The Radical Optimism Of Richard Linklater’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

James Stockdale was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965. He spent seven and a half years in the hellish Hỏa Lò Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton), where he was tortured and abused. Stockdale made it out – you might remember him from the 1992 Vice Presidential debates, where he infamously began with “Who am I? Why am I here?,” reinforcing his image as a doddering, confused old man – but many other men didn’t. Years later, when asked what kind of man didn’t survive the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale said:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

What Stockdale was talking about, though, isn’t the optimist. It’s the hopeless dreamer, and there’s a difference. The hopeless dreamer has an endpoint; in this case it’s ‘get the fuck out of the Hanoi Hilton by this certain date,’ but in our own lives it could be ‘get this specific job,’ or ‘get this guy to fall in love with me’ or ‘become rich and famous.’ 

Not that there’s anything wrong with goals, but I feel like endpoints and goals are different. Endpoints are very solid, very rigidly defined. Goals are what you’re aiming at – if you don’t quite get the bullseye you can still score some points in darts. If you’re off your endpoint by a few inches – sure, someone fell in love with you, but not that guy – you’re miserable. 

The difference between the dreamer and the optimist, I believe, is faith. The dreamer knows how they want things to turn out. The optimist has faith things will turn out well, but isn’t going to actually define what ‘well’ means in advance. This gives the optimist lots of room to operate; Stockdale himself said that “faith that you will prevail in the end” was something “you can never afford to lose,” but prevailing in the end is loose. Hell, it could even mean dying in the Hanoi Hilton – when the Vietcong tried to parade Stockdale around for PR purposes he brutally and visibly cut and bruised himself so that he couldn’t be shown off as propaganda for how well the POWs were being treated. That’s prevailing in the end, and it involved this guy beating himself in the face with a stool. No dreamer had that endpoint in mind.

This is all by way of a too-lengthy lead-in to talking about Richard Linklater’s recent big announcement – he’s making a musical! But not just any musical, it’s Merrily We Roll Along, a Stephen Sondheim show that’s either underrated or one of the lesser works, depending on how you look at it (I’ve never seen a production, but I like the original cast recording quite a bit). What makes Merrily We Roll Along unique is that it’s told backwards; the show begins in 1976 with Franklin Shepard as a wealthy, successful songwriter and movie producer and then it travels back in time in little jumps, revealing how Franklin got where he is and what it cost him. The last scene of the show is set in 1957, and reveals the small origins of Frank and his friends. 
What Linklater is doing is taking this story and filming it in real time – he’ll spend the next twenty years shooting Merrily We Roll Along in bits and pieces, filming the movie technically backwards, as the first thing he shoots will be the last scene in the film and the last thing he shoots the first scene

The idea of shooting a movie release for the year 2039 seems… wild. Not wild in the way that the year 2000 seemed wild in 1980 – impossibly futuristic, eternally distant, unbelievably science fictional. It seems wild like a guy stepping off a cliff and expecting to just keep walking. It seems kind of foolhardy.

It’s not that there won’t be a world in 20 years. The feeling of impending doom we all feel in 2019 is different from that Cold War fear of a burning cinder of a planet, incinerated in a moment. The doom we feel in 2019 is more like that guy stepping off the cliff. You know when Wile E Coyote goes over the edge and hangs there a moment, looks into the camera, holds up a sign that says “YIPES” just before he plummets? The moment when he’s past the point of no return but not quite in free fall?

That’s how it feels to live in 2019.

We’re actually past the point of being hopeless dreamers; there’s no way to visualize an endpoint that feels positive. Rather we’ve become cynics and nihilists, looking at alarming global predictions of the collapse of the biome and liberal democracy. There is a 20 years from now, but it looks harsh and painful and unpleasant. Nobody’s in a rush to get to the future anymore; we’d really prefer to go back to a time when Friends was airing weekly and we were looking at our stock.

What does 2039 even look like? Richard Linklater doesn’t know – he’s not a dreamer here – but he suspects there will be people who want to be entertained. And so he’s just going out to make a movie for them. He has faith that there’s going to be an audience, that there will be a society to whom to show this movie. We’re all looking at the next twenty or thirty years with dread, with fear, with anxiety, and he’s looking at it with hope. 

Richard Linklater has faith that we’re going to prevail in the end (also that he’ll live to be 80, but that’s neither here nor there). And he’s showing that faith in the most concrete way he knows how. It’s almost revolutionary in this moment to look into the future and plan for anything other than apocalypse. It’s a radical act of optimism that doesn’t deny the reality of the world – Merrily We Roll Along in 2039 will posit 2019 as ‘the good old days,’ believe it or not – and that doesn’t give in to it either.

But you know, he’s not alone. I know a lot of people who are having kids lately, and my honest thought whenever I see another sonogram or birth announcement is “You’re definitely damning that child to a life wandering the barren wasteland, battling for water.” I’m wrong here. Well, maybe not technically (let’s meet up and see what’s what in about fifteen years), but spiritually. These people who are having kids are engaging in simple and loving acts of optimistic defiance. They’re saying “I believe we will prevail, and that there will be a world for my kids to inherit.”

I don’t know if I’ll be here in 2039 – I’ll be 65! I never even imagined making it to 40 – but I take heart in Linklater’s (and these new parents’) belief that somebody will be here, and that whatever it all looks like, it’ll be okay enough for musicals. I take a lot of comfort in that optimism.