Shhhhh!

In 2012, the silent movie The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture. Jean Dujardin stars as a silent movie star whose career is affected by the advent of talkies. I saw it in the theaters and loved it. As a cinephile, that may be a given; however, silent film appreciation took me awhile. I’ve tried different genres with varying success. Silent movies initially didn’t impress me. They have a constant musical soundtrack, dialogue cards to read (so no looking away), and limited special effects and stunts (not a requirement, but helpful with certain plots). The camera doesn’t change scenes as fast as our modern eyes and short attention spans are accustomed. Remember: these are moving pictures.

I find the earliest dramatic films are indeed photo-like; the camera remains focused on the actor emoting. As a child, I remember seeing parts of the Keystone Kops. These comedies moved at a break-neck speed. Not natural movement. For the most part, by the 1920s, the images started to pass by at a more natural pace. Albeit, film direction does depend on filmmaker, genre, and country of origin.

Besides expanding my horizons, I wanted to experience the performances of famous actors like Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. I would often put the movie on fast-forward because it moved too slowly—again the image, not the plot. I enjoyed the comedies better than the dramas.

Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in The Kid (1921) is one of the most famous vehicles for the character. It’s a great movie. No fast-forwarding. As with any old movie, I’m always intrigued by the slice of history: the fashions, the living conditions, the look of society, etc. I’ve seen a few of Chaplin’s films as well as some of his shorts and I have found elements of pathos and social commentary along with the humor. One I’ve not seen is The Immigrant (1917), considered to be among his best.  That’s on the to-watch list.

Another classic silent comedy is The General (1927) with Buster Keaton. I found myself laughing out loud. I had never seen him in anything before. His expressions are priceless, although he never smiles. Strange perhaps, but it most definitely adds to the comedy. I have watched as many Keaton vehicles as possible. He has become my favorite from that era.

Nosferatu (1922) I saw after seeing Shadow of the Vampire (2000) with Willem Dafoe playing Max Shreck. The latter truly scared me, but the former creeped me out. Some will know the film from its ending—the rising sun shining through a bedroom window and destroying the vampire. The image that remains in my memory is the one of the vampire rising from his coffin while on a ship. He goes from being horizontal to vertical. The scene is seamless, making the modern viewer think, “That’s a neat trick, especially for 1922.” It is one instance of adept and effective special effects from the era.

Another example is J’accuse by Abel Gance. He made the movie twice, once in 1919 and then again in 1937. I find the original, at 2 hours 46 minutes, to be the better version. (The 1937 version is about 95 minutes.) The plot is more developed, allowing the final scene to have greater meaning. It’s an antiwar film made in France while WWI was still raging. The final sequence is called the March of the Dead. Soldiers rise from their graves to remind the living of the horrors of war. They are dressed in uniforms from different time periods. They are also in various states of decay. The make-up and the ghostly effects are just plain spooky.

Of course, there are more silent movies that can be mentioned, but these examples cultivated my interest. It isn’t always easy to appreciate silent movies. I still find myself fast-forwarding through many. I wasn’t sure about seeing The Artist in the theater since I would not have the power to speed it up if desired. Fortunately, that was not an issue. I’m glad I had developed an appreciation for silent movies prior to seeing it because I may have just missed out on a great movie.

The Kid in Me

I once worked with a music teacher who conducted a symphonic orchestra. One weekend, a concert was given at a local performance arts center. My best friend Debbie and I decided to go. We didn’t know anything about classical music, but we figured we could use a little culture. We previewed the program and recognized one or two composers. Of course, the titles of the selected pieces meant nothing to us.

The concert began. Part of the first musical piece sounded familiar to our ears. A fluke, surely. However, the next one also contained recognizable phrases. We complimented each other on how we were not as culturally ignorant as originally believed. We patted ourselves on the back.

This continued. About a quarter of the way through the concert, it dawned on me how we knew this music. I leaned over to Debbie and whispered, “Looney Tunes.” She had to cover her mouth with both hands to stop from laughing out loud. Our knowledge of classical music came from Bugs Bunny.

When I saw my colleague at work the following week, I complimented him on the performance. I also mentioned how almost all the pieces played had been used in Looney Tunes cartoons. He just stared at me. I guess not everyone appreciates Bugs Bunny.

It’s the kid in me. I own all six volumes of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection. When I need a good laugh, I’ll watch some classic cartoons. I occasionally quote the characters. It’s a good barometer for kindred spirits. One morning at work, I said “Another day, another carrot.” A colleague nearby laughed. A kindred spirit. This was a science teacher, not the previously mentioned music teacher. He was most definitely not a kindred spirit.

Of course, it has to be Looney Tunes. Not just any cartoon series has this effect. In college, my friends and I were on our way to dinner. During the conversation, I remarked, “I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency.” Two broke out laughing, the other one exclaimed, “What does that mean?!” Coincidentally I was wearing a denim jacket with all the Looney Tunes characters on the back. So, I could point out Foghorn Leghorn, the rooster I had just quoted. My non-laughing friend had no idea about any of these cartoons. I was in shock. How was it possible to have never seen a Looney Tunes cartoon? She answered she preferred others like Jem and Tom and Jerry.  Jem? Really? At least with the mention of Tom and Jerry she held on to her street cred. We also agreed upon Josie and the Pussycats and Scooby-Doo. The latter is the only other cartoon series I know that gets quoted regularly.

I won’t discuss today’s cartoons, since I fail to see the humor in them. I think they lack a certain quality, a certain cleverness or perspective, whatever it was that makes the original Looney Tunes timeless. How many sayings are part of our vernacular that come from these cartoons? A couple of examples are: “Of course you realize this means war” and “He don’t know me very well, do he?” Notice I didn’t give the most obvious one, “What’s up, doc?”, because everyone knows that one, whether or not they have ever watched Bugs Bunny.  I have my doubts, though, if everyone is aware of the other two.  I will end with a familiar one so everybody will be in on the joke. “That’s all, folks!”

Age Does Matter

Watching old movies is one thing, understanding them is another. Movies themselves are time capsules, a preserved piece of history. More than just fashions, hairstyles, and language are represented; we see what life and society were like at a given moment—for better or for worse. The course of history develops us as people, and through cinema we can revisit the past.

When I was about fourteen, I saw Casablanca for the first time. My mom rented it one night when we had the house to ourselves. I was excited to see such a classic. Alas, it did not hold my attention. I could not understand what the fuss was about. I was quite confused. Why were the Nazis in Morocco? Why did the French police captain played by Claude Rains help them?

Obviously, I had not yet learned about European history and the Second World War. Although I received a good high school education, history class is really just an overview. As it turned out, I had the opportunity to study in Paris where I enrolled in French history classes. I don’t know if the reader has ever studied history in the place where it was made. Saying it is interesting is an understatement; an eye-opener is the more accurate term. In Paris, I learned all about the Vichy government and collaborationism. Oddly enough, an infamous collaborationist was tried and convicted during my stay.

The combination of being a history enthusiast and Francophile had kept me busy reading books and watching documentaries over the years. A few years ago, I decided to give Casablanca a second shot. I felt like a delinquent cinephile for not appreciating it. I love it! Now that I understand it, now that I know the history behind it. I am older and little bit wiser.

Please don’t think course work is required for comprehension of old movie themes and events. More often than not, movies teach us. They are indeed reflections of ourselves. In recent years I have learned these past images are not always different from the present ones. Problems we deem modern creations have actually been around for quite some time. Watch practically any movie from the 1920s and pre-Hayes Code 1930s to discover a gritty reality.

One example is Heroes for Sale from 1933 starring Richard Barthelmess and Loretta Young. He plays a war veteran who develops a drug addiction due to injuries sustained in battle. Even though he kicks the habit, he can’t seem to find employment. He finally gets his break and soon develops a machine to aid factory workers, promising it’s not meant to replace them. However, a corporate takeover and a new regime think otherwise. The factory workers riot, accusing him of betrayal. He relinquishes his patent out of guilt and donates the money to charity. The Depression has come; these workers will not find other jobs. He himself is once again traveling around the country on foot or by train looking for work. This is one of many films centering on World War I and its effects on a generation of men.

Industrialization, drug addiction, poverty, and gangsters are other prevalent themes, to name just a scant few. They are outlined in such classics as Three on a Match (1932 starring Joan Blondell and Bette Davis), Public Enemy (1931 starring James Cagney), Scarface (1932 starring Paul Muni), and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921).

These realities were not completely swept under the rug with the advent of censorship, simply whitewashed. Even historical dramas lost their zing (that’s another story) while comedies were reinvented.

I feel I have learned more history through classic films than any book or documentary. Facts and figures are informative, who did what and when; but to truly see people in another time, to witness their daily lives, and to hear their voices enriches my own present, our own present.

Weekend Trip (Part II)

Unlike others visiting Philadelphia, once I climbed the “Rocky Steps,” I entered the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I did not see the permanent collection, just the special exhibit. Fine by me. Renoir is one of my favorite artists. His later work was being displayed.

I do not know how much you may know about the Impressionist, but he suffered from rheumatism. His hands were gnarled, yet he could still hold a paint brush in one of them. The last part of the exhibit, and the best, was film of the elderly Renoir painting with his rheumatic hands.

What really caught my eye, though, was a photograph. Have you ever seen something that strikes you, but has no meaning to someone else? This was one of those moments. I am a French teacher by trade; cinephilia is my hobby. My friend Jen who was traveling with me is a Spanish teacher. So, the photograph of Jean Renoir meant nothing to her. Perhaps neither to you.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir is the famous Impressionist artist. In his works, he often painted his family, in particular his middle son Jean.

Jean Renoir is one of the most famous French directors of all time. He did some acting too. My image of him mainly stems from what is considered his masterpiece, La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game). A teddy bear. The movie was made in 1939 with an older and portlier man, playing the clown. The World War One era photograph showed a young, slender, and serious cavalry man. Jean Renoir?! Mon Dieu!

Why the photo should amaze me so I do not know. Perhaps it is akin to seeing an elderly relative as a young person with his/her whole life still ahead. Just when you think you know someone, surprise!

However, in this case, I was well aware of my ignorance. So, I read Jean Renoir’s autobiography and another biography. I viewed more of his movies, in both French and English. I have approached a sense of the man and his unique story telling. He explained very clearly his views, how he created; yet no one could possibly replicate his movies any better than his father’s masterpieces.

I have gained an even greater respect for the artist and the creative process. Pierre-Auguste Renoir felt he had finally attained true artistry in his later years, as displayed at the special exhibit in Philadelphia. This is hard to believe, appreciating all of his work. How Jean Renoir felt about his own is not clear to me. I know he was prouder of some films than others, due to finished product and whether or not he achieved a certain goal.

I cannot continue to dwell on understanding the creative process of Renoir, father and son, for it is beyond comprehension. I can only watch a silent reel of one in his last years and gaze at a youthful photo of the other in awe and wonder.

Weekend Trip (Part I)

Last summer, I took a weekend trip to Philadelphia. I had only been there once before. It was an eighth grade class trip to Washington D.C. We stopped by the City of Brotherly Love to see the Liberty Bell. We may have seen more, but I cannot remember anything else.

Thus, I decided to educate myself on American History. I also planned on visiting the museums, including the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art. Famous how? The steps Rocky Balboa jogs upon lead to the museum entrance.

My Pilates instructor Michele is a huge Rocky fan. She requested a photo of me at the top of the steps, in triumphant Rocky pose. Plus, the Pilates bag she gave all her clients as Christmas gifts a few years ago must be prominently displayed. This tradition began with another client’s trip to Hawaii.

Confession time: I had not seen Rocky. Bad, movie buff, bad! Like every other red-blooded American during the Cold War, I watched Rocky IV. However, all I had ever seen of the original were bits and pieces when it played on TV.

So, off I ignorantly went. A statue of Rocky Balboa stands by the bottom of the illustrious steps. Of course, the Pilates bag and I posed with it for a photo. Then up the stairs. My friend Jen jogged up. Considering the heat, I chose the slow, but steady pace. I felt I still deserved to raise my fists triumphantly in the air. All this and I had never seen the movie. These photos are now displayed on the Pilates bag travel wall chez Michele. Somehow, I sensed it was time. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and could finally understand why so many look to it for inspiration.

I began to wonder about other classics I had not seen. Yet again, I did not want to be a delinquent cinephile. A work colleague encouraged me to view the historical drama A Man for All Seasons. Sir Thomas More, a devout Catholic, unsuccessfully navigates the royal court after Henry VIII separates from the Church and the Pope, creating the Church of England with himself as the head. Being a history buff, I got wrapped up in its intricacies. Politics have not changed these past centuries.

Michael Caine appeared on “Charlie Rose” promoting his second autobiography. They spoke a bit of Sean Connery and The Man Who Would Be King based on the Rudyard Kipling tale. Two former British soldiers travel to Eastern lands in search of treasure and power. Things do not quite work out as expected. Since the movie popped up repeatedly in conversations, I finally saw it. The dangers of believing oneself a deity makes for a compelling story. A lesson learned in ego.

I have to admit, though, The Elephant Man is the most touching one. It is about the life of Joseph Merrick who was severely disfigured from birth and had to eke out a living as a carnival attraction in the late 1800s. My heart broke when Merrick cried out “I’m a human being!” when cornered like an animal by an angry mob. Though hidden beneath make-up, the actor John Hurt utilized his voice beautifully. Quite an extraordinary, sad story…and all true.

As more classics I have not seen are brought to my attention, I will remedy the problem. I have to admit, however, I have no interest in some films, due to genre, actor, etc. I will not name them to avoid offending anyone. My only thought now is: What will happen on my next trip?

It’s Still a Good Movie to Me

The complaint heard most with regards to watching an old movie is “It’s in black and white.” These whiners insist color adds more dimension and vibrancy to films. Yes…that’s true…as far as the image is concerned, but let’s not ignore substance and a very important facet to movie magic: imagination.

Of course, I am from the generation prior to cable. My generation saw the birth of the earliest cable channels. We have since aided cable in its worldwide conquest. Obviously, we are not cool like the sixties generation, but we are the last to be a part of a certain era of American Pop Culture.

What do I mean? How does this tie in with cable TV and black and white movies? Once upon a time, there were only a handful of channels and no reality shows. News programs, soap operas, cartoons, sports, TV shows from different decades, and old movies ruled the waves.

Classic movies, as we now call them, reigned supreme late nights and weekends. I was not allowed to stay up late so the Saturday afternoon and prime time movies kept me entertained. On Sundays, my brothers enjoyed the various incarnations of Godzilla, from evil nuclear fall-out mutant laying siege to Japan to good nuclear fall-out mutant protecting Japan from the evil ones. Let’s not forget the poorly dubbed martial arts movies supplying a generation of comics with material. Every Thanksgiving, the original King Kong and Mighty Joe Young were featured. Before the deluge of TV Christmas specials, we watched It’s a Wonderful Life (repeatedly), Miracle on 34th Street, March of the Wooden Soldiers, as well as other holiday themed oldies.

I met Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Astaire and Rogers, to name a few, via this handful of channels on a TV set with dial controls that you had to get up to use. Then one glorious day, my parents bought a VCR with a remote. My brothers and I rejoiced in joining the twentieth century. This new technology afforded fledgling movie buffs like myself access to uncharted territories. My parents, being baby boomers having endured less than a handful of channels, remembered a plethora of films, a fraction of which actually played on our family TV. The first video stores stocked themselves with old black and white movies; the studios had figured out a new way to make money out of the oldies.

The VCR also enabled our wooden encased TV to receive cable channels. Some of which were conceived as classic or foreign movie channels, uncut, commercial free, and subtitled. Due to the expansion of cable and thus competition, many have altered their programming. However, a few are still thriving.

Today, with literally hundreds of channels, the new generation watches everything but classic movies, even those in color. Anyway, most movies being played on TV are usually no more than twenty years old. Thus is born a pop culture gap.

I have to admit there are many in my own generation who dislike black and white films. I cannot understand why. Perhaps they just did not have the same exposure as I did i.e. their parents were not movie buffs and they did not watch as much TV as I did (I’ll admit it). They are now passing on this prejudice to their children. It is just such a shame. Whether it’s old, new, silent, talkie, color or not, it’s still a good movie to me.