Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Enjoying Old Movies— or Not

Back in the early days of TV Awareness Week at my school, we suggested that parents watch the shows that their kids like alongside them and then point out all the inappropriate values that were being leached into their child’s mind. Most parents reported their kids responding something like this:

“Will you just be quiet and let me watch my show! You’re ruining all the fun!!!”

Which is kid talk for: 

“Don’t you know what Coleridge said about suspending disbelief in the presence of art? Heck, it formed the basis for the whole of literature—and later film— to come! And even earlier, Aristotle suggested that drama required ignoring whether a story is true or not in order to experience catharsis. And if you haven’t read the Western philosophers and poets, you certainly can just click on Wikipedia and read about the “intentional avoidance of critical thinking in order to believe it (a book, a TV show, a film) for the sake of enjoyment.“

And both the kids and Coleridge are right. You can’t be in your critical mind and in your immersed suspension at the same time. After the chapter or book or TV episode or film you certainly can— and sometimes should—discuss and critique, but in some ways, it’s too late—the images and characters and values have already seeped into the psyche and become a part of what you think, what you think is true, what you value. 

But then again, far from wholly. I’ve been a lifelong reader since around seven years old, but my mother worried that comic books would ruin my brain and forbid them. Of course, I bought them anyway, hid them under my shirt as I entered the house, brought them into my basement hiding place— and read them with guiltless pleasure. All the while continuing my steady diet of classic children’s literature, Dickens in 8thgrade and yes, Coleridge in high school. 

I sang all the songs on pop radio, but I have to confess the words didn’t really make much of an impression—except for the poetry of Bob Dylan, the Incredible String Band, some Simon and Garfunkel and some Smokey Robinson. James Brown's “This Is a Man’s World” and the Rolling Stones “Under my Thumb” did not turn me into a misogynist, macho pig, the Beatles’ cover of “Money” did not send me into a career in Wall Street and back to James Brown, “Sex Machine” did not influence my libido. (Darn it!)

So I’m thinking a lot these days about art and politics and good values and where they cross and where they don’t. It’s not an easy subject. And truth be told, the crossing between them is starting to ruin some old movies for me that I have loved my whole life.

There are the extreme examples, two of which I mentioned earlier— the tribute to Bill Robinson in Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers otherwise delightful Swingtime (I think the best of all their paired musicals), the blackface scene in Bing Crosby’s Holiday Inn, making me grimace as I’m trying to relax into the Christmas spirit. And then there’s the horrible Mickey Rooney caricature of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. You’re settling in with Audrey Hepburn and hoping to be swept off your feet into romance and— Bam!! Really?!!!

Then there’s smaller, more subtle moments. The free-thinking household thumbs its nose at big business in You Can’t Take It With You and purposefully advises everyone to follow their dreams. And though the two black servants in the house are portrayed with more humanity than was the norm in Hollywood of 1938, no one ever stops to ask them about their dreams. Then there’s a Frank Sinatra film in which he casually pats the butt of his friend’s secretary as he walks out the door. Hmm. Not now, mister. (I think it was The Tender Trap, but not sure). And just the other night, we watched the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, another groundbreaking film about an inter-racial couple seeking approval from their parents. In the end it is the male white patriarch (Spencer Tracy) who has all the power to decide. 

You see what I mean. Looking at the old films through the lens of what we now accept just doesn’t work out so well. What to do? Birth of a Nation? No way in hell I’d ever share that film except in a class to show the narrative of white supremacy at work. But should I give up A Day at the Races because of the scene where the Marx Brothers black up to escape the bad guys? (Right after a fabulous dance scene, I might add, with great Lindy Hopping and beautiful singing with black singer Ivie Anderson). I keep looking for some definitive correct response and nothing adds up.

I can say this: The fact that some of us are noticing these things is a good sign. It means that many of these groundbreaking films that couldn’t go far enough because of the limitations of their time actually moved the needle closer to better values. If people saw these films without reacting to them—and many will— it’s a sign that they have not moved with the times. And that’s not a good thing. 

But I’m also struggling to preserve the art of the film, the sheer enjoyment of some of the works listed above, my desire to suspend disbelief and immerse myself in a magical world. The critical adult in my brain is pointing these things out and the kid in me just wants to say, “Will you be quiet and just let me enjoy this?!!” 

Anybody else out there feeling this? Any pointers? 

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