Windows Into the Past

Pictures”, is what my grandpa used to call them. He’d never say “movies” or “films.” They were always pictures. Usually there was some kind of adjective to go along with them: a “rotten picture1” or a “funny picture2.” Regardless, they were always pictures to him. I like the term and I try to use it from time-to-time, antiquated though it may be.

I began thinking about pictures before heading into the office this morning. I saw that 80 years ago, if you went to the local movie house, you’d probably be able to catch a matinee of College Humor (a funny picture, grandpa would say) starring George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Bing Crosby. I don’t know what it was about seeing that combination (I am a fan of all three actors, but a big fan of Bing) that set my mind running, but I think it was the sudden, striking duality time took at that moment. For, you see, 80 years, by modern historical standards, does not seem very long at all. And yet, at a very personal level, 80 years seems like a lifetime.

It seems strange to me to think that 80 years ago, you could find Bing, Geoerge and Gracie on screen together; stranger still if you consider the movie had to have been made a least a little while before its release. 80 years seems so close, and yet two of the three actors have been dead for decades; George for 17 years. And yet consider how much the world has changed since you could walk into the local movie house and see College Humor for a nickel.

I took a history and film class in college as an elective. It was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken and one thing I took from it was that any picture is made in the context of its time, and therefore mirrors that context back in everything about it. It can’t be helped and it can’t be avoided. A science fiction film made in the 1930s tells you a lot about the 1930s. So does a drama, or a comedy, or an arty film.

If film had existed 80 years before 1933–back in 1853–Bing and George and Gracie would have been able to watch a picture filmed in the decade before the Civil War. Such films would have carried the context of those times as well. Of course, motion pictures did not exist in 1853, but they did exist in 1933, and we have managed to preserve them, and ultimately that will have the strange effect of bringing the past closer and closer to future generations.

Driving into the office, I considered that in the year 2172–when I would be roughly 200 years old–people will still be able to watch College Humor with Bing and George and Gracie. It will likely still be understandable, as it is today, although our culture has evolved somewhat. And whereas I wonder at the fact that 80 years seems like such a great gulf, the folks who see the picture in 2172 will perhaps marvel that what they are seeing is really 240 years old. If we could watch a 240 year-old movie today, it would have been produced at roughly the time of the American Revolution.

Movie are windows into the past. When I consider that 80 years ago, George and Gracie and Bing were alive and well and making movies, good or bad, like College Humor, well, there is something nice about that. And something sad, too, because they are all gone, and their movies remain behind, like ghosts, doomed to repeat their lines over and over again so long as there are people to watch them.

  1. Anything with too much sex or violence fell into this category for him.
  2. The Goonies fell into this category for him.

One thought on “Windows Into the Past

  1. Interesting thoughts — it certainly will give the future a very different view of our lives than we’ve had of the past. I love films. I especially like going to the theater where I can totally immerse myself in the experience without interruptions, side comments.

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