This Is Where We Came In

October 1, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a bit of cultural history — movie history — that you’re probably not aware of, even if you’re a cineaste (unless, perhaps, if you’re a cineaste who’s eligible to collect Social Security). It’s about what a movie is, or more accurately, it’s about the place movies occupy in our social and cultural lives.

When you go to the movies, it’s annoying when people arrive after the film has started. They crabwalk to their seats as everyone else in that row knee-twists to one side to let them by without spilling the popcorn. Even if you’re not in that row, your focus is unavoidably drawn away from what’s happening on the screen and toward the latecomers. It doesn’t happen often, what with the twenty minutes of trailers, and besides nobody wants miss any of the film.

But it hasn’t always been that way. It wasn’t until the mid- to late-1950s (just a guess, I have no actual historical data) that things began to change. Before that, it was not unusual for moviegoers to arrive well into the picture. In his memoir Let Me Finish, Roger Angell, who was born in 1920 and grew up in New York City, writes that when he was twelve or so, he started regularly ditching his after-school recreation program and sneaking off to the movies.

Mostly, I would turn up at the Orpheum or the 86th Street Garden while the second feature was in progress . . . Walking into the middle of movies was the common American thing during the double-feature era, and if one stayed the course, only minimal mental splicing was required to reconnect the characters and the plot of the initial feature when it rolled around again. The absence of the double bill has done away with this knack and has also expunged “I think this is where we came in” from the language — a better phrase, all in all, than “déjà vu,” and easier to pronounce.

I had forgotten. But reading that paragraph opened a childhood memory — not detailed and Proustian, just a moment in the dark theater with my family, hearing my mother or father whisper, “This is where we came in, isn’t it?” and all of us getting up and making our way out.

Why did things change? Angell blames it on the demise of the double-feature, and he implies that latecoming occurred mostly in the B-movie,* usually an uninspired genre picture. But I would guess that the norm of tolerating latecoming spanned the entire program, even when only one picture was on the bill (though that bill also included one or two previews, a newsreel, and a cartoon).

Here’s another guess for why mid-movie arrival was common: television, or rather the absence of television. Today, movies are special. They have had to keep one step ahead of TV. When TV was black-and-white, movies had color. Even today, movies have sex, violence, and language not allowed on broadcast TV. And even cable can’t produce the sound and screen size of the movies or, until very recently, the special effects and high-priced actors.

Before the mid-1950s, movies occupied some of the space now taken by television — everyday, ordinary entertainment. Today, in our homes we might turn on the TV to “see what’s on television,” not to see a particular show at a particular time. If it’s ten past the hour and we turn on the TV mid-program, that’s OK. (This was even more the case in the years before on-demand and the DVR.)

The movies were like that in the pre-television decades. People were less picky about what they saw. They often went “to the movies” rather than to a particular movie, especially if there was only one theater nearby.  And if they didn’t get to the theater exactly on time, that was OK.

It’s not that television allowed movies to become Art rather than Entertainment. Most people at the tenplex today aren’t thinking of what they’re seeing in terms of artistic categories. But even if movies are still entertainment, they fit into people’s lives in a way that’s different from that of the 1930s and 40s. And different as well are are the norms of going to the movies.


* I once asked my students if they’d seen or heard of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie.” Several people raised their hands. Then I asked them if they understood the double meaning in the title. Nobody raised a hand.

You Read It Here First

September 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today, the Facebook group Nerds With Vaginas posted this:

(Note the number of Likes, Comments, and Shares the post had already gotten in the first five hours.)

Four years ago, in a blogpost about swear words (here), I cited the work of Jack Grieve, who had been using Twitter data to discover regional and historical variations. Here is the final paragraph of that post.

You can find maps for all your favorite words at Grieve’s Website (here), where you can also find out what words are trending (as we now say) on Twitter. (“Unbothered” is spreading from the South, and “fuckboy” is rising). Other words are on the way down (untrending?). If you’re holding “YOLO” futures, sell them now before it’s too late. [Emphasis added.]

Oldsmobile, or Why I Am Not a Genius

September 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Montclair State professor, Jeffrey Alan Miller, has been awarded a Genius Grant, also known as the MacArthur Fellowship. Four years ago, he discovered the earliest known draft of the King James Bible.

The Times (here) reported the story at the time.

Professor Miller discovered the manuscript last fall, when he was in the archives at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge . . . He came across an unassuming notebook about the size of a modern paperback, wrapped in a stained piece of waste vellum and filled with some 70 pages of Ward’s nearly indecipherable handwriting.

As Professor Miller tried to puzzle out which passages of the Bible it concerned, he realized what it was: a draft of parts of the King James Version of the Apocrypha, a disputed section of the Bible that is left out of many editions, particularly in the United States.

The true scholar who learns of Prof. Miller’s discovery will immediately think of its implications not just for the history of the most widely read book in English literature but also for the history of the English language itself, the history of England, and the Anglican church.

My reaction, alas, was different. My first thoughts — and still my only thoughts — turned to Woody Allen’s 1974 essay on “The Scrolls.”

Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing . . . .

The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.


September 24, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

No, not the Showtime series. The president.

In a “news analysis” piece in the Times today (here), Peter Baker, who has been reporting on the Ukraine story, says:

Even for a leader who has audaciously disregarded many of the boundaries that restrained his predecessors, President Trump’s appeal to a foreign power for dirt on former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is an astonishing breach of the norms governing the American presidency. [emphasis added]

Ah, yes. Breaching the norms. In a series of posts two years ago, I explained why I was not a big fan of the “breaching” assignments that many instructors use in the unit on norms in Sociology 101. Important lessons can be learned from these assignments, I said, but to learn them, we have to shift  onto the reactions of the norm violator and away from the reaction of others, which is what the assignment usually tells the norm-breaching students to focus on.

Lesson #2: When we think about breaking a norm, our anticipatory anxiety is highly exaggerated and not rational. When you ask people why they can’t, just can’t, break the norm, they imagine consequences far out of proportion to what might happen. When Stanley Milgram told his students to go into the NYC subway and ask people for their seats, one student said, “You want to get us killed?” When I’ve asked students about doing the breaching experiment, they imagine offended strangers raining mayhem upon them. But even as they say it, they know that it’s preposterous. Which leads to . . .

 Lesson #3: We follow the norms not out of some rational cost-benefit calculation. We follow them because we have internalized them. Society is not just “out there”; it’s “in here,” inside us, as well. [The entire post is here.]

Those internalized norms are what create the feeling of shame, the feeling that comes from knowing that other people around us strongly disapprove. Without that sense of shame, our only consideration would be the rational cost-benefit calculation. To the shameless, the disapproval of others matters only if it can be transformed into some sanction with real consequences. Most of the time, it can’t.

Years ago, I went into one of those narrow news stores, the kind that sell newspapers, magazines, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. A man was standing there paging through a skin magazine. (This was way before the Internet, before you could get free porn by just tapping your phone.) “Hey, fella,” the man behind the counter said, “you want to buy the magazine?” The reader ignored him. Maybe he even put down the Playboy and picked up a Penthouse. “Hey, this ain’t reading room. Buy it or get out.” The man went on reading for another minute or two despite the repeated demands from the man behind the counter.

I was amazed at his brazenness. On the shame spectrum, he was at the opposite pole from Woody Allen in this scene from “Play It Again Sam.” (That film was made in 1972. The final line in that scene, the Woody Allen making a reference to child molesting, sounds very different today given what we now know.)

Our president has demonstrated just how flimsy our norms are. The Times article quotes Richard Ben Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, referring to Trump’s “profound disregard for presidential norms.” But this disregard has brought no meaningful sanctions. Of course, sanctions are less likely to be imposed on norm violators who have some power. As Trump said in connection with his disregard for other, non-presidential norms, “When you’re a star . . . you can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” If you’re a star and, he forgot to add, if you are shameless.

As Gwenda Blair, a biographer of the Trump family, put it.  “What he’s learned is you can get away with just about anything if you’re willing to gamble and you have zero shame.”