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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.


  1. Very interesting post! Hope you can stop by my blog sometime! Kori xoxo

  2. Great post. I get a lot of sneers when I tell people that I'm a Film Studies student. If they don't think it's a big part of life, I pity their life, because I couldn't imagine mine without movies.

  3. 1000 movies? I love it! Don’t question your passion for old movies and stars. As you know there are many folks out there that think like we do. Kate , Carole , and Norma would be honoured to know they are remembered by someone as bright and talented as you. Today’s movies are mild compared to some pre-code films. Times change . People don’t.

  4. Oh sister, are you ever preachin' to the choir. Thank you so much for such a clear and impassioned view of why 'we' do what we do.

    So glad to have found you. You are going straight blogroll!

  5. hip hip hoorah! as someone following you into the void (with some of the same concerns) this was a much appreciated post. it's a bias that we have to fight because film is absolutely important and worthy of study both as an art form and as a part of history that both reflects society in certain ways (or the way certain groups wanted society to be perceived, at any rate) and has some really interesting implications that are absolutely tied to a greater historical narrative. if clark gable not wearing an undershirt in it happened one night affects undershirt sales on main street then there is something interesting going on there.

  6. Huzzah! to you and this post! My interest in cinema, classic mostly, is a question always on my mind these days as I try to decide what to record and catalog- as my obsession grows. My life has been changed by deciding to view more and more classic film. I find myself matching history and time frames against a particular star's lifespan, consistently comparing views from my favorite eras against today's views, covering my desk with post-its with notes like George White's Scandals and Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher". I often wonder if I am going overboard and find reassurance knowing that I am studying a very important and entertaining piece of the past. And I have gotten a real kick out of finding others who are just as obsessed as I!

  7. Wow! Thanks to all of you for your responses. It is nice to know that I have so many comrades in arms out there. I appreciate your comments and your equal dedication to celluloid celebration!! There seems to be quite a community of us, doesn't there? :)

  8. Thank you for your comments they are always more than welcome have a gr8 weekend.

  9. Dear Meredith,

    A thoughtful reflection. You make sense to me, but because, I suspect, we have travelled different roads to the same end, I have a few questions and an observation.

    What constitutes “studying film”?

    Need one be in the halls of academe and then continue the studying process once removed from the premises? Need one work in the industry? Or does one (like me) qualify? I have been studying film for seventy years The first twenty years were inadvertent study. The last fifty comprised endless viewing, extensive reading, and only occasional forays into academe, i.e., infrequent courses at The New School. (Not without regularity did I find that those who taught needed teaching.)

    “There is still a heavy bias against it.”

    From whom? I might conject you refer to some of those who share those spaces in the halls of academe. If such is the case consider it not. (Unless, of course, it affects employment, which is a different subject.) If my conjecture is incorrect and the source is elsewhere, what is that source? And does it matter?

    Your essay was too long and thoughtful for this short comment to do it justice. I am just saying steer the course you have set -- and worry not about those who do not know the way to Samarkand, to Baker Street, to Sunset Boulevard, or even to Samarra.


  10. Gerald, I thank you for your comments and questions. I consider a student of cinema to be anyone who watches film and absorbs it as more than a passing source of entertainment and recognizes the artistic, social, and psychological implications it presents to and of society. I am not a PhD in the matter, and have only taken the bits and pieces I learned in college and added them to my personal pursuits. You seem to be the same sort. This is thing that makes film so brilliant- it is accessible to everyone!
    The bias I feel is perhaps in my own head, and a result of my own insecurities I guess!!! I really love what I do (with my spare time, as I am sadly not yet paid for my passion!) but I think there is a bit of skepticism against anyone who thinks, or lives, outside the box, as it were. Being a film buff and trying to make a career out of it is not easy to explain to someone who pulls teeth for a living, or balances checkbooks, etc. etc. But in the end, as I think is clear from this blog and all of my works, I believe in the power and beauty of films and their far-reaching power, as it is clear that so many others do. The fact that I have had such a response to this post, which is unlike my others due to its personal nature, proves that point further.
    We soldiers for film are not alone, and I think it is brilliant when you can see your own passions and interests reflected back by someone else. So, don't worry! I don't intend to stop! There is too much to learn and too much to share, and too many people ready and willing to receive! Thanks again!!

  11. Thank you Meredith. I appreciate your taking the time to clarify. I am interested in how others perceive film, particularly those of generations other than my own. Your thoughts are clearly stated and your intellectual honesty refreshing. I was led to your site by Matthew Coniam, whose judgment and taste I trust. I am not new to film but I am to film blogs. And I use Matthew as my cartographer as I start navigating these waters. / Gerald

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  13. Great post!! So true! I completely agree. Film is so much more than just entertainment. I wish I could agree with you more eloquently but all I can say is, "hear, hear!"

  14. Hey, still me, backtracking. This is now in my top three favorite posts from you. Very, very moving. I love the "We are all movies, and movies are all us" line. Brilliant stuff.