I don’t watch a lot of movies. Cheryl and I go to the theater once or twice a year. Most of the stuff that comes out is not worth my time. There are a few exceptions and there have been some high quality, non-offensive movies in recent years, but not many. I am also aware there were some pretty poor movies made before 1970. But there were some made that set a higher standard for acting, social commentary, and ethical presentation.
I am thinking of movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original), "To Kill a Mocking Bird," “Good-by Mr. Chips,” “Shane,” “Old Yeller,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (original). One of my favorites is “The Yearling” starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman. Cheryl and I watched it last night. We brought it along on this trip because we knew we would be visiting the Ocala National Forrest and Juniper Springs in the general region where the story is set. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings won a Pulitzer for the original novel by the same name. She based the story on characters she knew in the Cross Creek region in central Florida during the early twentieth century.
Rawlings captures the flavor of the old cracker south, the south that could still easily be found in my childhood. I had relatives who lived much like the Baxter family of the movie, houses that were not sealed, no running water, subsistence farming. My parents both grew up in that setting, living just like the characters in the movie and in similar environs. They spoke often of their childhood when men got together on Friday nights to drink and fight; in his youth, Dad was a bona fide practitioner of the ritual. In short, I can identify with this movie because it is a movie about my people.
I especially identify with it because the Penny and Ora Baxter were a lot like my parents. Both were complex characters, each was strong, assertive, and submissive. They had a mystical understanding of each other and a loving devotion that could not be broken. We plan to watch the movie again soon just to reflect on it as a case study in gender studies. The characters do not fit the mold of conservative traditionalists any more than they fit the more recent gender liberation movements.
I appreciate the tone of the movie. It reveals the culture as it was, warts and all, without dishonoring the people. Lawlessness is countered by heroic figures who work hard to preserve their values and pass them on to their offspring. There is a certain realism as the flaws of the main characters are explored and the graces of the antagonists are exposed as well. The depths of human relationships are explored without flaunting sex or glorifying violence.
In this coming-of-age story, coming-of-age means far more than freedom to self-direct; it requires responsibility to act responsibly. The great movies entertain and they educate; they challenge us to move out of our comfort zones and identify with the human condition, to reach toward our own self-improvement. And they honor humanity in the process. They do not debase the sanctity of the marital covenant because it is trendy to do so. Instead, they explore the deeper textures of human relationships. Textures that cannot be teased out in the presence of gratuitously explicit sex scenes.
I am thankful for these classic movies and long for someone to pick up the mantel for the coming generation.
July 25, 2010