Sunday, July 20, 2008

MAD about Movies

Mary Ann de Stefano

As young girls, my little sister Louise and I could often be found sitting in front of our big console TV, just as we are in this photo. In those days, there were few channels to watch, but on weekends at least one station gave the whole afternoon over to old movies. Many cold winter days, when our mother couldn’t send us out to play, we fed on popcorn and classic films.

Rapt, we soaked in stories and images that became inextricably mixed with our real life experiences. So mixed, that decades later, my sister can say one word -- Mamselle -- just as it was spoken in the lesser-known Bette Davis movie All This and Heaven, Too, and the sound of it will dredge up a whole raft of attitudes and memories we don’t have to speak about to know we share.

Of course the themes of many movies we saw went way over our young heads, but even so, the movies made an imprint. Fred and Ginger, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and other Hollywood stars were our teachers. We learned about greed from the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, evil from the Night of the Hunter, honor from Casablanca, religious zeal and hypocrisy from Elmer Gantry, romantic love from scads of films, and much more.

We didn’t take movies all that seriously at the time. We didn’t feel their stories seeping into our bones in ways that would affect how we grappled with life's big questions as we matured. Movies merely enthralled us. Little did we know that they were artfully drawing us into thinking, feeling, and synthesizing a world well beyond the limited one our small town, little house, and busy parents could offer us.

And that’s the value of art, storytelling, the movies. They prod us to explore ideas, emotions, and meaning that our own physical experiences may not encourage. They invite us to create deeper relationships with the world, with others, and with ourselves. They open us up to possibility.

Hours and hours of movie-watching probably warped us in some ways. Perhaps I believe a little too much in love conquering all, happy endings, and tough guys with mushy hearts. Perhaps I am a little too naive about the power of good over evil, and too disappointed adult life doesn’t hold more occasions for evening gowns, tuxedos, and art deco settings. People hardly ever break out into song on sweeping staircases.

Sometimes they do, though. Once, in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, I heard a woman, high above the rush hour bustle, break into song on the marble staircase. Her operatic voice filled the cavernous space and brought commuters on the main concourse to a standstill. It was just the sort of magic moment that you might think could only happen in the movies -- but this was reality.

Anything is possible.

Mary Ann de Stefano posts about film’s life lessons and other pleasures of the cinema. Her childhood fascination with classic movies on a flickering TV screen delivered glimpses into adult life that led her to believe the answers to all life’s questions could be found in movies. When she’s not at a multiplex theater, an alternative cinema, or home watching movies, Mary Ann is a writer, editor and writing coach doing business as MAD about Words. Named for a play on her initials and passion for writing, her company also nurtures creativity through workshops and the Lounge -- a free networking website for writers. She writes short fiction and personal essays and lives in Winter Park, Florida.

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