Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Memories are films about ghosts

Remember this? Somewhere, long ago, we all saw it, the sepia-colored herald who roared a promise of Kansas farm girls and cyclones and over-the-rainbows, and led the way to the fevered pop of glorious Technicolor. If we want to talk about the experience of cinema during childhood, especially an American childhood, there seems no better place to start than the first frame of The Wizard of Oz. It's hard to know if The Wizard of Oz was the first movie I ever saw -- and in fact I'd wager it probably wasn't (who knows what my parents plopped in front of me when I was a toddler) -- but it was likely the oldest.

The oldness of TWoO impressed itself on me from the first frame, the moment the old MGM logo snarled me to attention. Other movies didn't start like this. And what do those strange words -- Ars Gratia Artis -- mean? And why did the picture look like it was colored with coffee stains, like the yellowed photos Grandma kept in a dilapidated box in the attic? This movie was different, I could feel it even at six years old; this movie was OLD. The old hung off it like it hung off Aunt Carm's mink stole; it wafted from it like the smoke from a cigarette in a cigarette holder; the old crackled out from it like it crackled out from Grandpa's old Eddie Condon records. And that title card with the text!:

That was so strange, so confusing to my young '80s child eyes. What did it even mean? I mean, I could read the words, but what were they doing just sitting there in front of the movie? The very cinematic language of the movie seemed unusual, seemed distant and removed from the world of movies I was familiar with. Roaring lions, sepia colors, title cards filled with a glom of words. It was all very strange.

I must confess, black and white movies have always reminded me of ghosts. Like the home movies of ghosts, or some secret window into the dead past. I suppose it has to do with the idea that pictures and photos steal or preserve some part of the soul, if you want to put an explanation to it. But at six years old, all I knew was that old black and white movies were a little creepy, that they gave off a feeling of forgotten ages and death. Of course, I loved TWoO; I loved the songs and the adventure and the delirious fantasy world. But I also felt just the slightest tinge of unease; a feeling of OLDNESS hung off the thing and it was enough to set a six-year-old slightly on edge. Who knows what these ghosts might do?

And it all started with that roaring lion.

And that music over the title (remember the first time you heard those opening notes as the words "The Wizard of Oz" appeared? It wasn't the bright jaunt of the munchkins' song, it wasn't the lilt of "Over the Rainbow"... what was it? It was something slightly foreboding, something slightly minor, the blaring of those opening horns...).

And that strange, inexplicable title card message about "the Young in Heart."

And the yellowed image of a farm girl and her dog running down the road.

The whole thing seemed to my childhood eyes like a relic from an ancient past (which, of course, in a way it was and is), like a movie of ghosts. Even when the film shifted to color I sensed a paradox -- a vibrant magical world brimming with spark and pop, and yet hanging at the edges was a forgotten era long vanished. Ghosts and flying monkeys.

I'm sure I didn't know how old the film really was, and besides, "1939" would have meant nothing to me at the time except, "really, really old," and I'm sure I had no idea who Judy Garland was in real life, or who any of the actors were, or even what Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer meant. But with just that image of the MGM lion my kid self knew this movie was from another time, another world, of movies. In movies, even the studio logo has power and magic.

But what's curious is that no other MGM lion has ever affected me in quite the same way as the lion at the start of The Wizard of Oz. Even to this day, no other MGM roar, not even from another old movie, excites that same strangeness, that same oldness, like the roar in The Wizard of Oz.

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