Camp Lejeune, NC: circa 2006. 7-year-old Andrew is in the eye doctor’s office. I sit in a chair to the side as the Dr. fiddles with the lenses on the giant machine, while Andrew leans into it, and answers repeatedly which is better, 1 or 2? Afterwards, as the Dr. fills out some forms, he chats with Andrew asking him what he wants to be when he grows up. Andrew, full of imagination and excited promise, says he wants to be a movie director. “Why?” the Dr. asks, tone filled with judgement not curiosity. My back tightens and I feel myself ready for defense. Andrew forges ahead, less confident but still excited, undeterred by this trusted stranger’s dismissal of what is surely a question with no wrong answer. I don’t remember Andrew’s answer but I’m sure it’s what you would expect from a 2nd grader. The Dr. is not done with this line of inquiry. “What kind of movies do you want to make?” he asks, tone still aligning more with disapproval than interest. Andrew says something about fantasy and animation. “Well, I hope you’ll make movies with a message, not just a waste of people’s time.” Ok, I’m done.
Andrew did not grow up to direct movies (not yet anyway!), but he was not deterred by the dismissive comments of an adult authority in his life. He loves movies more than most people I know and he watches a lot of them. We love going to the movie theatre, have developed rules of proper popcorn consumption (before the previews, not during) and actually recorded an episode of our one-time only podcast: Coke and Popcorn, when he was in 8th grade. For the Watch a Black-and-White Movie challenge, I knew he was my guy.
When the pandemic shutdowns started, Andrew was in NoVa with us on his Spring Break, which stretched out to August when he was allowed to return to college. During our time together, we (our little pod, Lee, Andrew and me) watched a lot of movies. We decided to start a list by year with each of us choosing one movie per year. If we stayed the course, eventually we would make it all the way back to the black-and-white movies. It would be fun and interesting and useful.We didn’t make it past 2019. Oh, we watched many movies, but apparently as soon as we added them to the list, we immediately lost interest in those particular movies. I don’t mean we lost interest in the movies that other people added. I mean we suddenly found every other movie available to watch much more interesting than any of those we hand-picked for the list. We did over time watch movies from that list but I honestly think we just forgot they were on the list and, therefore, were interesting once again.
When I asked Andrew to do this challenge with me, we knew that choosing the movie was the most important part. We’ve watched black-and-white movies together before. Film noir classics Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon are a couple of our favorites. In 2019, I asked him to watch Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to help me screen it before we showed it at the library for our Coffee and a Classics program.
Sidebar: When you show classic movies to the public you have to watch them before you show them, even if you’ve seen them before. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see that many old movies can be problematic at best and offensive at worst concerning social issues. It’s not just black-and-white movies that require previewing: many an 80s movie favorite revealed something that we did not remember after we suggested we watch it as a family!
We decided early on that we’d like to watch an Oscar winner. Ultimately, we made the decision pretty quickly: Casablanca.
Neither of us had ever heard of it before but it sounded good. Nah, of course we’d heard of it. Casablanca, like Anna Karenina or Game of Thrones can be one of those ever-titles that you JUST DON’T WANT TO WATCH/READ/TRY no matter how great they are. Why? I’m not sure. I think it’s possibly that we all really like that feeling of discovery. Being early on the scene so you can recommend something awesome and new. There’s no walking into the library the morning after and saying, “guys, have you seen this movie called Casablanca?” Realizing you like something everyone else likes just isn’t as exciting. Just like our titles on the quarantine white board, Casablanca, had been one of those movies that we knew we should watch but never got around to. We used the Chrome extension, Scener, so we could watch the movie together, even though I was in VA and Andrew in NC. Finally, it was showtime!
While I’d like to be able to give a big shout-out to Scener, our viewing experience was a bit choppy. It was very cool to watch the movie “together” but I had a lot of issues with it freezing. Although, I think it was actually my sketchy wi-fi to blame. Once we turned off the video and chat functions I didn’t have any issues. But, texting about a movie that you are watching together really wasn’t the experience we were going for.
Spoiler: we loved the movie. Big shocker, right? Us and millions of people since it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in 1943. In a sense, we did discover this movie. We both agreed that the movie was not about what we thought it was about. Whatever meaningless, arbitrary thoughts we had about the movie–we were wrong. We were afraid it would be boring, dialogue heavy and cliched: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” But it wasn’t. It’s quickly paced, filmed beautifully, and says as much about today as it did about the time it was made. What’s not to like? With a multicultural setting, Nazi bad guys, film noir styling, compelling storyline and interesting characters, we were hooked.
We spent some time after we watched the movie talking about the appeal of black-and-white classic movies today. Some of our thoughts:
- We enjoy the novelty of a black-and-white classic film. They have a different look and feel from the movies today.
- The pacing and the dialogue would tell you they aren’t of today, even if the black-and-white palette didn’t.
- We especially like the film noir style movies. Although Casablanca is not a film noir per se, it does reflect many elements of the genre.
- Even though Casablanca does have a fairly multicultural setting, we talked about how our friends of color might perceive classic black-and-white movies and either the portrayal of characters of color and/or the lack of them.
Andrew shared with me a video called What’s So Great About Casablanca? Ask a Film Professor that I found to be very informative. If you’d like to watch it, I’ve included the link here.
So, now it’s your turn. Do you enjoy watching black-and-white movies? Have you seen Casablanca? Did you know what it was about? Please share your favorites with me! I’d love to hear your thoughts about representation and characterization and what that means to you when you watch classic movies. Care to share if you have any classic books/movies that you “know” you should watch but just can’t ever bring your self to start? My friend, Jenna, suggested that I watch It Happened One Night so I’ll be watching that soon. It would be fun to set up a viewing and watch something together. Anyone interested? Andrew and I are going to watch a recent classic for us, Real Steel using Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party). Next challenge: Save Enough Money to Buy Something You’ve Had Your Eye On.
Before you go…I found the recording of our 2012 Fall Movie Preview episode of the Coke and Popcorn podcast. It’s about 10 minutes long, no pressure to listen, but I listened for the first time in almost 10 years, andI have to say, it’s better than I thought it would be! We did see some of the movies we said we wanted to, including my pick Lincoln and his pick Life of Pi. At about the 140 minute mark of the 2.5 hour Lincoln, the movie faded to black like and it looked like it was finally over, but yet another scene lit up the screen and Andrew, in the dead quiet of theatre, groaned loudly. I may have stress-cried during Life of Pi to the point that Andrew felt compelled to ask if I was okay. Coke and popcorn were consumed during the watching all of these movies…it’s not true movie experience if you don’t. Thanks for reading!
Bonus points if you do listen to at least the beginning of the podcast and can name the movie that the opening quote is from!
As a kid:
- Lived in NC, VA, Australia
- Favorite toys: Legos
- Favorite movies: Spiderman franchise
- Enjoyed listening to audiobooks
- Preoccupied with stories, mythology, football
- Wanted to be a movie director
- Preoccupied with politics