Sunday, February 15, 2009

Meanderings on Classic Cinema

I like old movies. I especially enjoy old adventure movies.


Mainly because I have always been attentive to history. The past holds lessons that we can still learn from. I'm not so enamored of anything in our times that I am comfortable with forsaking everything that has come before. Sure, some people cling to nostalgia more than they probably should. Let's face it, I know I'd rather go to a dentist in our times than in the early 20th Century. It has also been really damned cool to see men walk on the Moon. There are indeed some things better in our times than in the past.

But there were some things better in the past than in our times.

Elegance, for one. I personally appreciate the 18th Century in general style. I love the Victorian Era into the early 20th century Edwardian Era. Even when styles became streamlined in the 1920s, art deco still possessed an elegance of its own. Clothes, architecture, even a simple water fountain in Paris or a soda counter in Kansas City showed great style. Horse drawn carriages are wonderful things, and automobiles for the first sixty years or so of the 20th Century were equal in distinction in their own way.

Cinema especially. I have said and say again here, 80% of the best movies ever produced were made by 1975. That's right, I'm essentially slamming the generation that has run Hollywood for the past 34 years. For all the promise they show, they really should have produced a lot more truly classic and great films than they have. I attribute it to too much weed or something. This is the generation that had to buck the 'ole man', their fathers of the WW2 generation. Hell of a job they did, too. They managed to take an industry the ole man's generation greatly created and grandly built and turn it into a money-obsessed machine that cranks out pop fart -- in an era with the most advanced film technology. Imagine what their fathers could have done with digital imagery and THX sound. Look at what the sons have done with it. George Lucas regularly ruins his earlier better work with 'enhancements'. And the politics are far heavier now than in the 'ole man's' time. Thank God for the independent revolution. The best thing the Hollywood masters of the past four decades ever did was creating the means by which better filmmakers and smarter generations will replace them.

Pardon the digression. The subject is a passion of mine. I love movies.

Several years back, I got into the classics deeper than ever because money was tight and for a six month period I could only afford to check movies out from the library. That was when I truly discovered how great were The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, King Solomon's Mines, Gunga Din, and many others. It was the decade of my life when I was first delving into archeological interests, as well as ancient mysteries and such things. Here were movies that reflected these interests, made by filmmakers who shared a sense of adventure with their viewers. I believe that's key to the success of these old films -- execution as much as box-office appeal.

The filmmakers of the old era were closer to an adventurous past than we are today, to be honest. A lot of early Hollywood stunt men had actually lived in the Wild West. Several directors and writers had experienced exploration of then unknown corners of the globe. Many of these filmmakers had gone to war in times when soldiers still carried fighting blades, rode horses and saw the eyes of their opponent. The early decades of filmmaking had a touchstone reference to the daring pioneer days of aviation, polar exploration and the first submarines. These were eras in which boys were expected to become men earlier than in our times. Hell, these were eras in which boys were allowed to become men, not hindered by the chains of maternal fear and loathing of their masculinity. No wonder the adventure films are generally better than ours today, the men making those films personally understood what they were presenting-- it was not merely nostalgia for Merian C Cooper, it was his real life. John Huston knew and admired the sort of men who inspired or even populated his material. John Milius is probably the only one in our times who truly gets it (And why in the living hell has he not delivered more than he has? His asshole peer group, that's why. They've blocked his path.)

Even the somewhat obscure films are often more enjoyable than today's 'best'. I'd rather watch The Sea Chase than any of the Mummy films of the past ten years (and I like #1 and #3). Earlier today, Moulin Rouge was on TCM -- the 1958 Jose Ferrer version. It was infinitely more interesting to me than Baz Lurman's take. Don't get me wrong, I loved the visual style of Lurman's -- the first minutes are brilliant as a movie watching experience. The rest of it was just, well, not as interesting (though, it was the last time Nicole Kidman was truly beautiful). Jose Ferrer's version kept me on the couch watching. That is what matters most with a movie. I find John Wayne compelling to watch outside of westerns and war movies, interestingly. There's a movie I've enjoyed for ten years that I haven't bothered to find the title of, starring Clark Gable as a merchant sea skipper. It's just compelling and it's not even a high adventure film.

Maybe it's that I'm a history buff, to some degree. Maybe I'm just charmed by styles of a different era. I use a shave brush and soap, rather than cream from a can. I use Clubman products like Lilac Vegetal and Bay Rum. I wear French cuff dress shirts. I don't chop my hair off in the Spartacus pop trend of today (The last few time I was working in Afghanistan, I refused to grow the de rigeur goatee so many of the other wannabes sprouted to 'blend in'. Unless you're on one of the teams doing the real commando work over there, your goatee is what it is. The silly affectation of boys desperate to be considered one of the men. The first time I went, I already had a beard.) I like my Ruger Vaquero 45 as much for its style as its power, and I carry it in a western style leather holster. I prefer stout to light beer. Beef will always be part of my diet. Wine with traditional labels catches my eye (but it still must pass the taste test!). I have also come to a taste for women in retro style clothing (God, I love the ladies into the Victorian fashion culture, being a fan of the gothic tastes). It is just as much these subtle appreciations as it is the big high adventure of the past. I just feel comfortable with these things and like to read and write under their influence.

Why is Disney's Twenty Thousand Leagues so beloved? Because, quite frankly, the design of the Nautilus and Captain Nemo's world is so cool and believable in that version compared to others, not to mention its still the very best cinematic execution of that story, bar none. Why is Gunga Din so incredibly perfect and awesome? Just watch it and you'll see, if you have eyes for it. Why is the original King Kong what it is? Because the men who made it understood firsthand what the genre means to its core audience, they lived it. These three movies are so great because they do not apologize to anyone for being what they are. Not one of the characters in these films apologize for being men on an adventure. There's no namby-pamby 'I'm not going into space with ET because I'll miss my mother' crap. Douglas Fairbanks Jr does not apologize for setting his would-be controlling sweetheart straight when he has to go save his friend from certain doom. Carl Denham expects Ann Darrow to be up to the challenge and Jack Driscoll still goes after the woman he loves even without a team of commandos backing him up. The bottom line with films like these is that they are shamelessly inspiring and encouraging to the boys of every age in the audience.

Anyway, those are some of the reasons I love old adventure movies.

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