Wednesday, March 17, 2010
PERSONAL NOTE: If loving movies is wrong...
I struggled with a topic for this week's post. Though I have a whole list of ideas jotted down, none of them seemed to fit my current mood... Which has been quite pensive of late. I have often wondered just how valid my interest in cinema is, if valid is the right word. How useful is it to know how many Oscars Kate Hepburn won? Or how painful Rita Hayworth's hairline electrolysis was? Does owning somewhere in the ballpark of 1000 movies, (no, that is not a typo) and having seen even more, really have any value? This questioning has left me in a sort of existential dilemma.
"You are the Star" mural @ Hollywood & Wilcox
The trouble with studying film is, there is still a heavy bias against it. If I told people I studied art-- Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt-- the reaction would be "Ooh, ahh... that's interesting." Granted, I may be considered somewhat impractical for choosing an unstable passion with little lucrative benefit, but my knowledge and education would bear more weight because "art" is valued. Films are not. They are so accessible that they are taken for granted. While many of us may see a movie and say, "That was good," we don't consider it a gift from the muses. This dates all the way back to the advent of cinema, when film was considered a flash-in-the-pan publicity gag, certain to lose its luster once the next thing came along. Film actors weren't even "actors," they were regular Joe's, usually fresh off the street and looking for a job-- any job. In early Hollywood, and around the studios in New York, landlords wouldn't even rent to these pioneers, posting signs outside their buildings that flatly stated: "No Actors," (along with the equally biased "No Jews" or "No Chinese," etc).
Yup, movies have had it rough. No one wanted to love them. No one wanted to believe in them. They were just pictures in motion-- one step up from the lantern slideshows. Yet, people became riveted, mostly the lower classes, who could afford to see the ramshackle Nickelodeons available to everyone. Since it was such a subordinate amusement, this gave the higher classes further reason to avoid the cinema parlors, but the fascination still grew. It turns out that people just love watching people. Just as gazing into the eyes of an oil portrait gave prior generations the ability to relate to another individual, to live vicariously through them, and to indulge in their own imaginations, movies took it a step further. Here was an actual carbon-copied, photographic representation of a living and breathing individual... and you could legitimately see them living and breathing! Society quickly became absorbed by it: by its technology and by its humanity. *(Still from Annabelle Butterfly Dance 1894)
And so, something happened. People started to believe and to consequently create. Stories were built, directors started innovating new techniques to take plays from the stage to the screen, and then original stories were given life through a medium whose presence opened a door to a whole new level of fantasy and communication. The great unifier was born. In black and white, the angels of silent cinema glowed brightly, bringing laughter and tears, taking us on emotional rides-- whether for 3 minutes or an hour-- and then delivered us safely back home. With directors like D.W. Griffith, Allan Dwan, and Clarence Brown, cinema became "art." With performances by Florence Lawrence, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo (right in The Saga of Gosta Berling 1924), movies became real.
And here we are, over a century after landing on the moon (via Georges Melies that is), and we have such a significant bulk of history at our very fingertips!!!. At times I am deeply affected by the fact that I am watching a movie that was made far before I was born; one that stars an actor who has long been gone. I am intimately acquainted with Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge... I have never met them; yet, I know them. They continue to reach out to me and affect me after so many years. How is that possible? How lucky are we to have this privilege? To have the option of lavishing in the glorious ghosts of the past so freely?
Tom Mix and his horse, Tony
This is why, despite the occasional, minor setback, I am proud of my personal absorption in cinema. The study of film is the study of human beings: the study and appreciation of life and the education of empathy. What better lesson can one receive? By watching a movie, one learns about herself, about society, and about history. When you watch a period piece, you are given a glimpse of life at another time... But you also learn something, not just about the time period about which the film was made, but in which the film was made. The depiction of a different era reveals the contemporary society's opinions, morals, ideals, and standards about that era, and thus about itself. Wartime movies about war are significantly different than peacetime war films, for example. What will future societies say about our time? What will our ad nauseum, apocalyptic zombie films say about us? Fear, paranoia, vulnerability? What will our raunchy, buddy films communicate? Escapism, rebellion, boldness?
Obviously, not every film is a masterpiece. For every Citizen Kane there are thousands of White Chicks, New in Towns, and Anacondas. But every film is a contribution to the most moving and penetrating of artistic mediums. And, whether a film is considered good or bad, or so bad its good, we thrive on and enjoy the spectacle of it. Visual connoisseurs, we love gazing at a thing of beauty, whether that thing be Gene Tierney (below) or the fantastical universe of James Cameron's Avatar. As internally complex human beings, we love the intricate weavings of an engrossing story, because it explains us to ourselves in a way that no paid therapist can. Suffering from the pressures and stresses of every day life, we indulge for a moment in witnessing the lives of others, foreign and safe, yet strangely familiar.
So, do I hold a grudge against myself for at times thinking that I have watched and studied and collected so many movies that I may in fact have become one? No. We are all movies, and movies are all us. Besides, I would rather burn on a pyre of love for Grant and Bergman than for no one at all.