Monday, June 15, 2009

Old Movies

I’ve had the treat recently of introducing much younger friends to the glories of old movies. When I talk about “old movies”, I use Leonard Maltin’s definition – movies made before 1960, movies made under the old studio system, movies in black and white or Technicolor, Todd AO or Cinamascope, movies made when people watched for dialog and acting, not technical tricks and over-the-top adrenal stimulation. Those old, boring, staid, slow, wonderful, intricate, marvelous movies are my cinematic passions. Happiness is a rainy afternoon and a DVD lineup including Cary Grant or Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart. I love the classics.

Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes enjoy multimillion dollar, explosion and CGI laden, mega-, ultra-blockbusters. They are fun in a flashy, ephemeral way, just a good time. Those old movies, though, are special. They don’t end up on the discount rack six months after release. They own a place in our culture. They last.

My young friends find a challenge reaching back to a way of seeing things their grandparents knew. I look up movie trivia and watch documentaries so I can explain subtext and innuendo. I tell them about the strict rules under which movies once were made and how movie directors worked to communicate “risqué” themes without invoking censors. I enjoy when these twenty-somethings catch on to a joke that doesn’t involve farting or masturbation or get teary over small, careful, subtle moments. They get involved. They are surprised.

I watched To Have and Have Not last night and wondered what a director would do to it now. In the sexy Bogey and Bacall drama, most of the big action takes place off-screen. Two scenes separate scenes show one man shot and killed and another man shot and injured. Neither scene is particularly bloody. They would not appeal to audiences inured to violence, who need bigger, more extreme displays to engage them. In fact, the movie ends before a much-discussed dramatic rescue. All we see are the three main characters packing up and leaving a hotel together. The movie isn’t about the dramatic rescue, or the guns and blood. It is about cynical people finding value in each other and believing they can make the world better. When they leave the hotel, that’s what they go to do. Today a director would need to add more bodies and film that daring rescue to Devil’s Island.

I like movies that leave a little to ponder. They include me. When a moviemaker can build complex visual illusions, there’s less pressure to build careful dialog, layered stories, and complex characters. Maybe modern movies are a backlash against earlier extremes of Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini that left perhaps too much for the average movie goer to figure out. Now we demand that movies provide us with an experience, not a story. The less we must think, the better we like the film.

So I go back to these old movies time and again, big ones and little ones. All About Eve, The Big Sleep, The Women, A Letter to Three Wives, Apartment for Peggy – even the original Japanese Godzilla – create something I don’t find often in more contemporary fare and nearly never see in modern remakes. Those classics make room for me, and I love them for it.

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