A couple of weeks ago I was two-thirds done with the New York Film Festival. Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives were mind-blowing, especially the former, I loved Another Year, and my favorite, Mysteries of Lisbon, was so good I'd sit through all four-and-a-half hours again. (The camerawork reminded me of Ophuls. I am still trying to write that one up.) It was glorious, it was rejuvenating.
But my old-movie habit wasn't being fed. Sometime around the two-week mark the withdrawal became too much and I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I was going to dig up a pre-1960 movie and watch it to the last frame. Maybe some followers thought I was being cute about how much I needed to do this. I was as serious as All Quiet on the Western Front.
And I watched Ivy. And it was good. So good I started to wonder if this was simple addiction. It did feel uncomfortably like I was one of those people who went to sleep in Shreveport and woke up in Abilene. "Come on, Oscar nominee from 1934, let's you and me get drunk." But surely nobody ever wound up in rehab because they couldn't stop quoting Bette Davis movies. I can, in fact, stop anytime I like. Don't look at me like that. I have a Netflix copy of Zodiac right there on my dressing table, you just can't see it because it's under the eyeshadow palette. I've had it three weeks and haven't watched it yet, but I'm telling you I could watch it right now if I felt like it and if my daughter weren't already downstairs watching the 1940 Blue Bird. I just don't want to. I'll watch Zodiac this weekend. Right now I need to keep watching old movies, I have too much else going on to quit something that isn't harming me anyway. Hey, did anybody else notice some benevolent soul has posted Hold Back the Dawn on Youtube?
I'm not going to quit--I don't have a problem--but I often have stretches of wondering why I do this, aside from the prestige of attending swank parties and announcing that I blog about movies a lot of people have never heard of, let alone seen. And I have had a small moment of clarity.
When I find a blog I like, I often read through the archives, and I was going through Tom Shone's blog, Taking Barack to the Movies. He writes mostly about contemporary movies and some politics, in his graceful and very witty style, and I love it even when he's making me feel guilty for not watching Zodiac. I found a post called "Best Films of the 1930s." Not that I am necessarily more interested in that topic than Sam Rockwell or anything, but I read it, and pulled up right here:
The films I most prize are the ones that look normal, and sound normal, and feel normal, but unfurl with the sinuous, sneaky logic of a dream. Movies that cast a spell. I don't mean surrealism — not a fan. I mean a big-budget studio picture that despite the involvement of hundreds of people, from money-grubbing producers to eagle-eyed costumiers, seems to have bloomed from the unconscious of a drowsy Keats...I recently had a spirited debate with my friend Nat about my theory that one cannot know and enjoy a picture made before you were born with quite the same casual intimacy of a film made in your lifetime. That older film can be 100 times better but it still doesn't breathe the same air you do in the same way that even a cruddy picture produced yesterday can.
Interesting. Absolutely bloody fascinating, in fact, because it's the precise opposite of the way I react to new versus old movies. It is this:
Some contemporary films do cast a marvelous spell for me; Avatar, the aforementioned NYFF films. I want to see more that can do the same. But if I want a film to speak to my most secret Siren soul, something to forget my life and the venue and possibly even the day of the week and whoever is sitting next to me, I'm looking at immensely better odds if I go pre-1960. Casual intimacy for me usually comes in black and white or Technicolor. Or sepia. Or Color by Deluxe. I've been intimate with sepia and Deluxe.
I don't want to argue (much), I want to attach an endnote. Clearly, it's true for Tom. Today we had coffee and I told him I was thinking about writing this and he's already got a lovely, lucid response right here. (This has got to be a personal best in terms of slow composition. I am now so slow that someone responds before I post.) His observation is probably true for most moviegoers. A chart based on the moviewatching feelings of the public as a whole might look like this:
- Item 1. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Cruddy Picture Produced Yesterday
Item 2. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Movie That's 100 Times Better But Is Older Than They Are
Item 3. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With Anything That Was Shot Before 1960 and/or Has Bette Davis
But the Siren is smack in the middle of Item 3, with most of her patient readers, god love 'em.
What is with us?
There is a certain Charlie Brown impulse at work for me, definitely. The Social Network is all over the Web, so I don't feel a need to write it up when every major critic and at least a dozen highly talented bloggers got there first. But see this one over here, gathering dust on IMDB with just two cursory external reviews? Not enough people are watching it. This movie needs me, Linus.
I hope nobody brings up nostalgia. I realize I am touchy on this issue, but gad I hate having that word attached to my movie tastes. Here's the moment from my girlhood when I realized nostalgia was bunk. I had just watched some damp-eyed TV documentary about this great swingin' party that I missed called the 1960s. And I said something to Mom along the lines of "Gee, you must have loved the 1960s, it looks like so much more fun than right now." And Mom (she might not even remember this) looked me in the eye and said, "What I remember about the '60s is that every time I got to liking a musician he died. And every time I got to thinking here's a person who can make the world a better place, somebody went out and shot him."
Nostalgia is for people who don't read much history, I think.
I could blame my parents, and have, like when Dennis brought up early viewing a few months back. They left me alone with the TV and gateway drugs like Busby Berkeley and John Ford and Vincente Minnelli and Shirley Temple (is Alida done with that one yet? OK, she's still watching). I could watch anything I wanted if it was old, but if I wanted to go to a current movie, my mother in particular was convinced that explicit sex or excessive screen violence would warp my mental development. See Raging Bull at too tender an age and the next thing you know I'd be under the patio torturing chipmunks or something. I need hardly add that this wasn't ironclad reasoning by my mother. I would watch the original Scarface or Busby Berkeley pushing the camera under the chorus girls' legs and believe me, I got it. My father was a great deal more laissez-faire; when I was about 12 years old he caught me carefully dog-earing the dirty parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover and all I got was a couple of raised eyebrows and "Time for dinner." But when they were deciding what I could go see at the local cinema he deferred to Mom. I'm pretty sure that I am one of the only film writers in captivity who didn't see an R-rated movie until they were actually, chronologically 17 years old.
Result was that I grew up watching old movies and thinking this was the way movies were supposed to look, lush or spare, shadowy or sparkling, the camera lingering or gliding and no such thing as acne or pores. And this was how a movie was supposed to sound, resonant, highly individual voices speaking wonderful dialogue against the gentle sonic hiss of the soundtrack, a score trailing the action like a cloud of perfume. Without those things, I can still be enthralled. But sometimes the lack of them is a small barrier to intimacy. "I see you have pores. Gosh no darling, of course it doesn't matter. I've seen them before. Is that a lamp on the side table, sweetness? You know, if we switch it on, we'll have light coming from three points…"
As usual, I wind up going to my commenters for the real insight. There's the friend who said simply, "There's something in the rhythms of these movies that's in tune with your own." There's David Ehrenstein, who maintains that "the 30s, not the 70s, was the great period for American commercial filmmaking," citing James Whale, Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor as directors doing genuinely experimental work. And there's Arthur S., who once remarked here that it isn't nostalgia if what you're watching is actually more daring and more radical than what's playing at the multiplex. There's an overarching style to classic cinema, but within it you can see astonishing variation and innovation, like poets ringing changes on sonnets or terza rima.
It is, essentially, an aesthetic preference like any other, one that was probably imprinted early by the circumstances of my childhood. Which brings me to my own children, now safely asleep. They watch a lot of Pixar, which is fine--Up and Wall*E? Brilliant. Spell-casters for sure. And heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. I haven't watched that many old movies with my kids. At ages seven and four they are already more in tune with popular culture than Mom. That's good in a lot of ways. Dragging Astaire and Rogers into everyday conversation didn't exactly make me queen of the Alabama schoolyard. Maybe I should just let my brood continue like that.
Fat chance. I'm ordering Chaplin at Keystone for them, and then I'm going to bed.