I thought I was positive about something. In high school I took an A.P. European history class, and thankfully I had a wonderful teacher who loved art and movies, and who used art and movies to help us understand history. I swear I learned that the first political event ever captured on film was the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. My google searching abilities are apparently very weak, because I cannot find a source to back me up on this. However, the fact remains that the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II was filmed, and it happened in 1896. You can watch it on Youtube now.
It’s amazing to watch. One of the things that makes me love history so much is that history plays hard to get. Most of history you cannot touch or smell or hear; going to museums is just a tease. All I want to do is hold one of the first books ever printed in my hands, but instead I must stare at it through glass, where my own reflection appears and blocks the view. I don’t get the Gutenberg bible, I get my frowning mug, displeased and unsatisfied eyes drooping to the floor.
It wasn’t until recently that I started to think of Hollywood movies as historical artifacts. When I moved to Angoulême in 2013 I decided to catch up on cheesy (but amazing) movies from the 80’s. I consistently skipped films starring our friends Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and the like.
That is, until I found Some Like it Hot in the basement of my house, and I watched Singing in the Rain on one of my flights across the Atlantic. And then, most recently, I became very ill. Searching for amusement and distractions, I started watching old movies. Daddy Long Legs, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Funny Face, and Sabrina…to name a few. To say nothing of Audrey Hepburn’s perfect and subtle, yet obvious and undeniable beauty, I was falling in love with these men and women. I fall in love with dead people very often so it’s not a surprise that Humphrey Bogart’s well-built face and sturdy eyebrows guarding delicate, emotional eyes would captivate my heart.
What strikes me the most is their elegance in the face of mediocrity. All I mean by that is how un-annoying the characters are. The movies feel more thought-out and to my untrained, movie-watching self, unpredictable.
But I’m not a very good film critic. I’m incredibly vulnerable and I have a tendency to be completed enveloped in films, and I like almost all of them. I’m likely to applaud and say, “Well that was a really nice job and you did good work!” to almost any film, just so it feels appreciated and respected.
More importantly, I’ve been staring at my computer screen and desiring to time travel. While I’m prone to romanticizing the past I don’t think that is the case this time; in fact I’ve spent much time wondering about the woman in these films, what they were paid and how they were treated. Singing in the Rain felt particularly assaulting.
Watching Audrey Hepburn prance around New York is not jarring in the way that watching men in strange hats parade around Moscow is; however it’s a visceral memory of some place that I never was, but other people were. What is almost frustrating about movies from the 1950’s-1960’s is the “same but not same” quality. My grandparent’s were born in the 1930’s, they are still alive and tangible; I’ve watched them adapt to computers and cell phones. Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart exist only in pictures now and never sat down at a computer.
And perhaps this is all because post-1980, everyday life and everyday technology has changed so rapidly that anything prior feels archaic and cute, a reminder that we didn’t always live with a GPS tracking our location and we had to call hotel front desks, leave notes with lobby boys, and use pay phones.
Don’t read into this a lack of love for technology. I’m just sort of amazed at the bravery of someone like Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn’s title character who moved across the Atlantic without an iPhone. My iMessages and Facebook page are my life-lines to best friends and family in countries all over the world. Remaining connected through time zones and cultures is a blessing; but it is still my dream to meet a man in a hotel bar, order a whiskey sour, and detail my plan to steal artwork from a heavily guarded museum.