May 31, 2009

cinema antiqua est caritas OR my (insane?) theology of old movies

We don't do it much anymore, since the Spirit of Vatican II swept in with a Spirit of Protestant Bland, but Catholics used to light candles for the souls of the dead, prayers in the form of flames offered for our loved ones suffering in Purgatory. Pay your dollar, light your candle, say a prayer of intercession to Our Lady (or St. fill-in-the-blank) and ask for your granny's sweet release to the Beatific Vision. It was a beautiful sight, all golden-glowed, a statue of Mary ringed with flowers and a host of candles burning round her feet, a wax halo, a symbol of piety and love.

Boy, I'm sure glad Fr. Hippy Dave got rid of all those gaudy side altars so he could put up a few more groovy felt banners! Thanks Father! No need to light candles anymore. Why, Bishop Feelgood said so!


To light the flame these days, is to queue up the flicker of ancient cinema, oldie-moldy black and white stuffs that shine like silver or mercury, and as you light your way toward a retrovision, you will see the faces of the dead or dying and unknowingly offer a prayer for their souls. Yes, I am on drugs, why do you ask? It doesn't matter that I'm telling you this while in a state of Pepsi One induced ecstasy (and yes Virginia, caffeine is a drug), what matters is that you listen to my new evangelization and open your hearts to love. Old movies are love. Love poured out for Carole Landis, poor creature, dead by her own wretched hand, but does she know the joy she brings us now? Every second of her screen time is a second chance for her soul, a chance for a new generation to witness her beauty, her simmering talent, to get a little jolt of everyday happy, we watch her smile and BOOM! a spark of love is jettisoned into cosmic space, into the metaphysical heavens, possibly into Purgatory if her sad, depressed soul made it there in the last throes of her life before she faced the unyielding judgement which comes with suicide, maybe she called out for mercy before the death knell struck, who knows, but maybe she can hear our cinematic joys now as we watch her glide along the sidewalk of a 20th Century Fox backlot stage, and maybe she'll get one step closer to the love of the universe...

What I mean to say is, when we watch these old movies we give these old folks -- the stars, the directors, the costume ladies, the grips, the extras, everybody! -- whether dead or alive, we give them a little piece of our souls, a little prayer of love, a little candle gets lit in the church of the eternal (or the Bijou, take your pick) that maybe gives them one less day in the has-been bin of Purgatorial afterlife. Maybe it's crazy -- okay, yes, it is -- but maybe when we light up the old DVD player or flip the switch to TCM and pop on some forgotten thing from the '40s, maybe it's like lighting a candle at church and saying a prayer, a prayer for these once-great legends, these once-legendary immortals who now exist only as immortal souls, souls somewhere, whether in Hell or in Purgatorio, or if we're lucky and they're blessed, in Paradise itself, but when we watch their movies and get a few kicks out of 'em, a few glorious, ordinary, bittersweet, sensational kicks, it's like sending off a prayer to Our Lady of the Cinema (don't laugh, Mary's been known to project a few images in her time) for the souls of the celluloid departed.

Because no matter how twisted and messed up these old Hollywood movie stars might have been in their private lives (though I must say, quite a few were as normal as a Saturday afternoon), they managed to put some good into this world, some bit of decency and beauty and their work is a spark of love carried through the generations, into distant decades, into the future of Now, where we cyber-created creatures catch a little speck of their unending Real-ness, even amidst all the artificiality of black and white and Technicolor, and we get to feel something real for the first time in a long time...

Like all my worst ideas, I'll probably write a screenplay about this.
... intermission haze...

The bathtub produced a dream. I woke up chugging soapy water into my lungs and coughed it up as soon as the sting cleared my eyes. I'd fallen asleep again, tired from being up too late last night and sleeping on a couch and drinking Woodchuck hard cider till 4 a.m., my throat raw from germs and yapping my mouth, my head a little swimmy from laziness, and the heat and sweat of the tub rustled up a dream. I had been dreaming of Marie Windsor. Of Jane Greer. Of Ann Savage. B-girls. So sad and wrong and beautiful, so used up and so wasted, but these girls, they left something not many of us get to leave to this world: Art.

Why was I dreaming of the dark city dames? I obsessed over the book a couple of months ago and one thing never left me: When they were working in the '40s and '50s, these actresses were never regarded as anything all that special. Yeah, they got good notices and acted the hell out of any parts that came their way, they were famous sure, but they weren't anything on the order of Marilyn Monroe, dontcha know. They were b-girls, they got work, but they were pretty much second-tier (I guess Greer came the closest to A-list but Howard Hughes never let her break through). And yet... and yet today, over the last thirty-some years since geeks and film nerds started pouring over Film Noir like it was the cinephile Decalogue, these b-girls are ICONS, they are goddesses of sleaze and cigarette smoke: They are Immortal. Each of them remarked about how amazing it was to see that these nothing little pictures they made in the '40s and '50s turned out to be beloved classics, how they were suddenly getting reevaluated and championed and hailed as masterpieces, and how the ladies' performances were getting the loudest cheers, they were getting all the love and adulation that Hollywood and America never really gave them back in the day. "Mom, you're the Queen of Film Noir," said Jane Greer's son coming home one day from college in the '70s. And I sat there in my tub of filmy water and remembered Eddie Muller's book and how I felt like I was a part of that love now too. I couldn't exactly tell Marie Windsor or Ann Savage or Ms. Greer how much their art meant to me -- they all being dead, you see, and me sitting in my bathtub currently -- but somehow I felt like they knew. Call it the communion of saints, if you will, but call it caritas too, the charity of the heart, that I could give them back a thought or two, a prayer in fact, that bespoke my gratitude, my admiration, my awe, my joy and pleasure at the gift they've given me, the furious gem of their dark street performances.

(I bring up the tub, by the way, because it's mundane. It's the kind of mundane that makes old movies have their magic. Not too many special effects in them thar ol' movies, so what you get more often than not is something ordinary and profound. A slice of life, mundane and kinda sad, the way all our lives are if we're honest. So, that's why the tub. It's as soggy as my writing.)

I stepped out of the tub and had the answer. Why watch old movies? they say. Why should I care? come the voices of the young ignorant "Now!" zombies. Exactly this, fools: Watch an old movie -- and love it, love the ones who made it for you -- and you'll actually give something back to those artists from the past. Perhaps they were once forgotten, but not as long as you're around. You'll be there to remember. Who knows how it happens, God in his mysterious ways and all, but somehow it does, your love transmits itself into the stratosphere, reaching beyond the wall of the television/movie screen, beyond the distance of death and afterlife, into the hearts and bellies of the old time artists, the men and women of Retro, and they will be fed, just as you have been fed and nourished, by this mutual love. Love flows from this act as surely as it does from the hour or two you spent mowing grandma's lawn and helping her with her groceries last week. Watch an old movie today and you will give the gift of love. If I am drunk right now, is it anybody's fault but the bathtub gin?

Thus ends this first theological treatise on old movies. And may God bless Robert Mitchum.

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