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Archive for Thursday, April 11, 2002

Nostalgia for ‘old’ movies

April 11, 2002

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Time warp.

My complaint to the clerk at the video store had to do with old movies, no longer grouped together under "classics," but instead spread throughout the store and hard to find.

He nodded sympathetically. "It's even worse," he said. "When they decided to do that, they threw hundreds away."

I gasped, horrified at the image of Bette Davis and Clark Gable in the trash.

"No!" I said.

"Yes," he said. "All kinds of movies from the '80s, really old, good movies."

OK, so we were standing on very different spots on the continuum of new to old. For me, "old" dated to the truly silver screen of yesteryear: Orson Welles, Peter Lorre, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn.

You know, old, great, classic.

For him, "old" began with his birthdate, I suppose.

Movies are a language all their own, a special kind of conversation that slips you, via likes and dislikes, heroes and heroines, into categories of time and taste. That's one of the reasons it's fun to argue about the Oscars, before and after the winners are announced.

And, just as your favorite literary characters reveal you Lilly Bart or Scarlett O'Hara, D'Artagnan or Gatsby so do your favorite movies. And what you know about them.

My mother looked like Gene Tierney in her youth; I know what that means. She would fuss at me when my hair covered my eyes: "Trying to look like Veronica Lake?" (Well, one could wish.)

Perhaps it was the quick, clipped repartee that hooked me: Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy and William Powell, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.

Perhaps it was the moody lighting, the femme fatale, the private eye, the rain-slick streets and spiraling cigarette smoke of film noir.

Perhaps it was the screwball comedies, in which men and women, engaged in the war of the sexes, had so much fun:

David: "But Susan, you can't climb in a man's bedroom window!"

Susan: "I know, it's on the second floor." "Bringing up Baby" with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, 1938.

Bruce: "He's got a lot of charm."

Hildy: "Well, he comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake." "His Girl Friday" with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, 1940.

"I need him like the ax needs the turkey." "The Lady Eve" with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, 1941.

Admit it. "The Terminator" just doesn't measure up.

"I'll be back." "The Terminator" with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, 1984.

And who could pretend Jay and Silent Bob inhabit the same universe or should inhabit any universe. They invaded my home briefly during my son's spring break. I can't quote from their movies in a family newspaper, but suffice it to say one never speaks and the other never says anything.

It wouldn't be wise or true to pretend that only "old" things have value. It would be true to say they don't make them like they used to. They try, though, as several that vied for 2001 Oscar awards "Memento," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Gosford Park" demonstrated.

But that's what classics do, provide us reference points, inspiration, goals. That's present in "Sullivan's Travels," a satire about a Hollywood director determined to suffer before producing his epic, "O, Brother, Where Art Thou." (Yes, the 2001 Oscar-winner refers to Preston Sturges' satire, just as Sturges refers to "Gulliver's Travels.")

Sullivan: "I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man."

Lebrand: "But with a little sex."

Sullivan: "A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity a true canvas of the suffering of humanity."

Lebrand: "But with a little sex." "Sullivan's Travels" with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, 1941

See, some things never change. And the more things change, the more they remain the same. And it'll never be the same again.

Which may not be repartee, but it's life, on and off the silver screen.

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