Movies and Memory

Today is Ruby Keeler’s day here on TCM and fellow Morlock Suzi Doll did a fine write-up of her on Monday (read it here), talking about how many bygone stars there are out there that many of us know very little about.  Even many movie lovers, she states, probably wouldn’t know more than a handful of titles from Keeler’s catalog.  It made me think about something I had already been turning over in my head for years and was sparked again in my mind in the comments of a post of mine a week ago when I saw Logan’s Run mentioned in the comments.  Specifically, what I was thinking about was just how many movies I have seen over the course of my life and, more importantly, how many I’ve forgotten.  Even the good ones.  Hell, even the favorites.


When I looked at the schedule today I saw Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, and, of course, 42nd Street, and I thought about how I had seen all three of those, oh, I’d say around thirty or more years ago.  As a result, I don’t remember anything about them.  I’ve seen individual numbers from them many times on sites like YouTube, like the final number from 42nd Street, but actually the whole movies have not been viewed by me in years.  As a result, I remember almost nothing about them.  That’s happened with many movies with me: I know I’ve seen them but I remember nothing about them.  Sometimes I yearn to return to them, other times not.  What it hinges on is the memory of the feeling I got from the movie but, I have learned, that’s a memory that is often unreliable.

Years ago, back when VCRs were first becoming a thing and, combined with cable stations like TBS, the Turner precursor to TCM, you could see movies at your leisure, I determined to see as many big name movies as I possibly could.  If it showed up in a movie book, on a greatest of all time list, or just won Best Picture, I made it a point to see it.  And see them I did, at the rate of several a day for years and years and years.  Taking them in, barely digesting anything, moving on to the next.  I can think back on some of the Best Picture winners from the thirties and forties, like Cavalcade or Going My Way and remember my feelings about them but not the movies themselves.  I remember being bored with Cavalcade and being happy to mark it off the list.  I remember enjoying Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby both in Going My Way but, honestly, I cannot remember anything else at all from it.  I have no desire to revisit Cavalcade.  Going My Way, on the other hand, I kind of do.  I often use it as an example of a weak Best Picture winner and I think a part of that has to do with the perception that I don’t remember it because it wasn’t impactful.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Other movies I remember absolutely loving even if I can’t remember the movie.  Sometimes, upon revisiting them, I discover I don’t like them so much anymore.  Movies I grew up with and relate to my adolescence never hold up as well as the memory.  Older movies, though, generally do.  Lost Horizon was a movie I saw as a kid and by my thirties could remember nothing about it.  Nothing except that I remembered loving it.  I saw it again, finally, on PBS sometime in the late nineties and realized it was better than I’d remembered.  I’ve seen it multiple times since and have a collector’s edition DVD of it.  I love it.  The memory held up.


I mentioned Logan’s Run at the top of this post and it’s another movie that I relate to my adolescence.  I loved it when I saw it in 1976 and when I saw it again on tv and cable a few years later.  Then, I didn’t see it for a couple of decades.  Sometime in the early 2000′s I purchased the DVD and gave it another look.  It was noticeably cheaper looking than I remembered, despite being a big budgeted MGM production, and winner of the Best Visual Effects Oscar, but I still enjoyed it very much.

This is nothing new.  We all have memories of movies that are either confirmed upon rewatching or dashed.  And we all have movies that we know aren’t as good as we remember them being but still love them anyway.  But the question I always ask myself is how many of those bad memory movies I should give another try?  And since there are so many movies I still haven’t seen that I want to see, numbering in the thousands upon thousands, should I bother rewatching any of them or just content myself with the fact that I saw them?  Like any good cinephile, I’ve seen most of the classics of European cinema of the fifties and sixties but because I crammed them all into my teen years and early twenties, I don’t much remember them.  Should I focus on seeing all the great films made since then that I still haven’t seen or watch Stolen Kisses again because while I can confidently say I’ve seen it, I can remember nothing about it as it’s viewing took place when I was a teenager and was most likely wedged somewhere in the middle of a five or six movie day?

We can’t watch every movie ever made, nor can we see every movie we want to.  We choose to watch some movies twenty times while never seeing twenty other movies even once.  There was a time when I felt obliged to see every possible movie I could.  Later, I narrowed that down to an obligation to see all the notable or historically significant ones.  Gradually that morphed into an idea that maybe I should watch whatever I want and rewatch some of the forgotten big ones.  Now, I think the question of what to watch again and how often is getting easier and easier to answer.  I can’t keep every movie in my head like a computer nor do I ever want the cinema to be that cold and data-centric an experience.  No, I think I’m content to let the memories stand on their own at this point.  Yes, I’ve seen many of the big notable films of cinematic history.  No, I can’t remember them all.  But I have memories of how I felt at the time and for now, that’s good enough for me.

10 Responses Movies and Memory
Posted By Emgee : August 19, 2016 7:33 pm

Because there are so many movies that i haven’t watched yet or want to watch again ( and again, and sometimes again) i’m usually content to let my negative first opinion of a movie stand.
Unless i keep reading that not only it’s not bad, but actually pretty good or even really great. Barry Lyndon is a case in point. So many people keep telling it’s a masterpiece and their favourite Kubrick, so how wrong was i when i thought it was pretty boring ( or pretty but boring) ?

As for the Busby Berkely musicals: the stories are pretty flimsy, so little wonder people mostly remember the dance numbers. Love ‘em though!

Posted By Doug : August 19, 2016 8:50 pm

Becoming an adult has helped my “watch/re-watch/ignore” choices. I have no interest in ‘kid’ movies, so nearly all juvie films fall into the ‘ignore’ list. Often they suffer from that Spielberg disease-a director playing and replaying the (lost) innocence of youth. My youth was fine and normal, so I have no desire to ‘fix’ what wasn’t broken.
I will re-watch romantic comedies/well written films. I love happy endings.
I will watch once and done poorly written films, even those called ‘classics’.
I will ‘follow’ certain stars through every film they made, even if I only watch some films once.
My ‘ignore’ list is populated (filmulated?) by many social commentary films. I don’t want to be propagandized at while sitting in a theater or MY living room.
I will at any time watch Ginger Rogers, William Powell and Myrna Loy. It’s all good.

Posted By George : August 19, 2016 9:32 pm

LOGAN’S RUN looks cheap today because those “futuristic” sets were obviously a mid-1970s shopping mall. (I believe it was shot at a couple of malls in Texas.) It worked in ’76 because big indoor, multi-level malls were something new to most people. A few years later they were everywhere.

One thing that still looks great: Jenny Agutter. Oh, yeah.

Posted By EricJ : August 20, 2016 12:03 am

Logan’s Run looked “cool” to us kids in pre-Star Wars 1976, because it was the only future of the entire 70′s that wasn’t immediately dystopic and actually looked fun….And the world was STILL in ruins in that one.
Still, we took what we could get.

I’m not sure what the point of the column is, but if it’s about what movies you could watch Now vs. Then, that’s the whole issue of buying Blu-ray disks.
Some movies you -have- to preserve, others not so much, and if you don’t remember anything about it, it’s still somewhere to watch again. If you can still EXPLAIN years later why you like a movie, then it’s still watchable and still relevant.
I’m not mindlessly nostalgic of every movie that came out of the 80′s Summer of Love, but I can still debate at academic length about what made Krull, Never-ending Story or Dragonslayer a better made movie than anything we got in the Summer Massacre of ’16. (And their faults as well, but you take the good with the bad and reward intent.)

Posted By George : August 20, 2016 12:39 am

“No, I think I’m content to let the memories stand on their own at this point.”

I don’t feel that way about movies I saw years or decades ago. I enjoy rewatching them to see if my opinions have changed. Some seem better, some seem worse, and others are still good or still bad.

But I DO feel that way about the cheesy TV sitcoms I loved as a kid. I have no interest in revisiting Gilligan’s Island, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, F Troop, Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, etc. Watching brief clips on YouTube is enough; it lets me see how cheap, juvenile and formulaic they were. Watching a DVD collection of them would be like Chinese water torture.

That was the era of lowest common denominator TV. I’m glad it’s in the past.

Posted By EricJ : August 20, 2016 2:36 am

“When I looked at the schedule today I saw Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, and, of course, 42nd Street, and I thought about how I had seen all three of those, oh, I’d say around thirty or more years ago. As a result, I don’t remember anything about them.”

Again, when you’re going back to figure out “what’s the big deal?”, that’s when you dig up the disk, and watch them with the commentary on–
Like most people of my generation, I didn’t know a B/W Warner musical from an RKO one, until I watched the documentary featurettes on the bonus menus, which pointed out how Warner was the “gritty” street-studio, and how their Busby musicals focused on the hard Depression-work of putting on a show, and the showgirls who needed a paying job…Fred & Ginger weren’t worrying about those. There’s an urgency to 42nd St. (it’s not meant to be optimistic when Warner Baxter tells Ruby Keeler “You’ve GOT to come back a star!”..Not “Going to”, as everyone misquoted it when I was growing up), and Footlight Parade poked at what -was- happening to variety musicals now that the movies were coming in. Oh, and they didn’t call them “Golddiggers” because they wore sparkly costumes.
See what you don’t notice the first time? :) I should add that those are the stuff you don’t normally get from Netflix or digital.

And in re George’s comment, some 60′s TV comedies that I was saturated with growing up haven’t improved with age, but as an adult who pays attention to them now, I can reappreciate the Flintstones’ subversive genius for gags, The Monkees as a time-capsule of people who only knew the changing Hippie movement from their televisions, and the reason I started cracking up anew over Jeannie reruns would take too long to explain. (It involves a working knowledge of Japanese anime.)

Posted By George : August 20, 2016 8:19 pm

EricJ: I find it hard to sit through even the best ’60s sitcoms (like Get Smart) because the laugh tracks are so intrusive and annoying. This didn’t bother me at the time, because virtually all sitcoms had laugh tracks. Shooting before a live audience was in eclipse (it came back with the Norman Lear sitcoms of the ’70s.) But now I really notice the laugh tracks and find them unbearable.

I also find it tedious to watch several old TV episodes back to back. I become aware of things people didn’t notice when they were watching one episode a week — the endlessly repeated music cues, the same establishing shots used over and over, the formula plots and stock characters.

Watching ’60s TV shows is like watching a lot of B movies from earlier decades — unless you have an overpowering nostalgia for the material that puts you in a forgiving mood, it can be quite a slog.

Posted By George : August 20, 2016 8:28 pm

I just don’t have much nostalgia for junk. I’m not like those Gen Xers or Millennials who know that THE GOONIES is a bad movie, but rewatch it anyway because they loved it so much when they were kids.

Posted By swac44 : August 22, 2016 1:02 pm

Logan’s Run looked “cool” to us kids in pre-Star Wars 1976, because it was the only future of the entire 70′s that wasn’t immediately dystopic and actually looked fun.”

Oh sure, it’s all fun and games, until you get carted off to Carousel… ;)

Posted By robbushblog : August 31, 2016 3:53 pm

THE GOONIES is not bad. It’s a fun adventure-comedy for kids.

Also, The Andy Griffith Show, The Lucy Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show are still good shows, regardless of laugh tracks. I allow leeway to older sitcoms with laugh tracks, while sitcoms of today that employ them I will not even watch.

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