Tuesday, December 5, 2017

CMBA Profile: Second Sight Cinema

The CMBA profiles one of our classic movie blogs each month. This month we're featuring Lesley from Second Sight Cinema.

 “Second Sight Cinema” is a blog with an attitude. Its writer, Lesley Gaspar, isn’t afraid to tell you her opinions, and she has the erudition to back them up with facts. Don’t show up to her class if you haven’t done the reading! But, if you’re here to learn, her posts will give you detailed accounts of films and personalities you thought you already knew, and you’ll come away with new information (and sources!) that will give you plenty to chew on. When Lesley writes up a film, you can be sure she’s researched it thoroughly and deeply. With all of that sheer knowledge, her feelings and passion for the cinema come through strongly as well.

A great example of her writing can be seen in her post “Disembodied: Waldo Lydecker, the voice in the Dark in Laura (1944)” which was her contribution to the “Great Villain Blogathon” of 2016. While using the bad guy as its lens, the article is really an in-depth discussion of nearly every aspect of the film. She takes issue with one of the heavyweights of film criticism, Roger Ebert, and is so convincing it’s hard to believe anyone would disagree.

Given the depth of her posts, it’s no surprise that she answered our questions at impressive length as well. Here’s what Lesley had to say in response to our questions:

1. What sparked your interest in classic film?

When I was a kid in the '60s, we got our preliminary movie education from broadcast TV. Because old movies stopped being syndicated to broadcast TV after TCM got nationwide distribution it's hard to remember when the networks had "______ Night at the Movies" every night, and local affiliates, independent stations, and even PBS showed movies early, late, and late late. The movies were savagely edited for length with absolutely no regard for continuity or sense. Still, I saw On the Town for the first time on TV and fell totally in love with the New York locations and everything else about it—the cast, songs, staging, the period style. I saw The Road to Utopia during a rare Dallas snowfall and marveled at the surreal bits, like when Hope and Crosby are on their dogsled and see a mountain, and then the Paramount logo is superimposed over it. I saw The Haunting (1963) one afternoon when I was alone in the house, and couldn't be alone for a week. My first movie in a theater was a rerelease of Pinocchio when I was 4, and Monstro the Whale scared me silly, and when I was 10 my mom took me to see Gone with the Wind for the first time, and I fell for it, hard. In 1972, when I was 13, a friend who loved Sirk's Imitation of Life had us all over to watch it, commercials and all, and when Mahalia Jackson sang at Annie's funeral, we all bawled together. Movies were a part of our daily lives, both in theaters and on TV, and I was particularly attracted to the styles and slang of '30s and '40s movies.

Also, my mom has always loved movies, so she shared the bug with me. She's also a writer, and we're both fascinated with adaptation. We went to my first TCM Film Festival together in 2012, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When I was a kid in Dallas, she used to take us to this dilapidated old theater, The Circle. That's where I saw my first Marx Bros and W.C. Fields (it was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, a mess of a movie with incredible, surreal gags). Seeing Fields on the observation deck of the plane, having propped his whisky in the window, and when it inevitably falls he pauses in shock and horror for two seconds, then dives out the window after it: priceless.

Last thing: When I discovered, at the library, that people actually wrote books about movies, that was life-changing. I still have the first two movie books I ever bought, when I was 12: Hollywood and the Great Fan Magazines, and All Talking All Singing All Dancing.

2. What makes a film a classic in your opinion?

That's different from "classic movies," which refers to when they were made, right?

To me it's how a movie holds up over time, some quality that transcends when it was made and remains powerful and affecting decades later. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was on recently—it meets my criteria for a classic. It evokes period and place (Brooklyn!) very well, and the family's struggle to survive, seen through the eyes of the daughter who will grow up to write their story, is both rich in specific detail and universal.

Maybe it's a perennial quality, a freshness, that isn't related to when the movie was made. Like all matters of taste, one person's classic is another's snore-fest. The first time I got the "it's boring" reaction to Citizen Kane I was shocked; now I expect it. To me its audacity is always invigorating, as is its sheer pleasure in the possibilities of moviemaking. But like its director, the movie has suffered by being enshrined as a masterpiece. Maybe if we'd all drop that, people could get back to seeing it as what it is: an incredibly entertaining, haunting movie.

"Greatness" is a stone around old movies' necks. I've had a couple people say, apologetically, that they know they ought to watch old films. But maybe they shouldn't—nothing takes the fun out of it like turning it into an obligation.

3. What classic film(s) do you recommend to people who hate old movies?

My experience is, if they really hate old movies, don't waste your time. The usual litany of objections—can't watch black-and-white; all acting in old movies is stagey and hokey; and a general discomfort with and lack of interest in depictions of the past—these aren't subject to persuasion, and let's face it, the haters don't want to be persuaded. Save your energy for more fulfilling projects, like watching and reading about more movies yourself.

No, people have to be at least open to giving old movies a chance. Then you can look at what their interests are, what kind of contemporary movies they like, and try to extrapolate a few titles from that. My 18-year-old neighbor loves horror, so I lent her Carnival of Souls (1962), and she watched it and didn't roll her eyes. Maybe next I'll try her on some Universal horror. I think she might like The Black Cat (1934).
If your newbie likes comedy, I'd start with Ball of Fire (1941), or The More the Merrier, or one of the Marx Brothers' Paramount movies (but not The Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers, which suffer from the static staginess of early sound). If they like crime, Out of the Past (1947) could be a gateway, or The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, or Scarface (1932). If they like cult movies, Detour (1945) or The Old Dark House (1932). Romance—The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, or Portrait of Jennie. Westerns might be an easier sell now that the genre has been revived by television, so I'd go with Stagecoach (1939); or 3:10 to Yuma, or Stevens' Shane, or maybe Sturges' The Magnificent Seven. Maybe even Giant (1956), if they have a taste for epics. And if they like fashion and style, the Astaire / Rogers movies might be fun for them.

Hitchcock might also be good for newbies: Rear Window, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, To Catch a Thief, Dial M for Murder, Foreign Correspondent, maybe even Shadow of a Doubt.

As for genres, the brash sexuality of pre-Code and the perversity and violence of noir appeal to a lot of people, so they might be fertile gateways. And of course silent film is so utterly foreign to the uninitiated that you have to have a really motivated newbie. Then I'd probably go with a comedy—Sherlock Jr., Modern Times, or Girl Shy. Unless they're science fiction fans, in which case maybe Metropolis.

4. Why should people care about classic film?

Lots of reasons! For starters, it's the only time machine we will ever have.

In addition to the pleasure factor, old movies can be a lens through which we study all sorts of things, from social history to the history of fashion, technology, political trends, and business. I had an epiphany the first time I saw the Market Street footage, shot in San Francisco a week before the 1906 earthquake and fire and shipped east to be processed just the night before the disaster. I had always felt a little sheepish about my passion for old movies, like it was not a subject people took seriously. Watching that footage, those people walking and driving past the camera in the shadows of buildings, many of which will be leveled only days later, I was profoundly moved by glimpsing this moment in the life of the city and all those people, some of whom would not survive. And I realized that film history is no different from any other kind of history, and that as God was my witness, I would never apologize for studying it again (h/t Scarlett O'Hara).

5. What is the most rewarding thing about blogging?

The biggest reward is coming up with my own take—if I can't do that, what's the point? It can take a while and be frustrating to find my way, but once I do, it's exhilarating. It's great to have an excuse to really dig into a movie or one of its makers, or any other movie subject that can be revealed by close viewing, research, and serious thought. I love getting feedback—none of us write just to hear ourselves talk. But I love the adventure of never knowing, when I pick a topic or start writing, where I'm going to end up. Sometimes I think, as I start, that I know where I'm going. But there's always that left turn at Albuquerque that Bugs Bunny spoke of...

6. What challenges do you face with your blog, and how do you overcome them?

My biggest challenges come from chronic illness, which has eroded my writing time significantly, along with the rest of my life. The best I've done so far is not succumb to despair, not go crazy today, and not give up. I write whenever I can manage to, so while I have less presence in the community than I used to, I'm keeping my hand in. And I'm still working on improving my health, so I hope to eventually get back some of my life, including writing and teaching.

In the meantime, thanks to all the event hosts who have cut me slack when I miss deadlines or have to drop out altogether—I take this stuff very seriously, and the last thing I want to do is hang anyone up or make work for them. But my best-laid plans often blow up, and I have to do a lot of improvising.

7. What advice would you give to a new blogger?

Find a couple of bloggers whose work you enjoy, and analyze what you're responding to. Then practice doing likewise. Also, work on finding your voice. There are so many people blogging about classic movies these days, there's a fair amount of redundancy in subject matter. But nobody sees it exactly like you do, and nobody can express that like you can. If you have a concept or angle that sets your blog apart, go for it. It's tough to enter the field at this late date, tough to drive traffic to new sites, tough to get people to subscribe / follow. But with all those caveats, if you love classic movies and are moved to write about them, just do it. You'll be welcomed into this lovely community, and we'll be glad to have you.

Thanks very much, Lesley! Check out Second Sight Cinema here: http://secondsightcinema.com/

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