Hurricane Florence mercifully weakened just before hitting land, but its slow pace and heavy rains caused awful damage to the coastal regions. The fact that Greensboro ended up getting only a glancing blow from the storm is a reason for sane people to be relieved and happy.
But come on, we’re human. When a weather event has been hyped as the hurricane of the century (or decade, or whatever), with terrible damage expected everywhere, and when schools were closed on Friday because the storm was expected to make school attendance dangerous, then how can we help but be a little disappointed when there’s no wind and only a little drizzle on Friday.
Of course we didn’t want the kind of devastation that cost lives and caused terrible damage south and east of us. But when you brace yourself for a real event, and we end up being bystanders, yeah, even sane people also feel a real letdown.
It has happened again and again in my life. Weather forecasting is phenomenally good, compared to any era in the past. We see storms coming, and we watch them on satellite and computer imagery.
Unlike with earthquakes and tsunamis, which happen without any warning – contrary to folklore in California, there’s no such thing as “earthquake weather” – we get enough advance notice that people can evacuate before the storm surge can trap them in their windowless attic and they have to use an axe to chop a hole through the roof to get out.
But the anticipatory rituals now build us up as if the storm-to-be were the Super Bowl. And, as is usual with the Super Bowl, the event itself is a ridiculous letdown.
Having devastating weather be a letdown (at least locally) is a Very Good Thing. But the danger is that we begin to take these big build-ups with a grain of salt.
I mean, I’ve waited for the devastating winter blizzard – in Utah, in Indiana and in Greensboro – where nary a flake of snow fell on us. While the TV was saying “100 percent chance of accumulations between 6 and 18 inches,” I could stand in my front yard and look at my completely naked yard, still waiting for that soft white blanket.
And then there’ll be an event like Hurricane Hugo, which was threatening the North Carolina coast. Then it jinked south and pretty much missed North Carolina’s coastal islands.
We had friends who owned a house on Ocean Isle. They went down and boarded up that house and then perched in a motel 50 miles or so inland.
Then Hugo swept up through South Carolina and Georgia into the western mountains of North Carolina – and bashed apart a house our friends were building near Boone! It left their children, whom they had left “safely” in the mountains, without power. The irony of it was almost as awful as the actual damage.
But that’s the thing about weather. It would have been irresponsible of the weather forecasters not to hype Florence’s approach. And when they showed those pink swaths of probable landing zones for the hurricane, they repeatedly said that these were only estimates, and the path could change at any time.
And, in fact, all their maps showed Greensboro beyond the edge of the main power of the hurricane. So they weren’t even wrong.
This is not a complaint. It’s just an observation: Responsible weather forecasters must continue to give us warnings and trigger evacuations. We should be happy when things turn out less awful than their warnings.
And we must also be careful not to disregard warnings just because several times in the past things weren’t so bad after all.
Because every now and then, things are dreadfully worse.
Here’s the storm “damage” at our house. We moved our patio furniture against the wall, and now we’ll have to move it back into place. I took down all our bird feeders, and on Tuesday I had to put them back. Our birds and friendly rodents had no helpful feeding stations during four days in which only one day had heavy rain and a couple of hours of strong wind.
I hope that’s the worst weather “damage” we ever suffer.
Sierra Burgess Is a Loser is another retelling of Edmond Rostand’s wonderful story of Cyrano de Bergerac. That’s the classic story of a swashbuckling poet whose nose was so huge as to qualify as a disfigurement. He became an expert swordsman by punishing people who made fun of his nose – though, because Rostand was a wonderful playwright, his own self-mockery was better than other people’s insults.
You might remember the Steve Martin/Daryl Hannah comedy Roxanne, with Martin playing a big-nosed fireman and Hannah as the gorgeous astronomer who was the object of his love. A dumb handsome lump of a fireman is in love with Roxanne, and Steve Martin helps him woo her by giving him all the romantic things to say and write to her. Only at the end does Roxanne find out that the person she fell in love with was the one who composed all those beautiful utterances, not the dumb guy with the hot bod.
So now, with the straight-to-the-web teen romantic comedy Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, we have the luminous Shannon Purser playing the title role. Not a big nose, in this version; Sierra is a heavy girl who is prone to wearing clothing that seemed to have been handed down by a great-grandmother who acquired “sensible” clothing during the Depression.
In the grand tradition of high school comedies, there is a gang of Mean Girls led by Veronica (Kristine Froseth, who gets a chance to do way more than just be pretty and nasty), who openly and cruelly taunts Sierra because, apparently, she offends their eyes.
Well, and she’s also smarter than most people. But she isn’t actually proud of that, because the teachers all expect her to be even smarter and more talented than she actually is, because her father is a very famous poet.
That’s right. Famous poet. I said it, and so did the movie, and there have been times in the past when poets were rock-star famous. Rod McKuen in the 1970s ruled the bestseller lists with books of poems like Listen to the Warm and Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows – titles I didn’t have to look up for this essay because I was in his dreamy, romantic, lonely target audience at the time, so I owned and read and reread those books.
But McKuen got zero respect from academics and teachers, so a better comparison is that Sierra’s dad is more like a new W.H. Auden – deeply respected and even beloved, but not quite at the bestseller, rock-star-famous level.
Anyway, Sierra is not looking forward to her English class assignment to write a poem and read it to the class. Some of the other kids have done some dynamite poems and read them with passion and skill. Others have poems more at the level you’d expect from high schoolers – but their presentation is tolerable and their effort is sincere.
But Sierra can’t bring herself to write a poem. My gosh, that’s her father’s territory! She doesn’t want to be compared to him, ever. Instead she works on her songwriting – which is an art her father just doesn’t value. And why should he?
So while she’s busy hiding from her artistic conflicts, she runs afoul of Veronica. When a boy from another school tries to get her phone number in a diner, Veronica gives him a mobile phone number. He thinks it’s her number, but it’s really Sierra’s number, taken from her bulletin board posting that offered tutoring.
The boy is Jamey (Noah Centineo), who isn’t a nerd after all – he’s quarterback on the football team of a rival high school.
But it isn’t a phone call, it’s texting, in the true spirit of Cyrano. By text, there’s no marking of voices. Just writing.
And Sierra can write. She’s funny and clever and smart and wise … and so is Jamey. They really hit it off.
But it’s clear, after a while, that Jamey thinks he’s talking to Veronica. So Sierra does the classy thing, and tells Veronica what’s going on.
Sierra is already tutoring Veronica, who has been dating a slimy pseudointellectual college boy and she’s afraid she’ll lose him because she has no idea who Nietzsche is.
And when Veronica’s boyfriend ditches her, Jamey starts looking pretty good. Which is how we end up with several tense scenes in which Sierra is feeding Veronica things to say to Jamie in real time.
And the only truly awful and unbelievable scene in the movie, when Veronica generously sets up a kiss, in which Jamey thinks he’s kissing Veronica, but Sierra slips into position and gets the kiss.
Uh-uh. Not believable for a second.
But it doesn’t last long, and the rest of the movie aims for, and reaches, a much higher standard. Of course it’s going to have a happy ending. But along the way, we end up not hating anybody except for Veronica’s ex-boyfriend who turns out to be a complete phony – so that Veronica, after Sierra’s tutoring, is intellectually way ahead of him.
There are many nice touches. Sierra’s best friend and sometime lab partner, Dan (RJ Cyler) is wonderful and their relationship is a pleasure to watch. Veronica grows to be nicer over the course of the movie, and she has the courage to show open friendship to Sierra in the halls of school – even when it costs her the company of her mean-girl friends.
Sierra’s parents are played by Lea Thompson (from Back to the Future) and Alan Ruck (the best friend in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). They’re both good actors, and there’s no better way to connect Sierra Burgess with the teen movie tradition than by casting them.
Noah Centineo – who played the most important love interest in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which I reviewed last week – is clearly a good actor with a bright future playing all the Errol Flynn and, eventually, Clark Gable roles. We’ll all learn how to say Centineo before another year has passed (sen-tin-A-oh).
And then there’s Shannon Purser. Look, casting the part of Sierra Burgess was the single most important aspect of casting this movie. Stupid people could have cast Noah Centineo and Kristine Froseth, but casting Sierra Burgess was hard.
Here’s the problem. Audiences want pretty heroines. Would we love Pride and Prejudice if Elizabeth Bennet was a horse-faced cow of a woman? No – we’d take one look at Darcy and hope he noticed some much prettier girl. Our culture shapes us.
So when the whole point of the story is that the smart, witty heroine is, in fact, “ugly” by the standards of the local culture, what do you do?
Even as it is, there are times when it just doesn’t feel right (i.e., predictable) for Sierra to aspire to connect with someone that heartbreakingly good-looking.
But the people casting the film were keenly aware of this. And so here is why they realized that casting Shannon Purser was perfect.
Purser is definitely heavy enough that there’s no mistaking the fact that in any high school in America today she would not be regarded as “hot.” She has what can fairly be described as a lumpy body rather than a curvaceous one.
But her face is not fat. So even though there’s no shortage of whole-body shots where we cannot forget that she does not fit the body norms of our time, in all the closeups – which far outnumber the wider shots – Shannon Purser’s face does not look bloated or fat. In fact, if she wore that face atop a reasonably slender body, it would not seem out of place.
So they were able to cast in such a way as to please the most honest and the most romantic of audiences: Normal – nay, rather pretty – in face, lumpy in body, so that we fulfil the premise of the story but also fulfil the audience’s need for someone who is pleasant to look at; and also articulate, so that we believe that Sierra really is as witty and smart as the story requires her to be.
It’s a cliff-edge casting decision and they got it absolutely right.
Now, I suspect that Shannon Purser did not expect to get the romantic lead in a movie – at least not this early in her career. She’s been working as an actress rather steadily – fans of Stranger Things and Riverdale already knew she could act.
So Purser didn’t come out of nowhere. The filmmakers had plenty of chances to see what she could do. But that doesn’t change the fact that they needed a slam dunk in casting Sierra Burgess, and with Shannon Purser, they got it.
Where is she going from here? Will she become a character actress, rather like Kathy Bates, owning her body type and taking the roles that come along? Will she flaunt her weight, like the brilliant Melissa McCarthy or the flamboyant Rebel Wilson (“Fat Amy” in Pitch Perfect)? Or will she go into training and lose the weight in order to be eligible for the whole gamut of roles for women?
Those are all legitimate choices for an actor – nobody criticizes actors who lose or gain weight in order to play characters who need such physical attributes. But there are some who would call Purser a “sell-out” for “giving in to the patriarchal image of women” or some such nonsense.
For an actor, that’s just crap. Their own body is not a political statement, it’s the vessel in which their health, strength and stamina are contained. Speaking as someone who has been both fat and thin, I can testify: Thin is healthier, and your life is better. Being thin never made me pretty, but it made me stronger and lighter and it was easier for me to move around in the world.
So for that reason – her health and strength and comfort – I hope Shannon Purser gets her weight under control. She’ll probably never look like Anna Kendrick or Hilary Swank, but that’s not the point. She’ll look like a healthier Shannon Purser.
For that matter, I have hopes that Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy will also reach a healthy weight, so that they can keep giving us wonderful performances for many years to come.
You won’t see Sierra Burgess Is a Loser in theaters, because you can only find it online. But it’s worth the download. Since you don’t even have to get in the car to watch it, what are you waiting for? Even if you watch the movie on your laptop screen or your iPad or your smartphone, you’ll enjoy it.
By the way, since I recently rewatched the original Pitch Perfect, which is a quirky, funny movie in which even the “bad” songs are wonderful, I found myself wondering who the actor was who played Anna Kendrick’s loyal and underappreciated friend, Benji.
We looked up the name. Ben Platt. And it dawned on me – isn’t that the name of the actor who gave the world-class, brilliant, dazzling, honest, heartbreaking performance as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen?
I mean, I think I’m already on record as calling Ben Platt’s performance as Evan Hansen the best theatrical performance I have ever seen, in singing and in acting.
I have never heard a better, more fluid male voice, coping with powerful emotions without losing a scrap of singing range and power. I’m thrilled that Platt has signed a recording contract with Atlantic, and I hope that he does not make Mandy Patinkin’s horrible mistake of overacting every song he recorded; if Platt sings with the balanced virtuosity and reality that marked his work in Dear Evan Hansen, those are albums that I’ll listen to over and over.
I have never seen a more real, balanced acting performance than Platt’s – only rivaled in recent years by, perhaps, Andrew Garfield’s performance in Hacksaw Ridge. (And Platt did it every day for month after month on Broadway, losing nothing of the freshness of his performance.) Yet Platt brings the same honesty and deep likeability to his film roles, too.
Yes, Noah Centineo will be a major star, unless he says yes to too many bad scripts; but Ben Platt is on his way to being another Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks – the guy you cast in the part that requires reality and integrity along with comic timing and, when required, flamboyance. The guy who can swing from comedy to tragedy in the same scene. The same line.
So if Ben Platt is not an Oscar-winning leading man with the box-office power of Tom Hanks or Bradley Cooper within ten years, I’ll be shocked and terribly disappointed, because he has it in him to be one of the great ones.
Here’s another movie, this time with a theatrical release.
The studio had no idea how to market A Simple Favor. Is it a thriller? A comedy? A romance? Well, yes – but in short trailers, it’s very hard to convey any of the three.
Especially because almost any scene they show will either spoil the plot completely, or will mislead the audience into thinking it’s a different kind of movie.
A Simple Favor begins with Anna Kendrick, as recently widowed single mom Stephanie, actively contributing time and amazing baking and cooking skills to the school her son attends – and to the blog she films in her own kitchen. In fact, that blog becomes the structure of the whole movie, as she talks about her life right along with the cooking.
And soon her life begins to revolve around her new best friend, Emily Nelson, played by Blake Lively, an utterly selfish, hard-drinking, iconoclastic user who is married to a one-famous-book author, Sean Townsend, played by Henry Golding (Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians).
Stephanie soon finds her life enmeshed with Emily’s, because Emily keeps dumping the care of her son onto Stephanie. But when Emily leaves her boy with Stephanie and then doesn’t come back that night or the next day or for three days after that, and her husband and her office staff have no idea where she is, Sean calls the police and Stephanie goes on her blog, asking her many viewers to keep an eye out for the missing Emily.
While Detective Summervile (their odd spelling, not mine), played with wry wit by Bashir Salahuddin, is doing his best, it keeps being Stephanie who makes breakthroughs in the case, and …
And that’s where a responsible reviewer has to stop. Nor am I even going to point out which recent films the plot slightly (but only slightly) resembles, because that would give away too much. This movie depends on surprises, the first time through – though the characters and relationships, not to mention the performances, are intricate enough that the movie will also reward second and third viewings.
The boys are played by two outstanding child actors, Ian Ho and Joshua Satine, and it’s fair to say that all the important scenes are played by that core cast. It’s an outstanding ensemble.
But the heart of the movie is Anna Kendrick. We see everything through her eyes, and we absolutely believe in her smart, warm-hearted, eager-to-please character. When she needs to be clever, we believe she’s that clever; when she needs to have kintamas of steel, we aren’t even surprised that she’s got ’em.
Kendrick elevated the quirky Pitch Perfect movies to a level way above mere farce; she made Table 19 one of my alltime favorite movies; her brilliant performance in The Accountant helped make Ben Affleck’s performance more understandable; even in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates she gave to that low-rent farce a touch of class; she was memorably affecting in Up in the Air with George Clooney; and her role opposite Sam Rockwell in Mr. Right made it far, far more than another action thriller.
Since I’ve been comparing Noah Centineo to Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, and Ben Flatt to Tom Hanks and James Stewart, let me suggest that Anna Kendrick deserves to be compared to another skinny actress with quirky looks who absolutely ruled on the screen: Katharine Hepburn.
If Anna Kendrick makes as many great movies with husband Sam Rockwell as Hepburn did with longtime love Spencer Tracy, we’ll all be happier for it. But I could also imagine her in any Hepburn role. Maybe someday a middle-aged Kendrick will remake The African Queen with a middle-aged Ben Platt. Unless Sam Rockwell is available for the part.
But who knows? Because Anna Kendrick can do one thing that Katharine Hepburn is not known for doing: Kendrick can sing. Not just a little. Not just the wispy singing that Vanessa Redgrave did for Camelot. She could play the Jane Powell part in a remake of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. She could play the title role in Annie Get Your Gun.
And if The Rainmaker were ever remade as the Schmidt-and-Jones musical version, 110 in the Shade, how could it not be filmed with Kendrick and Platt as Lizzie Curry and Starbuck?
Now I’ll go off into Crazyland, but if Anna Kendrick and Ben Platt worked their way through the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy operettas, this time with good scripts, our film culture would be all the better for it. (Few of you will know what I’m talking about; I grew up on those films from the 1930s because my mother’s voice was in the same league as Jeanette MacDonald’s, and so I heard those operettas my whole life, on and off the screen.)
It’s simply exciting, in my opinion, to watch new generations come along in American film and theatre. There are certain niches, and when a new actor settles into a niche that was left vacant by the aging or death of the previous occupant – as Tom Hanks became James Stewart (right down to playing the male lead in You’ve Got Mail, which Stewart originated in The Shop Around the Corner) – it’s thrilling to realize how much new beauty and power will be added to our lives, because good writers and directors have an actor they can rely on to play this kind of role.
I didn’t begin following the British TV series Inspector Morse on PBS until just before it ended – but I became a fan of this low-key detective show with its opera-loving, lonely star.
When Inspector Morse ended, however, somebody got the brilliant idea of starting the character up again with a reboot, showing how he rose from a new copper in the Oxford police department to detective inspector, under the tutelage of Detective Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam).
Morse’s first name being Endeavour, that became the title of this new series, which is well written, filling in the groundwork for the already finished series about Morse as a mature, then old, man. It turns out that Endeavour has been in love, and his loneliness in later years was not his own choice. And he had to struggle to win his position as a detective inspector, with plenty of detractors who resented his Oxford education and his superior abilities.
But the thing that elevates Endeavour far above the common run of television shows is the performance of the moody yet charming Shaun Evans in the title role. I’ve never seen him in anything else, but I fully expect to see him in many, many films in the future.
Don’t take my word for it. Get your hands on the first six seasons (remembering that British “seasons” are often as short as five or six episodes) or simply set your DVR to record Endeavour when season 7 begins in 2019.
One of the best mystery series ever – and I’ve seen Rumpole of the Bailey.
Being 67 years old, as I now am since my birthday in August, I sometimes am brought to the realization that I’ve lived through a lot of history.
Not just general world or American history, but the history of various arts.
As a sci-fi writer, I’m keenly aware of all the history of science fiction before I started writing. It can be argued that most of the great stuff was written before my novelette “Ender’s Game” appeared in Analog in 1977. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Blish, Ellison, Silverberg, Herbert – they had already written their most famous works before then.
And yet the time span between Heinlein’s early stories and my first sci-fi publication was fewer than 40 years. In other words, it has been longer since my first story was published than it was between Heinlein’s earliest published story and mine.
Arguably, then, I have been writing and publishing for about half the history of modern science fiction (because it is fair to date the beginning of modern science fiction from the start of Heinlein’s career).
And that just feels weird.
It’s even weirder to consider movies that same way. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released on Sept. 23, 1969; I had turned 18 only the month before.
It had one of the finest screenplays ever written – by William Goldman, arguably the finest screenwriter ever, his third feature screenplay to be produced (two other films were based on novels he wrote). And director George Roy Hill directed it with verve and creativity that are partly tied to the film style of the 1960s, and partly cut loose, transcending any artistic period.
It has been 49 years to the month since Butch Cassidy was released – and the film still feels amazingly fresh, with brilliant writing and performances, in full color, with a great musical score – a fully modern film. If it had not been seen before, if this movie came out for the first time this fall, exactly as it is, I don’t think we’d bat an eye. It would be an immediate contender.
The only weird thing would be to see Paul Newman and Robert Redford looking so amazingly young.
To me, this shows that filmmaking had reached its complete maturity as an art form by 1969. Sure, we’ve had innovations since then – especially in CGI and in hi-res video, not to mention surround sound and a vast loosening of the restraints on depicting indecency on screen. You couldn’t have made Jurassic Park or War for the Planet of the Apes back then.
But yeah, film was a full-grown artistic medium in 1969.
Compare what has happened since the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with the massive changes that happened in the 49 years before that movie was released.
The top-earning film of the year 1920 was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (Hypnotist Dr. Caligari uses a sleepwalker, Cesare, to commit murders.) Black and white. Silent.
They were all silent in 1920, and horror films seemed to dominate the top 10:
Second, third and fourth were The Golem, Sex, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Remember that the censorious Hays Office didn’t exist then, so a film titled Sex could be racier than anything today without having an R slapped on it. However, it was a dramatic melodrama that was taken seriously by critics, who gave it positive reviews.
The fifth most popular film in that silent era was Way Down East, a soap opera directed by D.W. Griffith – that’s how close they were to the very roots of filmmaking.
Sixth place went to Within Our Gates, about a woman helping a “near bankrupt school for impoverished black youths” – so race relations were already important in filmmaking, and in that era of lynchings and race riots and Jim Crow laws, audiences turned out in numbers that put it among the top 10 money-earners of the year.
I doubt most of you heard of any of these after Dr. Caligari – I certainly hadn’t – but we’re on much more familiar ground with seventh-place The Mark of Zorro,╩starring Douglas Fairbanks. Not Douglas Fairbanks Junior, but the original old man.
The top 10 were rounded out by The Flapper – a “modern” girl who apparently was a recognizable type right at the beginning of the Roaring ’20s. Shakuntala was an Indian film; it was easier to bring foreign films to American audiences in the Silent Era, since all you had to change were the title and dialogue cards. No dubbing. The 10th film was The Parson’s Widow.
Cherry-picking the other leading films of 1920, we see the number 12 film was Anna Boleyn, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, with Emil Jannings in a starring role – a decade before he received the first Oscar for Best Actor. We have another Anne Boleyn movie this year, almost a century later.
There was also a version of The Last of the Mohicans, but without Daniel Day-Lewis. And Erotikon had the first aerial shots in a feature film. There was a Cecil B. DeMille movie called Why Change Your Wife? – a far cry from the sex-and-scripture epics that made his enduring reputation.
There were several films promoting racial justice, and very few Westerns – those actually came into their own on radio, where the sound effect of horses’ hooves was a lot cheaper to produce than putting actual horses on film. There were lots of horror films.
And there were some classics. 1920 saw successful versions of Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, The Prince and the Pauper and Treasure Island, but there were not that many literature-based movies in the top 100.
Since I have little patience for silent films, I’m not going to be going back to watch any of these old films.
I think that the count of years is misleading. There’s far more distance between 1920 and 1969, when it comes to filmmaking, than there is between 1969 and 2018.
What’s amazing is how quickly films adapted to innovations in technology. While it’s great fun to watch Singin’ in the Rain poke fun at the transition from silent to talking films, it didn’t take long for the talkies to bring us great movies that are not just watchable but wonderful today.
I compare it to the development of English theatre. Gammer Gurton’s Needle, a comedy published anonymously in 1575 a few years after it was staged at Christ’s College, Cambridge, was one of the first secular plays in English. It had its virtues, but nobody would have set it beside the best French or Spanish plays; it owed more to the clowning of Italian Commedia and the rough-and-tumble of the old Pageant Wagon and Mystery plays of the Middle Ages.
Fifteen years after Gammer Gurton’s Needle was published, Shakespeare’s first play, Henry VI, Part 2 appeared in 1590. (That’s right – Part 1 didn’t come out till the next year, after Part 2 and Part 3.)
Twenty years after Gammer Gurton first reached an English audience, Shakespeare had matured enough to bring us The Taming of the Shrew (though he may have written it back in 1590).
Surely we can say that by that point, Elizabethan theatre had reached maturity. There were many great works to come, but Shrew is still playable today, rather the way that Butch Cassidy still feels like a contemporary movie 49 years after its debut.
The Henry VI plays might be more significant markers, because they were the first to draw on English history, making them quite serious and applicable to the lives and self-image of English audience members. It was a message: It’s not just frothy farce and lofty classical subjects we’ll be showing you now. We’re going to be exploring our own past, and discovering that we have our own great stories to tell.
My grandparents lived through the transition of movies from a novelty item in nickelodeons – you put a nickel in a slot and a short silent film spooled through the viewer – to feature films that were watched in a theater that had a curtain, often with a full orchestra accompanying the story.
My parents were just heading into their teens when talkies replaced silent films, so the films they loved had singing and dancing and real dialogue. By the time I came along, color films had almost completely replaced black-and-white, and theaters were no longer temples of art but rather multiplexes that had several theaters sharing the same parking lot and concession stand.
The whole drive-in movie era spanned my childhood, and I remember many a trip to the filthy public restrooms that were around the back side of the concession stand – a long walk in the dark for a little kid, especially because shy bladder syndrome usually made it a completely wasted trip for me. I learned not to drink anything while watching a drive-in movie.
But by the time I had a driver’s license, first-run movies almost never made it to drive-ins. Still, when our first baby was due, my wife and I did go to see a first-run movie at a drive-in near Salt Lake City, as part of our program of inducing labor by going places where it would be very inconvenient for labor to begin. (It didn’t work.)
A single lifetime can span some amazing changes, in technology, in art and in world affairs. I was born into the Cold War; my generation fought in Vietnam; but the Vietnam War ended five years before our first child was born. Our kids grew up in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world, and by the time our youngest was born, the Cold War was officially over (though it continues today, under different guises).
When our kids were born, telephones were just beginning to detach from walls, and the coolest technology was the fax machine. But our kids definitely lived in a house with landlines – and with a wall phone in the kitchen with a long enough cord to take the handset into another room for privacy.
In Elizabethan London, people who attended Shakespeare’s plays in their youth were in their 50s or 60s when the Puritan Parliament shut down all the theaters of London in 1642. Many of them were dead before theaters were restored, now with women playing the female roles instead of boys.
We sometimes pride ourselves on the unusual rapidity of change in the modern world, but that is really only true of technology; change has always been rapid, at times, and then painfully slow to come at others. The shock of the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic conquests were no less sudden and disorienting than the shock of Hitler’s equally rapid conquests more than a century later.
The unification of Germany in 1870, like the unification of Italy, transformed the face of Europe (and made geography way easier for schoolchildren to learn).
The Co-education Movement in higher education, bringing women into formerly all-male colleges, was a huge culture shock for many, and unlike the shock of Prohibition, Co-education was never repealed. I think the shock of desegregation and Civil Rights was far more transformative than the launch of the iPad. We sometimes equate technology with progress, but the progress that matters most is only occasionally related to technology.
This week and last week, I gave good reviews to four movies ╨ two that appeared in theaters, and two that can only be downloaded or streamed from Netflix. Yet Netflix is a better way to launch teen movies than putting them in theaters – in the era of Netflix and Chill, your target audience is going to find it on a laptop way easier than having to drive somewhere and fork over 10 bucks each.
We live in a changing world, and even though we soon take changes in stride, and the next generation can’t even conceive of how we managed to live without videogames and smartphones, the fact is that nothing stays the same except human nature.
Because at age 67, I still haven’t seen any new virtues or any new sins introduced into human life. Every wacko thing that goes on now used to happen, albeit in somewhat different ways, in 1951 AD – and in 1000 BC.
There’s nothing new under the sun. Even the asteroid that’s going to hit us and wipe out all human life because we never developed the technology to turn an asteroid aside from a collision course won’t really be new – we’ve had most of life wiped out by asteroids before. Bound to happen again. That’s why we need to colonize other worlds – just so our species isn’t tied to the fate of the biosphere on one planet.