'You can observe a lot just by watching', so said baseball great Yogi Berra. Or at least so he is supposed to have said; it may be an apocryphal saying like many of those attributed to him, but it comes in handy as a quote once in a while.
And I've found you can 'observe a lot just by watching' old movies.
I keep wondering when our Political Correctness commissars will ban old movies; they are subversive of our current PC New Order. Thank goodness they haven't censored the old movies -- yet, although I notice Turner Classic Movies is now sneaking in a number of newer movies, to my chagrin.
But like 'Jeff', the correspondent in this interesting exchange over at VFR, I watch the old movies with a sense of sadness and poignancy now. Watching them only emphasizes what we have given away, and what might be irretrievably lost. It's reassuring (but rather cold comfort) to know that others, like 'Jeff', feel the same way I do.
I encounter a lot of younger people, 20-somethings or younger, who absolutely believe that the B.P.C. (before Political Correctness) era was a benighted time, in which everybody was a conformist, repressed, uptight, racist, sexist, homophobic, square. This is the impression they get from their 'history' classes, in which any era of American history before the 1960s is painted in very grim tones. And this is reinforced by many of the modern Hollywood movies, in which the 1950s, for example, is shown as the era of 'witch-hunters' like Joe McCarthy.
So many of those who were not alive in the time of Vanished America have a very distorted picture of what life was like then. If I refer them to old movies from earlier times, suddenly these people become arch-skeptics and say that 'those old movies glossed over the bad stuff.' Yes, in some cases, they did; but even allowing for that, they depict an America in which there was more unity, more homogeneity, more of a consensus on right and wrong. They show an era in which people lived simpler, calmer, more down-to-earth lives. In the America of that era, there was less stress, fewer harried, angry people. Kids could and did play freely out in the streets of their neighborhoods, and often did have the freedom of their town. I remember walking a good distance to Saturday afternoon movies, with no worry about safety. I remember playing outdoors until long after dark, on the long spring and summer evenings. I remember trick-or-treating without adults present to watch over us, without any incident ever occurring.
I remember that we kids could attend any movie without any fear of it having explicit content; or obscene language. If there was more 'mature' content, as in crime movies, it was understated usually, and some of the more adult dialogue simply went over our heads; kids truly were childlike then, unlike today's world, in which kids have heard every obscene word and know about every sexual reality under the sun at an early age. Kids today are much more worldly-wise and jaded than they were in my relatively innocent childhood.
Watching the old movies now is more of a mixed pleasure; it's impossible not to feel a sense of great loss over the world that existed then, and sometimes I want to speak to the people on the screen and warn them of the world that was awaiting them in the future, and tell them to turn back, don't let it happen. I want to tell them to hold on to America, to their heritage; I want to tell them to be proud of their history and their way of life, and to refuse to let anyone steal that pride and that confidence.
Along about the 60s, when the guilt merchants set up shop in America, people began to be bombarded with the idea that America of the past was something to be ashamed of; something that needed fixing if not outright replacing. And that insidious point-of-view began to be visible even in our entertainment, as movies began to appear with what we would now recognize as a 'post-modern' point of view; in these movies there were no heroes. Everything was in a shade of grey; there were no moral absolutes or even any firm moral grounding; everything was relative, and even the 'good guy' was shown to be conflicted or amoral or ambiguous or corrupted. And while it's true that there are no perfect people, and that life does have considerable shades of grey, it is not true that everybody is equally corrupt or that there are no rights and wrongs.
Some of the doubting younger people of my acquaintance insist that there was always just as much crime, evil, and perversion in the old days as there is now; they insist that 'it was just hidden better back then; everybody was just as bad but they were hypocrites.'
I disagree; yes, there was undoubtedly always evil and sin and crime in this world, because it's part of human nature, but I see it as more widespread now because people are less held in check by religious belief and by plain old fear of 'what the neighbors would say'.
What some call 'hypocrisy' really describes the upholding of moral standards even while realizing that no one is perfect. People still acknowledged the standards and paid homage to them, which at least had the good effect of making others think twice about transgressing, or about advertising their sins as people brazenly do nowadays.
But as time went on, in the 60s and 70s, many movies promoted a jaundiced view of traditional America. Think of a movie like 'Easy Rider' from 1969 in which the people of South Louisiana are depicted as ignorant rednecks who kill Jack Nicholson's character just because they hate 'hippies'. This is a malicious caricature of mainstream Southern America. To my knowledge no American townsfolk killed strangers because of their long hair or drug use. Or think of 'Midnight Cowboy' in that same era: the two protagonists are a homosexual (or bisexual) prostitute and a thieving homeless man, yet they are portrayed glowingly, while John McGiver's Bible-thumping pervert character might represent the stereotyped 'Christian hypocrisy.'
The trend of movies increasingly focusing on the seamy, ugly, corrupt side of life while denigrating all that is decent and honest is what keeps me away from modern Hollywood movies. Apart from seeing movies (unwillingly) during plane flights, I haven't seen a modern movie since the Lord of the Rings movies a few years ago. And I think I'm not missing a thing.
But I love to revisit the past through the old movies from the pre-PC era; my favorite era is between the silent movies and the 1950s. After that, things started changing for the worse; chalk it up to the influence of the Left in Hollywood, I suppose.
And being a lifelong Anglophile, even before I fully knew of my considerable English ancestry, I loved the old British movies, especially the Ealing comedies, and movies of that era. I also enjoy the movies about the days of the Empire, as anyone who has looked at my profile here will see; I love Gunga Din and The Four Feathers.
The movies depicting Britain's past eras of greatness make us wonder what happened to the British people? Why did they succumb to leftism and PC and why are they now submitting to the Moslems and other Third-World people who have invaded England?
The English people always seemed to embody cool confidence and stoicism and efficiency and mastery, sprezzatura, to use a highfalutin' Italian word. And yes I know that is merely one side of the English people; they are complex, but there is no hint, as we look at Britain of the past, to foreshadow their present humbled state. There is nothing to give us a clue that they would one day be subject to half-civilized people from the other side of the world. I know that there was always a class divide in Britian, and that the English image embodied mostly the upper class, but the lower classes of the past seemed not quite as degraded as the 'chavs' of today.
And America's image too is changed. Think of the image of America in those old movies: Americans were always depicted as self-confident, independent, somewhat brash, jaunty, able, resourceful people. Think of phrases like 'American know-how'.
And what's happened to us? We now declare to the whole world that we 'can't' control our borders; we can't deport anyone. We can't seem to subdue the warring factions in Iraq.
We can't control the chaos within our country, especially in our cities, which are increasingly becoming lawless.
The easy answer to why and how this happened is 'leftism' -- but what on earth made us vulnerable to leftism?Why did we fall for it? And why can't we throw it off before it destroys us and all of Western civilization?
These are questions which have no easy answers.
But as I ponder them, and begin to despair for my country, it's an escape to be able to turn to those old movies, and remember us as we used to be, in a better and healthier time.