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Movies as Time Machines

A follow-up to my column yesterday about watching Superman as a kid.

My kids often ask what was my favorite subject in school. I didn’t really have one, but when they make me pick, I say history. I’ve always been interested in the past, and how things got to be the way they are.

This is not something typically explained to kids—certainly little kids—and it reminded me of the self-educating I had to watching old movies.

I’m trying to think of the ways that, as a little kid, you learn about the past. Your parents tell you about their childhoods at Grandma and Grandpa’s houses when you go to visit. You look at baby photos of yourself and see that the fashions have changed.

I definitely remember being confused reading the “Henry Huggins” books by Beverly Cleary. I really liked the books—and the later Ramona books—but Henry’s world was much different from my own. The illustrations were a dead giveaway:

In 1981, didn’t know a single kid who wore a beanie!

But the lives of the characters were very odd to me. The way kids talked (a certain formality to the adult world), the things they did, the absence of certain modern conveniences (TVs and video games)—at first I wrote it off as thinking the books were from a different place.

It was only later that I realized—they were from a different time.

My introduction to the 1960s was from James Bond movies and—even though it is set in the far-off future—the original Star Trek.

My introduction to the 1970s (even though I was myself born in the ’70s) was from Spielberg movies like Jaws and Close Encounters.

So when I turned on Dr. No or Goldfinger on the ABC Sunday Night Movie, it wasn’t just a fabulous action–adventure—it was a time machine, taking me into a different world, of short haircuts and skinny ties and, to be a honest, a ton of Mad Men-style sexism and racism.

I don’t know if I have a larger point to make except that this is something that happened, to me, and it was interesting, and it still informs me today.

All artists are driven to recreate what touched them as little kids—and not to claim I’m an artist, but I’m definitely aware of the sense of escapism and adventure of watching old James Bond movies. And it’s not just because of the stories, but because of worlds.

While those worlds were dressed up as fantasies, they still were based on a lot of reality.

Nobody checks into a hotel like Sean Connery as James Bond!

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