Our Movies, Ourselves

By Ansen, David | Newsweek, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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Our Movies, Ourselves

Ansen, David, Newsweek

AMERICA ON SCREEN: Everyone's a fan. Everyone's a critic. All that time spent in the dark has shaped who are. But are our dreams still safe in the hands of Hollywood?

LET'S BEGIN WITH MARGARET Hamilton's nose. "The Wizard of Oz" is one of those officially beloved movies that grown-ups look back on with tender affection. The truth is, few movies have so thoroughly terrorized generations of children. Don't you remember, my pretties? It wasn't sweet, pigtailed Judy Garland who crept out at night into our subconscious; it was Hamilton's cackling Wicked Witch of the West. As far as I'm concerned, every witch since then has been an impostor, a fraud, a mere shadow of the ur-witch.

Her power was awesome. She once bounced the house I grew up in on her nose-that, at any rate, was the image that leapt alarmingly into my sleeping head when, as a child in Los Angeles, I was rocked by my first earthquake. A witch had gotten under the basement, and when I woke up in the morning there was no question in my mind which witch it was.

We have all had that moment when we realize that the movies have seized our dreams, co-opted our imaginations, snatched our bodies. If there is a passion that enters the voice when people begin to talk about movies-"Godfather II" was better than the first one! No, it's the other way around! "Dumb and Dumber" was dumb! No, "Dumb and Dumber" was hilariously dumb!-it's because we're talking about who we are, and what the movies have made us. It's a subject, of course, about which everyone is an expert.

We don't feel the same way about the more venerable art forms-the photograph, the novel, the theater, which are the movies' parents and great-grandparents. They're older than we are, and we tend to get a little polite in their presence. But the movies are our contemporaries--our buddies, our crushes, our lovers.

American movies are now roughly a hundred years old. It sounds momentous, but it's a blink in God's eye. Think of it this way: there are still people around who were born before the first feature film was released. As art forms go, the cinema is still a baby. But what a voracious child. From its disreputable nickelodeon beginnings as a cheap, working-class diversion, the movies needed only a few decades to become the dominant art form of the century, leaving novelists and playwrights biting their nails with envy. And early on, it became clear that the man behind the curtain, the wizard in charge, was Hollywood. Colonizing the world's imagination, its iconography became an international language. The studios staked their claim in the era of Chaplin and Garbo and have yet to relinquish it.

From Hollywood movies we have learned how to live, how to love, what shoes to wear. How many men, aspiring to blithe sophistication, tricked themselves into believing (if only for an intoxicated moment) that they could dance with the grace of Fred Astaire, charm with the flair of Gary Grant? How many women felt giddily liberated from the American demand for buxom beauty by the arrival of Audrey Hepburn? We already know, from Ron Konica and Oliver Stone, of the soldiers who marched into combat with images of John Wayne buttressing their courage. An entire generation, now entering its 20s, grew up with Han Solo and Darth Vader as its toys, its video-games, its mythic lodestars, inheriting--just in time for the trilogy's re-release--their parents' popcorn epiphany.

The movies let us time-travel in search of role models. As we were growing up in the father-knows-best '50s, the brightly lit, cheerfully unsexy images that Hollywood offered of married life seemed hopelessly uninviting. But there, on a TV rerun, was the peerless '30s urbanity of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in "The Thin Man," an image of marriage as suave revelry that anyone might want to emulate. (Only later, in a more abstemious age, would it occur to one that booze was the constant fuel of their fun.

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