Movies began for me in the 1960s.
The earliest film I recall is 1962's "Safe at Home!," a baseball quickie made in the wake of the historic 1961 season in which the New York Yankees' Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to break the single-season record that had been held by Babe Ruth since 1927.
The movie stars Maris and teammates Mickey Mantle (who had also been part of that historic home run chase, ending the season with 54 dingers) and Whitey Ford, the Yankees' best starting pitcher. I don't remember much about the film but have read plot summaries of it. A young baseball-obsessed boy attends a Yankees spring training game in Florida and comes home to lie to his classmates and Little League teammates about his widower father being friends with the players.
They don't believe him (they shouldn't, because he's lying), so he tries to arrange for the big leaguers to come to a school banquet. Mantle and Maris ultimately refuse to go along with the sham and impart a life lesson about the importance of honesty. I haven't re-watched the film to confirm exactly how any of this comes back — I balk more at the 84 minutes of my life I'd have to devote to it than the $2.99 rental fee — but feel confident the footage with the players was shot at odd moments during 1962 spring training and that none of the athletes was taxed by the production. Some online commentators have noted that the movie feels like a publicity effort from the Yankees, and that's probably right.
I imagine I saw "Safe at Home!" sometime in the summer of 1962 (it was released in June) when I was 3 years old. Research indicates that our earliest memories may begin when we are around 30 months old, which is about a year sooner than was generally thought. So I feel OK thinking I remember "Safe at Home!," rather than remember being told I was taken to see it.
Still, think what it means to see one's first movie, at any age. While some of the stories about crowds panicking when brothers Auguste Marie and Louis Jean Lumiere first projected moving images onto a screen in a basement room beneath the Salon Indien du Grand Cafe in Paris in December 1895 are likely exaggerated, the paying customers were certainly perplexed and maybe unnerved by what they'd seen.
"Death will no longer be final," the first movie critic wrote.
SEEMED SO REAL
I experienced "Safe at Home!" the way our subconscious might experience a dream — there was no sense of the unreality of it because I didn't have the intellectual wherewithal to conceive of anything as unreal. Why would I assume it was all pretending?
And so I came away from my first movie with vague feelings remembered better than the movie itself. Somehow I conflated Mantle and Maris with my mother's brothers, who I rarely saw. The fact that my father lightly knew — or at least had met — Mantle further confused things.
I can't imagine many people have reason to care about "Safe at Home!" Mantle and Maris each got $25,000 for appearing in the film. (Earlier that year the sluggers and their teammate Yogi Berra had bit parts alongside Doris Day and Cary Grant in "That Touch of Mink." Their acting definitely improved between the two projects.)
That's the nature of art: It exists independently of those who collaborate to make it. "Safe at Home!" doesn't matter much to the culture at large, to any overarching story we want to tell about our society or times. But there are probably hundreds of us who saw it at an impressionable time and on whom it had a significant impact. Everyone has a first movie, an arrangement of light and sound that ambushes us — a first time that can never come again.
END OF CINEMATIC LITERACY
There was an interesting essay by Steven Whitty that appeared online at njarts.com a couple of weeks ago that bore the unwieldy but search engine-optimized headline "As opportunities to see old movies fade, so does basic cinematic literacy."
Whitty was the chief film critic at the Newark Star Ledger for more than 20 years and a contemporary of mine. He began professionally writing about film in 1987 (I wrote my first film review in 1986) and reports that his first movie was Disney's "Pinocchio," which he remembers seeing when he was 3 years old. ("Pinocchio" was first released in 1940 and was re-released in 1962, which is probably when Whitty saw it. Math is a useful life skill.) He's one of the critics I regularly read, and I'm grateful to social media platforms for making that possible.
In this particular essay, Whitty laments a recent poll he'd seen for "the 50 best romantic comedies in movie history." It was conducted "by a popular website" that Whitty didn't want to call any further attention to because of the 50 films listed in the poll, "49 of them had been released since 1980." The other film listed was 1971's "Harold and Maude."
"Apparently, their idea of 'movie history' doesn't stretch back quite as far as mine," Whitty writes. "[Commenters asked] where was 'The Apartment?' 'It Happened One Night?' 'His Girl Friday?' 'Annie Hall?' One of the list's compilers responded with an online smirk, sarcastically thanking people for being upset. After all, that merely meant more clicks and ad revenue for the site so, you know, the joke was on us."
Whitty challenges the very idea of "old movies," quoting the late director, film scholar and occasional actor Peter Bogdanovich.
"There are no old movies," Bogdanovich would say. "There are only movies you haven't seen before."
I understand Whitty's frustration. Even would-be movie critics have sometimes startled with their dismissive attitude toward what they invariably call "old movies." One would-be contributor to our movie section pitched a piece on the 2019 Netflix film "The Highwaymen" about the Texas Rangers who tracked and eventually killed notorious outlaws Bonnie and Clyde.
When I asked him how the film compared to — and whether it in any way paid homage to — Arthur Penn's 1967 classic movie, he blithely replied that he hadn't seen "Bonnie and Clyde" but that he'd heard from friends "it wasn't any good."
I sent him 30 pages of a chapter about the film I'd written for an ongoing book project and advised him to mindfully educate himself on those "old movies" of which he was so dismissive.
NEW CINEMATIC DIRECTIONS
There are any number of films where we might say cinema splits off into new directions — where the once unimaginable is imagined and becomes part of the grammar of film going forward. John Ford's "Stagecoach" is one of these. Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" is another. So is Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket."
And Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" is where realistic hard violence married to gleeful comedy enters the American cinematic lexicon, specifically in an early scene where Beatty as Barrow shoots a middle-aged bank manager in the face after he's jumped on the running board of their getaway car.
This one of the earliest instances where American movie audiences are faced with the graphic consequences of violence. The camera doesn't cut away from the victim, we see blood and what appear to be bits of brain and bone flecking the car window.
You can draw a straight line from "Bonnie and Clyde" to the work of Quentin Tarantino. If you mean to write about the movies in any serious way, you need to know this stuff.
If you're going to be a responsible and alert consumer of culture, you need to understand how movies work and are different from books and music and photography and painting (though they in some ways encompass and recombine all these arts and disciplines).
Cinematic literacy might sound like an arcane pursuit, but it's really only responsible consumption. You want to know what you're putting in your body; you want to know what you're putting in your head.
One of the great things about our digitized and time-shifting era is that we all have — or can easily obtain — access to a massive library of movies that are new to us. I've written before about our covid-19-inspired project of watching (or rewatching) movies from past decades like "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" from 1973, or "The Hit," a 1984 film by Stephen Frears that's often overlooked.
This isn't like a compulsory Continuing Legal Education seminar; we're doing this because it's enjoyable, because part of what people want from the movies is transport, a removal from the quotidian.
The impulse isn't entirely nostalgic — I'd prefer to see a new old movie, something I'd missed or forgotten about, rather than revisit a movie that's familiar.
All of us have blind spots, and no one can possibly keep up with every movie (or album or book) ever released, but if your job is to write and think about movies, then it's only responsible to try to keep up. No one has to care about anything in particular, but I'm with Whitty: If you mean to put out a list of the best romantic comedies in movie history, you ought to have an intimidating inkling of the vastness of that movie history.
Whitty notices that this kind of ageism "seems to disproportionately apply to cinema."
"In other disciplines," he writes, "works that have come before — whether it's Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Dickens' 'Great Expectations,' Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue' or Andrew Wyeth's 'Christina's World' — are seen as classics, as part of a continuum. They're not simply written off as old, and true aficionados appreciate them on their own terms."
OLD — AND FORGOTTEN?
Anything that happened before we were born is as remote to us as ancient Rome. It's not part of our reality.
Whitty has noticed this, and thinks it applies especially to the movies.
"I've taught film students — many of whom want to make their own movies — who seem to think cinema started with 'Pulp Fiction,''' he writes. I've talked to wannabe film writers who have no interest in anything that came out before 1999's "The Blair Witch Project." Which is, to be fair, a product of the last century.
Whitty has the idea that the problem isn't the result of a "lack of access to media, but from too much."
"When I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, our TV options consisted of Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13," he writes. "Seven choices, and that was considered a lot. But the thing was, every one of them programmed movies, every day. Because there was no cable then — never mind videos or DVDs — most of these were older movies, from decades past. And they were simply part of the programming, seamlessly integrated with the new. You grew up just accepting them.
"Today, though, we have hundreds of channels — and most of them only want to present something new and exclusive. Apart from an occasional seasonal tradition — 'The Ten Commandments,' or 'It's a Wonderful Life' — the networks don't run older movies at all, while the rest of the stations and streamers promote their own content. It's easy to find any of 100 new horror films or slapstick farces on Netflix right now. But a classic film? That takes some doing."
I'm not sure Whitty is right when he argues that it's difficult to find old movies — there's TCM and, for the snobs, The Criterion Channel (I'm a charter subscriber) — but I take his point. Most people are probably not as mindful of their viewing as those of us who write about movies and television programs; some turn on the box and start scrolling.
The classic movies that are out there are lost in a sea of reality programming and new suggestions. We're not forced to watch older films because they are our only option — our options are seemingly endless. We can live in our own silos, never having to encounter anything we haven't consciously considered.
It's like the hollowness I feel when browsing Apple Music or Spotify. Virtually all music is available, but this completeness comes at the loss of the serendipitious thrill of flipping through racks of a record store. If we know what we want we can get it. But we have fewer ways of discovering what we want by accident.
What we lose is a cohesiveness of our culture. There are fewer points of common reference, fewer shared ideas in the common reservoir.
MOVIES: OUR MYTHOLOGY
"In other countries, many children still grow up on ancient folktales — Norse sagas, Greek myths, Arthurian romances," Whitty argues. "But we're a relatively young nation. We don't have a wealth of stirring stories passed down from generation to generation. The few we used to have — the adventures of Paul Bunyan, say, or the tale of Johnny Appleseed — faded away long ago.
"No, in America, the movies are our mythology, or used to be. They were a common cultural touchstone, and a way of explaining the land we lived in, and the people we met here. They provided cautionary tales, moral lessons, national symbols, cultural archetypes. They still can."
I'm not sure that the rest of the world isn't more like America than Whitty is willing to concede here, but again his argument is sound. We don't just learn history from history books — for 100 years now, movies have instructed us on how to talk, flirt and carry ourselves.
Movies provide us with ghosts — we can see how people who lived before us walk and smile and smoke cigarettes. We can recognize ourselves in these ghosts, we can identify with and relate to them.
But we have to meet them first.
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