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Look, Don't Listen

ART TIMES January, 2005

IN 1998 the American Film Institute elected "The Philadelphia Story" to its list of the 100 Best American Films.  The Film was first released by MGM in 1940 and proved a popular and critical success.  James Stewart won his only Academy Award for best actor for his role in the film and the writer, Donald Ogden Stewart, an Oscar for best adaptation of the Broadway play by Philip Barry. Katherine Hepburn, who had starred in the New York production and had once been labeled as 'box-office poison', made her film comeback in "Philadelphia Story". Directed by George Cukor the acting performances of Hepburn, Stewart and Cary Grant are cited as, "…just perfect" in Halliway's Film Guide, four-star ratings in all other film references.

Why lay out this summary here of a film sixty-four years old? Well, one because it is considered an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as are its stars, and, two because I ran across a DVD of "Philadelphia Story" in my local library and could not recall having ever seen it. I learned also, that for a community with a large proportion of retirees, the film is rarely checked out while there are long waiting lists for "House of Sand and Fog", "Mystic River", "Master and Commander" and other recent films transferred to DVD's.

Ever concerned to add to my film education I plugged in "Philadelphia Story" and to my surprise recognized the first scene as one I was totally familiar with.  The second surprise was to discover, upon viewing the following scenes, that, indeed, I had not seen the film save for that opening. The scene goes like this: Grant is leaving his mansion, marriage ended, Hepburn appears at the front door, tosses out his golf bag after him, breaking a club over her knee, Grant turns back as if to punch her, instead places his hand over her face and pushes her back through the door.  There are no words spoken. The rest of the film, a romantic comedy, sets a much different pace — mainly extended scenes of smart repartee among the principals, the inevitable happy resolution perfectly obvious. I must confess I viewed the scenes with a growing impatience, checking occasionally to see how much of the 112 minute running time remained.

Films were like this back then — a good deal of talking, scripted lines written by talented, literate and sophisticated writers as Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and Herman J. Mankiewicz. And gifted actors gave these lines their individual and unique styles — Grant's urbane teasing, Hepburn's sharp, classy wit, Stewart's country-boy drawling honesty. We don't have such actors anymore, we probably wouldn't know how to take them if we did — they are icons of a much different time in our culture.  In 1940 there were audiences that saw and admired this film and others like it but today, while we honor their position in the history, viewing them now can make you feel a little guilty that somehow you're not receiving them as people once did. Not likely that viewers under the age of thirty could sit through "Philadelphia Story" and not find it slow, archaic and totally devoid of eye-catching special effects (as it certainly is). For even older types it is as if we have been now conditioned to pay less attention to what we hear (which seems to be, for the most part, concussive sound) and merely passively and mindlessly watch. I realized why that first scene was so familiar to me, the film itself unknown. Almost any film anthology, whether in film or book form, paying respects to classic films and their actors, will show a clip of this single scene although it is least representative of this romantic comedy. You see, it displays action without words, a man about to hit a woman — that looks promising doesn't it? — surely meets our expectations of a good family entertainment in today's terms.

Permit me to digress a moment and refer you to a study by Professor John McWhorter titled, Doing Our Own Thing (2003, Gotham, Books, NYC). Professor McWhorter is a linguist teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. He argues that our language is in decline and makes a distinction between formal, written English and casual, spoken English, the former diluted and replaced by the latter. A quote here may give you a sense of his work: "Modern America…is a country where rigorously polished language…is considered insincere — a trait only a few decades old…and it leaves us culturally and intellectually deprived." Fascinating to me, he sees the decline originating in the counter-culture; anti-Establishment movements of the 1960's, clearly reflected in the 1969 film, "Easy Rider", where a shambling, mumbling, fragmented speech became the norm.  I was relieved to know this for it explained why I often missed pieces of dialogue in contemporary films and not because as my wife would have it — "You're going deaf, old man." (Note: The speech in "Philadelphia Story" is articulate, clear as a bell — after all, actors then were trained in diction.)

So there you have it, along with the rest of us my hearing, my willingness to hear language has become blunted. Street talk has been my film fare for so long that well crafted, well-spoken speech has become almost foreign. It has invaded too, the visual aspects of film — quick cuts, fragmented scenes, rapid movement — move away from this to the leisurely pace of older films, add in the demand to hear and appreciate a studied and scripted dialogue and you and I are squirming in our seats.

Professor McWhorter makes the same case for music but apropos of his thesis, "Music isn't my bag, man.” I might suggest, however, that a similar evolution of form could possibly be applied to painting and sculpture should anyone have a mind to. The cutting-edge art from the 60's on has offered less and less reason to linger visually with its forms, a quick glance to get the punch line is all that is necessary, then on to the next artifice. I guess there's nothing surprising about the SAT question that is noted in Doing Our Own Thing. It goes like this:

The traditional process of producing an oil painting requires so many steps that is seems __________________ to artists who prefer to work quickly.

The correct choice from the number of words given is, of course, "Interminable".

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