Movies Then & Now

"Yes, there are fewer directors who make films for adults than there are the other kind, but the same could be said for novelists and playwrights and opera composers. That is just the way it is with art. Art is more rare than entertainment."

My friend Dorothy Glass, the art historian, is not as big of a movie buff as I am and so asked me a few years ago when movies became mature, by which she meant when they became of interest to adults and not just simplified dramas used to show off the visual power of film. I gave what I thought was a glib answer, that it occurred about the time of “On the Waterfront”, in the mid-Fifties. My answer was glib because I wasn’t sure her’s was a real question. Film, from the beginning, had been worth serious consideration and been filled with real themes and real emotions, “mature” in that sense to be awarded to D. W. Griffith and “The Big Parade”, however much they were melodramas, with too readily recognized villains and heros (or heroines).

I have pondered the question ever since, though, and have come to think of Dorothy’s question as a very good one and that my answer to it was pretty much correct in that most films before “On the Waterfront” were mostly entertainments. What counted was the spectacular, and that goes all the way back to the short silent films of trains entering stations, even though the French cinema, for its part, had been about character, as was the case in “The Rules of the Game”. But much of what came after “On the Waterfront” had the texture of literature, even while it made use of film craft, my favorite example being “The Godfather I” and “The Godfather II”. Most movies are still about visual excitement, including some of my favorites, which include the Terminator movies, and most plots are not worthy of being called literature, because the dramas are so derivative or saccharine, but the division still holds, and “”On the Waterfront” is a good turning point.

Consider what film critics continue to regard as a landmark movie, “The Big Parade”, which is the granddaddy of all war movies, mixing romance on the homefront with preparation for war as friendships are made at boot camp, with sweeping battlefield scenes, and terminating with a poignant ending that sort of redeems what has gone before. There are so many memorable visual effects: the hero tapping his foot to the patriotic music at a parade, and so deciding to sign up even though his parents discouraged him from doing so; the parade of trucks moving up to the front; the advance down a tree filled hillside; the hero’s hurried but gimpy walk towards his French girl friend so that he can reclaim her. Directors knew not only how to shoot faces; they knew how to make scenes work. And yet the story line is, as Dorothy reminded me, trivial: a naive young man learns that war is hell and abandons the girl who no longer understands him for the one who had been through the war. The emotions are stereotypical even if adroitly visually represented. Once you have seen this war movie, you have seen most of them, and that can be taken as praise for what cannot be used up or else as derision for a hopelessly cliched approach to material. “All Quiet on the Western Front” has much more juice to it, the shot through the school room window of marching troops still fresh and unduplicated, the trenches as scarey as they were the first time you saw the movie.

It took a long time to move the entertainment value of movies into the background. The Thirties movie made use of theatrical conventions, which meant that they were very talky, but even “Bringing Up Baby” never rises above farce, nor does Billy Wilder’s “Ball of Fire”. Wilder, one of the most mature directors ever, if you mean by that that he didn’t pull his punches about how complicated life was, had to turn his early movies into aesopian tales, which means that you had to read between the lines to figure out what was going on, and so his early feature, “The Major and The Minor”, played for laughs an insightful look into a transgressive sexual relationship between a teenage girl and a male adult, but there is no getting around that it was what it was, and that was thirty years before James Mason portrayed Humbert Humbert. To further denigrate late Thirties and early Forties movies, the fabulously emotionally gaudy movies of Bette Davis really are soap operas, however good she is at pulling off ridiculous roles, such as her character in “Now, Voyager”, who is too damaged at the beginning and too adroit at the end to make her character ring true rather than take its place as a stock version of an ugly duckling story. And Orson Welles’s first two movies, “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”, were indeed grownup movies whose spectacular effects, including quick cutting combined with extended shots, was easier to attend to than the depth of the characters or the crispness of the dialogue and the elegance of the storytelling. Another of his mature minded movies, another of what might be called his “artfilms”, “Touch of Evil”, followed “On the Waterfront” by five years. Meanwhile, heavy drama was left to Welles and Olivier doing Shakespeare and message movies that were nevertheless conventional in structure, like “The Best Years of their Lives” and “Pinky” and “Casablanca”. Once you knew the premise, everything else was obvious, including “Gone With the Wind”, I never having understood why anyone who was not instructed by the movie to find her so would find Scarlett an attractive character. The epic scale of the movie was just another way of treating spectacle as an end in itself.

Elia Kazan melded some of the Thirties traditions together. He was politically minded and had a background in the theatre, but used an original screenplay for “On the Waterfront”, while also using actors he had known from the theatre. Nor was it that he wasn’t visual. You remember the handkerchief business in the playground between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, an actress whose face would have made her a silent screen star even without the distinctive voice that adds so much to her film characterizations. What also stands out in the film are the close ups of the faces of Lee J. Cobb and Brando, and the adult anguish of everyone, to which is added the irony that they are not supposed to be very articulate people. That paradox is at the heart of the realism of “On the Waterfront” and so many other pictures of the time.

In the Fifties, movies were indeed better than ever. “On the Waterfront” was quickly followed by “Shane” and Billy Wilder’s “Sabrina”, whose complex morality remains elusive, however much it was also the case that Audrey Hepburn was an attractive clotheshorse. Billy Wilder had himself been a precursor of the serious movie with “Ace in the Hole”, though that was so dark that it could be read off as just cinema noir bleak, when it was about how people get overwhelmed by spectacle and recover from that through character.

Let us shift the point by making it analytic rather than historical. There are some directors who make movies for children in that spectacle is placed in the midst of easily grasped stereotypical characters and plots. James Cameron, George Lucas, and most pre-Fifties directors belong in this category, as does Steven Spielberg who, with the exception of “Lincoln” and “Schindler’s List”, makes movies for children. I know that one can read into “Poltergeist” an allegory about the suburbs being built on the graves of dead people, even though they were in fact built on top of potato fields, but the anxiety the movie evokes comes from a childlike sense that something is lurking in the television screen. Similarly, “ET” is less about real aliens than about the childhood sense of aliens as adorable dolls. Bicycling in front of the moon is a fairy tale motif worthy of “Mary Poppins”.

Then there are directors who make films for adults. Among them are Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, both of whom are highly visual, but tell tales where you don’t know the outcome and where a whole range of adult feelings are explored. That was true even in “2OO1” which was carried and made distinctive not only by its visuals but by the deadpan deliveries that were supposed to have become the way people speak to one another by that time in the future. A new generation director who makes movies for adults is Kenneth Lonergan, whose three features each go deeply into how characters deal with and are changed by catastrophe. Yes, there are fewer directors who make films for adults than there are the other kind, but the same could be said for novelists and playwrights and opera composers. That is just the way it is with art. Art is more rare than entertainment.