Monday, July 11, 2016

What...Am I Even...LOOKING At??

Latchkey kids have it different today--They've got any number of all-day kids' channels to meet them fresh after school.  There's always Adventure Time to kick back with when they toss their books and take off their shoes.
When I was growing up in the mid-70's, cartoons, 60's reruns and the educational PBS block only came on the local stations between 3pm and the 6pm news hour; anything else before then, like the soaps and Mike Douglas, was to keep housewives from being bored.  Local PBS stations would take up most of the entire afterschool afternoon with Sesame Street at 4pm and Mister Rogers at 5 (which were for your little brother), but before then, between 2 and 4, would be time-filling encore reruns of whatever the station had aired in prime time.  And no kid was that into Upstairs, Downstairs.

One set of Tuesday afternoons before the educational block, WXXI-12 from Rochester, NY aired the afternoon encore reruns of "The Men Who Made the Movies", the film-documentary series where Richard Schickel interviewed the six or seven classic directors still alive in 1973.
Well, that sounded good.  Movies, cool.

At that time, film study was just that, study, for college-major students and intelligencia, or odd no-life hobbyists who worshipped old film stars the way early Woody Allen characters did.  With the 70's just starting to get into its Old-Hollywood renaissance, it seemed like a grownup thing to know that Citizen Kane or The Maltese Falcon had an actual plot, just in case someone made jokes about Rosebud or the stuff dreams were made of.
Most of it, unfortunately, was a little TOO grownup to follow--George Cukor, didn't know.  Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, weird names.  Frank Capra had the "It's a Wonderful Life" images we were just starting (yes, starting) to see on public-domain stations every Christmas, those Mr. Smith clips of Jimmy Stewart in the Lincoln Memorial that Bicentennial fever was starting to market, and his going hoarse and collapsing for some reason on the Senate floor.  Howard Hawks was mostly war movies and westerns, and those you could see anywhere on TV.

The Vincent Minnelli episode (now available as a bonus feature on Warner's "The Band Wagon") was...interesting, to say the least.
I didn't know many of the movies off the top of my head (wait, he's talking about Judy Garland in other movies besides Oz?), but everyone back in those cynical Watergate days knew that musicals were all Old and Happy and Technicolor, and Stuff, even if they could look a little strange and overproduced.  Fred Astaire in "The Band Wagon" was dancing around a penny arcade, and, now with the power of Hollywood musical numbers, winning every game, setting off a strange jackpot machine with just a kick of his new shined shoes.
Some of the clips from the Minnelli episode actually did look like dreams:  Gene Kelly dreams an American in Paris ballet, and Judy Garland daydreams him into a fiery Pirate ballet.  Spencer Tracy has a comic nightmare about his daughter's wedding, from "Father of the Bride".  Eddie Anderson in his bed hears the Devil saying "get up!", from "Cabin in the Sky".  Even little Margaret O'Brien's first petrified Halloween trick-or-treat from "Meet Me in St. Louis" was kids-POV enough to look familiar to those of us at that age.
Out of context--and Cliff Robertson as narrator had to explain the context, as few people back then readily knew the plots of An American in Paris or Meet Me in St. Louis--to a first-timer with not much film-school background at nine, the scenes made absolutely NO SENSE.  Very few dream scenes do.  But they'd stick themselves somewhere in your subconscious once you'd seen them, and gnaw at your brain until they did.

The next week, or maybe after, they aired the Alfred Hitchcock episode.  
Well, Hitch most everyone still knew in the 70's, from his cartoon parody on the Flintstones, if not the old 50's TV series or his self-aware ads for Frenzy and Family Plot.  Even I had his old ghost-stories record as a kid, and read the books where he helped out the three young detectives. 
The Master had enough camera presence to make an interview interesting, and his famous "Bomb under the railway seat" explanation of suspense was simple enough a film concept to be understood by even the youngest, um...nine-year-old.

If the out-of-context Minnelli images looked like isolated dream excerpts, the out-of-context Hitchcock icons looked like tapped-in images from random nightmares:  
Crows gathering on the playground to swarm onto children on their way home from school.  A county-fair merry-go-round spins out of control and crashes over.  The old woman in the basement rocking chair with her back to us, who won't answer.  The long, slow tracking shot pulling us away from a door where some unspeakable crime is taking place, and we can't get anyone to stop it.  And yes, that crop-duster that buzzes Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere...Why?  There never is a why.  (I've seen North by Northwest, and I confess I'm still not sure.)

It's Oscar-show cliche' to say that "Movies are dreams we get to see while we're awake"...But the particular punch that real dreams have at night is that we don't EXPECT the stories we get.  That's why scenes and images keep bugging us all through breakfast.
The other punch dreams have is that we're only shown the middle of a story--We find ourselves in the middle of a situation, some backstory instinct tells us "Wait, today's the day of the big finals test and I forgot!", we struggle to piece together what's happening, and wake up before an ending resolution can tie the whole story together.
When the afternoon or late-night movie left the local TV stations, we lost the same ability to watch the middle of a movie:  We could no longer click channels during an aimless lonely or bored moment and stumble into some sudden wild or dramatic out-of-context scene that teased our imaginations to try and find out the rest of the story, dig out the TV listings, and see what story had just taken us unawares.  Once we could attach a name to the image--sometimes going on film discussion forums to ask "What's that movie I saw as a kid, where the hero was battling skeletons with swords, or this catfish breaks out of a jar and turns into the Loch Ness monster?"--we immediately had to search out the rest of the movie in its entirety to ransom our brain from the imagination-trauma.
(I remember clicking into some unspeakably bizarre 30's musical number on a Sunday afternoon--And the one week there wasn't a TV Guide handy, it nagged at me for twenty years of my life to find out I had been watching Eddie Cantor's Technicolor finale to "Kid Millions", and I still wonder whether to track it down on Warner Archive.)

But what we also lost was that proliferation of loose dreams lying around, and the longterm random effects of everyone else stumbling over them, that warped them for life on the road to inspiration--The future special-effects technician who first saw those skeletons or sea monsters, just as the technicians who made them had first stumbled across King Kong.  The future robotics programmer who was fascinated with Robby on Altair IV.  The future senator who saw Jimmy Stewart think the Capitol building was neato.  A future dancer might see Astaire kick that prize machine, or a future comic might see Groucho Marx in the crowded ocean-liner stateroom, and the human flood that spilled out when Margaret Dumont opened the door.  None of them had expected to get what they saw.

A few years ago, the political buzzword of education was "No child left behind".  Which is a shame, as some of our generation were left behind with our afternoon "babysitters" to find our street education in the right back alleys of imagination.
And now we're seeing that leave every other child behind.

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