Period Films: My Love of Other Eras

Romantic period films and longing through my ages

It seems to me that there are not many films that portray longing in all its greatness these days. As our overloaded brains tap out under the pressures of keeping “must-do’s” in order, our patience for creative work grows shorter in span. We want what we see to move into focus faster. We get busier, heavier, and less creative, in most instances, than we start off. This affects the way we watch movies, which ones we choose to see, and how we remember and relate to them.

For my purposes, I’ll take three period films I saw at a very young age, then again years later, and describe the effects I experienced under their magical, time-traveling powers. The bottom line is that the repeated screenings, at different periods in my life, didn’t combine as just an experience of growing up as an audience member or seeing the same thing twice with more knowledge; to watch a film from another time is to watch and react to a piece of historic art, something that was clearly made with a different or at least modified set of commercial and societal values. Twenty years ago, there was just as much action, but everything moved a bit slower. I recognize, now, that that was only due to necessity, since speed is forceful, and we make more of the usual decisions under pressure. Here, I’ll describe my viewing at a personal period where I was without pressure, during an era when pressure was perceivable less than it is today: the era, the filmmaking of the time, myself at the time, and the factors which changed over time- speed.

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As a kid with a surprising amount of focus, I saw pieces of movies on TV which I would later try to recall by name, but rarely could. This mystified me, especially because, before Netflix it was difficult to skim through dozens of scenes of films looking for memories to strike: “Aha! This is the movie!” My first memorable example is from “Like Water for Chocolate”, when I was six years old. I caught the scene in which sister Gertrudis rides away naked on the lap of a strange man on horseback. I had no idea what the movie was about, but it was not of my time, place, language, or circumstances, and the image of a beautiful, naked red-haired woman galloping off with a stranger down a dusty road into the sunset stayed with me until I found the film again, at which time I reviewed the content of the story and decided that it was still very romantic in spite of the extraordinary melodrama of the script. Seeing the film at six and then again years later, the difference became about having more on my mind to relate to the film: ideas about emotional attachment, an interest in the language the film was made in, which made the acting warmer to me. And I had begun to feel the longing for experiences that Tita felt, I just couldn’t imagine cooking with rose petals to quell the passion. First curiosity, then remembering, then recognition. I realized that time brought things together, and I was still patient (I still had time to wander and wonder).

My second most memorable incomplete screening was of Robert Downey Jr in one of his finer roles, as a foolish doctor who experiences a major character arc during the course of the Black Death in “Restoration”. His love scene with the damaged and very sweet Meg Ryan inspired my interest in grubbier and less informed yet seemingly more romantic periods in history than the one I was living through. The characters are clearly living in filth cloaked in velvet, coming together under threats of all kinds of contagion, and still they persist in attempting to satisfy their sexual appetites and having families. Was this ignorance or was it hope? We must live on! Eh. I began to question history the second time I saw this film. The first time it came before my eyes, I was enveloped in the otherworldliness of subtle yearning and submitted to this clearly bygone era. My child brain was focused on that longing, not relating, but absorbing it for all it could be worth. I considered Meg Ryan’s characters mental state secondary to the love she inspired in the protagonist. I studied their hope, which existed in spite of terrifying, deadly forces. They had me in their time and place, pondering what good progress had brought us, aside from health. Did we love better, then, in filth?

As a teen I became fascinated by the versatility of Gary Oldman’s quiet, settled, pallid simplicity on screen. Nobody could play an erratic, antisocial mastermind, with or without a heart, like he could. In three parts, I came to understand ‘Immortal Beloved’. At 7, when I first caught glimpses of the film, I was scared of old Ludwig, amorous over his girlfriends, and remembered most the music and scenes of monstrous expressions of determination that had, in reality, made history. At 14 when I got to see the film in full, it broke my complex teenage art student heart to pieces. I felt sadness over the misunderstood artist Beethoven was. I liked him because I, too, was misunderstood, and I it was a pain. Ha. I held onto it. Years later, I revisited the movie because a friend handed me the DVD saying “It’s historical. You’ll like it.” I did like it, again, for the same reasons, but, strangely enough, with less passion. I had less time.

I still teared up for the lost loves of young Beethoven and what I had come to understand was his experience of untreated mental illness. What had, a decade before, been achingly romantic and even erotic in my book was now tinged with my own experience of social injustice. He should have been understood, respected for his art with greater mercy when it went wrong, encouraged, and removed from his abusive father’s home as a child. What I had previously viewed as romanticism of this long lost era gave way to new imaginings -since this was a film biopic, not an actual historical account- of longing. Perhaps all of this longing that I soaked up as a child watching these period pieces on the TV screen was built up by the difficulties of the time before convenience. My own longing for this experience stemmed from needing, wanting, knowing it was impossible to go back to a time full of that much waiting, wondering, and, unfulfilled desire. I felt that I had been granted a life of conveniences for a few generations who gave up the qualified value of longing for things. I understood my nature from this new angle- that some things were truly cheap, and I couldn’t know more than these romantic accounts of old-world characters gave me. As a child, I was attracted to the vision of a valuable order to the world, which included love and pleasure. I knew it. A lack of time, a strained well of passion, and memories of excitement over old visions of the world combined to keep me looking at movies from a time that was a little less convenient, a time in which I was present. I still think that if I keep looking, I’ll find pieces of who I was when I started watching, and thoughts long left behind will reemerge. The thoughts if long ago might mean something to me today, but I’ll never know if I don’t remember them, and the movies help. There’s a greater drama to movie habits: personal connection, and there you have it- a piece of my world.

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