Before cable became our TV staple, there were only local channels. The practice then among local television stations was to load prime time with either local drama or comedy presentations, and the hours after the final newscasts, depending on the day of the week and your station of choice, with public affairs documentaries/talk shows or foreign and local movies.
Working people usually found those late, late movie hours difficult to catch. Yet, once caught, they were impossible to give up. Thus, this eulogy, in a sense, because with the advent of cable television came movies at all hours. Do I appreciate movies on the small screen just as much now that they're no longer so rare? I wonder.
"Impressions," TV Times, 28 May-3 June 1978
And the late late movies, as long as you don't watch them too regularly to get bogged down in replays, can be interesting, if not really lovely. I caught the final and touching 30 minutes of what I can only believe must have been a delicately fine film starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood, produced by the admirable John Houseman. It tells the poignant story of two lovers caught in the grip of family and other loyalties, unable to escape, freed only by death. Set amid the realistic backdrop of a railroad stop already gone seedy and unused, the story is presented as the surprisingly wise reminiscences of Natalie Wood's young sister.
Here was a movie after my own heart, moving and eloquent but unblitzed and unself-conscious. A soft and sweet little movie without pretensions and with great sensitivity and real craftsmanship.
The next night, I made it again to the last 30 minutes of a film that details the pained search by an adopted child for her real parents. This movie's value lies not so much in its dramatic impact and creative integrity as in its faithful portrayal of those pauses and side notes in the major theme--those frustrations of adopted children who must scratch beneath the tenets of society, its laws and conventions, in order to find their real roots and touch, if only briefly, the lives of their real parents.
At the end, the movie does not go the way of a Filipino tearjerker. The young woman finds her real mother, but the meeting is difficult and disastrous: she is, as she was at birth, unwelcomed and unwanted. No grandiose discovery scenes, dripping with tears and long-repressed love. Only a tense, terse, uncomfortable meeting between two grown-up people with blood ties and nothing else to bind them. A bracing and broadening scene, harshly unmagical and unromantic.
At its end, I turned on to another channel and saw Peter Graves, his face lined and weather-beaten, in a modern Western with a gothic touch. Wolves, misty moors, and mysterious deaths blend surprisingly well--once the night gives way to early morning--with press conferences, national guardsmen, and sheriff's badges, all mixed with venomous smiles and long maniacal hunts.
There is, of course, a quality one misses when watching movies on television, especially the better films. I can imagine how overwhelming that final scene of the John Houseman production can be when seen on the big wide screen of the moviehouse. I can imagine the girl, Natalie Wood's young sister, dressed in her borrowed finery, walking regally away from the dirty, dusty railroad yard, her long yellow gown a grotesque protest against life in that brown, rusting, deathly still landscape, and all around, surrounding her with its pathos, the film's melancholy melody.
Pauline Kael, in her fantastic collection of film reviews, Reeling, described that missing quality as "visual beauty, the spatial sense, the fusion of image and sound--everything that makes movies an art form." She is, in one sense, correct. On television, a film, however beautiful, however well-crafted, is reduced to the scale of the small screen. Its dimensions, however awesome at the start, are diminished. Faces become small and less distinct; the emotions they portray become less compelling. Even anger loses its savage intensity on television.
But it is still possible, I believe, to catch a little of that visual beauty on the small screen of the television set. It will need, however, a truly good movie, a truly beautiful film, to be able to project that quality on television. On the big screen, one often gets swamped by the sheer size of what one is looking at.
On the other hand, perhaps television can then be taken as the more stringent test of the truly beautiful film. If it comes out beautiful even on TV, then it must really be beautiful.
And possibly, just possibly, you will still see it on your late late movie.
No title in original published column