The Self-Styled Siren (aka Farran Smith Nehme) makes no apologies for her passion for pre-1960s movies. In a particularly lovely piece called "Intimacy at the Movies" she examines the mysterious forces behind her "old-movie habit." You see, the New York Film Festival was in October, and the Siren devoted herself to catching some of the big cinephiliac treasures of the fall, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes-winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," Raoul Ruiz's "Mysteries of Lisbon"... and she loved them, but...
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" [Sam Wood, 1947; starring Joan Fontaine and Herbert Marshall]. 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?
You see why the Siren is such a pleasure to read. Also, I happen to share her fondness for movies made before I came into this world or not long thereafter. The Siren recently experienced a "moment of clarity" reading an entry on Tom Shone's blog, Taking Barack to the Movies called "Best Films of the 1930s," in which he wrote:
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.
(I was going to truncate that paragraph so as not to repeat too much of the Siren's post, but it's so good I had to leave it just the way the she quoted it.) The thing is: this is exactly the opposite of the way the Siren feels about new vs. old movies. And me, too. Although I would say Jack Nicholson is probably the first actor I ever responded to as a "movie star" (or an anti-movie-star, in films like "Five Easy Pieces," "The Last Detail," "Chinatown," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), I can't imagine feeling the same kind of "casual intimacy" with him or any of today's stars the way I do with pre-Method actors like Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck (the two greatest film performers since the advent of talkies), Jean Arthur, Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Irene Dunne, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and so on and so forth. (The Siren would probably put Bette Davis at the top of that list.) These were actors, but they were also movie stars, which means that they not only played roles, but were also -- I'm not sure how to put this -- archetypes of themselves. We're so intimately acquainted with their personae that they transcend the limits of any character or picture. That is a special (though, I guess, hardly "casual") intimacy between actor and viewer, indeed.
It's not about nostalgia. As the Siren says, "Nostalgia is for people who don't read much history, I think." It has more to do with that "casual intimacy" Shone describes. The Siren recently had lunch with Shone and they discussed the matter, after which he wrote a follow-up, "Why I am a poor judge of movies that predate me":
I can tell you what it feels like to watch ["His Girl Friday"] on TCM for the tenth time, at a distance of 80 years, and to know some of the dialogue so well as to be able to recite whole portions in my head, but there is no escaping the retrospective hue of my love for the film, or the irrevocability with which I am denied the casual, first-come-first-served intimacy of someone who has just walked off the street. I will never know what it feels like to watch Cary Grant movies casually, or indifferently, the way I watch Jim Carrey movies, just as Humbert Humbert will never know what it is like to be one of the jocks at Lolita's school, beloved by her for their very diffidence.... Maybe I spent too much time translating Anglo-Saxon poems about errant Nordic warriors in college, thus instilling in me a rocketlike aversion for anything that reeks of study, or the academy, or any sustained effort to find puns or word-play funny, together with a moth-like attraction to the hard gemlike flame of the eternal present that so entrances Hollywood. I don't mean to get all Nietzschean. It's just the surest sign I can think of in an art-form is still alive and not losing sensation in its extremities -- it's complete and utter disregard for anything that happened before last Tuesday. I find I have some sympathy for the amnesiac excitability of Los Angeles.
Some of us have been accused of paying too much fealty (whatever that means) to Hollywood classicism -- and I fully admit I do find many studio-era films as comforting and satisfying as a plate of roast turkey and mashed potatoes -- which is not to say they feel any less challenging or (in some delightful cases) downright weird and ahead of their time -- and mine. Many of them feel to me so much more solid than most of today's products (not unlike old vs. new construction), maybe because they feel built to last... and the ones that are still around have lasted.
The Siren constructed a bar graph of her feelings about movie intimacy that is sheer genius. I reprint it here with her kind permission:
The Siren places herself "smack in the middle of Item 3, with most of her patient readers, god love 'em." Why is that? A friend of hers once suggested: "There's something in the rhythms of these movies that's in tune with your own." And one of her commenters once said "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."
I (and the Siren and some of her commenters) believe it has a lot to do with how you were raised, and what transformative movie experiences you had as a child and young adult -- no matter when those movies were originally produced and released. That frame was a window, as far as I was concerned, and I didn't feel distinguish between something that was made 30 years ago or something that was just released last week. I didn't feel distanced by that "retrospective hue" Shone mentions. To me, a movie wasn't something primarily distinguished by being old or new, like or unlike the world I lived in; it was always, fundamentally, a movie, with its own imagery and logic and language. It didn't occur to me that I wasn't seeing the very same picture everyone else had seen throughout the years. In fact, I was (frame by frame), but my frame of reference was obviously different from somebody seeing the same picture during, say, the Great Depression. That did not make the movie any less an intimate experience for me. I seem to recall watching "Vertigo," on New Year's Eve shortly after we got a color TV (!) when I was in my early teens (my parents were at a party and my sister was in bed) and it haunted me then. It felt both strange and familiar then -- and even more mysterious and captivating when I saw it again in the early 1980s, once the Paramount Hitchcocks finally became available after years of inaccessibility.
David Bordwell has a beautiful essay related to this subject, one I never tire of quoting and linking to, regarding The Law of the Adolescent Window":
Between the ages of 13 and 18, a window opens for each of us. The cultural pastimes that attract us then, the ones we find ourselves drawn to and even obsessive about, will always have a powerful hold. We may broaden our tastes as we grow out of those years--we should, anyhow--but the sports, hobbies, books, TV, movies, and music that we loved then we will always love.
The corollary is the Law of the Midlife/ Latelife Return:
As we age, and especially after we hit 40, we find it worthwhile to return to the adolescent window. Despite all the changes you've undergone, those things are usually as enjoyable as they were then. You may even see more in them than you realized was there. Just as important, you start to realize how the ways you passed your idle hours shaped your view of the world--the way you think and feel, important parts of your very identity.
I was fortunate to be able to discover the Marx Bros. when I was in high school in the mid-1970s, when "Animal Crackers" was re-released theatrically and their films played to big revival-house crowds. Their anarchic, absurdist, rapid-fire comedy spoke directly to the youth of the 1970s through the frame of the 1930s (W.C. Fields was a counterculture icon of the 1960s and 1970s, too), like the stream-of-consciousness, drug-and-media-induced humor of the Firesign Theatre, in which versions of the Marxes and Fields would sometimes appear -- not as ghosts but as spiritual contemporaries.
These films actually were made to be seen on a big screen with an audience (unlike many of today's films, which are actually tailored for DVD and Blu-ray because the makers -- and financiers -- know that is the form in which most people will see them). The Marxes used to tour the country performing scenes before live audiences to get the timing right. When you see them in your living room, you notice there seem to be awkward pauses. That's where the laughs were -- and still are if you can see them with an appreciative audience. So, although I do not relate to his experience, I can understand Shone when he writes:
My face feels stiff with not laughing when I watch a Marx brothers movie. And I like the Marx brothers, can see their place in film history, find it fascinating that they have lasted so long, and not others, etc, etc. They just don't make me laugh. And while this is not everything, they are comedies, so it's something worth reporting, at least, if only because it happens to be true.
I've written before about how some comedy is so sublime (OK, I'm speaking of Buster Keaton of course) that laughter seems almost irrelevant. I can watch a Keaton film with a beatific smile and not even be aware that I'm not laughing out loud, because whatever it is in the heart/brain that responds to movie-love is being fully stimulated.
I can happily watch Keaton all by myself and it's like dreaming of going home -- not to a place I ever lived, but to a state in which I see the universe I recognize as the one I have always known, but which has never been revealed so clearly until this moment. And this moment never gets old, because the present-tense never does.
Be sure to read the terrific comments on this post at the Siren's place -- including such topics as Jean Arthur (subject of an entire film series of double bills programmed by Yours Truly in the early 1980s), the 1930s vs. the 1970s vs. the 1950s as "cinema's greatest decade," and contemporary references in vintage films. (My favorite is Sugarpuss O'Shea's assessment of her inflamed throat in "Ball of Fire": "It's as red as the Daily Worker and twice as sore!" I also love that Groucho has a line in "Animal Crackers" about Chic Sale -- a name I had to look up in order to understand the joke.)
I'll close by excerpting one comment, from Arthur S.:
A lot of the issues with watching old films bearing nostalgia is tied ironically to the fact that cinema is a young art form. Like with painting when people see Rembrandt or Vermeer or Velazquez they aren't necessarily going to say that they are interested in "old paintings" or with literature among readers, as Godard pointed out, reading Dickens and Flaubert is no big deal but seeing Griffith is....
The old Russian formalists said that great works of art always have "strangeness", the element by which it always feel fresh and different each time across successive generations. That's true of films, "Bringing Up Baby" and "My Man Godfrey" are plain weirder than most comedies today. And Preston Sturges remains astoundingly modern....
For another take on historical perspective in art, film, music, etc., please see my 2008 post, "And the greatest art work of the 20th century is..."