— by JOEL CRARY —
Greta Garbo turned 36 the year her final film, “Two-Faced Woman,” was produced in 1941. Apart from some screen tests shot later that decade, the actress never again set foot in front of a camera and voluntarily faded out of the public eye. In 1953, she purchased a luxurious apartment at 450 East 52nd Street in New York City and lived in seclusion, refusing all additional film roles and interviews, no matter how lucrative. Spotting her in the street became a sport for the paparazzi, who hounded her as though they were tracking a mythical creature. When Garbo died in 1990, she had spent over half of her life away from the movies. She was of the accurate opinion that what she had offered the cinema would ensure her legacy.
Several actors, some popular and still maintaining successful careers, have found it necessary to shun the public spotlight. Though neither have gone Garbo’s route, Robert Pattinson and Johnny Depp have as of late lamented the gratuitous attention they receive from fans. Director Terrence Malick seems to surface only to take care of a new project, no matter the length of the break between each. Daniel Day-Lewis rarely grants interviews, yet laughs at how his preference to avoid discussing his personal life has turned him into a perceived lunatic. Some more famous recluses include “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger, who is now 91 and has been living in seclusion for decades. “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee has spent the last 50-plus years largely silent, declining most interviews and public appearances until fairly recently. Even young comedian Dave Chappelle seemed to be flying high in his career until a desire to step back and reevaluate resulted in his decision to move back to his small-town childhood home in Ohio.
There is a line, however, between peace and quiet and solitary living as a means of self-preservation. There are an estimated 1 million to 1.6 million recluses in Japan. The Japanese government has given these people the designation of “hikikomori,” and psychologists cite influences from the pressures of the education system to more generalized contributing factors of social anxiety, agoraphobia, post traumatic stress and autism spectrum disorders. A website known as HikiCulture offers a forum to people from around the globe who for various reasons cannot face the outside world. They come together to discuss how they go about staying healthy, about blending into the background and about finding love in solitude.
The Internet has provided an important outlet for those with social anxieties, allowing them the freedom to move about in society without setting foot outside their door. People are now more connected to one another than ever. One can also control the limitations of what others are able to discover. For various reasons including security and peace of mind, an individual can invent a personality altogether not his or her own. And those in seclusion can find each other, offering a sympathetic ear. But is the information we are constantly exposed to wearing those with such anxieties down even faster? Surely the still-recently discovered ease of access to a wealth of electronic data and a seemingly infinite forum for anonymous opinion can tax even those of us who only occasionally feel the need to remove ourselves from it all.
There may come a day in the future when I will be able to step aside from what I’ve built my life into, take what I’ve acquired emotionally, spiritually and economically and put myself up in a nice, quiet home somewhere to spend the rest of my days living simply along with a lot of books, access to films I’ve never seen, a T1 line and my loved ones close by. Whatever will be will be, but I’m a fan of solitude, not least because it’s been a choice. For many artists, it’s a necessity; creating among the masses may work for some populist writers and even fewer filmmakers, but given the way the tabloids and like media have taken an expanding shine to savagery in their methods, peace, quiet and sanity can be hard to come by.
I think on Garbo, dressed in her frumpy clothes and enormous sunglasses, trying to pass unnoticed on her walks through the streets of New York City. Fame can come with such a nasty, relentless price. In supermarket checkout lines around the world, people stop and consider for a moment how awful a famous person has been looking lately. They see that an actor like Patrick Swayze is appearing ill and will probably die. And of course he did, as we all will. But most of us will never see our names written heartlessly in big block letters, on display for the whole world to think about and judge and feel superior toward for a few fleeting moments as our groceries are scanned and bagged. With every purchased magazine, visited website and addiction to trash television, the debasement of a person’s life is perpetuated by those who enjoy the freedom of living outside.
Greta Garbo wants to be alone in “Grand Hotel”:
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