In our Yearbook series, Double Exposure contributors share lists and essays that attempt to define their year in film. In this entry, Nathan Proctor describes how and why 2012 was the year he fell in love with the classics of Hollywood.
There’s a particular moment on New Year’s Eve in between the count of 10 and 1 that I simultaneously love and fear and that, unavoidably, splits me in two. What did I do this past year, and what will I do in the next? The bittersweet moment happens of course every year, and with it the ever more palpable sense of that thorny inevitability called time—so you’d think I’d be prepared for it by now. After all, I’ve had enough birthdays to know how to brace for the emotional impact of aging and how to turn the fear that I’m wasting my youth into what we like to think of as wisdom. But there’s a second, and sometimes hidden, effect to our response of time. Out of it comes a tendency to reject the present and with it the future: hence the well-worn phrase, “They don’t make ___________ like they used to.” Born from the fear of our impending mortality, this tendency often leads us to seek refuge from present time in the comfort of a remembered – or, in some cases, a non-remembered – past generally colored with shades of nostalgia. (It’s no coincidence that, in summing up the history of art, André Bazin calls this tendency an attempt to “embalm time.”)
Out of the 142 movies I saw this summer, 49 were from an era of Hollywood filmmaking usually called the Golden Era. A few notable examples: Grand Hotel (1932), The Thin Man(1934), Libeled Lady (1936), My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire(1941), The Lady Eve (1941), Casablanca (1942), Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Out of the Past (1947), All About Eve (1950), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). I would lie in bed most nights, my head propped against the wall, my laptop opened on my chest, and, unable to take my eyes off the glow of an era so far yet seemingly so close in time to mine, watch three of these classics in a row. The physical experience of these repeated viewings produced in me a desire so addictive that, upon returning to school in the fall, I experienced symptoms of withdrawal so intense that, in order to wean myself slowly off the drug, I allowed myself to watch one Buster Keaton or one Charlie Chaplin film per week. It was only when midterms were thrust upon me and I had to give my undivided attention to my schoolwork that I was finally ready and able to heed the call.
It’s not that I wish to go back in time and live life frozen in an eternal past. Through my momentary rejection of the present, I instead hope to escape time altogether and inhabit an illusory world built from my nostalgic longing for an era never lived. Of course, a person can renounce his life and forever slip into this parallel world. But I have come to realize that, in doses, it can be healthy and even necessary to escape into this world of fantasy and nostalgia.
After my mom put my sister and me to bed when we were young, she would stay up late most nights watching her favorite classic movies. There are no doubt many reasons for this turn toward the classics. My father had been out of the picture for a number of years and my mom was working multiple jobs so that she could send my sister and me to a private school and get the kind of education she felt we deserved. She had no time to date and fall in love and remarry and live the kind of happy life found at the center of Hollywood movies. So she lived vicariously – and happily – through them. She would delight, for example, in the beauty and glamour of the stars who shined and basked and wove their fame from the golden threads of the era – Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, and so on and so forth. She was well aware of the unreality of their filmic makeup, and that is exactly why she watched them: she needed, at that moment in her life, to find her way through the dense fog of the present. Casablanca provides a perfect example of this need. As our two stars stand on the runway not six inches apart, unable to escape the frame let alone our – the spectator’s – gaze, Ilsa wonders what will happen to their re-found love after she gets on the plane never to see him again. “We’ll always have Paris,” replies Rick heroically. This recollection of the past, nostalgically shaped by their current horrors of war, stands in direct opposition to the very physical space that Rick and Ilsa currently – but will soon no longer – inhabit together. As Ilsa disappears into the plane, the impact of Paris begins to sink in as we begin to understand that at its most fundamental level love exists in time rather than in space. In the end, to remember Paris—or, for that matter, to remember any perceived or imagined moment—is ultimately not so much an escape from or embalming of the present as much as it is a reshaping of it.
What ultimately makes the classics so great is buried in the oft-used phrase, “They don’t make movies like they used to.” But the phrase isn’t exactly what you might take it to be. It’s not that the quality of filmmaking and storytelling has degraded, or that there is too much sex and violence in films today; but, rather, that we literally cannot technologically and culturally speaking ever make films like that again. This is why I take issue with The Artist (2011). Too much of the film attempts to recapture what can today only be called “magic”. Susan Sontag once wrote that photographs are inherently beautiful because, over time, they will inevitably fade to the point that their visibly worn exteriors they become constant and palpable reminders of all that’s unrecoverable. That’s the “magic” of the classics. If The Artist succeeds at anything, though, it’s in sending newly curious people into the depths of the archives and into what at first feels like a hermetically sealed past but what is, in fact, something much more personal.