Thursday, March 3, 2011

All the Ways the Movies of Your Youth Will Betray You

Over at her blog, Sandy has been having this conversation about doubt and accomplishments. I find these kind of conversations fascinating. All this time, I assumed that I was the only one who had these doubts!

I left a comment on Sandy's blog, remarking that this conversation reminded me a bit of high school--and many other settings, as I think about it. I always assume that everyone is having a fascinating, fabulous life, and I'm the only one plagued by doubt and insecurity.

In high school, I assumed that everyone had a wonderful social life, while I stayed home with a book or went out to a movie and pizza with friends. As I look back on it now, it occurs to me that I did indeed have a wonderful social life--it just wasn't the kind of social life that popular culture told me to expect when I got to high school.

Popular culture tells us that we can be the awkward girl--and still, some boy, a popular and cute boy no less, is taking notice of us and admiring us. It will end in a date to the prom and a fabulous sound track featuring Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark. No, wait that was the plot line for Pretty in Pink, which to be fair, came on the popular culture scene a few years after I graduated from high school.

Still, there were plenty of other plotlines that promised the same thing. Davy Jones will take Marsha Brady to the prom, for example.

And yes, I watched liberated heros like Mary Tyler Moore--but go back and watch those shows. There's many an episode where Mary and Rhoda worry about men, not work, not artistic expression, not their financial portfolios.

Lately, I've been thinking about identifying with protagonists, and all the ways this habit has betrayed me. Lately I've been experiencing a different sort of betrayal as I've returned to movies that I LOVED as an adolescent. Lately, I've been identifying more with the adult characters than the cool teen characters.

Take Fame, for example. At one point, I'd have considered myself to be in league with the cool drama kids, even while acknowledging that they were WAY cooler because they lived in New York City and went to the High School for the Performing Arts.

Imagine my horror a few years ago as I showed the film to a class of students, who no doubt were identifying with the cool adolescent characters, while it dawned on me that I've become the English teacher in the film. Yikes! That scene where the English teacher waits in the hospital to find out how her husband is doing, and Leroy shows up to badger her about his grade--interesting to remember that humans undergoing adolescence have always been self-absorbed, that it's not just this current generation.

A few years later, I watched Footloose again for the first time in a long time. I remember the father as an insufferable, controlling pig, mistreating the women in his family and keeping everyone from dancing. I saw him as a horrid Christian, the kind that gives all Christians a bad name.

Upon rewatching it, I didn't see the misogyny that I saw when I was a strident nineteen year old viewer. I felt deep sympathy for the parents in the film, people so scarred by the loss of their oldest child, so pulled apart, yet able to find their way back to each other. I completely understood the father's fear about all the dangers that come from leaving adolescents unsupervised.

It's shocking to me to realize what an uncareful viewer I once was. I often just projected the storyline I wanted to see onto whatever I was watching. I assumed that all those Fame kids were headed to stardom. A rewatching as a grown up made it clear that those students have some serious strikes against them. Similarly, when I first watched The Big Chill, I assumed that these college friends had stayed close--I was in college, and that was the story I wanted to believe. It was only upon seeing it again years later that I realized how far apart they had drifted, both from each other and from their ideals.

It makes me wonder what will be revealed as I return to movies in my older years. It also takes me back to the English teachers of my youth, the ones that claimed that you know a great work of art because it reveals something new each time you return to it.

Am I claiming Footloose to be a great work of art? Or is it simply that I'm a different person each time I return to a movie/book/painting/musical piece?

That question is one that cultural critics have been arguing about since at least the time of Plato (although the ancient Greeks would have used vastly different language and had a vastly different idea of selfhood than we have). I won't pretend to be able to sort it out in a blog post. I'll leave that to others with more time.


Wendy said...

The one that did it for me was Dead Poets Society. I was a senior in high school headed to the University as an English major and would-be high school teacher. I watched it 3 times in the theater. I bought the videotape. My friends and I watched it every few months. We read poetry and shouted Carpe Diem. (There may even be a few of my scribbled Carpe Diems somewhere on campus.) I tried watching it a few years ago and I could. not. do it. The ending I thought was powerful and moving as an adolescent, I now thought was manipulative and melodramatic. I was also matching a particular group of students I'd had to the kids in the film and that just took me to dark places. Anyway... I wonder in a few years what I will think of the Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan Rom Coms I loved when I was in my twenties.

Lyle Daggett said...

The movie I saw while I was in high school that had the biggest impact on me was Woodstock, the documentary of the 1969 rock festival. I still like the movie, though when I saw it again years later I didn't seem quite as many-layered as it did when I originally saw it. Or maybe the many layers seem a little less mysterious to me now.

One other from that time, that left a strong impression on me, was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which if anything has taken on greater clarity and significance as I've seen the movie again over the years since.

I really don't feel disappointment or let-down about any of the movies I saw during those years, or during the years I was in college (for instance some of Woody Allen's early films, Bananas and Play It Again, Sam, or Alice's Restaurant, based on Arlo Guthrie's song of the same name).

There was also the documentary Hearts and Minds, about the war in Vietnam, which won the Oscar for best documentary, just a devastating film at the time I saw it (I was already fervently opposed to the war). When I saw it again many years later, again it seemed maybe not quite as many-layered as when I originally saw it, but I still found it highly effective.

Kristin said...

Thank you both for your thoughtful responses.

Wendy, I wonder how many people studying to be English teachers have been influenced by "Dead Poets Society"--probably more than I want to think about. Do they then get into the classroom only to be disappointed by the lack of groupies?

Lyle, I should go back to revisit "2001"--I saw it in college, but don't have much of a memory of it.