Monday 19 December 2011
Invited to a Halloween party a few years ago and at a loss for a last-minute costume, I put on my most raggedy suit, bought a cigar, applied three strips of greasepaint, and walked in the door as Groucho Marx. If you think you know where this is going, don’t worry – everyone else dressed in costume too. Unfortunately, I thought Groucho would be as iconic and recognisable as Elvis or Dracula, and not one of my educated, middle-aged neighbours had heard of him.
Of course we were in Ireland, where cultural touchstones can be different, but more and more North Americans, I find, have no familiarity with classic movies either. I rarely see them in my local DVD stores or libraries, with a few predictable exceptions: a John Wayne movie or two for elderly men, a now-colourised musical for women, and the inevitable Three Stooges. Exceptions like It’s a Wonderful Life loop endlessly in holiday marathons until they become white noise, no matter how relevant in this time of bank failures.
Perhaps this is understandable; most people these days find the conventions of black-and-white movies as alien as Kabuki theatre, familiar only from decades of countercultural spoofing. Many times I have eagerly attended the rare revival, from Dark Victory as a teenager to Metropolis last year, only to cringe when the dramatic scenes reduced the audience to horse laughter. Young people might do well to explore old movies, though, for as we enter a time of austerity they might turn out more relevant and prophetic than anyone realises.
I don’t mean science fiction films from that era, with their now-hilarious predictions of flying cars and domed cities. Nor do I mean recent science fiction, which in the 1970s took the same apocalyptic turn as our religion and our politics, until by now most rental stores have a single section for “science fiction/horror.”
In defence of Zombie Apocalypse movies, our society is facing some serious problems. We have built a world where almost everything depends on fossil fuels — cars, air travel, trucking, shipping, heat, electricity, plastics, and fertiliser. We use more fossil fuels every decade, yet their supply is limited, and many experts, including the U.S. Army, predict a crunch in the next several years. The coming decades will probably bring more outages and shortages, along with weirder weather and economic shocks, problems that will all feed on each other. Energy alternatives like bio-fuels, nuclear, wind and solar might allow us to live with the per capita energy of 80 years ago rather than 180 years ago, but nothing will spare us from having to make do with less.
Post-apocalyptic fiction, though, assumes everything will disappear, overnight, ridding the world of the people we don’t like and leaving us with all the world’s toys. The reality will probably be less horrific and cinematic; fossil fuels will probably abate over decades, and the greatest danger will be enforced simplicity for millions of people mentally unprepared for it.
That’s where movies come in – and television and other media, but I’m focusing on movies. Most of us spend most of our waking lives staring at glowing rectangles, and we weave our mental landscape of the world from media images like birds building a nest from scraps. When I read accounts of Thermopylae I still see 300, and even when I read Gandhi’s original writings I still picture Ben Kingsley.
For movies to help us prepare for our real future, though, it has to show us what such a world could look like, and neither Star Trek nor Zombie Apocalypse fiction help us show people struggling to pay the mortgage, irrigate the crops and hitch a ride to town. We do have thousands of movies that do show us this more limited future, though, because they were made in a more limited past.
Or take the scene in 1943’s Tender Comrade where Ginger Rogers describes to Robert Ryan the kind of normal life they would have when he returns from the war: a garden where they could grow their own food, with chickens in the yard. It’s not the kind of dialogue we’re likely to see in a war movie today, but it should be. And when our soldiers return, they will have to rebuild their old lives, reboot their marriages and rediscover their children – a story Hollywood told well in 1946’s The Best Years of our Lives.
As another example, take King Vidor’s 1934 film Our Daily Bread: a young couple can’t pay their rent, and neither can most of their friends. They have inherited some land but can’t pay the taxes, for no one is around to cultivate the property. Someone realises the two problems could solve each other; they and their friends can move to the land, build a new life and split the profits from the farm.
I haven’t seen many films about working people trying to get health care — unless I watch 1938’s The Citadel. More people must care for elderly parents, but I don’t see many films dealing with the problems that causes, outside of 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow. And has any recent film showed the down-and-out as heroes, as in Meet John Doe, The Grapes of Wrath or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang?
To most people I talk to these days, old movies seem hopelessly corny and unrealistic – and obviously some had dated references, poor dialogue, or simply have not aged well. Their depictions of African-Americans appropriately offend modern sensibilities, as does the sight of white actors playing ethnic roles. I don’t recommend them if you’re trying to quit smoking, either; even in The Citadel, one surgeon hands another some cigarettes, saying “they’ll calm your nerves.”
Classic films also treated courtship and language with a gentleness that seems strange to us today, now that our mass media have spent four decades celebrating every new broken taboo as a victory against The Man. Are films with graphic sex and gore, however, more realistic? Is that what your life is like?
In fact, movies of the 1930s and 40s, despite their innocent image, show a grimmer world than we are used to seeing. Frank Capra’s movies have become synonymous with Norman Rockwell Americana, but their bright moments were powerful because they were surrounded by darkness, their decent characters – John Doe, George Bailey — framed, harassed and pushed to suicide and madness.
Ironically, I grew up with old movies because of this misconception; for conservative Christians in the 1970s and 80s, classic movies made safe entertainment, so my brothers and I grew up knowing Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart the way other children know rappers or wrestlers. We passed every supper with trivia contests, with games our parents and grandparents had created. In one game we were given two actors – say, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne – and had to link them with the shortest possible number of co-stars. These days I’m sure someone has a web site and algorithm to tell you instantly, but we had to calculate on the spot that the answer was one: Paulette Goddard.
Yes, it’s the Kevin Bacon game; years later a bunch of college students patented it, marketed the idea and gained fame and fortune. No, I’m not bitter.
In another game, which we called Rotunda, we started with a film and two co-stars – say, Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – and then each of us took turns bouncing through co-stars, from Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story to Cary Grant/Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and so on. The goal of the game was to make your way back to the first actor you named, but to anticipate several moves ahead, so that only you, and no one else, would reach the crucial link to Claude Rains.
This love of movies stayed with me over the years; I worked as a film critic for a newspaper chain for a while in my twenties, which sounds like a dream job until you realise how many bad movies you need to sit through. Depressingly, I found that the quality of movies has deteriorated over time; take the best films of any year, and they do not outweigh the products of even a single month of, say, 1941.
Of course such a sweeping and subjective statement will not match everyone’s tastes, and of course film technology keeps improving, each decade bringing a new kind of animation, CGI, 3-D or some other way to wow us. Few films today, though, seem to rely on great stories; they have become spectacles, as silent movies were, rather than well-written plays. Moreover, any one of them cost enough to make a hundred films like The Thin Man or The Maltese Falcon, even accounting for inflation. Few filmmakers today, rolling in wealth and with the godlike power to create whole worlds onscreen, do as much as John Huston or Woody Van Dyke did with a cardboard set.
And this brings us back to living on less. When the Great Depression hit, movies shifted away from the big-budget fantasy spectacles of the 1920s into more modest and realistic fare. In part they were responding to the demands of newly invented talkies, but also to the desires of an increasingly desperate and politically radical America. Hollywood saw an intellectual movement – imagine! – of writers and directors determined to tell useful stories by and for ordinary people. American films have never been more well-written or resonant than in the 1930s and 40s, because they have never been more gently and consciously populist.
Such ideals drew accusations of Communism even then, and some of those writers and directors did become entangled in the misguided intellectual causes of the 1930s. “A surprising number,” though, write authors Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner in their book Radical Hollywood, “came straight out of Middle America and made their choice on old-fashioned moral grounds.” There is a reason old movies are so sentimentally cited by Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson as symbols of a better America, and why the growing neo-conservative movement in the 1970s asked an old B-movie star to be their figurehead.
Movies and other media have become spectacles again, and as we move into something far greater and deeper than a Depression, I long to see well-written, idealistic stories about regular people coping with the long emergency.
I want to see films for all ages, devoid of hip countercultural irony. I want to see low-budget teleplays in which today’s equivalent of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a show to raise money to build allotments in the old park, a new series of Dead End Kids movies in which modern versions of Tommy and Milty cajole the neighbourhood association to allow pigs in the vacant lot.
With a future this severe bearing down on us, movies might seem like small potatoes; if we do face a future of widespread poverty, of course, we should all attend to fundamental human needs, and save the old lady rather than the Mona Lisa. But few things can stick in the thoughts of masses of people as well as movies and television; when I referred to a “Star Trek future” or a “Zombie Apocalypse,” you knew just what I meant.
And they are one of the last things we do in community. I took my seven-year-old to see Buster Keaton’s The General at a rare showing yesterday, and while she chuckled when I showed her clips on YouTube, we had tears in our eyes laughing with an auditorium of people. It felt like a good football game or a revival tent, with waves of emotion rippling over a crowd, and for a brief moment in the darkness you are reminded that we’re all in this together.
Originally published at Front Porch Republic.
Sunday 11 December 2011
This time of year, my daughter has one favourite story: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, the story of Santa’s rounds on Christmas night. It’s one of my favourites as well, if for different reasons.
In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings, there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude, dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of liquor.
Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes Santa more human, and more comprehensible to my daughter, than the usual laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping – and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.
What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a homestead. He starts his morning by using the outhouse – at least, it’s a toilet outside in the shed -- and gathers hay for the animals. He is pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast with tea. He puts coal in the small stove, similar to the one we use to burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden or greenhouses out back.
The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here believe Santa lives in Lapland, in Finland, rather than at the North Pole as American children do. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply conservative land” that David Kynaston pieces together from diaries in his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.
Father Christmas and Austerity Britain would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores, schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised world that we would do well to revive.
In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns, with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth and a wind-up alarm clock. He puts talc powder under his arms instead of modern deodorant. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.
As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my six-year-old points out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.
The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a century ago would not have found such details cryptic, any more than they would stables and mangers.
Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping “season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s “workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the spending numbers like telethon hosts.
When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other side, and realise there is another source of comfort and joy.
Monday 5 December 2011
Saw The Mousetrap.
Stayed in the Hostel of the Surly Russians.
Ate an amazing coconut soup from a Malaysian restaurant in the West End.
Had coffee and blood pudding in Soho.
... and most importantly, fulfilled a lifelong dream: visited the Natural History Museum.