Sometimes Time Takes the Bus.Posted: August 7, 2009
Okay, stay with me now.
The other night I saw a silent movie on TCM, a terrific comedy called The Patsy from 1928 starring the talented (and unfairly maligned*) Marion Davies. What struck me was not how different everything is 81 years later, but how much is not different. The world portrayed in the movie is recognizably a modern one. People get around in cars. They talk on the phone. The attitudes and motivations of the characters are clear to a 2009 audience. The jokes are funny. Quite a lot of the freshness of the film is due to the performance of Davies; her gestures and gesticulations and body language seem to break through time altogether. No translation, no “making allowances,” is necessary.
One was left feeling that despite all that was different on the surface — the fashions, the decor, the absence of computers, etc. — the world of 1928 was the same, in any way that mattered, as the world of 2009. This surprised me.
Now for something completely different. Let’s take my birth year of 1950, and go back 81 years from that. The year? 1869. The Civil War is barely over. People traverse long distances by stage coach, or train if they’re lucky (the first transcontinental rail line is completed in that year). The Wild West is at its wildest. Nothing is the same as in 1950. It is a completely different world.
The difference between 1869 and 1950 is Mt. Everest compared to the molehill of difference between 1928 and 2009. Yet what separates each pair of years is exactly the same time span — 81 years.
This leads me to think the tremendous changes that occurred in the first decades of the 20th century — widespread automobile use, the birth of air travel, the coming of mass communications like movies and radio — made a much bigger impact on life than anything we’ve seen since, even in this computer age. We complain about change; we don’t know the meaning of the word change. 1890-1920: That’s when everything changed, in a way we’re still living with today. Even though the pace of life is faster today, when it comes to change, we’re pikers.
Everything we have now is a version of something that existed in 1928. Nothing, really, is qualitatively different. Take music downloads. Sure, it’s a whole new delivery system. We might think it’s revolutionary. But essentially, it’s recorded music, just coming at us a new way; it’s today’s version of the 78. Compare that to before Edison, when there was no recorded music. If you wanted to hear music, you had to go hear somebody play music — or make it yourself. The invention of the phonograph around the turn of 20th century — that’s when change happened. We’re still living in that world.
We think time is passing faster and faster. But in reality, time has slowed down. To an absolute crawl.
*Marion Davies was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, and when Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane came out (a movie loosely based on the life of Hearst), people assumed the Susan Alexander character — an untalented singer who becomes Kane’s mistress, and whom Kane uses his millions to push into the limelight — was based on Davies. But although in real life Hearst used his influence and money to promote Davies’ career, a key difference is that Davies was marvelously talented. Welles himself recognized this difference, admired Davies, and later regretted that his movie had damaged her reputation.