On Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday, I found myself seated in the dentist’s chair, overwhelmed by that robust anxiety that cannot be ignored, suppressed or rationalized— it is that feeling beyond fear and apprehension: the anticipation, the expectation of pain.
Sure, this is the twenty-first century and dental technology has come so far as to make actual pain largely psychological. (just think of the sound of that drill and tell me you don’t feel at least a little pinch). But beyond that is the utter invasiveness of a series of tools and gauze and clamps and fingers in your mouth for over an hour. This infringement on personal space is one of the most grotesque procedures a person can endure and perhaps the physical pain we dread is actually only a projection of the greater fear of personal violation.
Whatever the reason, any dental experience becomes precisely the stark reality we try to transcend (if not avoid entirely). There are some pleasures in life — a first kiss, a home run, a good tiramisu — we try to relive long after they occur. These were experiences that ended before we were finished with them; they happened in a flash, but they exist forever in our minds and on our tongues.
An experience like a trip to the dentist exists on the other end of the same spectrum. It is a memorable experience all right, but it’s one we’d rather forget even as it’s happening.
The way I manage to do this is to try to create an out of body experience, to leave my body entirely. I am not particularly religious, but I believe I am capable of separating body and mind. I think of it as spacing out. Nothing helps me do this like cinema. My dentist understands this and allows me to watch television while he has his way with my ailing bicuspids. I always go straight for TCM.
It’s hard to understand, in a visual sense, what’s happening with my mouth. You usually can’t see most of your teeth without really examining them in earnest. For this reason, it’s hard to picture the various foreign feelings going on when the dentist is at work; combine this with a local anesthetic and it adds up to a very peculiar blend of unpleasant sensations. Meanwhile, for the dentist and hygienist, this is the equivalent of routine paperwork. The drill buzzes away, they’re chatting about their weekends and of course, the patient can’t talk, so they don’t really bother talking to the patient.
So where does this leave the individual trapped inside a restrained and vulnerable body? In the perfect position to drift away into fantasy.
To honor the great star of Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris TCM was airing a marathon of Kelly pictures. I am hardly the world’s biggest fan of musicals and I have to admit that I have seen only a tiny percentage of Kelly’s body of work, so had I been on my own couch channel surfing, I probably wouldn’t have settled on The Pirate from 1948 starring Kelly and Judy Garland. I was, however, immobile and practically forced to watch, i.e. A Clockwork Orange. When I turned it on, the movie was already into the third act. I could only hear bits and pieces of the dialogue over the buzzing drill and grinding away of my damaged enamel so I had no idea what was happening in the way of story. All I saw was a confused Judy Garland, a corpulent villain, the dashing Kelly and a bunch of extras.
Then I saw this:
I became mesmerized by Kelly’s skill. Not only was I captivated by his charm and suave demeanor, I was in awe, perplexed even, at the athleticism and precision of his dancing. I was no longer in a dentist’s chair. I was no longer a part of the planet or the human race. Everything stopped and this ridiculous, yet masterful dance was suddenly the only thing that existed.
“Uh oh,” said the dentist. A statement which must certainly be banned ADA. Turns out once he’d removed the damaged filling, there was more decay than he realized and darned if the damage wasn’t right over the nerve.
“Let me know if you need more juice,” he said holding up the novacane needle. I glanced at the female hygienist and told him I’d be fine without it.
“Suit yourself,” he said firing up the drill.
Now the pain was more than just psychological. I tried to think of anything else: the Phillies, my girlfriend, the Pleiades. I tried to get back into The Pirate but things on the screen had gotten intense too! Now all the extras were attacking Gene Kelly with pies and juggling pins and there was pandemonium in my mouth, in the movie, in Syria. Everything was totally fucked!
It was Judy Garland to the rescue:
I won’t say it felt any better, but at least I had a distraction. Was The Pirate the conveyor of any great truth of the human experience? Did it seek to create some exaggerated form of emotion like in Fellini or Sirk? Was it in any way a literal reflection of the tragic, beautiful lives of Men and Women?
But it got me out of that chair and out of the masochistic ritual of decay, aging and the decades of brutal maintenance to come. I was at my quota of the real world. I needed fantasy that existed only for its own sake. Artifice was the only truth. The rest was chaos.
At one point, the dentist took a break and glanced at the screen.
“An oldie, huh?” I swear he rolled his eyes at the hygienist.
He’d obviously spent too much time on the other side of the drill.