The Years That Pass That Are Not Past

When I was a kid—10, 12 years old and later—I used to stay up late at night on Fridays and Saturdays and watch old movies. Monster movies hosted by Ghoulardi on channel 8 in Cleveland, for a while there, in the early sixties, but later, just about anything—film noir from the 1940s and 1950s, Shane and other Westerns, old adventure movies, and particularly pictures from the very early talkie era, which for some reason fascinated me. Carole Lombard and George Raft dancing in some movie whose name I forget. Bruce Cabot in a Western whose name escapes me. A film noir from the 1950s which haunts me still; I have to track this one down. A guy crosses the mob, runs off to Mexico, and then for some reason is able to come back to the city of darkness. He makes amends or the guy who double-crossed him gets fingered and pays his dues, and the protagonist—I keep thinking it is Richard Conte—at the end is able to start a new life. He goes outside. His girl, a woman he met in Mexico or something, is waiting for him across the street. They smile at each other. She starts to cross the street to greet him when, bam, a car comes out of nowhere, skids into her and kills her, and any chance Richard Conte or whoever it was had for building a new life and actually being able to make something of himself, that is now gone, too.

I have to find out which movie that was. It kind of haunts me. Everything that film noir was about, for me, is in that scene. Guys who’ve never had a break, who have always been kept down no matter how much they fought back, guys who understood completely that life is unfair and basically meaningless, finally get a chance at something, and then it gets taken from them, or they get smashed down one last time, in some impersonal way that would be cruel if the universe or anybody gave a shit about these poor slobs, if anything meant anything. It’s Greek tragedy. These were Greek tragedies, these film noir pictures. Hubris doesn’t mean that your character was your fate or that you had to be noble to suffer; hubris means that stuff happens randomly, there is no way to prevent it, and you get knocked down just because. In fact, there is no because. You get knocked down, The End. Character is, Yeah, shit happens, but I just keep going. These grandparents and parents of ours who made it through the Great Depression and World War II—that’s character. They developed character. That’s tragedy, and that’s the character that comes from tragedy.

(I wondered, as a kid, why my parents would spend their early adulthood in the late fifties and early sixties, sitting on the couch or relaxing in an easy chair at the end of the day, watching boring Andy Griffith Christmas specials or predictable variety shows or mediocre sitcoms until I realized, much later, that they had earned that right to do that by living through so much crap, the Great Depression and World War II and every deprivation, material and spiritual, that went with those events.)

I ramble in this way because, as my seven-year-old daughter tells me, “Dad, you have too many words.” Also, I ramble in this way because watching those old movies late at night, sometimes every night during summer vacation when I was 14, 15, 16, ties in with how I appreciate time. This is odd, but here it is: the old TV Guide, the digest size that anyone over 30 or 40 grew up with, always listed the movie title, I think, with Movie in bold caps (Futura? Helvetica?) and then, if I recall correctly, a dash, followed by the movie’s genre: Western. Melodrama. Comedy. Adventure. Romance. Maybe they used Romance; I’m not sure. Monster movies, I remember, were always labeled Melodrama, a term I recall looking up when I was I don’t know how young. Then you’d get the release date in parentheses, and then the famous TV Guide capsule summary which was nothing more or less than the logline for the movie. These descriptions were gems of precision.

The release dates in parentheses put these things in perspective for me. I was born in 1952. Here was a Western that was released in 1952, so I have something in common with that movie in terms of time. A war picture—I wasn’t really drawn to those the way many of my peers were—but a war picture would be from the 40s. My old man had been in the war, and that was (I would count) so many years before I was born. I’d heard about the Depression from people in the neighborhood and my grandparents—that put movies from the Depression in perspective. (My dad’s mom loved the old Universal monster pictures from the early 30s and also had a special fondness, I recall, for White Zombie, which, as ancient and slow as it no doubt seems to viewers today, still for me has a creepiness lacking even in the Universal movies. It may be the very lack of artfulness that makes White Zombie seem airless, vacant, hollow, allows it to fulfill its sense of stasis, slow-moving death, emptiness, doom.)

From those parenthetical release dates for movies, I pulled together a sense of America in the twentieth century, so that, when I learned some historical fact or other, I fit it into the period familiar to me from the movies. The Progressive era and the Jazz Age were silent movies, and the more of those I saw, the more I understood how electrifying these movies must have been to their audiences, sound or no sound. Movies (originally the term was used to slander the newcomers in Los Angeles who made pictures—the people, not the product) moved. They were about speed, energy, youth; they were about what was becoming the American Century.

Oddly, then, I carry around this weird sense of feeling in many ways very familiar with stretches of history I did not live through. The Great Depression is not remote; it was when George Raft danced with Carole Lombard and Paul Muni was on a chain gang and Humphrey Bogart met his Dead End at the hands of Joel McCrae, at the same time that my dad’s father worked for the railroad and kept his family together that way. It was when Mr. Jones across the street worked for the Girard Coal Company, I think its name was, and did okay, and it was when Mr. Grinnalds next door hit the road as a young man and looked for work, traveling from Virginia to Pittsburgh to Youngstown, and that was “back when I was smoking Luckies,” as he said to me once, as though a way to tell time is by which brand of cigarettes you smoked or which car you drove or which girl you were dating.

So this history is relevant and recent for me, and my appreciation of it did indeed start with watching Shane and The Bride of Frankenstein and Prince of Players on Friday and Saturday nights when I was a kid. How, then, does anyone else for whom bygone history is recent history measure that span that keeps things alive, recent, almost within living memory? Do scientists carry around a time map such as this with dates or places in which Nils Bohr and Michael Faraday are plugged in, so that time for a scientist who is alive now is squashed into stepping stones of relevant years, so that the years that have passed are not past? Artists must feel that way. Musicians must. The past is never past for musicians because they seem always to be building on what has gone before them, in the same way that scientists do. Painters. Some writers, some novelists. For many people it is, no doubt, the history of their families or their neighborhood that provides the path of stepping stones, their church, the local business or businesses. How empty those of us must be who try to live new and fresh at every moment as though there were no moments before, only this one, so that they must constantly catch up, compete, be rewarded, be recognized, be paid attention to. For what? For a moment? These restless people are beads from a broken necklace rolling all over the place, no longer connected, no longer sensible or part of something recognizable, less than alone. Sadness. Madness, a kind of madness, such a life.

I have too many words, as Lily says, but when I start putting them down, the past is not past, as Faulkner said, and I begin to feel a connection with anyone else who runs a race with his or her own moving mind, trying to get the words down as precisely and as soon as possible so that whatever is inside becomes outside, becomes expressed—words, music, even science, maybe.

For the life of me, though, I still cannot recall the name of that Richard Conte movie, and when I checked his filmography on IMDB, I didn’t find it. I don’t think it is a Richard Conte movie. I have misremembered a stepping stone.

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