Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everything I know, I learned from watching TCM

You may not realize just how much knowledge you are picking up by osmosis by watching old movies. Half way through a viewing of Madame Curie (1943) with Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, I realized I'd unwittingly learned a lot of physics and that the story of the discovery of radium was actually told with technical accuracy as well as dramatic interest. If the movie takes liberties its with the details of the lives ofits er subjects, not with the science, which is actually very refreshing. Other biopics are loaded with information, which if not exactly useful, is stored away for further use. Would I know anything about the Mexican Revolution if it weren't for Viva Zapata (1952)? It's doubtful.

Everything I know about English history, I learned from costume dramas. Recently I was having a discussion with a friend about Edward VI, you know like ya do, and I couldn't picture who he was talking about until I remembered his character, portrayed by Rex Thompson in Young Bess (1953). Sometimes I go online after watching a costume drama and try to research more about the historical context, but even if I unearth grave errors of fact, its unlikely that I'm going to remember much beyond what is shown in the film.

And it's not just history. I've learned a great deal of geography from the movies as well. From Bringing Up Baby (1938), I learned that generally Connecticut is north of New York City. From Metropolitain (1990), I learned that Princeton New Jersey is south of Manhattan. From North By Northwest (1959) I learned that Chicago is about 12 hours north and west (duh) of of New York by train. From East of Eden (1955) I learned that I'm not really crazy about James Dean as an actor. (Ok, maybe that last one doesn't count as geography, but its still an important thing to learn.) Casablanca (1942) has a useful map of the Middle East and Africa with the famous red line (reused by the Indiana Jones series) to represent the trail of refugees to Casablanca where they wait...and wait...and wait.

Of course it can be dangerous to learn to much from old movies. While I'd say I know a great deal about World War II beyond the average person, thanks to watching so many movies, it's all very much slanted from one perspective. I shudder to think if I'd learned everything I knew about the history of the American West from Westerns. Even relatively non-cotroversial topics such as Custer are portrayed with such a distorted view in generally in favor of history's winners that it's pretty dispicable. All I going to say is Custer probably really had it coming and he's generally portrayed as a great American hero in movies, up until Little Big Man.


Juliette. said...

Haha, that's great. I feel exactly the same way..well, not TCM (as I never had it), but movies in general. And it's great, because I can act like I've learned it all on my own. :)

Psst...I learned the same thing from East of Eden.

SteveQ said...

There is so much wrong with the science (and history) in "Marie Curie" that I found it laughable. BTW, Pierre did all the work and died painfully because of it.

Then again, it's better than "The Brain From Planet Arous," the only movie that made me laugh at a Geiger counter.

Jennythenipper said...

I thought they did a good job of making a complex subject interesting and understandable in Marie Curie, Steve.