It has been several months since I have been sufficiently enticed by a movie’s trailer and synopsis to want to make a special trip to the theater to see it. Technology has advanced to the point where any special effect can be created with plausibility; virtual worlds look real and we can experience them in three dimensions.
While the much-lauded Avatar was beautifully portrayed and contained a notable message, it doesn’t leave an indelible imprint on my mind as did the more basically animated Disney movies of my youth. The “classic” cartoons I watched at five years old – Bugs Bunny, Wil E. Coyote and other Looney Tunes – seem to have more character and substance than the artfully drawn but surface shows filling today’s children’s heads.
Is this nostalgia, or is the quality of entertainment in decline?
The other day I was browsing Netflix. Again, it takes a lot for me to want to push play and stare at a screen for a couple hours. Usually I wind up watching a documentary, independent film, foreign film, or historical drama. Most movies are just so banal as to seem a complete waste of time. I came across an older film, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman and based on a play by Tennessee Williams, and gave it a try.
It was riveting. The entire movie takes place in one house; there are no car chases, no drugs, deaths or sex. No murders or affairs or alternate realities or wars. Just a family and a dying father: intelligent, dignified, nuanced, and true-to-life dialogue from characters so complex and wonderfully acted as to become real human beings. Just watching the interplay and the faces; the way the script hints at myriad human emotions, was remarkable. Near the end, as the aforementioned dying father finally comes to terms with his son (Paul Newman) at the climax of the film, I actually cried. And I hardly ever cry.
Also, and I have noticed this in other classic films like Gone with the Wind and The Long, Hot Summer (also from 1958 and starring Paul Newman and his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward) – they are inordinately sexy. Yet, the word ‘sex’ – let alone much more graphic and commonly heard words – is never mentioned. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elizabeth Taylor plays a sensual, young wife who is simply dying to go to bed with her reticent husband. You can tell by the way she looks at him and looks at their bed; and the way she says the phrase that gives the movie its title: “I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!”
What she is saying is that she is wildly horny, as is Joanne Woodward’s character in The Long, Hot Summer. But instead of being cheap and crude, their sexuality is sparkling, sophisticated and strikingly real. Their frustrations, delayed gratifications, complex relationships, morals, dreams; all create a multi-faceted, pulsating woman who is hard to forget.
Similarly, I rarely go wild over a contemporary novel. My favorites are Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; I love Goethe’s Faust and Homer’s Iliad. Of course, there are towering contemporary geniuses like David Foster Wallace. There are many amazing books and movies. I just feel like the intelligence and quality has somehow, in some way, degraded. Most of today’s “entertainment” does not challenge me intellectually or resound with my inner self; it rarely provokes thought, inspires deep emotion or stays with me in any significant way.
I myself could never hope to craft the prose of say, Dante or Byron. And it makes me wonder how malleable our mentalities are. The ancient Greeks believed that every human being should strive for arête, an excellence in mind, spirit and body. Knowledge, wisdom and aesthetics were actively pursued. And our finest philosophies and most timeless plays were produced from this matrix.
I think that the way children are educated and their environment can encourage or hinder their growth, much like how a plant flourishes only under ideal conditions. The standard public school system does not stimulate deep, creative, abstract thought as did exposing them to Latin, Greek, music, art, history, geography and other classic subjects and expecting mastery as opposed to memorization.