Monday, April 22, 2019

Movie-Smarts


By age ten I knew everything. I had movie-smarts. Those Saturday matinees taught me that most people wore tuxedos, sailors were all great dancers and cattle rustlers didn’t shave. I had it all figured out …the language of cinema, the difference between the clean chin and the villainy of the mustache. I could spot that double-crossing dame from the schoolmarm at the drop of an eyebrow.  

We could smell death. In war movies when a soldier spoke of the deli he would open in Brooklyn when the war ended he’d take a bullet a couple of foxholes later. When someone coughed it meant tuberculosis; a headache was shorthand for brain tumor. They’d be dead in five minutes. I knew it was a jungle out there like Tarzan said to Jane.

None of my friends ever rustled a cow or went up the river for packing a rod. Uncle Irving was in the navy and was a klutz. All the girls I knew were second bananas. I would never glide like Fred Astaire or be suave and debonair like Cary Grant. Henry Fonda, maybe or Spencer Tracy knowing not to bump into the furniture.

Movies prepared us for the life we would never live….and yet. We got to know the difference between real life and the dream factory of Hollywood. Movie maladies were part of the fiction we learned to separate.

Over time movies developed a new vocabulary. Authenticity required a vomiting scene. This demonstrated that the film aimed for real life…even if it never got there. The cattle-rustler moved to the big city and became a hit man but with a back story which almost excused him.

One theme that seems not to have changed much over the years is gender politics. In the forties the girl next door who became a successful career woman was empty inside until Mr. Right came along to provide her with two and half children and an apron where she could know her place in the world heading the bake sale for the P.T.A.

Today’s formula pits urban values against the Real America where men and women must return to reclaim their soul. After all, the big city with its inclusive urbanity (Democratic voters) is no match for the rural heartland (Trump base) with its bowling league, good old boys and deer-hunting.

Movies have always been a sneaky form of ideology. The themes often reinforce values through the side door. When our hero lands in the hospital after fracturing a few ribs or even after a triple by-pass he rips off his bandages tears away the I.V. and makes it out of the deserted corridors to avenge his attackers. The message is: real men are invincible and don’t feel pain. Of course not; not when we are the planet’s police thwarting terrorist’s plots. The stuff of comic books is the delusion of the Pentagon given support by the dream machine of Hollywood with big box office receipts to prove they have their fingers on the pulse of Main St.

It’s not easy to find a movie without the syrup of a small town or the carnage of the war machine. Our thirst for dead bodies must surely numb our sensibilities which is yet another link befitting a country with bases circling the globe and an arsenal unmatched in human history.  

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