Tuesday, January 29, 2008

the talkies

Lately I've become fascinated with the classic movie channel. I don't think any of the producers or stars would be particularly flattered by my interest though; it's the quaintness of the form I find just as appealing as the performance. I feel a strange kind of pang realizing that all these beautiful faces are gone, yet I can still see them in the prime of their lives and the height of their powers, and still feel the impact of what they've made.

That impact is a strange phenomenon. You associate it with the living. To stand in the presence of a great piece of static art is like being a lone tree on a hill struck by lightning. It's over quickly although the impact remains for the rest of your life. To see a great film, to watch artifice moving and breathing and speaking is another kind of overwhelming because it feels exactly like life. It leaves a magic impression in the mind like something experienced as one goes under anaesthesia. At least in my mind, and we all know what kind of a place that is.

For that reason, the silent movies are just about too much for me to put myself through in one sitting. As full of machination as the form needs to be, when it works it nails me to the wall like nothing else does. Again, part of that impact is the poignancy of knowing that everyone involved is gone to their reward, the antique effect of the film technique, the long-gone styles in clothing and appearance. When all those elements are also perfectly executed? You watch a film like 'Metropolis' with all its glorious nightmares and wonders, and see it knowing that even the future being imagined there is now years past-that's delicious and eerie and absolutely wonderful.

In the early days when acting always meant stage performance, bland features didn't make much of an impact. Actors with open, readable expressions did. Further, their training was centered around projecting the action and the meaning to the very back walls of the auditorium. That Method transferred to the screen makes these people seem almost unbearably immediate. In many instances it makes them seem almost unbearably campy, too. But given the right kind of talent, it has the effect of carrying a very few actors directly into your presence, warm and breathing. Despite the fact that they are 'acting', despite the lack of color, despite the years that separate you. Irregardless of the truth, they are not dead.

When I was in grade school we were taken on a long drive to see a smokehouse storyteller performance. None of us really quite got what was going on; the culture was unfamiliar and the tales were about things we had no experience with, like ravens and killer whales. Add to that unfamiliarity the strange costumes and masks and the fact that the whole thing was presented in Salish... still, the method was strangely familiar. It felt familiar. So familiar, in fact, that the performance was embedded in my memory. I think there is a map of an underground river, of story, in every human mind that we are all following.


  1. I sometimes think similar thoughts about the sixties. As a decade it's left a strong impact, and you can go into any store and hear songs from that era, and they still sound iconic. But then you remember that when they were recorded, fashions and styles and ideas were very different, so much that if you were to live it for just a couple of minutes (the real 60's, not a fashionable approximation), it would just be weird.

  2. Anonymous12:44 PM

    i watch the classic movie channel all the time. i love the fashions from the era of judy garland and frank sinatra.

    my mom always said b/c of my taste in music and clothes, i should have been born in the 50's or so. it's funny that i listen to that music more than i listen to the poppier songs of today.

  3. Regarding the classic movie channel, I print the sked out every month and highlight what I want to see.

    There is a map of an underground river in my mind too but it's polluted.

  4. I love watching films made in the 50's through to the 70's; when the emphasis wasn't on special effects as much as on character and situation. There's precious little coming out of the mill these days that even comes close to the golden age. Except for "Oh brother, where art thou?", of course

  5. w2: but the stuff still communicates! doesn't that blow you away? it communicates something identifiable even past it's point on the timeline. that just fascinates me.

    pink: im feeling ya. the actual 50's sucked ass so bad, particularly if you were female; but oh man the clothes and the music-!

    mj: and there's alligators and CHUDS down there too. and teenage ninja mutant turtles. dang...your underground river could use some penicillin.

    sopwith: O brother is great! i love that movie and i love the soundtrack, too. lately I've been seeing things from the 20's, 30's and 40's though that are just stopping me in my tracks. the acting REACHES you. and filmmakers could do things with black and white that they'll never achieve even with CGI.

  6. Nicely observed. I read this nodding.