Monday, February 23, 2009

`They Get Their Guns On'

I came of age near the end of the great period of movie saturation when almost everyone I knew seemed cinematically literate, when going to the movies was more than an “entertainment option.” We knew the silents, the great Hollywood pictures of the studio era, Laurel and Hardy, film noir, Godard, John Ford, the Japanese, Russians and Swedes. In college I saw five or six movies a week counting film classes, television, the campus film series and two commercial theaters in town, and we talked about the movies we saw, often pretentiously but with passion, the way some of us talked about books.

That has changed certainly in my life but also I sense in the bigger culture. Since my middle son was born in 2000 I’ve seen perhaps eight movies in the theater, not counting children’s films. I seldom watch DVDs – again, not counting kid pictures. I drive past movie marquees without recognizing a single title, and feel none of the anxiety, the sense of missing something important, I would have felt 35 years ago. Books have almost entirely colonized the part of my sensibility where books and movies once peacefully coexisted.

On vacation last week I reread Daniel Fuchs’ Brooklyn novels from the nineteen-thirties – Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt and Low Company. His characters, mostly poor and working-class Jews during the Great Depression, are forever going to the movies and modeling their lives and speech on what they see. An adolescent boy affects the moves of Adolph Menjou and young women try on Garbo’s moody mystique. Of course, Fuchs gave up novel writing for screenwriting and won an Academy Award in 1955 for his work on Love Me or Leave Me. He occasionally wrote fiction after his move to Hollywood, much of it collected posthumously in The Golden West: Hollywood Stories (2005). His movie-soaked novels reminded me how we emulated the cool of Bogart, Cagney and Astaire, the glibness of Groucho, the verbal gymnastics and unexpected physical grace of W.C. Fields.

In the house where we stayed in Mexico was a big-screen television with hundreds of stations, and for the first time in years I indulged a whim to watch movies of my choice. My wife and I watched Witness for the Prosecution (1957) with Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power (his last credited role) -- a Billy Wilder film that moves with the deftness and precision of a thoroughbred, without an ounce of fat. By myself I watched The Godfather for the 20th time. It remains my favorite film, never disappointing, one I know almost by heart. It was 37 years ago next month I first saw it, with my father, while I was home for spring break. We went after dinner one slushy, foggy night to the Yorktown Theater in Cleveland. My father would watch anything with guns and preferably horses, so The Godfather qualified. It was a rare film we both enjoyed. Watching it again I recovered a faint taste of why movies were once so important in my life.

Elberry also helped. While I was still in Mexico we exchanged e-mails about another favorite movie, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (guns, horses). On Sunday, after watching the movie again, Elberry sent me his notes on the film. He points out similarities to Michael Mann’s Heat (guns, no horses) that had never occurred to me. Elberry, a movie buff though half my age, notes the frequency of laughter throughout the film. Of the scenes leading up to the climactic slaughter (scenes Elberry and I both find moving) he writes:

“Dutch's grin as he sees them emerge, instantly he knows they mean business. Pike grins back and Dutch cackles, then in silence they get their guns on. They all feel the same way. They tried to 'back off' from the precipice, to avoid danger and play it safe, to have a good time and forget about their friend; and they all feel the same way the next morning, that there is nowhere to back off to.”

Elberry’s final note:

“Laughter closes the film, not demonic laughter but hearty, dirty laughter.”

Some things only film, not even the best books, can give us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Wild Bunch, like so many movies of its ilk, is just a fairy tale for boys and men who should know better. When Peckinpah's movie was released, I was leading an infantry squad in Vietnam. In war, men did not die like movie cowboys. They died shitting and pissing in their pants, and screaming for their wives and mothers (God was seldom mentioned). I remember only a couple of men going into combat grinning or cackling, and those were most likely victims of what was euphemistically called "battle fatigue".