index and thumb

In high school, the man who conducted my Psych class stressed the importance of asking “how?”, not “why?”.  Not “why did you strangle someone?”,  but rather “how you became the strangler?”.  Notice I said conducted, not taught.  Riding herd, more like.  Freud, emasculated, by professorial apathy. Still, that one item survived across the years, a useful filter to keep the mind agile.

Dominique Blanchar, George Tyne, Gary Merrill  in Decision Before Dawn, 1951, directed by Anatole Litvak

Today’s epiphany came courtesy of catching an old flick on youtube, Decision Before Dawn.  Brutal times, brilliant execution.  War was still fresh in ’51, I’m sure it resonated — no, wrong word… More like ripped out the viewer’s heart.  How? I was bored, and ran a search beginning with the word “dawn”, and up it came, grabbing my throat by the eyeballs.

That, in turn, led to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  Gregory Peck vs. Jennifer Jones. Not as strident as Dawn, but blood was spilt on the cutting room floor. Much blood.

Keenan Wynn and Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, 1956, directed by Nunnally Johnson

Boredom cured.  Addiction set in.  Postwar flicks I missed in childhood.  Before I was born. Think about it, the films you see, unless you’re a film nerd, pretty much revolve around your peer group.  So all these flicks I grew up hearing the titles but never saw.  For me it was Goldfinger, Where Eagles Dare, anything containing Clint Eastwood or Julie Andrews.  Bergman, Truffault, the greats, ah, but as a child was I ready for them? Went along with George Lucas, and so on…  Whereupon Hollywood seemingly took 20 years to die and no longer sees a tail to chase, not even its own.

Cut to the one queued up next, A Portrait of Jennie, in the first 3 minutes I’m hooked on the cinematography, the play of light through trees, the camera motion, all the intrinsic stuff.  Debussy.  Killer.  Jennifer Jones again, splendid.

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in A Portrait of Jennie, 1948, directed by Wilhelm Dieterle

I took the obligatory history of film course as a junior, learnt the terms and concepts a bit, but as the course was [again] conducted rather than taught, it had little impact, then.  Catherine Deneuve, Rosebud, Metropolis, Yellow Submarine.  3 credit hours in the bag, while my soul rusted away.

Ah, but planted was the seed.  This, dear reader, is my point:  Enlightenment comes not on a silver platter for the asking.  Light attaches to nothing that is not in opposition to the light.  Your retina, for instance, or a carefully managed shadow on the set. Positioning oneself at the right place at the right time to “get it” takes time, just as the cinematography finds the light where it lands in a special way. If you don’t see it, you don’t get it.

The bits of time you carry forward in memory, if they have some value, over 40 years or so, need something to hit before they exist. Those of us fortunate enough to own a lifespan spanning the original release of Star Wars back in ’77 through the anticipated 2019 IX may well share the theatre with our grandchildren. The light perhaps projected on the very same screen, even, as if to teleport DNA through an ancestral lens.

Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, 1943, directed by Henry King

A good story depends not on a seamless chain of smoothly polished mechanical charades.  No, it requires bad decisions, imperfect intentions, answers that taunt and break windows and run away in the dark.  They did it better in the postwar honeymoon than they do now, methinks. They had a better how.  The brutal rawness of war demanded an artistic certainty at the movie theatre. It serves the present better that the present does itself, putting up jagged barriers for the fragments of light to finally illuminate the dusty corners of memory, to illustrate timeless truths about human relationships, the inevitable disasters of broken dreams and self-delusion. The secrets that burn their way out, yet don’t quite kill us, luckily, by a thread. Beautiful.


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