This blog devotes itself to examining old movies in the context of the times in which they were filmed. Easy enough to say, but not always easy to do.
We are rooted in our environment, our own time, no matter how imaginative we are or knowledgeable, or sensitive to the time machine we climb into when we watch an old film. Some stuff, oddly the more shocking stuff, like racism and sexism one is almost able to easier put aside with a “that was how it was then” attitude. The lesser important stuff seems to grab us by the ankles sometimes and won’t let us go.
I wrote on “Vertigo” (1958) last week. In that essay I did not mention that while watching the slow chase of James Stewart following Kim Novak in the winding drives around San Francisco, mesmerized by Bernard Herrmann’s penetrating music, my mind drifted away from the mystery plot and instead I was foolishly preoccupied with how much gasoline they were wasting. I stopped thinking about the characters and instead become rather tense over how much it would cost to fill up her enormous Rolls-Royce and his huge Plymouth, and over the carbon footprint they were leaving.
Me, I wouldn’t have tailed Madeleine around all day without combining other errands to make the trip more gas efficient. Say, pick up my dry cleaning on the way to the art museum, or drop off my library books and pick up some groceries on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
I might even have approached Kim Novak, tapped on the window of her car and said, “Um, Madeleine? I’ve been hired by your husband to follow you. So, as long as we’re going in the same direction, how about we just take one car? Move over, I’ll drive.”
But not James Stewart. He just drives and drives, and follows her for miles, and I am fixated on fuel consumption.
Our friend Laura over at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings had a similar reaction to a pregnant woman smoking in the waiting room of her OB-GYN’s office. (See her blog entry here.) We can believe any make-believe fantasy the old movies throw at us, except when something jolts our present-day sensibilities. Then it slaps us hard in the face and reminds us yet again that people were living their lives under different laws of the jungle long before we came around.
The movie “The Out Of Towners” (1970) is still an extremely funny movie to me no matter how many times I see it, but as the years pass I find it becomes more and more remote. I may smile at Sandy Dennis’ white gloves (Surely 1970 must have been the last time women would not leave the house before putting on white gloves), but the sight of her and Jack Lemmon proceeding through an airport terminal without any kind of airport security actually makes me rather tense. The final joke of the film when they discover their plane has just been hijacked has long since lost all humor for me. In such an instance, we may look on a film like this with a sad reflection of our former innocence.
Those of us who enjoy old movies, despite our tastes, have one thing in common, and that is the ability to pick out what is eternal about the human experience, no matter the style of clothes or the dialogue. It is thrilling when young fans of old movies seem to understand this. I am deeply touched when they do.
Going back for a moment to “Vertigo”, here is a link to a music video on YouTube. I don’t usually enjoy most music videos, but this one is striking for the creator’s ability to latch on to what is classic, what is universal, and tie it in to a modern sensibility. It has been said that the modern young generation is more oriented to graphics than to the written word. This video is as eloquent to me as any written analysis of the Scottie-Madeleine-Judy triangle in “Vertigo” I have ever read, including my own.