Outside. Gazebo, waterfall, crickets. Late at night. No planes. At this time of night you can hear the whine of the highway in the distance. I wonder if it’s one of those sounds no one ever heard before the car was invented, just as the sound of the internal combustion engine was probably unique when the first one was fired up. All these sounds, waiting to be born….
It’s remarkable how fast we forget sounds, and how quickly we recall them–when I was digitizing old VHS tapes, I realized I’d forgotten the series of labored sounds that preceded a show. The thick clunk of the tape dropping in the slot, the perfunctory whine of the tape queuing up, the pained inhalation of the motors as they rolled the spindles. It was the sound of Brave Modernity in 1984, and a tiresome reminder of old technology twenty years later….
You could take any scholar of the Twenties back in time, put him on Twenty-Third street at eleven p.m., and he’d pick out the vehicles, the buildings, the mode of dress, and most of the slang; if he heard a song waft from an apartment above, he might know what it was. If he picked up a newspaper, he might know a tenth of the names on the front page. But none of the names in the back, I’d guess. And then someone would walk past and mention a bar he’d never heard. Down the street there would be a sound–barrels rolling down a staircase? Lumber unloading? If you go an inch beyond the stratum of things we know, the mysteries are as quotidian and innumerable, and lost. The past is the unrecovered country.
I think if you actually found yourself in a silent movie theater in 1926, your first impression wouldn’t be the architecture or the clothing or the candy or the conversation; it would be the way things smelled. No one knows what the Twenties smell like.
This wonderful posting reminded me of one of the things that sets film apart from live theater: it has an unparalleled capacity to recreate the past. It’s the closest thing to a time machine that we have.
I thought about this the other night while watching one of my favorite movies, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. Here’s part of what I wrote after Our Girl and I saw it for the first time in a Chicago theater six years ago:
Contrary to whatever you may have heard or read, Topsy-Turvy is not simply, or even primarily, a backstage movie about the partnership of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and the making of The Mikado. It is, rather, a scrapbook of Victorian life, a miraculously evocative attempt to suggest the tone and texture of what it felt like to live in London in 1885.
This latter emphasis explains why so many smart filmgoers of my acquaintance have disliked Topsy-Turvy: it is not plot-driven. We know, after all, that librettist and composer will finally overcome their differences and that The Mikado will be a hit, so instead of trying to trump up false suspense, Leigh ambles from vignette to vignette, interested not in the plot but the scenery. We stroll into the office of Richard D’Oyly Carte, and notice with surprise that he has a telephone on his desk; we accompany Sullivan to a Paris bordello, and gaze with wonder upon the elaborate decor. We dine in Victorian restaurants, sit in Victorian living rooms, peer into Victorian rehearsal halls, go backstage at the Savoy Theater and watch a prop man shake a piece of sheet metal to simulate the sound of thunder. Detail is piled on imaginatively recreated detail, and at film’s end you feel that you have entered a lost world, peopled with real people who behave in plausible ways….
Theater can do wonderful and irreplaceable things–but not that.
ELSEWHERE: To read an exceptionally fine Salon interview with Mike Leigh about the making of Topsy-Turvy, go here.