Saturday, March 03, 2007

Old Movie Endings

Remember that “semi-regular” feature that was supposed to appear on this blog? The one where LeaJo (an old movie novice) and I (an old hand at old movies) watched some old movies from the 30s and 40s and had a conversation about them and posted it as a dialogue on the blog? First there was the intro dialogue and then the Maltese Falcon dialogue. Remember? Well, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, since that last post was about a million years ago. What have we been up to? Have we abandoned the experiment?

Well, the short answer is yes. The long answer is that we gave it another go and pretty much my whole experiment blew up in my face. To explain: We did in fact watch another old movie, this time Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and started to have a conversation about it. But then that nagging feeling in the ol’ gut – the one telling me that this wasn’t working, that LeaJo just wasn’t interested and probably never would be – that nagging feeling got verbal confirmation from LeaJo herself. It kinda exploded its way into our struggling dialogue about Rebecca, and suddenly I realized that my whole experiment as the Dr. Frankenstein of movies, the demented doctor who tried to raise a full-blown cinephile to life out of your typical, average movie-goer, just wasn’t gonna fly.

So, here’s the final Old Movie Dialogue, at least for the foreseeable future.

The Derelict:
Last time, you said you wanted to watch Casablanca, but since then, when we sat down to watch an old movie, you chose Rebecca. Why? What made you choose Rebecca over Casablanca? Was it the name Hitchcock? Were you intrigued by the names of the lead actors (Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier)? Was it the plot description, the genre, the name? I think it might be interesting to discuss how we choose what we want to watch. For instance, how did you choose to watch Rebecca, and how was that process similar or different from how you choose to watch any (modern) movie?

LeaJo:
Well I remember you had a lot of movies to choose from that night. The truth is I didn't really want to watch an old movie that night, but I decided to throw you a bone So I wasn't really too excited for any movie to watch but for some reason as soon as you described Rebecca, that was the movie I knew I wanted to watch. Really, I was just in the mood for a creepy movie. And it was Hitchcock who I know I've liked in the past.

TD:
So it was the Hitchcock name and the genre that attracted you? Would you say that you make similar decisions for watching current movies? Like, you choose a movie based on genre and/or director?

LJ:
Yeah. And it's weird, because I typically hate scary movies because of the scary, but I knew that Hitchcock never really scares me too much, so I don't know, I guess I just wanted to watch a more "serious" movie since most of the movies you brought were comedies. But I would say that most of my decisions today are based on genre and director definitely. Probably genre more so than director. But I did see Children of Men basically just because of Alfonso Cuaron. Otherwise, I don't think I would have ever seen that movie. It's not a genre I typically go for.

TD:
Do you think a Hitchcock movie was attractive because of the past films by him that you've seen, or that his name is generally recognized with quality, or that his name is generally recognized as "important", or some combination thereof?

LJ:
I think it was mostly because I really, really liked Rear Window A LOT and Psycho and The Birds scared the crap out of me as a kid so it was mostly just that I liked his previous movies I had seen. I mean, I know that his name is recognized as "important" and so I kind of assumed this movie would be good anyways. Also, didn't you say it won best picture?

TD:
Yes I did! So when we started watching it, what were your impressions, because it doesn't start out right away as a conventional thriller.

LJ:
Yeah. That’s true. It started off kind of slow, but I still liked it because I felt like as the movie went on the tension was just building and building. So even in the beginning when it was just them meeting each other and driving around, I still thought the whole thing was kind of mysterious. I was just waiting to get to the really creepy stuff.

TD:
Were you at all interested in the romance at the beginning, like, were you totally hoping Joan Fontaine's character would end up with Maxim and stick it to the old bag she was working for? In a lot of ways, I totally love the first section of the film 'cause it's kinda funny and cutely romantic.

LJ:
Ha! Actually, no. I was very distrusting of Maxim the whole movie until he admits the truth about what happened and tells her that he really does love her (aw). And then I was totally all about the romance and I was SO happy that he didn't get arrested and go to jail because then they would be together forever (again...aw). I thought he was kind of creepy in the beginning.

TD:
Wow, we are totally on different wavelengths tonight! I mean, I always felt Maxim had some deep dark secret, but I thought he was kinda awesome in the beginning, Joan Fontaine's knight in shinning armor kinda thing. He only gets creepier when they're finally married and he turns all moody. But, I guess you had a better read on him the first time you saw the movie than I did! Did you think the movie was funny (and not in an unintentional sort of way)?

LJ:
The beginning I remember being kind of funny, but otherwise no, I don't really remember it being funny.

TD:
I mean, did YOU find the stuff at the beginning funny, 'cause it definitely was meant to have a humorous edge, but sometimes with old movies I think comedy doesn't translate as well to a modern audience.

LJ:
Sorry, I really don't remember. I'm thinking I didn't really find it that funny. I do remember thinking the lady she was working for was funny in a 'wow she's ridiculous' kind of way, but otherwise, I'm not really remembering finding it that funny.

TD:
Well, it's not uproariously hilarious or anything, but I've always kinda thought the old lady she worked for was, as you say, ridiculously rude and I enjoyed watching her think she was all awesome, only to be upstaged and humiliated by her employed servant -- I loved the comeuppance.

LJ:
Yeah, that part was good.

TD:
Were you surprised by the lightness of tone at the beginning?

LJ:
I don't know. I guess I was a little bit especially because they started the movie off with the creepy house and the weird dialogue over it. But most movies like this start off kind of light at first and then go into the creepy as it goes on, so it wasn't really that surprising to me.

TD:
You know, as we continue to talk about the movie, it's kinda weird for me 'cause you've only seen it once and are having a hard time remembering stuff, and I feel like I could probably write a fairly accurate script of the film (minus most of the dialogue) right now! It's weird to talk about a film I've seen a million times with someone who's only seen it once. On that score, do you think you'd ever like to watch Rebecca again? I think we might have talked about this regarding Maltese Falcon and you said it's not a movie you were dying to see again, so I wonder if your reaction is different for Rebecca?

LJ:
Yeah. I would like to see Rebecca again. I'm not really jonesin’ for a second viewing or anything. But you're right. It's hard to remember everything on just one viewing (sorry). And I did really like the movie enough to want to experience it again.

TD:
Can you remember any favorite scenes?

LJ:
Yeah...the only scene I can remember as a favorite was that one with the creepy housekeeper lady who I can't remember her name. When she was in Rebecca's old room and talking about all her things like her brush and her pillow and she was getting all up in Mrs. DeWinter's face – oh dude.... that scene was free-kay!

TD:
Mrs. Danvers! She so crazy!

LJ:
That’s really the only scene that has stuck with me. SHE WAS SO SCARY!!!!

TD:
Heh. She was definitely scary. Were there any scenes, or aspects of the film that you felt didn't work, or that you disliked?

LJ:
You know... I can't really answer that question. I'm drowning here! I CAN'T REMEMBER! I'm so sorry, but this just isn't really working. I can barely remember any specific scenes at all so I have no idea about how to answer that question truthfully. I feel really bad because I want to answer these questions but I'm just doing such a horrible job at it and I'm getting kind of frustrated. Sorry...breakdown over.

TD:
Heh, that's okay, maybe we can shift the focus away from Rebecca -- we'll do Old Movie Dialogue – Digression! 'So, you were talking about (in an earlier conversation) why you're willing to watch these movies with me and you mentioned that it was because you felt you had to (since they're part of the larger cinema/media culture). Well... how would you feel about our little project/experiment if I said we could only watch non-canonical movies, do you think you'd still be willing to go along? Like, no Casablanca, and no Hitchcock for you! Only random 30s weepies and dated and forgotten comedies from the 40s!

LJ:
Uh...I guess I wouldn't really mind. Truthfully, if it's an old movie, I'll probably think it's "important" no matter what it is. So whatever old movie you want to show me, I won't be too picky. I would rather watch a more famous movie, just so I can feel like I'm learning the history, but again...not that picky.

TD:
Well, I'm actually being a little deliberately provocative right now, 'cause I'm interested in, as you know, why and how old movies find a new audience, but I'm also really interested in old movies not as being canonical (though I am interested in that as well) but as simply movies like any other kind, with the goods and the bads and the averages and mediocres, etc. Do you think you're interested in old movies beyond their quality of being "important"? I mean, Casablanca is, as you've mentioned, "essential" but Waterloo Bridge (1940 version) is not. I think I'm getting to the point now where old movies have taken on a life of their own in my life; I'm not simply watching the comfortable old standbys, the Bringing Up Babys and the Notoriouses and the Swing Times -- now I'm watching fairly obscure Jean Arthur movies and random Bette Davis stuff, and rather pedestrian films like this average comedy/romance with Olivia De Havilland (My Love Came Back, dir. Curtis Bernhardt, 1940). How far do you think I can take this old movie thing with you? Is it really just a matter or your acquiescing in order to please me, or is there really an interest, any at all, on your part? Would you really not care if I selected a film like Hollywood Canteen, a movie that is nowhere near being a classic, except for in terms of its being old?

LJ:
I wouldn't care that much, but the truth? The real truth? Is that I'm mostly just doing it to please you. I don't really have much of a desire to watch any of these movies. And maybe it's just because I'm in school right now and movies of any kind haven't really been interesting me lately, but while I do feel like I should watch Casablanca, etc in order to be more "cultured" I don't really care much one way or the other if I do or not. It's not that I think I won't like them either. I bet I would like them. I have nothing against them personally. I just don't really have much of a burning desire to go there. It's just not very important to me right now.

TD:
That's it! That's what I’ve been waiting to hear. I had a feeling you felt this way but you were reluctant to tell me. I hope you don't mind, but this is exactly the thing I'm fascinated by: Why me? Why these movies? And why not you? And why not so many others? Obviously, I'm overstating things a little bit (heh, A LOT), but I get the sense that old movies won't mean a hill of beans fifty years from now -- yeah, maybe Casablanca will still have a reputation as being a "classic", and Citizen Kane, and a few others, but who will have actually watched these movies? Who besides the usual film geeks and oldsters? And even when I was studying film in college, I got the distinct impression (and maybe I'm off base and my observations are bunk), but I got the distinct impression that most of my fellow students weren't all that curious or interested in old movies other than the canonical ones being shown in class -- and even then there was a sort of backlash mentality that movies like Citizen Kane, “yeah, yeah it was groundbreaking or whatever, but it's kinda boring, sorta slow,” etc. Same with Casablanca, or Maltese Falcon -- “yeah, they were good, but not THAT good." Why have these films failed to hold on to their large popular audience? Is it media saturation? Is it that movies are just dispensable art anyway and not meant to stand the test of time the way a book or a poem does?

LJ:
I don't know. Why do you think that is?

TD:
Movies as an art form are still popular, sure, but I feel like old movies are going the way of comics -- a niche art where only the cultish few reside. Why? I think it's because maybe these movies really aren't that important, maybe film is just too disposable to be a lasting art form. Old movies aren’t watched in ordinary grade school the way classic literature is read there, and frankly, I think it's a sign of sterility to have these movies placed in a classroom for study. So how do you get people interested? Is studying these films in school the answer? It might make them into chores instead of entertainments (as I think they've become for you, with me forcing you to watch them). See, that's the thing I'm fascinated by, nobody forced me to watch these old movies -- yeah, my mom would watch and encourage me to watch with her, but I made the choice to stay on the couch and keep watching. That's why I'm so encouraged by Danny watching Rebecca with us, and The Heiress with me a few months ago -- I never made him watch, he sat down of his own volition and kept watching!

LJ:
You make some good points here and you are right with the fact that sometimes I get annoyed that you are forcing these movies on me. I still enjoy them anyways, but yeah.... it’s a bit annoying, heh. But anyways, I really just think that movies just aren't really that important. Like, who cares if people forget about Waterloo Bridge or whatever other movie? What's going to happen if they're forgotten? Nothing. Most movies have a short shelf life. I know all of the movies that I like, I'll remember and pass on to future generations, but all of the older movies I've never seen? Who cares?

TD:
Yes! Exactly! That's the question. We pass on the ones we like, but what if nobody wants to have things passed to them? I mean, I could rant and rave till the cows come home about how awesomely funny Ball of Fire is, or how weird and cool films like Murder My Sweet and The Big Sleep are, but the act of experiencing a work of art still requires consent of the will at some point -- at some point you have to take up your friend/relative/coworker/classmate's suggestion and read the book or watch the movie, as the case may be. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928) is one of my favorites. I think it's a serious, important, beautiful work of art, and yet who will have seen it fifty years from now? Film students? Cinema geeks? Who has even seen it NOW? Not many, I’m sure. So yeah, Waterloo Bridge (1940) is a beautiful, heartbreaking film, but only those of us who have seen it and loved it will know that secret -- the world can hardly miss what it doesn't remember, but I think what irks me is that I'll know it, I'll know that others are missing out (at least they'll remember it in China!). So will the world really lose anything if nobody (or only a very few people) has seen Swing Time? Heck, that's the world we live in now, for the most part, since most people only watch the shows and movies that are current, that are readily and easily available.

LJ:
Well...you kind of just said it. What will the world really lose? Not much if you ask me. And maybe that's a horrible sentiment, but people shouldn't be forced to believe certain things are good or "classics" when they don't believe. And I know you LOVE The Passion of Joan of Arc, but am I really going to be a different person if I do or do not see it? How will it be important to me to see that film? Really, art that I like, movies I like, music I like shape who I am. They are all important to me...I don't feel like I really need to experience "the classics" to like, fulfill my life or anything. I'm perfectly content with exploring things on my own. And if someone comes along and tells me that there's a really great movie I should watch or there's an awesome book I should read, I'll consider it. I just don't like being forced into doing something because it tends to bring out more negative feelings towards whatever it is I'm experiencing. Wow...rant over.

TD:
To answer your question about Passion of Joan of Arc, I guess it depends, but I was a different person after seeing it, just as I was a different, better person after seeing the Sistine Chapel. But of course, we all experience art differently, even if something is canonical it doesn't mean a person HAS to like it -- it's not like an article of faith or something, some thing you have to believe or anything. But... I have a lot of sympathy with your view, especially regarding being "told" what to watch/read/listen to/etc. I think my concern is that older works of art tend to be dismissed simply because they're old -- people don't have time to delve into the past, especially when they have a lot of great stuff staring them in the face right now -- I get that, I really do understand that sentiment. But, don't you think it would be a pretty sad world if the LOTR movies, which you and I both love, didn't exist? Don't you think it would suck if fifty years from now nobody ever watched those films except for a few geeks and fan boys? I dunno, I think that would suck.

LJ:
Yeah, I guess that would suck, but at the same time, I don't think that I will ever forget those movies, and I'll try to pass them down to my kids. But I guess I do see where you're coming from. Most people don't have time to watch movies or television anyways and if they're going to, they're not going to go seek out some obscure movie from the 40s. They’re going to go towards movies nowadays. I think your concern is valid, but I don't really know if there's anything we can do about it. How could you fix it? I don't think you can.

TD:
Yeah, I'm afraid I can't fix anything, and even Turner Classic Movies, which I think is the coolest channel to ever exist in the history of television, which is really trying to preach the old movie gospel and evangelize the masses, can't really do much more than satisfy the yearnings of cinema nerds and old people -- it's like, I don't think you can make someone into a cinephile, even if you expose them to these movies. I'm depressed by that thought, but what can you do? I guess I was delusional to think it would happen in the first place.

LJ:
Well, I understand now why you want me to watch these movies with you, because you want to pass them on to someone. But I just don't think I'll ever be as into them as you. I may watch the 'classics', but I'm not going to start seeking out all of the other movies from those eras. I just don't want you to get your hopes up!

TD:
No, and don't worry, I'm not going to nag you anymore! I think it's a human yearning, though, to want to not just experience art, but to share it -- I mean, it's great and all watching BSG (Battlestar Galactica), but I'd go crazy if I couldn't talk about it. And other than the occasional conversations with my Grandma, I don't really talk about old movies too much. I write about them, and I blog about them, but it's not the same thing as an actual face-to-face conversation.

LJ:
Oh yeah, I totally agree. And don't feel bad about nagging me...it's all good. After all, I nagged at you for a bit about BSG so I've been on the other side as well.

TD:
Well, I just think I don't like the system I've developed, this kind of annoying begging that I feel that I'm doing – “Hey LeaJo, hey! Let’s watch this movie! Or this one! Come on! Please! Pretty please! I promise you’ll love it!” – it’s not how one should engage art, you shouldn't have to feel it's being forced on you, because, as you said, it only creates resentment or hostility or a position of skepticism on the part of the person being forced. Cinema, the whole scope of it, the enjoyment of the whole breadth and history of it, is, I guess, a rather cultish, clubby kinda thing -- it's just not going to be mainstream. Out with the old and in with the new, I suppose. Sigh.

LJ:
Yeah, I guess. Is there anything else you want to ask me?

TD:
No not really. Unless you have another rant waiting for me. ;)

LJ:
Heh. No.

TD:
You did totally unload up there earlier, about Le Passion and old movies and stuff.

LJ:
Ha! Dude, I so totally did and I knew it too, and I was just like, “Screw it. I’m gonna be a bitch!” And I was too.

TD:
But it was awesomely bitchy, I enjoyed it.

LJ:
Thanks!

TD:
Thanks for your honesty. By the way, what grade would you give Rebecca?

LJ:
Well, I thought it was really good, so probably an A- or B+.

TD:
Awesome.


One final note: I’m really, I dunno, disturbed by the fact that movies are so disposable. It was something I’d been thinking about for a long time actually, in relation to old movies, to movies in general, to movies as art vs. movies as cheap, quick entertainment – but to have it articulated by LeaJo in our conversation was what really got me. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but I just wanted to highlight this portion of our conversation. Movies are pop art, for the most part, and I guess it’s to be expected that pop art will have a short shelf life, whether it’s a catchy tune on the radio, a TV show, or a movie. I would like to think that certain movies will last in some form two hundred or three hundred years from now, the way great literature of the past has lasted into our own century, but maybe that’s expecting too much. Anyway, this is it for my great experiment in old movie appreciation.

6 comments:

Nate said...

Thanks for posting that, TD. It's something that's been rattling around in my brain lately, too. I think you've touched on several good points in this interview, but the one that's most immediately winning—moving, in fact—is your identification of this peculiar need to share one's emotional experience with someone else. It was almost as though you were unaware this urge existed until your conversation with LJ teased it out.

I wish I could dredge up some words of consolation, but all I can offer is this cryptic verse from the Gospel of John: "The wind bloweth where it listeth." The Spirit (call it the Spirit of Cinema if you like) sends its influences where, when, on whom, and in what measure, it pleases. It's one of life's mysteries, really.

The Derelict said...

Thanks Nate! Don't worry, though, I'm much less depressed now than when the original conversation took place. :)

I think you're right, though, about my being unaware of the need to share my emotional experiences of art with others. I approached the "Old Movie Dialogue" thing at first as a kind of experiment, and then as we proceded I realized it was just as much about satisfying an emotional need as it was an intellectual one. The Internet, and blogosphere, are many things wonderful, but they can't seem to substitue the joys of actual real-life conversation, the experience of watching something together and then laughing and arguing and bursting out with exclamations about it afterward.

dave said...

Literature would be just as disposable if not for high school English classes. When was the last time someone read Cervantes or Shakespeare or even Bulgakov or Orwell of their own volition? Sure, I would (and do), but I'm in the extreme minority. That just ain't how culture works. Pity, but cultural history is kept only by cultural historians, not by the culture-at-large.

The duck thief said...

I loved Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers was so creepy and Joan Fontaine was perfect in her role and Hitchcock even told her that everyone on the set hated her to make her role as the shy 2nd wife more believable.

There's a film that along the same lines as Rebecca called Undercurrent. Katherine Hepburn plays the new wife to Robert Taylor. She begins to suspect he has killed his brother, played by Robert Mitchum.

The Derelict said...

I'm never heard of Undercurrent, but if it's got Robert Mitchum in it, then sign me up! Thanks for the suggestion, Duck Thief. :)

I'm so conflicted on the issue of film preservation in the classroom (i.e.: high school). As you point out Dave, literature survives basically because it's forced on us (those of us who actually read the books and not the Cliffs Notes, of course!). But film is such a popular medium (in comparison to *snootyvoice* literature), that I'm very reluctant to see it pushed on people in a classroom. Movies, especially old Hollywood classics, are meant to be enjoyed not "appreciated," and I think one of the reasons many people consider reading and literature a chore is because they associate it with school. I don't want to see these old Hollywood gems turned into chores, but there is a sure-fire way to keep some of these old classics at least partially alive, and that's by showing them in a classroom/educational setting (bleh). Anyhoo, like I said, I'm very conflicted about it.

Anonymous said...

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a great old movie that can be seen online here:
MaidofHeaven.com Movies Online