Old-Fashioned Movie Morals and Other Imaginary Creatures

I've learned four things from watching old movies over the years:

  1. Up through the 1940s, filmstock was black and white and grainy. Combine that with nearly all the important characters being white men in lookalike haircuts and dark suits, and it's no wonder those movies were so difficult to follow.
  2. The cameras back then had a hard time capturing images when the light wasn't bright. Photographers did their best, but they often couldn't get more than about half the frame to print. The other half was nothing but darkness. So that was another reason it was often hard to follow the story.
  3. Before the '60s, most Americans had old-fashioned morals. They were offended by sex scenes and other behavior that was considered immoral at the time. It took a decade or so for the new morals of the young people to trickle up to the Hollywood movie producers, so that's why you still see things like twin beds for married couples in Hollywood movies up through the late '60s.
  4. The bar for acting skill was very low at the time. That's why, in the rare case that a movie had a love scene, it usually looked very awkward with the characters in unrealistic positions. It was also why actors would often wait for silence during a conversation and then say their lines in isolation, even if they were supposed to be having an argument or interrupting each other. 
Put together, these four things all make for a strange fictional world in classic Hollywood movies--a world full of dingy greyscale people who can't hold a normal conversation and are so uptight about sex that they don't even go to bed with their own spouses.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to study this strange fiction a little bit. I've taken three classes: American Cinema, Film Noir and Screenwriting, I've read three books on the subject, and I'm currently reading two more.

And what I've learned so far is that none of the things in that list above is true.

  1. I was surprised to learn in my American cinema class that people actually chose that hard-to-make-out greyscale film stock even though color film had already been invented. Color film became readily available in the '40s, but most directors didn't prefer it. They felt that black and white film did a better job of drawing the viewer in to the world of the story. I don't get this. I'm drawn in much better to a world where I can see what's going on, and to a world that feels like it could actually exist. Color helps a lot with both of those. 
  2. I had another surprise in my film noir class: Those underexposed scenes where half the picture is lost in darkness were shot that way on purpose. They actually had the technology to capture the whole image in a lot more clarity; they just didn't do it. Those deep shadows, I learned in class, were supposed to make the movies feel mysterious and suspenseful. (Hmm . . . I'm trying to watch a movie, but all I can see is random parts of images flashing by on the screen. A bunch of nearly-identical men seem to be engaged in some sort of activity, but because half the picture is gone, I can't tell what it is. I'm not feeling mysterious or suspenseful. I'm just feeling restless and a bit frustrated. I'm thinking that maybe I would enjoy this movie if I could just manage to see it.)

  3. Those unrealistic love-scene positions didn't come from bad acting. And all that stiffness about sex didn't come from the general culture at the time. It was the Hays Code. Before the Hays Code went into effect around 1934, movies were actually quite risque at times, and certainly they tended to be much more realistic in the way they portrayed people and their relationships. But under the Hays Code, there were rules to follow. No more than three seconds on a kiss. Twin beds for married couples. During a love scene, one actor had to keep at least one foot on the floor. None of this was the actors' fault. And in fact, the restrictive rules of the Hays Code tended to push actors, directors and writers to up their game. It must have taken a lot of talent and work to make so many movies from that era as good as they are. For example, I'm somewhat in awe of the contortions that the producers, writers, director, cast and crew had to go through to get Double Indemnity past the Hays Code censors.

  4. And the robotic conversations with the actors waiting their turns to spit out their lines? That wasn't bad acting, either. It was mandatory under the studio system. Director Sidney Lumet explains about the studio system in chapter nine of his book, Making Movies:
In the '30s and '40s, . . . [the] studio system was totally compartmentalized. . . . Sometimes, the director would go onto a movie only a week before shooting began. The art department had done the sets and picked the locations, if their were any. The casting department had drawn the cast from the pool of actors under contract to the studio. The camera department had assigned the cameraman, the costume department assigned the designer, etc. . . . When I think about it, it's quite amazing that so many good pictures were made. Out of this system, certain rules, not only of editing but of shooting the picture, were established by the editing department. For example, every scene had to be 'covered.' This meant it was mandatory for [each] scene to be shot [eight times, each with a specific camera angle stipulated by the studio]. . . . In addition to destroying any originality in the shooting of a picture, this system also put actors through hell . . . One of the rules that developed was "No overlaps." This meant, for example, that in a scene where two people were yelling at each other, one actor wouldn't speak, or "overlap," while the other actor was still speaking. In fact, on closeups, the actors had to leave a tiny pause between each other's lines so that the editor could cut the sound track. Of course, this made it very difficult to get life into a scene that required a fast tempo.

I guess the adage is right. The truth about Hollywood really is stranger than its fiction.

The Summer That Turned Me into a Language Fanatic

“I want to go to Indiana and learn the language there.” At four or five, that's what I was going to do when I grew up. I thought Indiana was where the Indians lived, and I was going to move there and do some important work or other to make life better for them. Whether I was thinking of Native Americans or people from India, I can’t say, but most likely I just thought they were all the same people. 

Most of what I knew about "Indians," I had learned from authors like Richard Scarry and Rudyard Kipling, so you can imagine what kind of culture I thought I would find when I got to Indiana. 

Detail of a Richard Scarry
children's book illustration

But I had a reason to be so focused on the language. A summer or two before, my parents were getting ready to be Christian missionaries and had enrolled in Wycliffe Bible Translators' Summer Institute of Linguistics. This is a program of accelerated graduate-level courses designed to prepare missionary candidates to be Bible translators. Wycliffe Bible Translators sends out teams all over the world to people groups who speak unwritten languages. Each team (usually a married couple or two close friends) commits to learn the language, figure out how to write it, teach the people to read and translate portions of the Bible. It usually means a lifetime of hard work, and the training is appropriately intense.

But for me, the Summer Institute of Linguistics was just a lot of fun. Our family lived together in a university dorm room, and my parents would spend the evenings studying. Since they were taking the same courses, they would often study aloud together. As they struggled to pronounce sounds from various languages, my young mind picked them up quickly, and I went around repeating them in the typical joyful outbursts of a three-year-old. One of my happy memories from that summer is zipping around the crowded dorm room trilling Rs while my father tried unsuccessfully to master the sound. 

At the end of the training, my parents were not chosen to be Bible translators. But that summer would prove to have a profound and lifelong impact on my brain development. Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child explains it this way: "Early [life] experiences affect the quality of [the brain's] architecture by establishing . . . a . . . foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, so that brain circuits become more efficient." So it was a lucky accident that I got such a concentrated exposure to linguistics at such a young age. It built the foundation for me to have a lifelong interest and ability in languages. 

The backlash against the backlash against the Supir-Whorf hypothesis makes for riveting reading in my opinion. But since I don't expect most of you to share my enthusiasm, I'll spare you the details. What matters for this story is that scientists are still figuring out exactly how much our early exposure to language helps shape our thinking, and how much our culture's collective thinking helps shape our language. My own fascination with languages has always been inseparable from my interest in the cultures of the people who speak them.

I grew up reading the Wycliffe newsletter, In Other Words, and occasionally attending their fundraising banquets with my parents. I devoured old issues of National Geographic whenever I came across them, and I think I was nine the first time I read a college-level anthropology textbook called Customs and Cultures. I know I was nine when I began studying Greek.

In my twenties, I had the opportunity to take the US military's Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), which is designed to measure a person's ability to learn new languages. I don't remember what my score was, but I do remember it was the highest one that particular proctor had ever seen. An Army recruiter who saw the score didn't believe it. He told me that DLAB scores don't go that high.

And yet, I don't speak any foreign languages fluently. I felt guilty about that for a while. It seemed like I was wasting my talents, and I felt somehow obligated to learn ten or twenty languages just because I could. I thought the fact that I wasn't racking up languages meant I had a character defect--that I couldn't stick with one language long enough to master it. Start something, abandon it, start something, abandon it: I was a gifted loser.

Then one day it hit me. I'm not lazy or lacking in follow-through. I don't learn to speak foreign languages because I don't want to. Yes, I love languages, but I only want to study them. I want to compare their grammars, look for patterns in their vocabularies and examine the complex relationship between language and culture. I'm happy to figure out what your printer is saying when its help screen is stuck in Turkish (or some other language I don't know.) But learning to speak foreign languages well doesn't particularly interest me. 

Maybe one day I'll learn to stop trying to fit the mold of what "someone like me" is "supposed to do." I have a feeling that lesson might take a lifetime to learn. But for now, I'm just glad to know I'm not a loser after all, but in my own quirky little way (just like every other person on this planet), I am gifted.

What I Learned in Drawing Class

The most important thing I learned in drawing class was that most peopleeven most artistscan’t draw.  

We’ve all heard it so many times, and if you’re like me, you’ve even said it yourself: “I can’t draw.” 

I have often thought how nice it must be to see a picture in your head and have the ability to just grab a pen and transfer it onto paper. I see a picture in my head, but all that ends up on the paper are some lines that don’t look like anything.

"Why do I have a hole in my head?"
Image: ElisaRiva on Pixabay

And it gets worse. Even though I can't draw, that still doesn't stop me from being critical of people who can. Call it jealousy or whatever, but it seems like every time I see a halfway decent drawing, I can't help noticing all the things the artist did wrong. Okay, it's not wrong because it's a creative work, so the artist can do anything they want to. But still, my head won't stop saying, "It would be easier to tell what this was if this line were rounder," or "Why does this person's head have a hole it it?" Then, of course, I kick myself for being awful because here I am criticizing someone's drawing when I can't even draw at all.

But what I learned in drawing class is that this kind of "not being able to draw" is perfectly normal. It happens to pretty much everyone, even talented artists. Even the artists I keep criticizing because I'm an awful person.

Wait. If it's true that even most talented artists "can't draw"they can't just see a mental image and transfer it directly onto paperthen how does anyone ever draw anything?

Well, it turns out that I'm really not such an awful person after all. That critic's voice that I kept beating myself up for actually is my drawing talent. I can't speak for other people, but the way I draw is to go ahead and make those lines that don’t look like anything, and then improve them little by little by listening to that inner critic. I just keep making those nothing-lines a little better and a little better until, eventually, they look like something. 

That’s not all there is to it, of course. My drawing course had the usual lessons on geometric shapes and vanishing points. I learned about creating textures, about why it matters which direction my lines go in, and how things look flatter and flatter as they fade into the distance. But finding out that pretty much everyone else on the planet also "can't draw" was the big secret that got me from “I can’t draw” to actually drawing. 

Part of my final project for the
drawing class.