Sunday, March 9, 2008

Any port in a drought

Monday March 3rd - She may only be 9, but Shannon O'Hanlon has a scream to match a famous movie queen.
The fourth-grader from Glendale, Queens, came away the eardrum-splitting winner of Sunday's Fay Wray Scream-Alike contest, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Radio City Music Hall premiere of "King Kong."
Shannon's screech beat out the howls of 20 other contestants at Manhattan
's Film Forum, earning her a DVD of the movie and a free trip to the top of the Empire State Building.
"I was so nervous I was shaking," she said. It was the first time the Hannah Montana
fan watched the black-and-white classic from 1933 - and it will be her first trip to the iconic skyscraper, too.
"I want to see if it looks close to the one in the movie," said Shannon, who attends Public School 113. Her yowls stood up to a tough judge - Fay Wray's daughter, Susan Riskin
, 71, who had to wait until she was 12 to see her mom manhandled by the ape.
The "King Kong" starlet died in 2004, at 96. "It's wonderful how she's remembered," Riskin said.
As Fay's most devoted servant, I am of course in two minds about this. Do we really need to reinforce the one and only, and dreadfully misleading, thing for which her name survives in the pop culture memory bank? Isn’t it a shame that we can't focus on something other than this press agent's reduction of her talents and achievements?
On the other hand, if the choice is between this kind of fake longevity and total oblivion, it becomes no contest. And that is the choice. Thanks to this contest, the name is revived, the image is revived, and one little girl has gone home with a movie and an association that may just inspire her to dig further, and discover that matchless Howard Carter moment when a treasure trove that had lain just beneath her feet is suddenly revealed in all its limitless majesty.
This moment, when you encounter the world of old movies and start to make ravenous sense of it as one find follows another and then another, is denied the overwhelming majority of children today, thanks to the increasingly narrow and undemanding focus of a culture obsessed with its Newspeak version of ‘choice’.
Were I myself a child now, I would surely not have gone looking for Miss Wray either. My love of cinema was not a genetic aberration, nor the result of influence by any second party. It came to me on a plate, thanks to what now seems the most valuable experiment in television history: BBC-2.
BBC-2 showed old movies. Every once in a while it still does, even today, and this, like the Scream-Alike, is better than nothing. But a random sampling of titles (usually from an endlessly-repeated tiny store of cheap or public domain titles, programmed by people with no knowledge of what they are handling) can at best only occasionally yield the single reward of one memorable experience.
To fall for the entire world of old movies, to make some sense of the terrain and form the mental associations of personnel and period that are essential for informed connoisseurship, what you need is film seasons. And that is what made BBC-2 the greatest channel in tv history.
When I was growing up, BBC-2 simply handed to me, without request, a map of vintage Hollywood that created overnight lasting and fulfilling passions. Through carefully arranged and ordered seasons, it was this one channel that gave me my first taste of the Marx Brothers, Universal horror, Hammer horror, Garbo, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Chaplin, Welles. In each case, the pleasure given by one film was followed-up by the opportunity to see another, then another, then another still.
They showed complete runs of Charlie Chan and the Rathbone Sherlock Holmeses on Friday teatimes. They regularly programmed Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy shorts, even Leon Errol and Edgar Kennedy.
They are the reason that everyone of my generation not only knows who Harold Lloyd is but can sing the theme tune to the compilation tv series that delighted us all, with no regard whatever for the age of the material. The climb from Feet First was the talk of the playground the day after they showed it - over fifty years after it was filmed.
Neither were we struck by anything aged in the serials they revived, in Flash Gordon or King of the Rocket Men with its famous cheat cliffhangers. (I still remember an argument with a primary schoolmate who contended that they never finished the serials they began: they ran them daily, but he was misled by the ‘Next Week:’ title card into missing the following episodes. The point is that it simply hadn’t occurred to him that these artefacts had any kind of a history to them. They just were there, and we enjoyed them as much as we enjoyed The A-Team and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.)
And this bewildering choice, such as can only be dreamed of now, existed when there were only three television channels. When the fourth did come along, it had Leslie Halliwell on board as film programmer, so it too was stuffed to the gills with great afternoon matinees, late night rarities and comprehensive seasons: the Marxes and Universal horrors got another run-through, and Jimmy Cagney’s death was solemnised with a seemingly endless run comprising the vast majority of his starring vehicles. And as context and supplement, Channel Four re-ran I Love Lucy, The Munsters and the Abbott and Costello Show, and plugged gaps in the schedule with Three Stooges shorts and Pete Smith Specialities.
How can you go looking for things you have never even heard of?
fffffffffffff Fay Wray taking a well-earned break between screams
Of course, the world of old cinema will not literally disappear. It will survive as an area of academic study. But there are all sorts of reasons why this is a very poor substitute for vibrant, popular appreciation. For one thing, academics are a dull and unimaginative lot. They rarely say things they have not first heard their colleagues say. They can be soul-destroying when they have a bee in their bonnet and are horribly prone to the drivelling excesses of postmodernism. They can suck the life and joy out of just about anything. And they do love their canons. The politique des auteurs has created an entirely false perspective with which to view cinema history, but it will prevail, and students will toil over the dullest and least interesting works of Welles and Hawks and Hitchcock, while so much that is fresh and innovative and different and imaginative, but does not come with an approved name attached, will be left to decay.
But most of all, academic dissection is no match for the true purpose of cinema: to enthral and delight the crowd, to create a world of magic and glamour with the resources of a big studio, a star system and sheer craftsmanship.
That is what Fay Wray represented, what the movies once meant, and what is being dimly recalled by Scream-Alikes and similar well-meant exercises in the reduction of such sprawling profusion to a few neat lists and observations.
So well done, Shannon – but keep going. There’s much, much more.