We See Dead People

When I was a teenager, we had a neighbor next door who lived in the same house since the mid-1930s. She had a sister who was a pack rat, and subscribed to magazines and news papers, and never threw them away. Rather, she put them in the garage. After fifty years of this, the garage was full. Since my neighbor’s sister passed away, my neighbor asked me if I would clean out the garage for her for a sum, and said I could keep whatever I found in the garage.

The house was a nice thirties-style California house, two stories, with stucco and a Spanish tile roof, and three huge avocado trees in the backyard. The garage was detached, and was just big enough for a decent sized DeSoto if it weren’t for the fact that it was fully stuffed with newspapers and magazines. Over the next week, I attacked the garage.

The garage was a time machine. When I opened the garage door, I was confronted with stacks and stacks of relatively recent newspapers. Most of what I found was, at least to me, just a bunch of papers, and so I recycled virtually all them. However, I hit pay dirt when I got to the 1930s and ’40s, which was about 80% into the garage. I found dozens of copies of magazines like GQ, Look, Liberty, Life, and others. I kept a lot of them, and sold a number to used book stores in Hollywood.

The magazines I really prized, and the ones I still have today, were from the ’30s: The first few years of “Look” magazine, and a pile of “Motion Picture” and “Photoplay” mags. These magazines were so beautiful! The colors of the covers were so rich, with pictures of the stars, like Deanna Durbin, Olivia De Havilland, Delores Del Rio, Sonia Henny, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. I fell in love with the glamor that was 1930s Hollywood. All the stars were dressed to the nines. They all drove huge Duesenbergs, Cords, and Lincolns, and smoked Lucky Strikes (with the green pack), or Camels, or Chesterfields. They all smiled, and when they were not smiling, they were fighting over some man. It was a walk into a world that was vivid and alive before me, but which no longer existed.

I have a box set of movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first few movies were from the years 1929 through 1937: “Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,”and “The Life of Emile Zola.” “Broadway Melody” was the first sound picture to win Best Picture. It won the Oscar eighty-seven years ago.

These four movies are worth watching. It is interesting to see how movies changed during the “Golden Age,” but more importantly, at a time when Hollywood was cranking out movies by the trainload, these were the best of their time, and are really well made, and entertaining.

As I watched these movies, I realized that everyone in them or involved in making them is dead now. Every actor, every extra, all the sound men, all the camera men, the screen writers, the directors, the producers, the caterers, everyone. And yet, here they are, alive, on the screen. You see and hear the actors. You hear the words of the writers, you see the direction of the directors, and the cinematography of the cameramen. They live on, even though they are no longer here in the flesh.

A few years ago I realized that technology has given us a gift that I don’t think people really understand. And that is: we are the first people who can see and hear what generations past really looked like and sounded like. Photography first started in 1839, and sound recording started in 1877, so we have records of people going back to the nineteenth century – all of whom are now dead. But movies with sound came into being in 1927, less than one hundred years ago. While photographs and sound recordings are great, movies bring people to life. It fascinates me that we can see people on the screen, and they are alive! And yet they are no longer with us.

We as human beings naturally put our generation and our era as the pinnacle of times. We know so much. We are dealing with problems no one ever heard of before. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ’30s – oh, it was so much simpler then! So much more innocent! They never had to deal with the problems we have now. How did they ever live without ATM machines or mobile phones? But I don’t believe there ever were innocent times. Humans are brutal and we tend to focus on the good and gloss over the bad when we cast our memories back to those “simpler times.”

When you you look at motion pictures from decades ago – ideally the best ones, but even the worst ones, you are forced to recon with the fact that these people really were alive. They breathed and they lived and they married, and mourned, and lived in fear, and triumph – and you know that these people, these generations now dead, had the same fears and aspirations, and desires, and faults that we have now. We have the benefit of hindsight – we know what happened after these movies were made, and we know what happened to the actors and the players in them, thanks to IMDB and Wikipedia. At the time, we didn’t know how the depression would end. Considering that other countries resorted to fascism and communism to attempt to solve their economic challenges, and given where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s head was at, we could have easily become a socialist state. No one knew at the time. We do know that they partied and enjoyed their good times when they had them. It seems every generation thinks the old folks were stodgy and that they are the first generation to have fun and stay out all night. But we know that’s not true. We know because we read, but we really know because of the movies. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936 – and it was about people who stayed up all night partying on Broadway:

When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”
It’s early in the morning.
Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.

If you clicked on the link above and saw the Busby Berkeley clip of all those dancers tapping in the movie, you have know know that virtually all of them are no longer with us. But they were alive! And every single one of them had their dreams and aspirations of making it in Hollywood, and every single one of them was flesh and blood. Whatever life they ended up having after this clip, it is over now.

Then we look at something like this, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and marvel at how beautiful and poetic it is, and how alive Fred and Ginger are, and how even then people were desperate, had money problems, were discouraged, were suicidal, and:

There may be teardrops to shed
So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance.

We are human beings and yet we are so quick to forget that there have been human beings for thousands of years before our generation, and that every generation in every country, and on every continent, in every era, in every station of life, lived and loved and bled and hurt and died. And we have documented it now. The previous generations are no longer figments of  history books or snippets of novels about rich people, or books of quotations. We can see them, alive, on the screen, even though they are long dead.

I find it reassuring. I don’t feel alone in my experiences. While whatever we are dealing with now is real and urgent to us, it is comforting to know that other people faced similar and even worse situations and lived – at least in the aggregate. It is reassuring and sometimes frustrating to know that history has echoes. You can look at the fight Humankind has had with ignorance, want, and evil, and be discouraged that we still have to fight ignorance, want, and evil. And yet, while we have had horrific experiences as a species, we are still here, and we have won the major battles, albeit with casualties. We have dodged nuclear war, so far, when the odds were against us. We have become more tolerant over our existence even though there are still deep pockets of intolerance. We are winning the fight to transcend primitive tribalism, even though there are those that are grasping onto it with both hands. We are incrementally better. But we were also pretty damn good back in the day, as well. And now we have the proof we didn’t have before.

There is no Spoon

My son wanted to watch a movie with lots of guns. Oh, where to start? A friend of mine suggested “Saving Private Ryan,” especially the beginning, which to my mind is one of the best battle scenes ever made. But I couldn’t find the DVD. I did, however, find “The Matrix,” with the wonderful line: “Guns. Lots of guns.” My son never saw the movie, so we put it on.

I have seen the movie a number of times. It is one of those movies where if it happens to come up in cable or I see it flit by on Netflix, I just get sucked back into it. I love it. The opening scene with Trinity taking everyone out – priceless. And of course its contributions to the popular culture: the blue and red pill, the kid saying “there is no spoon.” These are certainly is part of my vocabulary now.

1999. Wow – it is hard to believe it came out that long ago. I consider it a timeless movie – to me it really holds up. I didn’t see anything in the movie that screamed “oh, come on – we’re so much better now.” Star Wars is a great movie, but I don’t feel like it is any newer than 1977. It was a groundbreaking movie, and it had amazing and totally new effects, but I still see it firmly planted in the mid-seventies. The Matrix, though – it just seems newer than the nineties.

The premise, of course, is that the world the people live in is not real – it is the “matrix” – an illusion created in the minds of all humans, generated by artificially intelligent machines. In reality, humans are kept in vast tiers of pods. They are used as batteries for the machines – which of course makes no sense at all, but hey, you gotta have a story. Humans live, therefore, in a dreamlike state that is reality to them. Keanu Reeves plays “Neo,” the kid with mystic powers allowing him to see through the Matrix, and eventually, to bend it to his will.

I don’t know about you, but I do feel we are living in an illusory universe. A couple of years ago I ran into the theory that it not just possible, but probable, even inescapable, that reality is not real, and that we really are living in a computer simulation. This idea hasn’t just been hiding out on the fringe, either – even the New Yorker wrote about it last June. Regardless of whether we are in a computer simulation, or not, I have always been a fan of the multiverse – the idea that there are an infinite number of universes that exist besides our own. Why not? If you imagine our universe, all the stars, planets, galaxies, and the space in and around them, as fitting in a basketball, it is easy to imagine a whole roomful of basketballs, each one containing its own universe. If you go to the outer limits of our universe, what’s on the other side?

Even disregarding the idea of multiple universes, let’s look at this universe. If you look at the screen you are reading this on, it looks solid. It is solid glass or plastic. If you drop it it breaks, and you can cut yourself with a shard from it. Except, it’s not solid. It is mostly space. All things are mostly space. Everything breaks down to little spinning balls called atoms, which have a cloud of elections around their cores, and even these atoms are mostly space. There is space between atoms, too. It is a miracle anything seems solid, really.

And then look at light. We see an astonishingly small band of the electromagnetic spectrum. All those frequencies are there, we just don’t see them or perceive them – except perhaps as sunburn from UV. But even within the small band we do see, we don’t see all the colors available. The mantis shrimp can see far more colors than we do, in roughly the same range.

The Matrix speaks to this. It touches on the nagging thought that our world, perhaps, is not what it seems to be. That there is more to all this. That indeed we could be just part of an experiment from some extra-universal teenagers. It speaks to the thought that if we just take the red pill, all will be revealed.

I don’t consider this attitude crazy at all. I think it is healthy to be curious about this, to be curious about anything. I find it fascinating to read what people think about reality, and fascinating to think about what could really be going on.

One thing I am pretty sure of though is that we are not going to find a definitive answer. How could you verify the computer simulation theory? Find some half-buried Statue of Liberty on the beach with the logo “Intel Inside?” on its backside? Dig into some cave somewhere and find a wall with the comment “//to be implemented” on it? No, it’s all speculation. Fun to think about, though.

And by the way, my son loved the movie.