Movies. More Movies. Still more movies. For three years, Christopher Durang saw an average of six movies a week. Some weeks were better - or maybe worse - than others: all he did during one was go to a different double bill every day, have dinner, and work at his part - time job cleaning bathrooms, not necessarily in that order. 'It was,' Durang remembers, 'a very non - lived week.'
Something of value did come out of that celluloid splurge, something quite unexpected: a play called 'A History of the American Film.'
Unexpected because the theater has tradionally been less than pleased with the scrappy,nouveau riche movies, and has looked on film's excesses - its philistine wholesale talent purchases, for instance - with the delicate distaste only an eons - old institution could hope to muster.
The movies were always more than happy to turn out endless backstage dramas and some, like 'All About Eve,' became acknowledged classics. Yet the theater has by and large tried to make believe the nasty movies weren't there at all, or hopefully would at least go away to count the money and leave the committed, serious people alone.
What Durang realized - it came to him all in a rush while watching an especially obscure Loretta Young - Spencer Tracy movie called 'A Man's Castle' - is that film has taken over preeminence in the molding of recognizable archetypes, the creation of instantly identifiable images.
This used to be a theater specially, dating back to the Greeks - remember Oedipus? - and funally ending with the conventions of stage melodrama which characterized so many early silent films: the oily cad, the cowering virgin and of course the cold - hearted landlord pointing his finger out into the inevitable snowstorm and mouthing that one horrible word, "Go!"
For the past 50 years, however, it's the movies that have formed our popular images, and just for starters Durang has identified five of the primary ones:
Jimmy - the Cagney - based, street - wise tough talker.
Loretta - the eternal Goody Two - Shoes.
Bette - the female Jimmy.
Hank - the cornfed innocent, the male Loretta.
Eve - the femme sidekick who jokes too much to catch the star.
More than this, however, Durang has had the inspiration to realize that these same characters fit neatly into all kinds of different films, that they keep bumping into each other like lost souls in Purgatory.
It is terribly intriguing and thought - provoking, for instance, to see Ma Joad's 'We're the people' speech from 'Grapes of Wrath' become cause enough for her to be condemned years later by the House Un-American Activity Committee, or to see Hank turn from the beloved hick to a madman out of "Psycho." How easily, how smoothly, all movies, all characters, become one.
Why, you might wonder, does a man who estimates that he's put reference, obscure and otherwise, to nearly 200 movies into his play bother to write a play at all? Why isn't Christopher Durang, a pleasantly low-key 28-years-ld, making movies? A major reason, aside from a lifelong devotion to playwriting, is that Durang was "really turned off" by what he saw of film schools and the assorted manias of its students.
"I once went to see Hitchcock's 'Under Capricorn' at MIT and I got so annoyed reading endless pages on 'the tension within the upper frame.' I didn't know what they meant. And in Otto Preminger's 'Carmen Jones' there is a shot of a bus going into an army barracks, and someone said the barracks was an image of isolation, the bus an image of freedom.
"I had a hunch," Durang concludes, smiling slightly. "I was fearful I wouldn't like film school."
Equally puzzling at first is the report, which Durang confirms, that this erstwhile addict has pretty much stopped seeing movies. Oh, he'll go out to see an occasional "ghastly" epic like Liv Ullmann in "Pope Joan," but as a general rule he's finished with film, cold turkey.
This puzzlement tends to fade after seeing "A History of the American Film," because once you get past the undeniably entertaining surface, past the deft parodies, the feeling is inescapable that Durang is not telling us that this was all good clean fun, but just the opposite. The play almost seems an act of exorcism, a way to get all of those movies out of your system. This is not a valentine to film, this is the theater's revenge.
Movies, Durang is telling us, have gotten all mixed up in our minds, those clear archetypes have by this time coalesced, grown fuzzy. The implication is that we were silly to be moved, we were naive to believe the movie promise that everything would always turn out all right. Our devotions, in some ways, are being mocked.
Typifying this feeling are the scattered, poignant moments when an oversized, perhaps 10-foot-tall "THE END" sign comes down over the action, freezing it at some ridiculous moment of bliss. But no matter how hard characters like Loretta plead for nothing more than to be left like that, suspended in time and happy forever, it's not to be. The sign may come down, but nothing ends. The movies and what they do to us walk on.