One wonderful year, back in my Boston days, I lived in a studio apartment that had a Murphy Bed. That’s the name for a bed that folds up into the wall. I’m guessing somebody name Murphy invented it. But maybe Murphy, Mister or Missus, simply ran a hotel that featured beds that folded up into the walls. Maybe the same Mrs Murphy whose chowder had overalls as a secret ingredient. Possibly Murphy is some unfortunate soul who got folded up into the wall with his bed one day. I could google it and find out but it’s one of those things that are more fun to speculate about than to know. I never got folded up into the wall trapped in my Murphy Bed. I just slept very well in it when it was folded down.
I did some other things very well in it too and had things very well done to me.
It was a great bed.
And thanks to that bed I have some wonderful memories of movies I saw during that year.
I remember movies I saw that year that I would probably have forgotten within I week if not for that bed.
In those days, that bed was an integral part of my movie-going experience and it’s not much of a stretch to say that I actually finished watching many movies in that bed that I started watching not in the theater and not even on the way to it but when I made the date to go see that movie.
What I’m getting at is that at that time in my life going to the movies wasn’t simply the act of going to see a movie. It was a piece of the dramatic action of the romantic adventure of my life.
There is a period in most people’s lives when going to the movies is part of falling in love or being in love or wishing to be in love. For me that period began when I was around sixteen and lasted into my early thirties. And it’s not coincidental that the movies that affected us the most powerfully, the movies we love best, the movies we think are the best movies ever made, are movies we happened to see during that period of our lives. We love the movies we saw when we were young and in love, in our dreams if not with an actual person. There’s an erotic thrill to be had from all art because there’s an erotic thrill in the confrontation with beauty and it’s natural that we are most responsive when we are at our most erotically charged ourselves.
This can throw off our judgment.
That year I lived in the apartment with the Murphy Bed was actually a pretty weak year for movies. But I still have a fondness for some real stinkers I saw then, movies I squirmed and scowled through while watching them in the theater, movies I’d have panned with vicious glee if I’d gone back to a newspaper office afterwards instead of to that apartment. I remember them and like them, sort of, because I finished watching them in the Murphy Bed.
The movies I saw then are part of the movie of my life and my feelings about them depend as much upon where they appeared in my story as any objective, sober, and informed critical opinions I formed or have formed since. I like a certain movie more than another because I saw the one on my first date with a girl I loved and saw the other on my last date with the same girl before we broke up.
The same goes for other works of art. I don’t hate The Fountainhead as much as it deserves to be hated because of why I read it. My favorite painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Art became my favorite and was, to my untrained eye at the time, one of the greatest paintings ever painted because I saw it on a beautiful day after a walk across the Fens in the company of the girl I didn’t yet know I was going to marry. My favorite piece of classical music is Dvorak’s New World Symphony because the same girl gave me the album for Christmas back when I was in grad school and it was beginning to dawn on me that we weren’t just dating.
Something else goes on during that time.
We get out into the world on our own and we meet up with a lot of marvels and monsters for the first time and have to deal with all kinds of magic we didn’t even know existed. And among those wonders and terrors is art.
This is the time when we first come face to face with art when we have at least some judgment and experience and the beginnings of the emotional and intellectual maturity to understand that we’ve come face to face with something more than a pretty picture or a hummable tune or a ripping yarn.
This is when we are consciously able---and conscious of being able—to take a work of art into our heart and our head and our soul and make it a part of who we are while still being open to having a work of art take us over, head, heart, and soul.
We form our identities---or fashion the identities we wish we had or think we should have---and we form them through, around, as reflections of, in reaction to, colored by, reinforced by, and amalgamated with the art we have taken in and that has taken us over.
These movies, books, paintings, poems, and songs are the grains of sand around which the pearls of egos form.
Going to the movies, then, isn’t just part of our romantic adventures. It’s a key plot point in the great Romance of our becoming who we are.
Needless to say, the movies---the art---that we encounter on that adventure are going to leave an impression.
This is why I hate to hear myself saying anything along the lines of, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
Of course they don’t. Because they aren’t making me like that anymore.
That is, I’m not making me like that anymore.
Over at 3 Quarks Daily, Evert Cilliers has a post that is pretty much a They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore lament.
They don’t write ‘em, paint ‘em, or compose ‘em like that anymore either:
Do you remember when Rubber Soul came out? And Sergeant Peppers? And the White Album? You'd think Eleanor Rigby was the most beautiful song ever, and out they'd come with Hey Jude. It was incredible to be young in the sixties, and to have your ears stroked like that.
Do you remember when Bergman's The Seventh Seal blazed off the screen? And The Virgin Spring? And just when you thought it would be impossible for Ingmar to reach the level of The Silence, Shame and Persona ever again, up he pops with his first color movie, Cries and Whispers.
I saw Cries and Whispers with a lady friend in London when it came out in the early nineteen seventies. It left us literally speechless. We were together for the whole of the rest of the afternoon and that evening, and we started speaking to each other only after three hours of total silence had passed between us, so blasted-out-of-and-into-our-skulls were we.
I can’t put this delicately. If you remember when Bergman’s The Seventh Seal blazed off the screen, you’re old.
You’re no kid if your memory reaches no farther back than when Rubber Soul was released.
I’m no kid and I barely remember when the Beatles broke up.
Cilliers follows up the passage I quoted with, “I'm sorry, but The Departed just didn't do that for me.”
Blasted him out of and into his skull, he means.
Of course it didn’t. How could it? If Cilliers saw The Seventh Seal when it made its first blazing appearances on American movie screens, which was in 1958, then unless he was a very precocious kindergartner when his parents took him to his first Bergman film, he was well past sixty when he saw The Departed.
It’s got to be some movie to affect you at sixty with the same force as any movie you saw when you were sixteen or twenty. Good God, Son of Flubber probably has more of a remembered thrill for Boomers than The Departed.
Maybe Cilliers is somewhat younger. Maybe he saw all his Bergmans in one fell swoop when he was in his early twenties and that was in the early seventies when he and his lady friend were pithed through the occiputs by Cries and Whispers. Doesn’t matter, though.
What matters is that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Cilliers that part of his experience of seeing Cries and Whispers was that he saw it in the company of that particular lady friend.
He doesn’t consider what his feelings about the film then and since and his memories of seeing it would be if he had gone with a different friend, someone who wouldn’t have spent three hours with him in total silence afterwards.
He doesn’t think about the possibility that it wasn’t the movie itself but the people watching it that determined its devastating effect.
Cries and Whispers is a devastating film. I know because I watched it devastate a “lady friend.” I’m guessing I’m more than a few years younger than Ciliers, but I had a very similar experience to his. I saw it at a college film festival when I was in high school and I was trapped for hours in the parking lot afterwards because my friend, who was older and had her drivers’ license, sat with her head on the steering wheel of her parents’ car weeping uncontrollably. I was disturbed by the film, but I was far more upset by how completely it had wrecked my friend.
My opinion of Cries and Whispers has been ever since that it’s a powerful movie that susceptible young women should not see if they are the only person in the car who can drive.
Which is to say, I don’t have an opinion of it as a work of art. I have a memory of it as an emotional event in the romantic adventure of my lost youth.
The thing is, if I could have an experience similar to Cilliers’ a few years later, then a few years after that, some other young couple could have their own similar experience, if they were lucky enough to be living in some college town or city with a great revival house.
And comparing all three experiences would tell us what about Bergman the director or Cries and Whispers the movie?
That sensitive young people can be emotionally devastated by it.
But sensitive young people can be emotionally devastated by a Hallmark card.
Or by The Departed.
Evaluating the relative genius of artists by comparing the emotional effect a work of art by one artist had on you when you were young with the effect a work by a different artist has had on you now when you’re on the brink of old age isn’t criticism, it’s memoir.
Ciliers’ post has more in it than They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore and I agree with many of his judgments on who is and who isn’t a great artist, although as far as I’m concerned Ingmar Bergman’s importance as a filmmaker has more to do with his influence, for good---Love and Death---and ill---Interiors---on Woody Allen than with how one of his films made a friend of mine cry.
But then I saw many more of Allen’s movies during the period of my romantic adventuring than Bergman films. Coincidentally, though, I didn’t see any of Allen’s movies during that segment of that period when I finished watching movies in the Murphy Bed.
That was one of Allen’s less productive periods. Stardust Memories came out the year before and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy the summer after I had that apartment.
I doubt that even the Murphy Bed could have salvaged my opinion of either one.