The Late, Great Jimmy Stewart’s Video Guide to Emotions by Nastasya Parker

Opening credits: Featuring the great man himself, naturally. But first, a brief montage of bedrooms belonging to prototypical teenagers very unlike myself.

Me (voiceover): ‘I do not habitually attend the bedrooms of my peers. On the occasions when my mother procured a visit to another family’s home, the adolescents’ chambers I viewed were temples of the temporary: KPop posters and photos of school friends with whom I’d witnessed them fighting just the previous week.’

End montage. Pan slowly into my room, tidy with mostly bare walls. Zoom-in and close-up over each Jimmy Stewart screenshot taped around a mirror. Corresponding emotions are Sharpie-penned beneath.

Me: ‘I owe Jimmy Stewart so much. He is my guide to the emotional world. I just hope he can help me now.’

Flashback: Christmas, eleven years earlier. A wide shot of my grandparents’ lounge, strewn with festive detritus. I’m on the floor while my mother bounces my little brother on her lap.

Grandma, a paper crown wilting down one side of her perm: ‘I suppose Sylvie likes her gift. She never said “thank you”, or even looked very happy.’

Dad: ‘She doesn’t work that way. You understand how autism is. Sylvie doesn’t show much emotion; she just expects the things she puts on her list.’

Mum: ‘To her, those are the rules of Christmas.’

Pan left. Close-up on me, the aforementioned Sylvie, aged seven, working industriously on the K’nex Classics 80207 Model City kit from my grandparents. I wanted to build the bridge first, aware that bridges were important for connecting things. But I struggled with the smaller pieces and surfaced from my absorption to hear this exchange.

Lights dim on my face, blank as usual, as I look up at the adults.

Light fades up on me: by the illumination of television rays, I run a small car back and forth over my bridge. Thanks to my building skills—and, I suppose, thanks to my grandparents—this car can now travel between two different sides.

Child Me (voiceover as I push the car to one end of the bridge): ‘The car is over here now. But it is not stuck. Look, it can go back across.’

Soaring musical strains overpower my inner monologue. Pan up, with my gaze, to the television and my relatives gathered before it. It’s a Wonderful Life is on the screen.

Grandpa: ‘Now that Jimmy Stewart, he knows how to show emotion.’

I park my miniature car to the side and turn my K’nex creation so one end faces the television and the other points at me. I lie flat on the floor and stare down the length of the bridge. Final shot of my eyes above the K’nex.

Child Me (voiceover): ‘Jimmy Stewart can be my bridge.’

Montage: Child me, transfixed by Jimmy Stewart films. Jimmy deliriously happy, Jimmy angry, Jimmy heartbroken. Child me, running home with yet another DVD from the library, informing my parents that I need to watch this right now. Cut between quick shots of Jimmy and then me practising the same expressions in front of my mirror.

Cut to me politely and confidently offering people my card when I shake hands. I am Jimmy as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. Close-up on the Post-Its I made Mum write out for me: Sylvie Addington, Fan of Golden Age Films and Student of Human Feeling.

Child Me (voiceover): ‘Thanks to Jimmy Stewart’s example, I stopped rejecting opportunities to meet people. My new manners did not endear me to my primary school classmates, but adults liked me. And they are the ones who matter. Other Year Threes had generally seen few films predating the end of the Twentieth Century, so their opinions were irrelevant.’

Scene: My grandparents’ lounge on what is clearly Christmas Day. Multiple cameras capture Slightly Older Child Me as I dash around, throw out my arms and shout festive greetings for everyone. It seems that I now know the real rules of Christmas.

Slightly Older Child Me (grasping my new Lego set to my chest, looking up and smiling at my Grandpa the way Jimmy Stewart looks up at the ringing bell in the closing moments of It’s a Wonderful Life): ‘Atta boy, Grandpa!’

Scene: a wide angle shot of a school.

Year Seven Me (voiceover):After viewing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I learned to filibuster my way out of PE lessons when I started secondary school. The locker rooms overwhelmed me.’

Through the door to the Student Development hub, the camera zooms in on me, lit by harsh fluorescent bulbs, pacing the scabby carpets, lecturing the teaching assistants on small town values and high-level corruption, and refusing even a sip of water.

Scene: a hospital room. Grandpa is terminally ill. With dim, haunting light, pan from his pale face to my own sober, mournful expression.

Year Nine Me (voiceover):I stood like that beside Grandpa’s bed and for minutes did not ask Mum if I could please get out my knitting. I like to think that my imitation of Jimmy Stewart’s expression in The Shootist when J.B. is dying, gave Grandpa comfort in his last hours.’

Scene: A busy common room filled with high school students:

Me (voiceover): ‘I have moved on from K’Nex and Lego to knitting. It is a useful activity, and I believe Jimmy Stewart would approve. When I have a free period, I go to the Sixth Form common room, to a table by the window…’

Voiceover fades as camera pans from the common room’s coffee counter and its attendant gaggle to me in a distant corner. Close-up on the classic flick on my phone and the hat I am knitting. Widen focus as other students become unaccountably excited and I shout to keep it down because some of us have work to do.

Me (voiceover): ‘I sit alone, which is ideal. By now, a month into year 12, everyone knows not to steal my seat. Dad occasionally reminds me that in Broken Arrow, Jimmy Stewart’s character says, “It is good to understand the ways of others.” But Jimmy was only talking about fighting racism. He did not mean I must entangle myself in teenage trivialities.’

Scene: the common room. White lights glance off bare floorboards and the coffee machine whirs in the background. We hear the dulcet tones of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart, as Rear Window plays through my headphones. Open to show the film on my phone, viewed over a soft knitted blur of pastel blue, twitching as my fingers furiously add to it.

Jimmy Stewart wonders at the disappearance of the lady in the opposite apartment and sets aside his camera, baffled. I try looking up too. That is when I see Him.

Slow zoom in. He is smiling, carrying a cup and a laptop. His jumper has the straight, neat letters of an American university, and no flashy pictures. Even in walking boots, he moves smoothly, his cheekbones slicing through the crowd.

Camera whips back to show my double-take, like Jimmy’s when he sees the bed turned down on his wedding night in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Kill the vintage soundtrack. I hastily remove my earbuds.

Me (voiceover): ‘I have not noticed this year 13 boy before. He is not a Jimmy Stewart. This is like Cary Grant in front of me. I nickname him, the way Jimmy Stewart nicknames his neighbours in Rear Window. Cheekbones McChiselled has joined the cast.’

Cheekbones McChiselled stands over a table where his friends gesticulate. They seem panicky but Cheekbones McChiselled smiles and sips his tea.

Cheekbones McChiselled: ‘Imagine! More than one teacher expects assignments from us at once. Anyone would think this was an educational establishment.’

I applaud ungracefully, and Cheekbones smiles my way. Close-up on his face, with soft focus.

Me (voiceover): ‘What is a suitable expression to wear right now? What am I even feeling, apart from an inexplicable desire to bask in his smile for all eternity?’

Close-up on my face, blank again.

Scene: Interior of my house. Side shot of me on the edge of the sofa, staring at Jimmy Stewart clips.

Me (voiceover): ‘I search through all the clips I had previously ignored. Seeing Jimmy’s face, when he first lays eyes on Donna Reed at the gym dance, I recognise how I felt earlier.’

Shot from behind of me practising in my mirror. My reflection quotes It’s a Wonderful Life in a heated whisper:

‘I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors. I want to do what I want to do! And you—‘

I abandon the mirror and flop into a chair.

Me (voiceover): ‘This is probably not the best way to confess love.’

The camera captures older films, as I continue my search through Jimmy’s carefree, pre-war classics. I see that in both Made for Each Other and The Shop Around the Corner, Jimmy Stewart’s love interest writes him letters.

Montage: I am knitting while casually leaning on the end of a vast locker bank, so I can see which one is his. Quick shot of Cheekbones McChiselled opening locker 1546, with a half-smile, as ever, on his face. Me, traipsing in the sixth form admin’s footsteps wheedling a proper name out of her. Another soft-focus shot of Cheekbones reading from an impressive pile of textbooks. Me painstakingly crafting words on a pristine paper square.

Me (voiceover): I require my paper to be squared.

Pan over my finished note.

Me (voiceover reading the note): ‘The party at locker 1731 wishes to inquire about the party at locker 1546 and how he feels about old films and about where humanity is headed in general.’

Scene: The next morning: Upbeat music plays on the soundtrack as I rush from home, my knitting not quite stashed into my bag, trailing pinks and yellows behind. It is clear that I cannot wait to get to school.

Me (voiceover): ‘But it is a long day…’

The camera follows me with uncomfortable closeness and a precarious angle. I snap at the admin lady when she says “good morning”. I throw my exercise book when the creative media teacher says I have to include more written analysis. Later, I shout at latte-drinkers.

Me (in the style of mid-breakdown Jimmy Stewart): ‘Call this a good school? Why do we have to have all these kids?’

Me (voiceover): ‘The suspense has gotten to me, because no response appears in my locker…(dramatic pause) until the end of the day, when I put away my creative media portfolio. The note flutters to my feet.’

Cheekbones (voiceover reading the note): ‘The party at locker 1546 appreciates the questions raised by the party at locker 1731, and confesses an interest in vintage westerns such as High Noon, although he is also partial to Star Wars and the Marvel franchises. He concedes that humanity will be better off if we don’t let cowboys, space-based or otherwise, run the show and if we all do our best instead of waiting around for superheroes. The party at 1546 wonders if the party at 1731 would like to show him what she has been knitting.’

I seize my ears and shake my head, blurring on camera, and the note falls to the floor again.

Me (voiceover): ‘Holy mackerel, he knows me! He knows who I am. He knows Westerns. Has he seen Destry Rides Again? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? If I use expressions from those films, will he recognise that I have stolen them? Naturally, I hope that Chiselled McCheekbones shares my impeccable taste in film. But I am not prepared for the ramifications.’

Wistful music accompanies slow camera shots of the black, empty TV screen. My clacking knitting needles. My monotonous counting. My blank face, bridgeless.

Me (voiceover): ‘I dared not watch any Jimmy Stewart that night.’

Scene: the common room. Aerial shot of the top of my head, widening to show that I am thoroughly absorbed in my knitting. A figure approaches, out of focus as the camera remains trained upon my frizzy hair.

Walking boots thud. Chair legs gently tap.

Cheekbones (from close off-camera): ‘Morning. I’m Charlie. You’re Sylvie, right?’

The camera angles up with my head and we take him in. He smiles, holding a cup of tea, bought from the counter. A person of substance, he does not go for lattes.

Me: ‘Correct. I am Sylvie.’

Cheekbones Charlie: ‘And you like old movies, huh?’

Cut to my face, which is blank and staring as though my head is full of scripts which do not appear useful.

Cheekbones Charlie (sipping his tea, still smiling): ‘I, uh, I heard you express your opinions yesterday about having all these kids at school. I recognised that line because my mum likes me to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with her every Christmas.’

I lower my knitting and my head.

Cheekbones Charlie: ‘I had a feeling it must be you who sent me that note. So… what are you making there?’

Me: ‘Hats, for premature babies in hospital.’

I shove one at him and he picks it up.

Cheekbones Charlie: ‘Nice. I think humanity in general can’t be headed in a bad direction, if you’re doing things like this. What do you think?’

Me (voiceover): ‘I am afraid to open my mouth, like Jimmy Stewart in Broken Arrow, because my happiness at Charlie’s perfection will explode out of me. But heat is crawling up my face and I will implode if I stay silent.’

Me (quoting You Can’t Take It With You): ‘Sometimes you’re so beautiful, it just gags me.’

Charlie’s chair creaks back. The camera follows this retreat with a deliberately jerky motion. He raises his eyebrows, stretching his cheekbones even further, which is captured in a low-angle shot.

Me (voiceover): ‘I have seen Jimmy Stewart raise his eyebrows like this, not in an excited way like when he saw the honeymoon bed turned down. More like in shock at how stupid other people can be, like in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. I have chosen the wrong script and alienated myself.’

Me: ‘That…that was a quote from a film.’

Swivel the camera from my embarrassment to focus over Charlie’s shoulder. One of the girls I saw him talking to the other day, the one who cannot keep her deadlines straight, approaches with swishing hair and whispering jeans.

Slim Poutface: ‘Charlie, you’ve got to come help us with Sociology.’

Cheekbones Charlie: ‘I’m hanging with Sylvie. The essay’s not due till Monday.’

Slim Poutface turns a smile to me which is not a real smile.

Me (voiceover): ‘This is the trickiest lesson of emotions. It took me years to comprehend it. People will show you signs of emotion that are inaccurate. Even Jimmy Stewart has to do it with some of his more annoying co-workers in Little Shop Around the Corner.’

Slim Poutface: ‘Oh hi, Sylvie. Nice sewing.’

Me (with rare usage of this duplicitous tactic): ‘Thank you for complimenting my knitting. I hope you can manage the homework that seems to cause you such difficulty.’

Slim Poutface: ‘Um, wow. Come on, Charlie.’

Cheekbones Charlie: ‘You got this, Izzy. I’ll join you when I’m not in the middle of a conversation, I promise.’

Slim Poutface exits.

Me (saluting her retreating back and echoing Clarence the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life): ‘Cheerio, my good… lady.’

Cheekbones Charlie (grinning at me): ‘Your chat-up lines need work but you have a felicity with the subtle burn.’

Shift to a golden lens filter, representing the warmth of his smile.

Me (under my breath, in Jimmy’s drawl): ‘Well, whaddya know about that.’

Close in on me smiling at Charlie, with my practised imitation of Jimmy Stewart’s grin.

Nastasya Parker’s writing has appeared in Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies, Stroud Short Stories events, Perhappened magazine and The Phare. She is editing her novel, giving Eve’s perspective on the creation myth, and blogging about the stories found in daily life at Twitter: @NastasyaParker.