My dad, Corban LePell, died 4 months ago.
This is not a memoir about my dad’s life – I have reams of material about him, maybe a lifetime’s worth. No, today I want to talk about his penchant for old movies—his penchant for immersing himself in a different era. And a scary revelation.
Since 2008, my dad watched old movies most of his waking hours. By the time he lived in assisted living, he didn’t need any network or cable at all—he had stopped watching anything current, including any news, and just stayed glued to his old movies. He refused to get Netflix or any other streaming mechanism; he had hundreds of DVDs –he watched them over and over. And then again. Most of the films were made from the 1930s to the early 60s. Think turner classic movies. Think “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” Think Bogie, Becall, Malden, Brando.
With all of Corban’s dedication to Abstract Expressionsim in the art world (this image is one of his paintings from circa 1990), his rebellious nature and intellectual energy, I find his love of classic movies to be deeply ironic.
Oh, I’m all for contradictions and ironies—I live by them myself. So it wasn’t the irony so much as something more disturbing. And what I found disturbing may, indeed, be happening to me.
I realized, sadly, that my dad wanted to LIVE inside these movies. He didn’t really want to live in today’s world; he prided himself in his disdain for today’s culture, falling for the cliché, “back in the day, when life was good…,” Society is going to hell in a handbasket…,” blahblahblah. Oh, he was so impossible to get through to sometimes!
Is life always “simpler” in the previous era? For every generation? I suppose “yes” to some degree. Perhaps we, ourselves, were “simpler,” because we were just young(er).
But…has there been a unique kind of revolution this time, larger, more historical even? I’m not talking about government, though today’s institutions of government are hardly recognizable…but I’m talking about the daily life stuff…In the 60s, one could ignore the revolution, the counter culture, the pro-war, and anti-war movements. One could keep the TV off, ignore the news, and go about one’s day…if you were a middle class dad, your day looked like this: Off to work. Home from work. Dinner. Kids. Rinse repeat. But today, you cannot ignore the revolution, can you?
The revolution I’m talking about here lies in our daily gadgets. They are so necessary to daily life. And they shout at us with noise — today’s zeitgeist. The zeitgeist is detectable—not in retrospect, but in the now. Want to know what is shaping public opinion and philosophy? One click. Want the news of the day? You don’t even have to click, just glance at your phone—aren’t most of you fed headlines all day long?
Whoops…a rant coming, and I am off track. Or not.
My dad and his old movies. A simpler era. Okay, I’m going to say it: when boys were boys and girls were girls. My dad never came around on this – no matter how much evidence to the contrary, even among his very own progeny, he still believed in some fucked up notions of gender. And the movies he watched just reinforced all of it. This is yet another tome to be written. But the point here is his devotion to the screen, his wanting to deny, ignore, pretend that the world had not left him behind. He still belonged.
He recognized the world he was glued to. Not only in the arena of gender of course, but all social mores were strangely reinforced. A drink before and after dinner. A couple of packs of cigarettes. The coolest of men, the femme fatales. The fine suits and shined shoes, small waists and creamy dresses– white people in charge, people of color only on the periphery, if at all. No swearing. No nudity. Gentlemen were rewarded, scoundrels punished. Chastity was rewarded, promiscuity labeled whorish. My dad would never admit that he lived inside these movies. I think he even considered himself “a modern man.”
But as the world spun faster and faster forward, he grew less and less comfortable in it. His hours in front of the tube increased proportionately. Is this a simple truth of old people? I cry NO to that… No, it can’t, it won’t happen to me!
I find myself wanting to watch “old” things on TV. … I prefer a traditional documentary to almost any show running on Netflix or network TV or Youtube. My favorite thing on TV is any kind of critical analysis of history. Let me see my own past come to life again and again—fashions, ideas, political events, social changes, all of it… I don’t want to re-live it, do I? I’m trying to learn from it, always stunned by what I hadn’t noticed and how moved I am by perspective now. I don’t want souped up documentaries with stupid looking enactments by beautiful actors. I just want real photos, news reels, interviews. I want to watch all those people I saw on the screen 30 years ago being interviewed today—I’m fairly obsessed with how they look, I confess…”wow, he looks great, she looks great, or wow… not so much, or wow…how many surgeries did that require?” Oh vanity, vanity.
Mainstream media alienates me – I just don’t get it.
I’m fat, old, a failure, ugly and boring. That’s usually how I feel after being immersed in today’s media. The hipness, the speed, the glass and steel, the stark lines and airy offices, everyone seems to know everything about things of which I know nothing. So often the characters mumble, the inside jokes are outside. Everyone is glamorous, so I turn it all off. The silence of my life is deafening. Where’s the soundtrack?
Is this what happened to Corban? He just didn’t get it after awhile, so all he wanted to see was a world that affirmed his Romanticism, the fundamentals of the world he wanted to live in? If the stories were unfolding everyday in front of him, surely he wasn’t being left out, abandoned in the rushing winds of time. He didn’t have to face the present. He didn’t have to face the fear — that he didn’t belong.
I find myself wanting to watch Old Things… Things that hearken back to other times, perhaps. I don’t want to watch the banal sitcoms of my youth, oh god, no. But I want to see visions on the screen that I recognize...Maybe I’m getting drawn to movies made in the 60s, the70s, the 80s, for the same reason. It’s not that they’re “better” movies … (oh, pillleasse). It’s just that…that…I want to… feel…less…alone?
My dad got lost in old movies because he got found in them. Am I getting lost and found in old movies too, for the same kind of reason? Oh no! Oh no! … perhaps writing about it will make all the difference.
5 thoughts on “Lost in old movies? My dad.”
My grandfather in his 90s was very much like your dad, and my father-in-law who is 95, fits the bill also. On the other hand, while he doesn’t like a lot of contemporary films, he watches them at least once. He then either embraces or dismisses them. He (and Regina who is 90) embrace far more of contemporary life than one would expect–they struggle with it, but they face into it. I think their attitude is one of the reasons they’ve been able to live well and reasonably happy in the face of the death of one son, the death of my son, and so many of their closest friends and family. They haven’t flinched from life or change.
I am reminded of the scences from the The American President, when the then-president discusses running for office and how we are hacked into wishing for and wanting things and a life that longer exists, and he is right, and it happens on a daily basis in front of us.
Given the conflict and challenges that seem beyond any one person’s capacity to influence or improve, why wouldn’t you want to live in the life evoked in classic film? Except that film doesn’t replicate life or real life experience. It evokes it. And, that evokation (sp?) is much like our memories, selective and plastic. I can understand the appeal, but it doesn’t work for me as I can’t watch those films without thinking about the fuller context and that THAT context was as FUBAR as this one.
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I love this…Your observations on both your own experience and the experience of your folks in law reminds us of important notions of living in the present. I love “that evocation is much like our own memories, selective and plastic.” I’m pretty fascinated by plasticity right now (it’s part of the thread of my sabbatical research right now too) –certainly explains my use of quotes around the word “reality.”
Thanks for the thoughts–your words ring so true.
I knew your Dad. He was a neighbor of mine. An all around good egg as far as I knew. He did not appreciate that the world was moving on without him. I think he watched those old movies to slow that movement down a little. That’s all…
Do you know where I can buy any of his paintings? I inherited one of his called “The Moorish Studio” and I love it.
Wow…you want to give me your contact information? None of his work is technically for sale right now, but maybe there’s something we can do. Are you an old friend?