June 8, 2009

How to Watch Old Movies, Part 2

There's a movie star for every occasion. Like patron saints.

Feeling like it's you against the world? Then queue up Joan Crawford. Maybe a screening of Mildred Pierce will make you realize you ain't got it half as bad as old Joanie. Sick of looking to our politicians for answers only to find that they're all just a part of one great, big, useless ball of dangerous Stupid? Embrace your inner anarchist and turn on the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup. Stuck in a funk and feeling like a miserable, uncouth slob? Turn on a Cary Grant movie and try to catch just a sprinkle of his effortless grace.

See, old movies are more like religion than new movies are, and it's hard for new movie types to quite understand the fervor of the old movie devotee. At least, it's hard at first, because they're not used to the old movie fan's culture of movie star devotion (which is quite different from today's "celebrity culture"; devotion to old movie stars is based on love and enjoyment, whereas celebrity culture is based on curiosity and shock value). But these newbies can be brought around. You see, all they need is a little old time religion. Movie religion, that is.

My advice to the newbies:

First, start watching some old movies, don't worry about whether they're "classics" or not. Follow my advise from Part 1 of this series and don't expect every old movie to be a transcendent experience. Expect a comfortable ordinary and nothing more and then allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised.

Next, start to notice those actors whose films you gravitate towards. Don't worry if they're not the main "star" of the picture. In my world (and the world of every true old movie fanatic), character actors like Eve Arden and Sydney Greenstreet and Eugene Pallette are often bigger draws to a picture than the marquee stars. But at the same time, don't be surprised to find yourself falling in love with dozens of "stars" as well, even though you've never heard of many of them before (folks like Joel McCrea and Jack Carson and Ida Lupino). Once you find a few cinematic patron saints to love, pretty soon you'll be building shrines of dvds, collecting relics on your dvr (from that great holy repository, TCM), and creating a pantheon of stars (whoops, guess I'm switching my religions a little here!) that will become as distant and awe-inspiring as Zeus in the heavens, and yet at the same time as earthy and ordinary as St. Francis in the forest.
But like any experience that is strange and beautiful, you must be open to it. To take up my religion metaphor again, you must have a little faith that these old movie stars can and will speak to you, that they will enchant you, mystify you, comfort you, thrill you, even though the movies they made are sometimes forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years old and the stars themselves (for the most part) are long dead (or at least old enough to be your grandparents). You must have faith. You must believe that there is power and beauty in old things. Or at the very least, you must be open and willing to be convinced.

But you can't approach these old stars like a skeptic or a cynic or you'll end up sneering (from your very limited 21st century perspective) at their cornball styles and melodramatic theatrics. You must have a little faith that these people are good performers, and that they will entertain you if you give them the chance. This doesn't mean you'll love every actor you see in an old movie (I've got my list of most hated old movie stars, in case you wondered, and it doesn't make me an old movie heretic to admit it. Number one on my list is June Allyson, btw, who just annoys the heck out of me and practically ruins every movie she's in).

What will happen, if you approach old movies from a trusting, open perspective, is that you'll find yourself easily falling in love with a dozen or more of these old stars. You won't even realize just how many you've fallen in love with until it's too late: you'll have gotten old movie religion and become a true believer. And it'll feel as unfathomable and wonderful as a miracle.

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