A handful of little-known movies she’s seen only once,
on late night TV, moved her more than recognized classics!
These uncelebrated films include:
Along the way, we consider:
What is high art?
What is low art?
What is good art?
What is bad art?
Am I a weirdo for loving these movies?
Are you? A weirdo, I mean?
Should you Google your ex?
Confession: I’m a film fan.
True Confession: Citizen Kane leaves me cold. Meat-locker cold. So cold I flatlined. I saw the white light. I visited with my ancestors. I borrowed fifty bucks from my great grandfather Gregor Cerno. He told me to come back with change and a bottle of slivovitz. I did. I re-entered my mortal body and Citizen Kane was still playing. You want me to save you some trouble? Rosebud — it’s Kane’s sled. Get it? It’s a big, freaking symbol. The movie is a desiccated series of Cliff Notes. Skip the art; go right to the intellectual snobbery.
It was scary to admit that, but now that I’ve gotten it off my chest, I feel free, free, I tell you, free! Here’s more: I’ve never seen the Godfather franchise. I need to see Mafiosi glamorized like I need to see herpes glamorized. Have never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie. Plan to go to my grave able to say the same. Didn’t shed a tear when Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died back-to-back in July, 2007. Someday I’ll catch their films; that day hasn’t yet arrived; no sense of urgency prods me.
If I ever invent a pill that cures insomnia, I’m going to name it “Robert Altman.” I saw a Stanley Kubrick movie once. My boyfriend made me watch 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire time, he never looked at the screen, just at my face, breathlessly anticipating the moment when I “got it.” I dumped him. I might see another Kubrick movie, if America becomes a fascist dystopia and Kubrick fans strap me to a chair and hold my eyelids open with pliers.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m a geek Philistine, about to grab your lapels and insist, wild-eyed, rabid, that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is the underappreciated masterwork from which all cinema art descends. Actually, I’m not, but wouldn’t that be a fun read?
Movies: Popular. Books: Elite
There are film snobs who will condemn you if you do like Spielberg and haven’t seen Antonioni. But those people are marginal and weird; in my own life, such characters don’t exist outside of Woody Allen movies. Nowadays even the New York Times can praise Jackass, a series of stunts including a man leaping from a trampoline into a ceiling fan as “fearless, liberated”!
I love the chaos, the shuffle, the busy lobby of movie fandom. I love the open door that movies provide, that books, especially modern American fiction, do not. Current bookish culture forms a narrow door that allows in one at a time; the bouncer at that door is particularly vicious. The most reliably churlish, childish prose published in American media appears in the New York Times book review. The only “adult” touch is the obscurity of the insults. You have to really know your Homer to recognize that one writer is calling another a “dickhead.” All this is, first, read, second, understood, and, finally, cared about, by progressively smaller and smaller populations.
Force me to watch the entire Godfather trilogy before I’d read another novel by Philip Roth. Invited to read Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, William Styron, or just about any fiction writer featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review in the past year, I respond with a quote from a writer whom I do admire, “I would prefer not to.” An economic gun to my head — I was assured that the only white-collar job possible for a blue-collar Polak was high school teacher — I was forced to read these authors when I was an undergraduate. One of the promises that keeps us all going is “this too shall pass.” After four years, the condition did pass; I’ve got the BA; I don’t have to read these authors anymore, and I don’t.
That I see nothing I want to return to in the novels of Toni Morrison identifies me so much more firmly as brain dead, acultural, off-the-list, than that I haven’t seen, and don’t want to see, the Godfather movies. And that’s what I abhor about bookish culture; books are used as socioeconomic class shibboleths in a way that film usually is not.
Compare bookish bouncers with the open door that movies afford. I watched classic films with the housewives in my hometown; these were often immigrants who cleaned luckier, richer women’s homes. Together we saw Lawrence of Arabia, Separate Tables, Elmer Gantry and The Fortune Cookie. Watching these films as a child, I delighted to exotic locales, nifty costumes, charismatic stars, and high style; after I grew up, I realized, with some shock, that these films addressed imperialism, sadism, sexual perversion, and corruption. While we children were hypnotized by the sparkle of sunlight reflected off the rippled surface, grown-ups focused on the movements beneath, as if studying shadowed aquatic life invisible to less experienced eyes.
Golden Age filmmakers had the scattershot aim of a turkey hunter’s shot, not the precise trajectory of a sniper’s bullet — their work was high and low, sophisticated and broad; like Dickens’, it worked for rich and poor, children and adults. Director John Ford was notoriously coy about the nature of his work in his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich, a young filmmaker and fan, would probe Ford, a respected elder, about the symbolism, the allusions to classic literature, the multiple meanings in a given scene, and Ford would respond by growling something like, “I shot it that way because I thought it looked pretty.” Bogdanovich was insisting on seeing high art; Ford was insisting that he was cranking out popular entertainment. “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns,” this record-breaking, four-time Academy-Award-winning director famously, and humbly, identified himself.
I love it that every fanboy wearing out his keyboard insists in fervid Internet posts that the latest comic book summer blockbuster is an unprecedented work of genius. I love it that when I went to my local theater’s very first, 10:30 a.m., showing of 300, I didn’t know if the others in the theater with me were there for the gore or the history or the sepia tone. I didn’t know if they were taking it seriously as a parable exhorting America to nuke Iran and would leave the theater and enlist in the Marines, or they were if taking it seriously as a parable exhorting America to nuke Iran and would leave the theater to hammer out an anti-American manifesto. Maybe they were giggling at campy, gleaming, depilitated Spartan torsos and capped, gritting Spartan teeth. Maybe they were just in the theater for the air conditioning.
With books, it isn’t just the much heavier prescription that you must like certain authors, and the heavier opprobrium if you don’t. You have to like certain books in a certain way; with movies, you can like them however you care to — no one yet owns the interpretation. In the documentary Celluloid Closet, Susie Bright described watching the 1930 film, Morocco. Morocco has no plot, except to the extent that Marlene Dietrich kicking off her high heels as she, barefoot, follows French Legionnaire Gary Cooper into the Sahara Desert constitutes a plot. Tall and lithe Cooper is obscenely beautiful, graced with sensual lips, a colt’s nostrils, and long, lush lashes; Dietrich impregnates every gesture with the erotic. Off-screen lovers, with these two in a room, no other man or woman would get any attention. Morocco is about an alpha male and an alpha female having alpha, hetero sex, while the rest of us beta schlubs, including the film’s director and Dietrich’s spurned lover, Josef von Sternberg, resign ourselves to the queasy pleasures of a voyeur.
But the young Susie Bright, before she became a famous lesbian sexologist, saw something completely different. In a scene lasting only seconds, Dietrich kisses a woman — probably to arouse Cooper. Bright described her reaction:
I saw Marlene Dietrich in Morocco when I was a teenager. I just was flipping the channels and saw her and decided to settle in for an old movie… [Dietrich kisses a woman]… She has a romance with Gary Cooper in this movie but that romance just went right out the window for me. I was just like, who was that woman, what had happened? I started writing a whole other script for what was really going on!
Susie Bright saw one of the most in-your-face celebrations of animal, hetero sex and turned it into a movie about a clandestine, lesbian love affair — and no one can tell her she’s wrong. Scholar Molly Haskell asks which plots women registered when they watched Golden Age movies: did they learn from the final reel, in which, as the Hays Production Code mandated, the powerhouse heroine — often Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Katharine Hepburn — would settle down, repent her wild ways, and promise to love, honor, and obey a nice guy? Or did viewers attend to everything that went before, in which the heroine was hell-on-wheels, a ball-buster, a temptress, a murderess? Movies have commented on fans’ ability to see what they want to see. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, Luis Molina (William Hurt) watches Nazi propaganda films and decides that they are all about pretty clothes and noble self-sacrifice.
We aren’t allowed the same freedom with books. You can’t say you read any serious modern American fiction writer because you really like that author’s sex scenes, or mastery of local dialects, or recipes, or even for her plot twists. You have to like him because he’s saying something serious about society, dammit.
Confession: A lot of the “Great” Stuff Really is Great
I’m overselling myself as a desperado. My list of bests has a lot in common with the official canon: Lawrence of Arabia, The Third Man, Saving Private Ryan, All About Eve. I’m in awe of the same directors as most everybody else: Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Satyajit Ray, Werner Hertzog, Bernardo Bertolucci, Lina Wertmuller, Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland.
The cinematic moments that reduce film fans around the world to heaps of pale and moist and quivering gel move me equally:
That luminous Lincoln Memorial pep talk where Jean Arthur nudges, cajoles, and inspires Jimmy Stewart into pulling up his socks, acting like a man, and bringing sweat, honor, and a masochistic, operatic, cathartic filibuster to the floor of the United States Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The crane shot in Gone with the Wind where the camera pulls back, and shows you Scarlett O’Hara, narcissist extraordinaire, next to one dying solider, the camera pulls back some more, she’s surrounded by five dying soldiers, it pulls back some more, a hundred, a thousand. Over them all a battered Confederate flag flies, and you get it that this is about so much more than one princess’s doomed and foolish crush on one passive aggressive, latently homosexual, parasitic blonde named Ashley Wilkes.
The twister from The Wizard of Oz. I’ve seen that movie, what, a couple of dozen times? And every time, that twister scares me. Folks, they made it with a muslin stocking. Makes you think twice about today’s multimillion-dollar special effects, don’t it?
The flight of arrows, the silent battle in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
The Odessa steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. In 1989, I was an eyewitness to the final spasms of Soviet communism’s rotting hulk. The Odessa steps sequence makes me wanna sign a party membership card. Behold the power of film.
Gene Kelly dancing with a piece of newspaper in Summer Stock; Gene Kelly dancing with a mop in Thousands Cheer; Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry, the cartoon mouse, in Anchors Away; Gene Kelly dancing with a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain… what was Gene’s problem with women?
The street lamp light reflected off of the porch screen that stands as a fragile battlement between shotgun-wielding matriarch Lillian Gish and inhuman-menace Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.
These moments belong to everyone. Some say that for love to be genuine it has to be exclusive. Maybe that’s true for the love between romantic partners, but not only do we film fans have to share our best moments, we want to. Our friends know that we can’t let them rest till we’ve gotten them to see the movies we want them to see, in the way we want them to see them.
And yet, I have to admit that I am a bit intimidated by the sheer number of fans who worship Gone with the Wind. I’ve read GWTW three times. Some fans read it yearly. I don’t own so much as a copy — neither the movie nor the book. I once worked for a woman whose office looked like a diorama at the Margaret Mitchell Memorial Museum. A life-size, cardboard cut-out of Rhett and Scarlett manned her door. My love wilts in comparison.
I think that in film fans’ private hearts there lurks some yearning for a moment of exclusive cinematic intimacy. A star who scintillates for our delight; a line tweaked just to ring in time with our life story; an understanding that shouts, “Yes, yes,” to our “Yes, yes”; a shaft of light, summoned from klieg and dust motes, crafted on the cinematographer’s hammer and anvil, aimed at our very eyes, that we, alone, can store in our memories to be called up when we need that kick of inspiration, that resonant thrum, that whiff of cinematic perfume. And then, of course, we’d have to tell the world. We’d shout, “Did you see how great that was? Did you see?”
And then there is the moment of finding art where others don’t. Some of my favorite writing comes from sources that aren’t sanctioned as “art.” I value spontaneity, sincerity, and the unexpected — and one is often more likely to find these in unselfconscious prose rather than in writing posed for the Pulitzer committee. An example: From “Operating Instructions for the Mr. Coffee Electric Fruit Dehydrator.”
This appliance has a polarized plug. One blade is larger than the other. As a safety feature, this plug will fit in a polarized outlet only one way. If the plug does not fit, reverse the plug. If it still does not fit, contact a qualified electrician. Do not attempt to defeat this safety feature…Peeling fruits is a personal decision. Skin adds a longer drying time. However, skin is a highly nutritious part of the fruit. Personal preference is the only way to decide about peeling.
When I first read this, I practically wept with delight. I heard it in a voice something like Mr. Rogers’. I wish more of my day were conducted with that degree of calm, authoritative, care. I can hear this voice in other circumstances. What if, before investing in the wrong stock or falling in love with the wrong person, God whispered in your ear: “What you plan is dangerous. I’ve given you fear to keep you from rushing in where angels fear to tread. Do not attempt to defeat this safety feature.” Or, what if homophobes were told, firmly yet gently: “Love is a personal decision. Loving one of the same gender offers more bumps in life’s path. However, this love is genuine and equally nutritious. Personal preference is the only way to decide about love.”
There is a related experience — being deeply moved by what you understand as bad art. As Noel Coward observed, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” This often happens with a writer you know, who isn’t published yet. He’s young; he hasn’t gotten it that everyone feels pain, that everyone loses love; he isn’t blasé. He’s completely dedicated to his story because he thinks it’s unique. He gives you his seven-hundred-page manuscript about his girlfriend who died / left / got gang raped. His prose is purple, overburdened with adjectives; there’s no sense of audience; you feel as if you are locked in a cell listening to a stranger’s dreams. And yet this mess pulses with life, and moves you in ways you are embarrassed to confront. How, you ask yourself, did this amateur who can’t make a noun and verb agree get under your skin?
A guess: he’s not doing it for money or even love. He’s doing it because the narrative’s archetypal characters and conflict are driving him mad. These raw elements suck you in, but he can’t juggle them adroitly. You watch as his eggs fall on his face, his knives slice through his toes. Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. In the same way that you add elements to make a cloud look just like Snoopy, you invest yourself in bad writing. The Sistine Chapel does not need me. My friend’s crazy novel about his girlfriend does. I let that book get to me in a way that the Sistine Chapel never has. Bad art, in this sense, is still living — exactly because its creator hadn’t the skill to resolve it, to finish it, to kill it. All the loose ends dangle, quiver, await our investment to take them home to rest.
But let me get back to my true confessions
I confess: I love a handful of rather weird, high ick-factor, uncelebrated, almost unknown movies. Exactly because these films are so little seen and appreciated, I love them all the more. I stumbled on these movies. No advertising campaign or word-of-mouth prepared me. I had to stick with them through their initial weirdness or lack of charismatic stars. I’ve only ever watched them alone — never in a theater, never with anyone else — this somehow increases the magical feeling of intimacy they engender. I somehow knew when I was watching them that someone, somewhere, at sometime, had seen them, perhaps in the same solitary, serendipitous way as I. I felt community, but a more intimate and exclusive community than one can ever feel as one fan among the milling throngs of Gone with the Wind. If the blockbuster’s fans are an ant colony, and the acknowledged masterpiece’s fans a private university, the fans of these weird little films are the diners in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”
Golden-Age, black-and-white, Hollywood movies were the animate wallpaper in my childhood home. Eight people in a small house — cleaning women, caddies, nurse’s aids — working the day shift, the night shift, the graveyard shift: the TV was often on.
It would be a summer night. I could stay up late and not worry about needing to get to school the next day. I would have been out running around barefoot with my dog, Tramp. In those days, a kid had to be careful where she placed her foot, the summer was paved with fireflies and frogs. We humans have not improved the planet by evicting them. Night’s velvet cape swooped around me protectively. Though dressed only in cutoffs and my brother’s castoff shirt, I’d be sweltering and unable to sleep. I’d mix a big, sweaty tumbler of iced lemonade and pretzel myself up inches away from the TV; at my elbow rested a plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol to daub on inevitable bites — our air conditioning was an open front door, and its screen offered scant protection from New Jersey’s voracious state bird, the mosquito. I could hear Daddy snoring; my brothers weren’t back from work or raising hell. I switched on the TV.
In later years, I discovered — gasp! — books about movies, and, even, oh good grief, university courses about movies! I read entire chapters devoted to little cinematic moments that I thought I alone had seen, like in The Searchers when Ethan’s (John Wayne) sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan) silently strokes his coat before handing it to him. I came to realize that many of the films I had accidentally seen on TV — White Heat, It Happened One Night, Jezebel — were classics. On those summer nights I had been, unawares, doing what museum goers do, what readers of Philip Roth do — I had been exposing myself to art! It didn’t feel that way; it didn’t feel like anything that went on in school. To me, watching movies felt like what I did when I pretended to be asleep, but really stayed awake, so I could hear my mother tell a just-for-the-grownups tale about the Old Country; it felt like unstitching all my bones, laying down my shield, and taking a headlong plunge into the magical, indescribable, primordial ocean of story.
But in coming to realize that what I hadn’t thought about as art is considered to be art, I found that some of the films I had seen on late night TV, films that touched me deeply in some very private place, films that haunted me for years, went unmentioned in film books and festival circuits. Given that I’d seen these films only once, and no one ever talked about them, I even began to wonder — did they really exist? Or had I imagined them?
So here is my project. I’m going to do what I can to dig up a handful of rather weird movies that moved me when I saw them one time on late night TV. Reducing these films to sketchy summaries gives an idea of the potential ick factor in their plots:
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933 – Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther). A Chinese warlord kidnaps a missionary bride with the intent of sexually seducing her, while brutalizing his own people.
Lisa (1962 – Stephen Boyd, Dolores Hart). A Holocaust survivor trying to make it to Palestine is … chased? Helped? I saw this movie only once, many years ago, and I don’t remember. In any case, there is a Holocaust survivor, a Dutch cop, an attempt to flee to Palestine, and a flashback of Nazi medical experimentation that rattled me to my bones.
The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964 – all star cast, including Rex Harrison and Ingrid Bergman). A bunch of people all have sex in the same unusually-colored, luxury automobile.
A High Wind in Jamaica (1965 – Anthony Quinn). A little English girl has what looks an awful lot like a love affair with an adult male pirate.
Sweet November (1968 – Sandy Dennis, Anthony Newley). Terminally ill woman sleeps with a different man every month in order to save his life while losing her own.
Hoffman (1970 – Peter Sellers, Sinead Cusack). A perverse employer kidnaps his much younger secretary and sexually blackmails her.
I’ve managed to get a hold of three of the films so far, but Lisa, Yellow Rolls Royce, and High Wind in Jamaica continue to elude me. If anyone out there has copies or knows how to get them, please do speak up.
I feel some trepidation. I feel what you feel when you Google your ex. Should I really be doing this?
If you Google an old boyfriend and discover that he has won high office or made lots of dough, your tastes are affirmed. You loved the right guy. I was wowed by The Third Man; I appreciate a certified classic. I am one of the club, the cognoscenti. What does it say about me that I can’t forget Lisa, a movie I can’t remember? Nobody talks about The Yellow Rolls Royce. Bitter Tea of General Yen was a rare commercial failure for otherwise highly successful Frank Capra; Hoffman was a commercial failure for otherwise highly successful Peter Sellers. Wouldn’t it be better just to cling to the memories of the good times, and not risk ruining them? What if, to use the old boyfriend metaphor, my former lover, whom I once saw as so superb, is revealed to have sloppy hygiene and man breasts? What if my old boyfriend’s only Google appearance is in a criminal record? Maybe I don’t just have lousy taste, maybe I’m a pervert, and my unforgettable affection for these films seals the deal. Little girls and pirates? Sexual kidnapping, which appears twice? There’s not a wholesome apple in the peck. Perhaps these films are a key to a buried side of myself, a key I’d best throw into the sewer.
What if you could only love these movies while occupying a tiny island of space-time coordinates: while watching them on a rabbit-eared, black-and-white TV with a ten-inch screen, while katydids buzzed in the background, sometime between the Kennedy assassination and Nixon’s resignation, after you’d read Jane Eyre but before you read 1984, when your country was a superpower but not the world’s only superpower? After your first crush but before you ever shaved your legs? What if I simply can’t understand these movies anymore because, like a former resident of an island nation, I return home and find that I’ve completely forgotten the language that there I once spoke?
And maybe my attempt to resurrect these disappeared movies desecrates something sacred. Maybe what I’m doing is as bad as pinning a butterfly to a chunk of Styrofoam. William Wordsworth chides me:
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Maybe I really ought not to Google that old boyfriend, or these “seen only once” movies.
But curiosity drives me. And so it begins.