Friday, November 15, 2013

Speaking of movies...

... I think my generation may have been the last one to have any deep appreciation of films that came before we were born. That's not meant as a disparaging remark about younger people; it's just that the options for discovery aren't there anymore. You can't really thumb through the channels and just stumble across some old black & white flick now. Yeah, there's TCM, and probably a couple of others, but that's it. And the thrill of "accidental discovery" is long gone. Quite literally hundreds of channels to choose from, and still so little in the way of old movies.

I grew up in the '70's, before the dawn of cable, and we had four or five channels to choose from. And I was a fairly obsessive television watcher. Cartoons, of course, and cop shows and syndicated sit-coms. But it was MOVIES that always gave me a thrill, movies usually made long before I was born, that gave me weird, tantalizing peeks into exotic and mysterious worlds.

In the Detroit area, the 4 O'CLOCK MOVE happened every weekday, coinciding perfectly between the time you finished your homework and the time dinner was ready. They would often have "theme weeks"-- "Elvis Week" was always something to look forward to, and "Godzilla Movie Week" was extra-special.

In the summer time, or on those days you stayed home from school, there was BILL KENNEDY AT THE MOVIES. Bill Kennedy was a bit player in Hollywood back in the day, and mostly showed classic flicks from the '40's and '50's. It was through his show I had my first glimpse of actors like Bogart, Mitchum, Jane Russell, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, etc, etc.

Black & white. Oh, black & white, how it thrilled me.

Saturday afternoons: SIR GRAVES GHASTLY. A cheesy horror movie host in the grand tradition, Sir Graves showed me the old Hammer Horror-- Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-- as well as Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, all in glorious blood red color.

If you forced yourself to get up early on Sunday morning, your day would start at 8 with an Abbot & Costello movie. Then some shorts, like Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang. After that, Tarzan would usually swing in, although sometimes it would be Shirley Temple instead (always a massive disappointment to me at the time) or a Blondie & Dagwood movie with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake. I liked those, but mostly because I had a crush on Penny Singleton. If you were really lucky, you'd catch a Thin Man movie, because Myrna Loy was even more alluring than Penny.

Sunday afternoon was CHILLER THEATER time. The credits started with that creepy interlude from the Led Zepplin song "Whole Lotta Love" (I wonder if they had permission to do that?) and showed a lot of horror/sci-fi from the '40's and '50's, movies about giant ants and flying saucers, as well as the Universal Studios monster movies.

And in the evenings, there would almost always be a movie showing at some point, usually a drama or period piece. Late nights, if you managed to stay up, would be poorly-preserved flickering black & white images of places and things that seemed so alien-- men with guns and fedoras and dangerous slinky females and big black cars and rain and street lamps and one-room apartments-- that they were like artifacts from ancient times. Film Noir, although at the time I had no way of knowing that.

The jist of all this is, because our young brains were exposed to all this great cinematic art, we developed a specific set of references that went far beyond our own experience and our own lifetimes. When I talk to someone now in their teens or twenties, and they have no idea who Buster Keaton is, or the Marx Brothers or William Powell or Vincent Price or Greta Garbo, it makes me a little sad. It's not their fault; they missed out. They missed it all. So many viewing choices now, and yet the options have never been fewer.

I think I was really lucky to just catch them, those last few years before it got late and the station played the National Anthem and signed off.


  1. Those were the good old days, when watching tv and movies were so much more enjoyable. I remember all of these with the fondest of memories. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. The old film material is all available, one way or another, but you are right, 99% of kids are not going to find it on their own. There is a very vigorous group of serious young cineastes in the 15-to-30 age range - I have encountered a number of them, and quite a few write online - but they are a micro-phenomenon.

    But isn't it the way with everything? Young people also don't get much exposure to jazz, or classical music, or classic pop and rock (although I've surprised to learn that many of my high school students here in Mexico are avid Beatles and Sinatra fans). Schools require less and less long-form reading (classic novels and plays), because the students simply won't do it. Heck, kids don't even read comic books anymore, because they are too expensive for them to buy; everything is aimed at the collector market. Their exposure to super-heroes tends to come from the simplistic summer blockbuster movies, and not from the narratively complex printed originals. (The emergence of "Arrow" on TV, a better comic book adaptation than anything I've seen on the big screen in years, is a refreshing counter-example.)

    All we can do is keep encouraging people (young and old) to find the good stuff in every format, and help them to do that by highlighting HOW to do that. That information is worth repeating over and over, because there is always someone new who picks up the message for the first time. As Andre Gide once wisely noted, everything that needs to be said has already been said, but since no one was listening, everything needs to be said again. So blogs like yours truly serve a valuable function.