Always settle scores at noon; And other lessons learned at the movies
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 September 2008)

The great thing about Paris is that you can always see the Eiffel Tower from your room, whether you're an artist in a tiny garret or a millionaire in a first-class hotel. Just look out the window and there it is. We who have spent much of our lives at the movies know this to be a fact, having seen it demonstrated on many occasions.

That's a perfect example of Movie Wisdom, the information we absorb inadvertently while sitting in the dark. We may go to the movies to enjoy the actors and the stories but the experience also enlarges our view of the world. In early autumn, when the Toronto International Film Festival comes around again, it reminds me of how much the movies have taught me.

Fans of traditional western movies, for example, know that the gunmen on the American frontier settled their disputes fair and square, meeting in one-on-one main-street pistol duels, ideally at noon. I was shocked when Elmore Leonard said he made it a rule to omit that scene from the western books and movies he wrote. He claims no one would ever be so foolish as to do that.

While his opinion may seem reasonable on the surface, it appears overly literal to me. I'm sticking with the Movie Wisdom version. It has tradition behind it.

Over the last 25 years or so the movies have also taught me that there's no such thing as a good man who is also rich. Years ago, a rich man of good character would occasionally show up in a movie, though always in disguise. If several young women working in a department store met by accident a man who appeared to be poor, he would later turn out to be the store's owner. But since stores are now owned by giant corporations, it's been many years since the movies depicted a capitalist with admirable qualities. Today rich men spend most of the time hiring lawyers to save their drug-dealing, murdering sons from justice.

As for corporations, we know they never follow their own stated principles. What they do, mainly, is poison the public with industrial waste.

It's not hard to follow the plot of a movie, once you have a little practice.

For instance, you can be sure that the nicest, sweetest, most helpful character who appears in the early scenes will likely die before the end (providing he or she is not a star).

As soon as we identify someone as a CIA agent, we know he's concocting an evil plot. He's almost certainly the member of a rogue faction in the agency, scheming to place its candidate in the presidency.

If we are watching a movie about people in Biblical times, we can expect that they will sometimes wear ragged clothes but their teeth will always be perfect.

If a baseball player goes up to bat in Yankee Stadium, he can always spot his girlfriend, sitting somewhere in the crowd, so that they can exchange loving glances before he wins the game with a home run. If a detective disregards his superior's orders and sneaks illegally into an office in search of incriminating information, he will almost certainly find it in the first file drawer he opens.

Mordecai Richler, in his novel Cocksure, depicted a young woman who took Movie Wisdom a little too seriously. She was confident that when telephoning the police in an emergency she needed only to dial a single number; she assumed the scene would then fade out and sirens would soon be heard in the distance. Because this was in an earlier time, 1968, her romantic life was also somewhat constricted. She knew that lovemaking consisted of a single passionate kiss, nothing more, followed by a slow fade.

Chauncey Gardiner, played in 1979 by Peter Sellers in Jerzy Kosinski's film Being There, had the same problem. A simple-minded gardener employed by a rich man, he knew nothing of life except what he learned by watching television during his free hours. When he was fired and forced to live on his own, he became famous for his wise sayings ("Spring is a time for planting") but had trouble managing personal relations. When Shirley MacLaine tried to interest him in a love affair, he found it impossible to meet her expectations. Films on television had not shown him how.

Even so, it's in the matter of romance and courtship that Movie Wisdom provides the most helpful guide to life. It teaches us that if a man and a woman intensely dislike each other when they meet, they will soon fall in love and marry. It warns us that if a girl has sex just once, she'll for sure get pregnant, particularly if she's only 16. When a baby is about to be born, the important thing is to boil a lot of water. Who could do without this information?

The late Pauline Kael, many years ago, was asked how movies affected political opinions. They had no influence on politics, she said, but in private life they were crucial. She could remember when the first great performances of Cary Grant in the 1930s transformed the behaviour of boys. By his example, Grant taught boys the essence of suave behaviour on a date. No one ever did anything nicer for girls. "Every boy became a better date," as Kael recalled.

When screen directors began to choose elegant restaurants as the favourite setting for emotional encounters, they instructed us on proper conduct in public. We learned that it is permissible, in fact it is sometimes mandatory, to order a big meal and eat almost none of it. Certainly it is a fast rule, obeyed by all movie characters, that no one ever finishes a drink unless they are ordering another one. We also discovered that when two male friends have a beer together, at least one of them, after his first gulp, will wipe his mouth on his sleeve.

Emotional difficulties will often arise between men and women, and Movie Wisdom can help us there, too. For instance, if a woman becomes hysterical, you slap her, for her own good, and that quickly straightens her out. I know all that. I learned it at the movies.

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