Movies and the Meaning of Life
With this column we introduce our newest writer. Ron Seyb is a Skidmore professor. While his official title is "Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair in Government," we tend to think of him as less a chair and more a recliner. A nice, evenly worn and slightly tattered Lazy Boy. We also consider him to be one of the funniest guys around Saratoga.
One of my and my wife’s friends claims that “A city must be within 50 miles of a major sports franchise to have culture.” I confess that when I re-located to Saratoga Springs almost 25 years ago I was inclined to agree with her. I have since, however, learned that, to paraphrase Seinfeld’s David Puddy, I do not “Gotta support the team” in order to be fulfilled.
There is, nonetheless, one cultural facilitator that Saratoga Springs has lacked since the closing several years ago of Broadway Joe’s in Congress Plaza: a movie theater. The Saratoga Film Forum does a splendid job on weekends during the non-summer months of providing residents of this city with movie screenings, but its reach, like that of most purveyors of independent and foreign films, is limited. The absence of a year-round theater sporting fare that can appeal to a variety ages and demographics has been, to my mind, a Tim Gunn caliber “concern.”
I was therefore heartened to learn that plans for an 11 screen theater located in the space formerly occupied by the Price Chopper on Railroad Place are moving forward thanks to a series of tax exemptions granted to the developer, Sonny Bonacio, by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency. Now, one might aver that Saratoga Springs does not need a Cineplex since the Regal Cinemas dreadnought is docked just a few miles down the arterial in Wilton. I would contend, however, that there is no ceiling on the number of movie theaters from which a city can benefit. I say this not because I firmly believe that That’s My Boy must be available on at least four screens (35 millimeter print, 3D print, IMAX print, and Extra Crispy) within walking distance of every home. I say it because I believe that the erosion of the cultural norm of “going to the movies” has caused America to be on the cusp of losing a generation.
My nephews are part of this incipient lost generation. They are four young men, ranging in age from 12 to 20, who are smart, responsible, and tolerant of even their uncle’s screaming, “Run the picket fence!” at their basketball games. I would expect such sterling young men to have developed by now an ardent love for the movies. My nephews’ knowledge of film is, however, inferior to mine and my peers at the same age. They do watch a few films repeatedly, most of which feature either Denzel Washington or Matthew McConaughey constructing football teams out of the human equivalent of slag. But the breadth of their movie knowledge is small. It is as if they decided to go to a liberal arts college to major in Turtle Wax. I suppose that such a major would have value, provided that one wished to simonize one’s car over, and over, and over again.
I concede that my adolescent desire to consume theatrical releases was at least partially due to the paucity of movies on television when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Each of the television networks did have its “Movie of the Week,” but the movies they screened were movies in the same way that The Bay City Rollers was a musical act: Fine if one’s alternative for getting some stimulation was electroshock therapy, but so forgettable that five minutes after they ended one could not remember if Patty Duke was creating the bioengineered monkey army in the lab in Antarctica or was trying to destroy it.
The place for entertainment when I was growing up was the movie theater. But the movie theater offered me more than entertainment. It also taught me an important lesson, one that I found to be liberating at a time when the prospect of reading The Grapes of Wrath was as welcome to me as the prospect of dying in an oil well fire: Movies express important ideas. The following exchange from Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, constituted both my first and my most compelling encounter with the problem of moral ambiguity:
Rene Belloq: “You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.”
Indiana Jones: “Now you’re getting nasty.”
I thus did not need formal instruction in philosophy or theology to learn that moral clarity was something to be desired but never attained under modern conditions. Belloq and Indy prepared me for an adulthood that offered me many opportunities to see both the light and the dark in others. And as my memory of the two warring archaeologists began to wane as I aged, Matt Damon was considerate enough to give me Jason Bourne to remind me that we all contain multitudes.
My wife and I decided this past holiday season to make one last bid to push our nephews into the light by purchasing for them twelve “culturally influential movies.” Our selection ranged from The Godfather to Top Gun to Animal House. Where are these DVDs now we wonder? We know, alas, that between “the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” But we continue to hope that perhaps one day at least one of our nephews will reach into the darkness to pull out a disc, pop it into the DVD player, and learn the lesson that we most wish to impress on them: “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
ON THE WIRE