Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Gray in black and white

My kids don't really like black and white movies unless they involve the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton. Since I tend to be a devotee of older films, that can be a problem, especially since there are so many great movies to share with them that were filmed in black and white. I'm not sure if the problem is the lack of color, though. The larger problem might be the black and white movies that I prefer have so much gray in them.

I'm not talking about chroma. I'm talking about moral themes and how the world of adults are portrayed in some of the great movies of yesteryear. In the last two weeks, I've watched two films that are universally acknowledged as classics - Casablanca and The Third Man. These are films that have unmistakable moral messages. You likely know the stories - Rick (Humphery Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) may always have Paris, but give up a future together to help the noble but surprisingly plasterboard Victor Lazlo escape from the clutches of the Nazis. In The Third Man, Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten) learns a lot more than he probably wanted to know about his old college chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles), one of the more memorable villains in film history, as he locates and then chases Lime through the sewers of a bombed-out post-war Vienna.

Although the main themes are clear enough, the choices that the characters must make in these films involve a lot of complexity. In some respects both movies are about faith; Rick Blaine must rediscover the ideals he once held even as he confronts giving up potential happiness. Holly Martens thinks of himself as a worldly enough fellow, but what he learns in Vienna shatters not only his image of his friend, but also his assumptions about human nature. These are rich topics for a story and I'm not sure that such themes are part of the cinema these days. It's a lot easier to smash up cars than have a villain discuss the relative historical and cultural contributions of Italian principalities vs. the Swiss, as Harry Lime so memorably does. I suspect that modern audiences don't know who the Borgias are.

And that's the challenge; I worry that my kids may never learn such things unless I teach them. My son Ben loves history and he can relate details about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and both World Wars in amazing detail; he'd likely be a natural for that "Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader" show that's on television now. But he watched these movies with me and it was clear that while he understood the plot, he didn't understand how the characters made their choices and what the import of those choices were. Perhaps it's a bit much to ask for an 11-year old to understand these things, but I hope he will. It is my job to teach him and I intend to; in a world filled with Pokemon and Transformers and spectacle, redolent of nihilism, it's crucial.


Ben Worley said...

Mr. D, I should have written this days ago, but better late than never. I know that you're not in the Minnesota Organization of Bloggers (yet?), but we are having a shindig at Keegan's in NE Minneapolis tonight. It's a very casual affair (family friendly) and you would certainly be welcome. In fact, I've sometimes wondered why you haven't joined up since it's an incredibly easy process (basically emailing a guy with your url). Anyways, if you've got time this evening (6-10 or so) feel free to drop on by.

BTW, Keegan's is on Hennepin and University.

Mark said...

Hey Ben,

Probably should join one of these days - I blog for my own amusement as much as anything else, but I try to make serious arguments when I choose. I'll try to get there for the next one. I have a feeling it would be a good time.

I also hear that Keegan's has a pub quiz and that part intrigues me, too....