Movies for Adults

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By Paulina Borsook

When the movies really were better.

In the early 90s when I was getting my MFA in the writing division, School of the Arts, at Columbia University in the City of New York, I took a class in film editing (that is, how you construct narrative through editing and not on how you use tools such as straight razors or Final Cut Pro) with Ralph Rosenblum, who edited The Pawnbroker and a few of Woody Allen's best movies. It was the class that really beat into me that storytelling is as much about what you leave out as what you leave in, and that editing makes a story. I was in my mid-30s at the time and knew I had already seen the movies the instructor was going to screen, with the exception of the interesting failure, Jacob's Ladder (marking the first time I'd see the lefty thinking girl's fox, Tim Robbins).

I had been thinking for years that the movies of my youth were so much better than what was around at the time - but one never wants to be in that position, of shrieking about young people today and the decline of just about everything and turn down that goddamned loud tuneless music!

But it was true. The movies he screened from the 1960s and 1970s were better than practically anything I had seen in a decade. They were movies made for adults, even if they had been mainstream movies and/or nominally rated PG. They made presumptions about the intelligence of their audience, didn't need things to be boldly spelled out, and they were predicated on the assumption that their audience was capable of making inferences. No semaphoring! No high-concept! Satire as opposed to scatology! Shades of gray in motive and character! Minimum numbers of car crashes! No fish out of water! No hilarious mixups!

My paper for the class was basically a lamentation along these lines (that the movies of the late 60s and early 70s were movies for adults, and just generally better) - and it got me an A, probably because Ralph Rosenblum himself (who died a few years later of a heart attack) was experiencing the same disaffection with the work being offered to him at the time as I was with the work I was being offered to watch. The A was for solidarity, not for proof of having mastered the material.

What put me in mind of this was a flight I took recently from Newark to San Francisco. My attitude about inflight movies is that watching them is part of the touristic experience, and normal standards don't apply, and what gets watched on the plane, stays on the plane. No expectations of anything other than dipping into popular culture and enjoying the quaint natives in their colorful costumes.

The movie on offer was The Interpreter, and since I generally loathe Nicole Kidman, and the reviews I'd read called the thing "old-fashioned," my expectations were along the lines of, "If I can suffer through an Adam Sandler vehicle on a transcontinental flight, I can put up with almost anything."

But here was a movie like the ones I miss, in that...

  • The female characters didn't simper, and didn't seem like 30 going on 13 (hey, wasn't there...). They were about themselves, subject rather than object.
  • The male characters had interior lives that made them seem human, creatures capable of emotional nuance.

In short, the characters were like adults we know but almost never see in movies.


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