Monday, August 19, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Here’s one of those odd things, which you re-visit and re-interpret in adulthood after a first encounter in childhood.

In the mid-1950s, when I was four or five years old, I remember there was a popular piece of orchestral music, which received a lot of play on the radio. I did not know the name of this piece of music, but I do know that (to use a childish piece of vocabulary) I found it “creepy” and unsettling. It had a sort of shimmering effect in the string section, and a male choir singing wordlessly but (as I interpreted it) malignly, as well as a forlorn and somewhat cracked member of the brass section playing along in solo.

It wasn’t quite the realm of nightmare, but almost. At the age of 4,5,6 or 7, it was not the type of music I wanted to hear as I was going to bed.

Flash forward fifty-plus years. I visited Canada briefly a couple of months ago and remember one evening there, looking through the window of my host’s house and seeing a spectacular sunset. At once the words Canadian Sunset came into my head.  This was not the tune that had unsettled me as a child. I remembered both the title and the tune Canadian Sunset from my childhood. So, fooling around on Youtube, I found the recording of it that Hugo Winterhalter and his orchestra made in 1956 and listened to a piece of cheesy pop romanticism that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid.

But, while on-line, I saw there were other pieces of “easy listening” 50s pop available near the one I was listening to – so I decided to try some. And, by pure chance, the first I heard was the one that unsettled me so long ago and whose name I did not know. It turned out to be Lisbon Antigua, recorded by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra, also in 1956. Heard by my adult ears, it is no more than chintzy mid-1950s wallpaper muzak, adapted from a Portuguese original (which I also watched on line). Basically kitsch and nothing to get worried about.

So what had I found “creepy” about it as a child? I really don’t know, and I don’t think I was a particularly nervous kid. Maybe those shimmering strings sounded to a 4-year-old like midnight music or music that would be heard in a scary film. Maybe I was unnerved that adults made wordless noises. But I really do not know. All I know is that something trite and harmless had frightened me.

I must tell a similar story related to another medium.

As children, my brother (18 months older than I am) and I regularly visited the local flea-house on Saturday afternoons to see a “picture”. (We never used the terms “movie”, “cinema” or “film”). This was just before television closed all the suburban picture theatres down.

One afternoon, before the big feature, we saw something really horrible.

In a short subject called Hurry, Hurry, there was this fat old man with a horrible whiney voice who got into a dangerous car chase, with wailing sirens as police chased him and the strong possibility that somebody was going to get injured or killed. It had us on the edge of our seats. It took a long time for us to calm down, and we were totally mystified that this awful film concluded with a young woman looking straight to camera and saying that the man was her uncle and that she loved him.

We had found it terrifying.

About twenty years later I saw this short subject again. It turned out to be eight minutes extracted from the 1941 comedy Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, starring the whiney fat old man W.C.Fields. It was of course meant to be funny, a car chase with all the improbabilities of driving the wrong way up a one-way tunnel, getting entangled with the ladder of a passing fire-engine, making pedestrians scatter in all directions as cars raced through, and so forth. Your standard funny (i.e. desperately unfunny) car-chase fare.

One thing I would note is that you never can tell what will frighten or impress children. Harmless stuff can be unsettling, while they don’t turn a hair at what adults regard as really frightening stuff.

More to the point, though, and especially with regard to the short film, which we misapprehended, children haven’t yet learnt the codes and conventions of different entertainment genres. A grown-up knows that a crazy and improbable car-chase is more fantasy than reality. For a child it is reality, and in reality a crazy car-chase would probably end in injury or death. Understood this way, the child’s vision is more acute than the adult’s.

And maybe mid-50s pop romanticism really is creepy.

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