Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Conscious Effort

"... when I see a fact plainly I feel lightened, set free from the more or less conscious effort to maintain a delusion." - Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist.

Lately, I've become a bit obsessed with scouring online historical archives of letters, manuscripts and photos that I have access to at work. Many are even open without a subscription and many are available in such public arenas for anyone to search on such as the Library of Congress archives where Wikimedia Commons and Shorpy get most of their photos. Since they're open for anyone to search I've taken to scouring the lot at home too. I've always had a fascination with the past and my love of old movies is a part of that. I not only love the art form itself, but I love the idea of old movies acting as a sort of time capsule. Ever since I watched Dancing Lady and put up the video of the chorus girls singing The Gang's All Here (second clip at the bottom of the post) I've wondered what happened to them? What direction did their lives take? I wondered the same after posting about Debra Paget and Gloria Krieger in which I detailed the arcs of their respective careers. But it's more than just movie chorus girls and bygone studio hopefuls. It's also all the people that never had anything to do with show business.

Scouring the archival news photos produces an uneasiness at times and a sadness as well. There are crime photos of policemen at the scene of a brutal beating or murder. There are photos of people living on the edge of society, making do, scraping by. Photos of poor children from the Depression clinging to their mothers. And most photos come with names included, as well as addresses and dates. And yet searches online come up blank in an effort to find out more about them. Alas, events as bad occur so often and situations as dire exist worldwide with such permanence and repeat with such consistency that most records are limited to a caption on a news photo. There simply isn't any other information on these people available and soon enough, they are all forgotten.

Then there are the time capsule photos, personal portraits from another time and place. There's a Navajo child with a blanket around his head in 1905. He looks to be about five years old. It's a stretch to think he's still alive, but having a 109 year old person today isn't nearly as rare or extraordinary as it used to be. Whether alive or dead, I wonder what his life was like. Of course, I'll never know.

And this fascination of mine goes back well before the internet came along. In my early teens I used to go to the local college's library and spend hours going through microfilm from the early twentieth century. I read about the Titanic, the Stock Market crash of 1929, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 1964 Anchorage earthquake and so on, all from the perspective of what was written in that moment, before it became rigid history.

And when I had my driver's license I drove deep into the rural areas of my birth state, South Carolina. I'd get in the car and drive for an hour or two until I was as far away from civilization as I could get, until I was surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of marsh and communities without electricity, where they farm what they eat and bury their dead in makeshift cemeteries near their homes. I stopped at a couple of these cemeteries, a few miles into the woods off of Highway 41. The names of men and woman who had lived for only a few years or for ninety were burned into thick pieces of wood acting as tombstones. What had their lives been like? Were they aware of many of the historic events of their day or did they live sheltered in their own community unaware of most of the goings on of the outside world? Had they ever watched a television? Been to a movie? Listened to a radio? Talked on a phone?

When I left South Carolina all those years ago I knew I would be leaving those explorations behind but I wasn't sure how much longer those areas would survive anyway. On visits back home in the nineties I found new mini-mansions going up just a mile or two from the rural areas I once frequented. The roads leading up to them, once dirt for miles, were now paved up to the new homes. And power lines were now evident where before there were none. Are those communities and cemeteries I drove to many years ago still there or have the remaining families been bought out and relocated? I assume the latter only because new technology like Google maps has allowed me to search the areas I once visited without physically returning to them. From overhead anyway, they look pretty full now. And so one more remnant of the past is lost forever. Had I taken pictures back then there might be that to show for it but like those news photos it still wouldn't tell much of a story. Most of it will always reside only within the memory.

But memories don't even last very long, including memories within familial generations. Grandparents are often remembered firsthand but great-grandparents are only names from stories related by older relatives. Great-great-grandparents are usually unknown to most family members even by way of story. Beyond that, going back five or so generations most of us have no clue as to who was in our family at that time or what their names were. And even if we do because we researched our genealogy it's still not the same as having an actual memory of them.

Eventually, everyone reading this post will be forgotten. Not a one of us will be remembered beyond a certain point in time. Even those figures in history who changed the landscapes of their times are eventually just a name that very few people know. Figures from a few hundred years in the past are still known well enough today but go back three thousand years and the number of people who know the rulers of Egypt or Greece or China will drop by factors of ten. In ten thousand years the 20th Century figures so prominent in our historical studies today will be completely and totally forgotten to all but a few of the most ardent history enthusiasts. That's because so much will happen in the next ten thousand years that will gradually overtake all that came before.

Of course, in the end, the universe will run its course regardless of what any of us do. No matter how important we may think we are, the fact is that a stray dog or an oak tree or a pebble on the side of the road will have as much impact on the outcome of the universe as you, and they're not even trying. All we can hope for is to make our time here worthwhile, for both ourselves and those important to us.

My wife makes life worthwhile for me as do my adopted children, my cat, my friends and family and my online friends and fellow bloggers. Sometimes I feel like abandoning them all in a fit of insecure temperament. A feeling of not being impactful enough on the things around me, impactful in a positive way. But of course I don't. There's too much still to be experienced and for most of it, I'm the only record it's ever going to have. Once I'm gone most of those records will go with me.

And that includes movies. Even though thousands of movies from the thirties and before exist in digital form most are not viewed in anything approaching the numbers of even the most moderately successful January filler movie put out by Studio A. I don't express it enough in comments on other blogs (something I've become very remiss in doing lately outside of my core group of blogs, and you know who you are because of my comments there) but I have a level of appreciation that goes far beyond what a "thanks" or "great post" could ever adequately express. When I see one of my online friends review a little known film from the thirties or forties or any decade really, I feel a pleasure and a pride at being a part of that community. I may not comment as often as I should on the classic film blogs that fill my blogroll, or the other blogs that deal with a specific niche or genre, but I am grateful for what they do. And when a blogger writes up a film that few people have bothered to see they are recording it for history. It's true. You see, outside of the big classics or the current blockbusters there isn't a huge online digital archive of reviews for thousands and thousands of little known or underseen movies. For better or worse, the blogs and the websites are historical archives that keep the memory alive for everything from The Third Secret, Witchcraft, and Gabriel Over the White House to Beyond the Rocks, Edvard Munch, or La BĂȘte Humaine. I'd like to keep contributing to that community myself and continue to be one of its record keepers.

But I grow weary. Weary of the structure, weary of restricting or limiting myself based on what type of blog I'm supposed to be running. A weariness that soon turns to hopelessness. I cannot start another blog. I simply cannot do it. I have three running right now and a fourth would drive me over the edge. I'd rather just throw everything in here, stir it up and see what happens. The name of the blog is Cinema Styles and I'd like to explore the cinema more deeply. But I'd like to explore that which is spoken to me by photography as well, even if said photograph has nothing to do with the movies. Tom Sutpen's blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats has always been an inspiration to me, so in love with the photographic record of the past as I am. I'd like to take that inspiration and make something of it right here on Cinema Styles. So expect to start seeing photos from history outside of the movies as well. Maybe even my own photos will post from time to time, maybe my own movies, and not just the montages but original productions. I don't know what I want to do exactly and I probably never will. But I do know this: I don't want to be weighed down by delusions anymore. I've got a humdrum job and my wife and I struggle to make ends meet. That's a fact. We find solace in each other and our art. And I find solace in memory, the collective memory of the world around me and I want to keep that memory alive for as long as I can and in any way that I can. It's a journey I want to take and if you want to go along with me I welcome you. If not, I understand and no offence taken but don't act surprised when decidedly non-movie posts begin to appear with more frequency. The focus here will always be the movies, fear not, but a little branching out is good for the soul.

A love of history is as big a part of me as a love of film and for me, they go hand in hand. I see movies when I read about history which is to say I see stories being told. And when I see a movie I see moments preserved in time. A movie like It Happened One Night, this past weekend's Friday Night Movie for me, my wife and our youngest who made the selection, isn't just a great road comedy but a visual record of how things looked in 1934. Even if how they looked is only how things looked for movies at that time, or how people spoke, it's still a record of that. And the past recorded by photograph or film is something I'd like to explore more deeply. And so I shall. Like I said before, join me if you will, the choice is yours. I'll make the journey regardless but I'd love to have some company. And let's lay that name illusion to rest for good. I've had all I can take of the moniker "Jonathan Lapper." After almost two years I know it's quite an adjustment to throw on people and I apologize but I don't want any curtains obscuring anything here, anymore. A couple of you already know this but for the rest of you my first name is Greg and my last name is the same as the director of Bad Lieutenant who has the first name Abel. To keep it relatively Google search safe from work (notice I didn't actually spell out the last name but feel free to use it just as you would use Lapper) I'll go by Greg F., taking my inspiration from my friend Bill R. And since so many I've met here ARE my friends, I feel they should call me by my name. My real name.

And that's it for now. I look forward to sharing and recording images and thoughts on movies and history and blurring the line between both. And sharing photographs and movies of my own creation. And I'll enjoy doing it as myself. Finally.