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Opening Arguments

You know how to hiss, don't you?

One of the nice things about old friends is that you don't feel the need to fill all the conversational voids with mindless chatter. You can just enjoy each other's presence in companionable silence. Favorite movies can be like old friends. You don't have to pay attention to the action -- you've seen it a dozen times or more. Having the movie on in the background while you read the newspaper or fold the laundry makes you feel like you're in the neighborhood you grew up in or with old high school buddies you hadn't thought of in awhile.

I'm blogging tonight in the company of a very old friend, playing on Turner Classic Movies, 1948's "Key Largo" with Bogie and Bacall. This was the last of the four movies they made together, and the smoldering sexual tension evident in, say, "The Big Sleep," had evolved into a deep, abiding love undergirded by smoldering sexual tension. These are people we would all like to be when confronted with evil -- reluctant heroes who can't help but do the right thing. Bogart as Rick in the best movie of all time, "Casablanca," was the perfect embodiment of the bitter cynic who rises to the occasion. In this movie, the cynicism of Bogart's disillusioned war vet is a little less pronounced, so his embrace of his better nature is a little more realistic. A good man meets a good woman, so Edward G. Robinson's venal, grasping gangster character doesn't really have a chance.

Coincidentally, as I'm googling the modern, chaotic universe and subliminally absorbing a sublime romance in the hot wind of the Florida Keys, I stumble across an item on the Web about Lauren Bacall, saying not so nice things about Tom Cruise. Basically, she thinks he's an opportunist for using his personal life to further his professional career. She doesn't actually come out and say he's silly, but it's hard for us to avoid that conclusion. Just imagine Bogart announcing his love for Bacall to the world the way Cruise did for Katie Holmes, jumping up and down on Oprah's couch. Or try to picture, without giggling, Holmes looking at Cruise and saying, "You know how to whistle, don't you?"

When he isn't telling us more about his love life than we want to know, Cruise is either lecturing us on the need for people with severe mental illness to undergo vitamin therapy, or extolling the virtues of Scientology, begun by a science fiction writer who was part huckster and part wacko nut job. If religion truly is the opiate of the masses, Scientology is the crack cocaine of the feeble-minded few.

As someone who wants to learn from others' ideas and be moved by great art, I do try to separate the dancer from the dance. I think Jane Fonda should be in prison for treason, but "Klute" is a great movie. Woody Guthrie was pretty much a committed Communist, but, Lord, I love his music. I find that hard to do with Cruise, though. He seems such a small, preening, self-important jerk that it's hard to suspend belief and try to see the world from his character's viewpoint in a movie. What's  the difference between his sliding-across-the-floor shallow teenager in "Risky Business" and his running-across-the-country shallow adult in "War of the Worlds"? I can't imagine one of his movies ever being an old, comfortable friend playing in the background and reminding me of my better self while I'm focused on the mundane pursuits of everyday life.

They say movie stars used to be larger than life, their mysteries preserved by studios who knew how to tantalize us with glamorous fiction about their private lives. Maybe that's why their movies are still able to touch us; we can write our dreams and fears into the characters they created. We know everything about today's stars -- they never shut up, and the TV talk shows never sleep. We'll never get to the "companionable silence" phase with them. They demand our unblinking attention, like annoying visitors who stay too long because they don't understand we can barely tolerate them even stopping by.