I’m gonna write a book about all the historical details of all the movies, just like those annotated Shakespeare books that explain what ‘wherefore’ actually means—and why pouring poison into someone’s ear was a normal method of assassination in the context of “Hamlet”, etc.—I’m gonna include all the details I notice when I watch old movies, such as a modern closed-captioning transcriber’s mistranslation of a certain slang phrase from the thirties because it can be mistaken for something similar, if only phonetically, in the present day.
Future generations may need it spelled out for them. They may not appreciate the difference between Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing down the stairs with Shirley Temple in “The Little Colonel” (1935), say, and the heartbreaking montage of ‘blackface’ film-clips in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2000). They may miss the tragedy of Bill Robinson appearing, near the end of his life and far past his prime, in one of his very few film appearances—a world-famous dancer whose perception, by white Americans, as ‘inferior’ kept him excluded during what is sometimes called ‘Hollywood’s Golden Era”—the ‘studio system’ movie industry that monopolized filmmaking until the 1950s.
They may not understand the mournful soundtrack behind Lee’s montage of examples from popular culture of the Jim Crow era’s easygoing dismissiveness of African-Americans’ humanity—the TV executive character may live in more modern times, but his self-regard and his own experience of life have been just as marginalizing, if less overt.
So much of history is subtle. The Looney Tunes of the thirties had blatantly bigoted caricatures of non-whites—absorbed, unnoticed, by most audience-members of that time—that are since aired (and that rarely) with a warning message of introduction that specifies the thoughtless racial profiling as an evil that was part and parcel of the creative culture of its day. As late as 1946, the syndicated comic strip “Walt Disney presents Uncle Remus and Tales of the South” was the basis for the Disney film, “Song of the South” (1946)—the NAACP disapproved of the African-American portrayals in the film even before “Song of the South” was released. This was the first time a Walt Disney movie was criticized for its ethical content (with the exception of Fantasia, for animated ‘nudity’, five years earlier).
It’s amazing, really, the glacial change in racial attitudes, from slavery, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights Movement. The NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement began just after WWII, but racism was still a source of rioting and conflict in the Sixties, and isolated media spikes like the Rodney King beating—caught live on tape yet still exonerating the brutality of the LAPD—to the present day (that vigilante shooting of an unarmed teenager in Florida was less than a year ago).
Our first ‘black’ President was so ahead of schedule that no one my age or older could watch his 2008 acceptance speech without tears in their eyes. We may be forgiven if we mistake that for an end of prejudice in America—it is so certainly the end of any public ambivalence about racial equality that it’s almost as good. Racism has been reduced to marginal personalities and inbred cultural pockets—which, like domestic abuse, religious extremism, and misogyny—can only be changed by the law and time.
But that is only one of the many threads of history that are woven into our films—not the vicarious world of the movie itself but the techniques, language, artistry, science, and craft of all moviemakers, from starlet to soundstage doorman. The events of their day created mind-sets that varied as the world went on, from Edison’s early forays into cinema theaters to the CGI FX of the now.
Even deeper down, we can see the differences in attitudes towards the shared past—from Sergei Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” (1938), to Richard Thorpe’s “Ivanhoe” (1952), to Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)—we see the era of the Crusades, but through three different cultures’ interpretation! It gives a parallax effect to the movies, particularly those with historical settings.
Similar to Shakespeare, who requires translation due to the archaic language which old William was both using and inventing as he went along; similar to Dickens, whose early-Industrial-Era British-isms are as often a search into history as they are dialogue or narration; the movies of the twentieth century include a panoply of annotation-worthy dialogue, motivation, slang, and perceptions, both of their time and their view of past times.
To begin with, there are, of course, the Stars—and they offer so much of interest that, while writing my book, I shall have to be careful not to lose sight of my subject and get lost among the fanatical discourse (so-called ‘news’ of celebrities who are the objects of the ‘Fan’-public’s obsession). Then, there are the producers, the directors, the hundreds of others listed on today’s film credits (which is odd, if you consider that more people probably worked on the old films, when the studio only allowed about twenty or thirty names to be on the credits).
All those people had family (and/or love-lives) so there are ‘dynastic’ threads, as well, that could be linked chronologically to the shooting schedules of certain films. The same goes for their health—accidents, illnesses, dissolution, stress, mania—all these things are part of the scheduling, the tone, and the final team of filmmakers for any film.
Then there is music—and the films are not shy about the importance of music—biopics of musicians are a significant percentage of all movies made:
There’s “Amadeus” about Mozart, “Shine” about David Helfgott, “La Vie En Rose” about Édith Piaf, “I’m Not There” about Bob Dylan, “Nowhere Boy” about John Lennon, “La Bamba” about Ritchie Valens, “Ray” about Ray Charles, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” about Loretta Lynn, “Walk the Line” about Johnny Cash, “The Benny Goodman Story” (1956), “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945) about George and Ira Gershwin, “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946) about Jerome Kern, “Immortal Beloved” (1994) about Ludwig von Beethoven, “Impromptu” (1991) about Frederic Chopin….
— And movies don’t stop at the life-stories—see this link for IMDB’s list of every Chopin piece included in every movie (hundreds !): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006004/#Soundtrack .
This is the reason I think movies must have hyperlinks—my “Big Book” of cinematic ‘anatomy’ may be a thing too large to exist as a single book. And movies (and thus their ‘annotation-logs’) are still being made, faster and faster so as to keep pace with the public maw—upturned and opened, like a baby bird’s beak, through the theatres, IMAXs, DVDs, VODs, Premium Cable, Basic Cable, and Network TV media.
And we approach a singularity, as well—the line that distinguishes a film from a television program erodes further with every ‘Sopranos’-style premium cable, cinema-quality series and every independent film that is released the same day both in select theatres and on VOD.
Making an ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ reference-site, online, would be best served by starting now, while the living memories of its constituents can still provide the perspective for what is already becoming an endless pantheon of images, ideas, theatre, and history. And I find it strange that no one has yet popularized a phrase that means ‘all audio-visual media, including the oldest nickelodeon flip-cards, animations, silent films, early TV broadcasts, et, al., all the way up to today’s (tonight’s, really) new prime-time episode or cinema release, or TV commercial or news report. It is an undeniable stream of impactful media that has no single name.
‘Media’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot by people who don’t care about etymology. The Latin word media connotes ambiguity, neutrality, moderate, or middling. Prior to the digital era, it was mostly used as a term for the materials used in a work of art, for example: marble carving, tempura on wood, oil and canvas. The implication (I suppose) was that an artist’s tools were in a neutral state until used in a work of art—that red is merely red, ink is merely ink—and this was, for the most part, accurate. But technology changed that. Marshall McLuhan famously opined, “The medium is the message”—he was referring to Television—but the message applies to movies, Youtube, and video-blogs, as well.
At present the medium we use most is electricity—but it is a refined, controlled, and programmed type of electricity which allows its use to create music, literature, images, animations, and videos. We can call it ‘electronic media’, but that doesn’t signify much—like the word ‘art’, it has several meanings, and no specific meaning. Post-modern creativity has a real problem with nomenclature—it is so much more intricate a process than early arts that the terminology can end up sounding like the title to a doctoral thesis in physics. But when we attempt a sort of shorthand, we end up calling them images or audios or videos—and, again, it means too much, and nothing in particular.
The one aspect that is diligently worked upon is the ‘genre’. In many ways, McLuhan’s quote could be re-phrased, “the genre is the message”. But that’s only part of it—‘message’ is an old-fashioned concept as well. Most entertainment industry ‘art’-work is used to sell ad-time, or charge a ticket for. So, a fully post-modern McLuhan might say, “The genre is the market-demographic”. Genre is also fascinating in that it implies a sensibility, a preference of content—that’s a pretty gossamer concept for a ‘pipe’ which entertainment-producers intend to siphon revenue through.
In some ways, we regular folks ought to consider being annoyed about market-demographics—but Hollywood would just blame sociologists, and rightly so. Ever since Sociology (the science of people in large numbers) proved that, while no individual’s behavior can be predicted, the behavior of people in groups can be predicted accurately —and the larger the sample-size (number of people) the more accurate the predictions are—ever since the 1950s, really—advertisers, marketers, promoters, campaign managers, even insurance salespeople have been finding more ways to use this information to prime their revenue pumps, and keep them flowing.
It’s insulting—the fact that we can be predictable, as part of a group, is almost as dispiriting as if we were predictable as individuals—as if we only thought of ourselves as individuals. Here’s another insulting concept—I heard someone the other day saying something about ‘there are sixty million people in LA—so even if you’re one in a million, there’s sixty others just as good as you.’
Now that Earth’s population has reached seven billion, we ought to accept the fact that our ‘media-surroundings’ will be controlling our perspectives, our aspirations, and our plans—and that China has a point when it comes to locking down the sources of internet communication. ‘Crowd-sourcing’ is a new, but still primitive, form of getting a group of people to act as a single unit—the evolution of crowd-sourcing and propaganda and news-manipulation in the age of the internet has a massive potential, not just for putting unheard-of power in the hands of an individual, but of taking power away from more plodding, ancient centers of command, like governments and corporate executives.
We don’t study ourselves as much as we study what is in front of us—we always run towards the glamour in the wood—we never stop to question ourselves, our motivations, our priorities. Arthur C. Clarke was fond of pointing out, in the 1960s and 1970s, that humanity was racing to explore space when we had yet to explore two-thirds of our own planet. He was referring to the oceans, of course, and, as always, Clarke was right. We are still a long way from total exploration of our own planet—we are doing a much faster job of destroying it so, if we wait long enough, there won’t be any undersea life to explore.
By the same token, we don’t study our desires and urges, either. The study of entertainment is as important, and undeveloped, today as psychology was in Freud’s time. Few people took psychology seriously at first, and we still don’t see a whole lot of progress in that area—it is unpleasant to study humanity, ourselves, when it comes to the ‘dirty’ parts, the childish or selfish or cruel parts of our personae. So, too, would we prefer to enjoy our movies and TV shows and YouTube videos without anyone being a killjoy by pointing out what our entertainment choices say about us.
Layers of info are growing thicker and thicker over the sphere of civilization—safety tips, how to do well in school, how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to date, how to marry, how to raise children. Old living rooms never had remote controls—and old folks never had to learn to use them. Old car dashboards never had a buzillion buttons and slides, and old drivers only had to learn how to shift gears and step on the brake. Our lives are hemmed ‘round with protocols, user-manuals, assumptions (such as assuming you know what the ‘don’t walk’ light means when you’re standing on a street corner). We have to key in multiple digits from a number pad to enter our homes, pay with our credit cards, withdraw from an ATM, or log on to a computer. Even total idiots who do nothing but wander the streets are, nowadays, required to know a great deal about our public works and utilities to avoid the ‘death-traps’ that otherwise surround them in a modern city.
What used to be called propaganda is now an immersive experience, from cradle to grave, and if we don’t analyze our input, we will never know how used, manipulated, or conned we are in our daily lives. When our children began watching TV, we were very careful to explain about how it’s all fake, how it’s all trying to sell something, and how it’s ultimate goal is to make money by piquing our interest for an hour or a half hour.