Monday, February 25, 2008

That Was Then; This is Now

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.


Laura said...

What a fun post - I smiled over your meandering thoughts on Jimmy Stewart wasting gas. Isn't it funny how sometimes we can lose sight of the historical context and find ourselves surprised when comparing a film to "modern" living? Looking at a movie through those "multiple lenses" can be very interesting.

Best wishes,

Bacall said...

I can definitely understand what you are saying here. When I watch classic films it's as if I were in a Time Machine, I lose myself, then suddenly I am awaken when I see scenes like the one you saw in Vertigo (big car, a lot of gas). I have to remind myself, that was then, and this is now. I forget I am living in 2008 and not 1940's, and 50's, etc.

Funny how we can't even watch a classic film to escape our reality, reality always hits us even when time traveling. Nice blog. I will will add your blog on my blog roll.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Laura and Bacall, thanks for stopping by. I suppose we're all a little fixed on gasoline these days. Isn't funny how in these old movies there's always a place to park, too? Jimmy Stewart never has to drive around the block a few times. I don't think I could even park his great big old Plymouth without hitting something.

And I hope readers will head for Bacall's Cine Classics site, a very interesting blog.

Campaspe said...

After years of watching these things and immersing myself in prior decades I have pretty good suspension of disbelief. What usually brings me up short are the racial attitudes. For ex: I love His Girl Friday but no amount of allowing for the period can keep me from cringing at the word "pickaninny." It throws me right out of the movie for a minute or two.

The drinking can pull me up short occasionally too, but in a different way. Judging by movies, people used to drink a lot more - and they drank hard liquor, and they did it every day as a matter of course. Sometimes this is a bit horrifying (I saw a movie recently where a pregnant woman was downing a cocktail) but mostly it just looks kind of fun. Like in Dodsworth, they are pouring a cocktail for a visitor, it's afternoon, there's nothing wrong and nobody is trying to drown any sorrows, and they give the guy -- I swear -- half a big ol' tumbler of straight Scotch with a little squirt of water in it. This was just common hospitality. Bottoms up!

as for parking, the ability to pull up and park in front of wherever you're going is way up there on my list of Big Movie Unreality Moments. That one is very much with us still, though. I don't care if every bad guy in the universe is chasing you, in a movie if you need to get into a building fast, zip, there's a parking space.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Siren. The drinking is especially noted by most community theater groups who perform lots of "chestnut" plays like "Bell, Book and Candle" or "Arsenic and Old Lace" or Agatha Christie mysteries - there is always a bar, a grog tray, or at least one decanter to fill with juice that looks like brandy. You cannot perform a play written before 1950 without a drink in your hand.

Campaspe said...

Okay, so I came back to note that there IS something I can't get past and I discovered this a couple of weeks ago: hunting endangered animals. I watched the beginning of King Solomon's Mines, a movie I thought was swell as a girl, and the killing of the elephant just horrified me to the point that I switched it off.

I'd forgotten all about that. I guess what gets me is the sheer unbridled waste (like your gasoline horror!) as well as the fact that it's probably not faked.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Aha! That's a good one, yes. Murdering the dear animals. Also endangering them with cruelty (this was before "no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.") I had reviewed a Harold Lloyd film some time ago where they tied a dog's leash to a merry-go-round, and the poor thing was dragged by his neck until Mr. Lloyd evidently either got tired of the "joke" or thought of a new gag.

I hope the dog bit somebody afterwards. My sense of fair play.

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