel their lives are. . . lifted out of the ordinary into   something …momentarily grander?”   “They say, ‘It’s like a movie’.” Traffic and Laughter

In Ted Mooney’s most recent work, The Same River Twice, director Max Colby is at loose ends. He knows that in his next film he wants to use only natural lighting, but the star he was to use objects. So he starts filming his friends, Rachel and deGroot, as they restore a houseboat, turning them and others, including his wife and himself, into characters. He has no script, but he keeps filming, trusting his intuition, and what gradually emerges is a story that he’d  “kill to make” (112). He works intuitively, believing that  “his own receptivity, properly cultivated, would eventually reveal what he’d come to record” (326). The story of Max’s moviemaking ends with a night’s shooting when the full moon and fog come together as “the light of rapture and unforeseeable consequences” (321).

Those not involved in the film business as actors, directors, or editors may as well be. When Turner, an art dealer, tucks a gun into his belt, “He knew he was behaving like a character in a movie but so now was everyone else – all over the world, every waking hour, without even thinking about it” (323), except, perhaps, when they are playing the role of audience.

Run Odile Run

In another scene, Turner sees a bit of a movie on TV (I’m fairly sure it’s Run Lola Run, although it isn’t named in the book). A woman races through Berlin trying to raise the money her boyfriend needs so he isn’t killed by a gangster, but “Small obstacles in her path – a flock of nuns, a boy on a bicycle, some workmen carrying a sheet of plate glass – kept delaying her and made it seem certain that she would fail to get the money to him in time. Turner watched without sympathy” (57).

A few weeks later, Turner and his lover Odile are in the same fix as was Lola’s boyfriend. They will be hunted down and hurt, maybe killed, by the henchmen of a sadistic crime lord unless they lead the bad guys to one of their associates, Thierry. When Thierry asks her to bring him money, Odile plans to betray him. But Thierry sends a friend to the drop, and Odile has to follow the friend to find her quarry: “A series of small obstacles in Odile’s path – a flock of nuns, a boy on a bicycle, some workmen carrying a sheet of plate glass – caused her to fall farther and farther behind. When she lost sight of Gabriella altogether, she stepped into the street itself and began to run” (203).

“Every second of every day you make a choice that can change your life,” says the trailer for Run Lola Run, and in the film, Lola’s run is repeated three times. Each time, just a few different choices or chances lead to very different outcomes. Three times is enough to suggest that the run could be made again and again, and the characters’ fates would vary with each small difference.

People want to believe

The Same River Twice examines fate and choice as well: its refrain is “People want to believe a new life is possible, even if not for them” (7). Thierry Colin, who is involved in a number of shady schemes, tells this to Odile, who adopts it as her own mantra (“It was as Thierry had said. She wanted to believe a new life was possible, even if not for her” [195], “I just want to believe a new life is possible, even if not for me” [295],  “A place where a new existence could really be possible for everyone” [332]).

She seems resistant, however,  to Thierry’s reflections on his declaration, first, when he tells her that people “still have faith in the fresh approach, the original act, all that. Yet this is a world in which everything of consequence is already known” (7), and secondly when she reads in his diary: “Or is it that my very longing for another life prevents me from seeing what is right in front of me, that every moment is a door through which I could pass, leaving behind the daily repetitions and redundancies of this world in which everything of consequence, really everything, is already known?” (99).

Can Odile change her life? And what does it mean that everything is already known?

Mooney is dealing with a puzzler. Can a novelist depict free will? Odile the character, whom we are supposed to believe has made the choice to betray Thierry, moves toward the event with a heightened awareness of all she sees [“The air shimmered” (201)] and unknowingly duplicates the run through the chance-filled gauntlet that the character Lola navigated as the character Turner scoffed, believing he was simply watching a thriller that had nothing to do with his troubles, which, of course, it didn’t. Or not exactly.

The filmmaker Max deals with the same issues as does the novelist. Max’s focus for the film he makes during the course of the novel is a strikingly handsome woman, Rachel. After he has accumulated hours of footage, he knows he still needs to “find the narrative framework to support his scrutinies” and to determine how closely “it might correspond to actual events.” This mattered; “Choosing what reality to be true to: everybody had to do it sooner or later. But it was recognizing when the moment of choice had arrived that counted” (86). He has to strike a balance between making narrative choices and remaining open to what chance offers. On the night that will prove the climax of what will become Bateau Ivre, he feels that “Forces larger than himself. . .had allowed him a glimpse of the world as it really was,”  and he intends to “pursue it with every resource he could muster. I know more than I know” (322).

Inescapable vs. Inescapable

But could Max’s premises — the selections he makes to turn what otherwise would be home movies into art — support conclusions different from his own? When Max discovers that someone has changed the endings of pirated DVDs of one of his films, Fireflies – and that the ending works – he becomes obsessed with discovering who is behind the changes and why.

His assistant, Jacques, believes that “What looks inescapable can be replaced with something else that looks just as inescapable, just as foreordained. Essentially, another way, another life, another outcome is always possible” (232), and this theory is confirmed by the pirate, Thierry: “I wanted to see if something as substantial and complete as one of those films could support a different outcome entirely and still be — still seem inevitable.” Odile responds, “Seem or be?” and Thierry answers,  “Be” (345).

The last scene of Fireflies is set on a pier. In Thierry’s Fireflies – but not in Max’s –- there’s a “vintage motor yacht freshly painted white,” lovers argue until the woman “reaches out and covers the man’s mouth with her hand” and a very heavy duffel bag is dropped overboard (87). In what will be Max’s new movie, Bateau Ivre, we watch as the last scene unfolds and is filmed. From the deck of a restored yacht “freshly painted” (325) white a heavy duffel bag is dumped in the Seine. When Odile is about to argue with Max, he places “a palm gently across her mouth” (333).

Premonition or déjà vu?

Does Bateau Ivre recall Thierry’s Fireflies or does Theirry’s Fireflies portend Bateau Ivre? Such are the questions The Same River Twice provokes.

When Max screens Bateau Ivre at Cannes, “Rumor had it that the version shown was only one of three, each so differently edited as to constitute another film altogether” (349). I wonder…wouldn’t it be interesting if there were three versions of The Same River Twice in circulation?

Further Reading

Ted Mooney on the music of The Same River Twice at Large Hearted Boy.

Ted Mooney’s comments at the American Library in Paris

Q & A with Ted Mooney at Library Thing

Essay on The Same River Twice at The Lectern

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