For the Love of Old Movies
Twice in the last few months, old movies have put a spell on me. I’ve been thinking about why that is, aside of course from the warm fuzzies you get when you see something you identify with a more innocent period in your life. The first was the Saturday night of Easter weekend, which I spent holed up in the quiet at the Tulsa loft. I went looking for one of the old Bible times movies, and found one in “King of Kings,” the 1960 film about Jesus’s life. I remembered seeing most of “The Ten Commandments” the year before, when my life was on a dark stretch of the road, so to speak, and wanted to revisit the experience. The second was more recently, when Brittany and I watched “The Sound of Music” together, it being the first time I’d seen it in over twenty years.
On the surface, there really isn’t much to recommend “King of Kings” to someone like me. For one thing, I am not a Christian looking for a dramatized adaptation of my religious history or an affirmation of my faith. I am a historian, but I know very well that “King of Kings” is at once too Hollywood and too religious to be historically accurate. There are plenty of aesthetic reasons to enjoy it, as it was warmly received for more than just the Christian content, judging by the reviews, but I wanted to pinpoint what fascinated me in particular.
And “The Sound of Music?” Seriously? It’s a bunch of corny songs wrapped around a semi-historical setting, and it does a pretty half-assed job developing characters. Ok, so I was in the play as a kid (warm fuzzies), but this is the kind of movie most of my friends could legitimately mock me for liking.
Nostalgia plays its only real part for me in the “look” of the movies. That grainy, “old timey” texture to a movie made fifty years ago: it’s reassuring, somehow. It comes from an age beset with all sorts of cultural issues, especially overt racism and sexism, but these are in some way easier to overlook knowing that we’ve made some progress on them in the years since. Just like people look back and appreciate the greatness of many historical figures, despite their violent, misanthropic, and almost invariably racist and sexist backgrounds, I too feel I can view movies like this with a detachment from some of their issues and a warmth for what they were genuinely trying to do well.
What do they do well? For one thing, I enjoy the limited technological means of these movies. To create a truly impressive visual spectacle, they had to rely on a level of hand craftsmanship that is rarely seen today. CGI requires an intense level of craftsmanship and has greatly expanded what we can portray in movies, but visually it isn’t perfect yet. There is always that sheen to it: it’s just real enough to be impressive, but just artificial enough that you can tell you’re looking at something put together in a computer. It struck me while watching “The Sound of Music” that the old Salzburg cathedral scenes were filmed, well, in an old Salzburg cathedral. Light and shadow played authentically across the faces of characters and handmade things. When “King of Kings” or “Ten Commandments” required a scene with two or three hundred people, they hired two or three hundred extras, dressed them up in individual costumes, and turned them loose. They make small, subtle movements and have visual irregularities that only a big ol’ mess of people can have, and it lends those films a truly grandiose character. CGI as it is now can get the job done, but you never entirely suspend your disbelief.
I think I also appreciate the attempts of both films to portray ‘heroes’ in the truly classic sense. Captain Von Trapp, Jesus, and the other protagonists put their best foot forward. Their dark sides are held in reserve; their internal moral conflicts are not played out for us. They’re difficult to identify with, that’s for sure. But you know what? I’m tired of blockbuster movies with anti-heroes and these pretentious indie movies with “totally regular guy” main characters. The shit is played out. Smarmy womanizers, paunched losers, troubled and selfish ‘dark’ types, mediocre assholes with ubiquitous commitment issues, and cardboard cut-out ‘dude’ characters can all fuck off. I don’t need to see movies about them: I’m either reading about them in the news or watching them walk through my life every day. Having a debased character is not interesting. The anti-hero definitely has his place, but I miss the ‘corny’ attempt to write characters that unabashedly attempt to do good in humble ways.
The cultural era that produced these movies is gone, or course, and there’s no problem with that being the case. I’m not one of those types that recommends a wholesale return to values we had fifty years ago. Most people who do are unaware of the implications when they say things like that, of course, and anachronism remains a dangerous pursuit of bullshit. But not everything we discard deserves its place on the landfill heap, you know?