Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Preoccupied with the vanishing celluloid crowds

I see dead people

OK, some people might feel like this post is a downer, but I have to be honest about where I'm at, which is somewhat reflective right now.

For those of you not there yet, I will tell you something:  Your 40th birthday is no big deal.  You're still good-looking, fit, and if you've taken care of yourself, still part of the "young" half of the planet.  You're a little (or a lot) wiser than you were at 20, and maybe you have a few gray hairs or a permanent slight mini-pouch from your pregnancies, but all in all, things still look pretty good.

50 is another story.

50 is different not because you necessarily feel any differently than you did at, say, 49, but because the number is significant.  It's half a freaking century, for heaven's sake.  And unless you are someone special (like my Uncle Earl, who passed peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of 104) there is every chance in the world that you are well past the halfway point of your life by the time the big 5-0 comes to call.

Your fifties are also the age when the generation that came right before you is on its way out.  My mother is still with us and still healthy, but she's 80 years old and is losing siblings and friends right, left and center.  My godmother has dementia and can no longer remember her grandchildren or what she had for breakfast today. My father's ashes were scattered at sea 25 years ago, and my grandparents are also long gone, relics from the bronze age at this point.

It's a sobering thing.

So here's how it hits me:  I watch old movies on television, and they get to me because, lets face it, if it's from the 1940's or even 1950's, almost everyone in them is dead.  That's right, while others see crowd scenes filled with hundreds of costumed extras and crowds of background performers, I see a crowd of....well....dead people.  Plus, depending on the film, dead horses, long dead dogs, and a way of life that is completely changed.  

Now lest you think I'm a total downer, I'm not.  In some ways, it's kind of fun seeing the phones that plug into the wall, the old automobiles, the bullet bras and the odd kitchen gadgets.  But the faces haunt me, because I know they're either gone or so old as to be unrecognizable. And I'm conscious that the things I remember from my own childhood are getting to the same obsolete place -- fast.

My friend Rod's mother, for instance, was a dancer on the stage and in film.  She was in the first stage company of "Oklahoma," was featured on the cover of "Life" magazine, and was a principal dancer in both the film of "Oklahoma" and the movie "Carousel."
My friend's mom, roof dancer on the far right
 I saw her on TCM last weekend and there she was, fresh, young and lovely, dancing her way across the locations and movie set of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic film.  In today's world, she is very old and stricken with dementia if I remember correctly.  But on my television screen she is young and vibrant, once again and forever.

And that's the thing about those of us who were born in the 20th century.  We are among the first generations who have ever been archived, documented and preserved so well for posterity -- on celluloid, on Kodak, and on readable disc.  But while the images of us that flicker across our screens will never change, we most certainly will.  And seeing the generation before mine begin to pass out of existence is a hugely sobering thing.

I try not to dwell on it in a depressed way, but rather to take note of it in a way that gives my life more meaning and makes the days more important.  When I realize that my entire generation is going to pass away along with me, I feel better, because I realize I have comrades in arms as we get ready to shoot the rapids into whatever comes next.  But to realize that we're next generation into the boats, it certainly gives me pause to reflect.  I see it in the mirror.  I see it in the faces of the crowds in the films, the crowds of people who are all gone now.  

And I see it in the world around me, which is now centered around the young adults of the next generation, as it should be.  As it was when I was their age.  And I turn my face towards those rapids, those most certain and unavoidable rapids where the generation before me is passing, and where we're headed next.  

And sometimes I look backward to what was with a little nostalgia, some sadness, and the realization that someday, my generation will be just like the crowds in the old movies I watch now -- long gone, us and our horses and our dogs and our gadgets. And it's a strange feeling, a feeling I wish someone would coin a term for, but they won't, ever, because we never coin terms for things we're too uncomfortable to acknowledge, however universal and inevitable they may be.


  1. Haha I have actually had this thought too! I sort of feel like it's so wonderful to have people, as they really were, immortalized in film. But on the other hand it seems so weird! My great grandmother used to be on TV and I'm constantly looking for old clips and I can't ever find one. Sometimes I think it would be so exciting and comforting to see her young and alive, and sometimes I think it would freak me out. Who knows. I doubt I'll ever find any clips anyway.

    1. As long as YouTube continues to add to its archives, there's always a chance she will show up there someday! I think it is comforting, but also sad to see how young and vibrant people once were. Kind of makes you wish everyone was ageless when you see the damage time does to everyone.