Bridge of Spies in a Land of Noise

Reviewing Spielberg’s movie Bridge of Spies, recalling 1950’s America during the cold war—And talking about the modern movie-going experience.
…When you go to the movies now—if you want to get there early enough to get a good seat and settle in—you have to sit through almost a half hour of mind-numbing, ear-splitting product commercials and previews for coming attractions for TV shows and movies.
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Yesterday (Saturday) my wife and I ventured down Broadway to the Loews Monsterplex to see Bridge of Spies. We almost always go on weekend mornings—that’s when they have early shows. Because of my various “eccentricities”, the mornings are the only time I’m awake and composed enough to sit through a movie. Also, since we’re chronologically “Seniors” the price is half of what it would be ordinarily—and these days that’s a noticeable savings.

As for the movie… Except for saying that it concerns some of the most intense (and scary) occurrences of the cold war—the crazy-dangerous global chess game between Russia and the USA in the Fifties and Sixties—I won’t say much about it. Why spoil the entertainment value?

If you’re my age (70) or older some of the characters and events will be familiar to you. If you’re younger than 65 or not a student of cold war history, the movie could just as well be fiction—and not bad fiction, either. The characters, despite a certain simplicity in their presentation, are strong, and the story, which, perhaps necessarily leaves out a great deal of surrounding context, is very suspenseful; keeps you watching and wondering how things will turn out.

Having said that, I will say that, several times during the movie, I had to make constant small adjustments to my suspension-of-disbelief controls. The picture did seem, at times, almost a little cartoonish—the story and the characters, even the way the movie looked and felt came across as too clearly defined, maybe a little too pat and two-dimensional.

The Fifties were a time when Americans (and American culture and politics) tended to be less complex, at least on the surface. Most people, not being as informed as they are now about what goes on behind the scenes—and just having won a world war against the Japs and the Nazis—saw Russia as the new bad guy and took it for granted that the USA and “our way of life” was in constant danger of being destroyed, from without and within. The events of this movie occurred only a couple of years after the McCarthy witch hunts and the Rosenberg trials. In those days, you were either a patriotic American or Commie-loving “pinko”. (With a new cast of hateful bad guys, and with America, again, as the straight-shooting savior of the world, it doesn’t seem so different now, does it?).

I didn’t know, till the credits came on, that Steven Spielberg directed the movie—and that went a long way toward explaining most of what I was seeing and feeling. Spielberg is a terrific director but not given to examining the gray areas of life. And life is, aside from the rare, vivid moments, mostly lived in the gray areas, both internally and externally.
Mr. Spielberg clearly prefers to see most things as either black or white—good or bad. So if you want an entertaining story and are willing (at least for two hours in a movie theater) to ignore the deeper, stranger currents of life, that’s fine. Also—ignoring the corruption and violence of the USA—both domestically and internationally, the Soviets and their puppet states were truly villainous. They were unrelenting, terrifying dictatorships. If you compared the two political systems and cultures (which the movie constantly does) there was really very little doubt where you’d choose to live if ever given a choice.

Going back to what I said about being old enough to remember the events of the movie… Even if you were old enough to recall what happened during those cold war years, your memories have probably faded. At least they have for me.
As I get older, I find I’m less likely to remember the details of news stories about the world blowing up in a nuclear war than the green and gray painted hallways of my junior high school or the smiling face and blond curls of my first girlfriend in the sixth grade. After all, in my brief time on this earth, there were only two years at JHS 59—and in the sixth grade there was only one Dilys Neugebauer who let me carry her books home; the violence, greed and perfidy of the world has gone/and goes on forever.

…So much for the actual movie. Then there’s the experience of movie-going itself.

The starting time for a movie, as printed in the paper, or as available online or by menu-option phone call, has, of course, nothing to do with when the movie actually starts. When you go to the movies now—if you want to get there early enough to get a good seat and settle in—you have to sit through almost a half hour of mind-numbing, ear-splitting product commercials and previews for coming attractions for TV shows and movies.
As if the price of the ticket wasn’t already too much, then you’re subjected to this maddening hucksterism—and there is no mute button.

Of course, there’s nothing new about previews or an announcer (or cartoon character) telling you on-screen to make sure to buy some delicious, buttered pop-corn or a fizzing family-size soda. That went back, I suppose, almost to the beginning of talking pictures; it is show business, after all. I suppose it’s just—as it is with most things these days—that the excesses of technology are omnipresent.
The entire country now seems inured to the graphic, neuron-exploding displays of blood and gore, insane killers, explosions and various other forms of frightening beasts, monsters and demons that populate TV, movies and video games. And all this at a decibel level (including the accompanying music track) that any sane person should understand is enough to cause permanent hearing impairment. The soundtrack for the coming attractions in the movies is turned up (a la Spinal Tap) to 11 on volume scale of 1-10.The bass speakers in theaters (all twenty-five of them) must be the size of SUVs.

Either the whole country has become partially deaf from a steady diet of noise EVERYWHERE, or I’m just too finicky and sensitive for the modern world. I’m guessing it’s probably both.

During the height of the boom-box madness of the previews yesterday, I looked around and noticed that, aside from me and my wife and a handful of other people, almost no-one had their fingers stuck in their ears to block out the worst of the noise.

Every fucking place you go—drug stores, supermarkets, health food stores, coffee-shops, banks, department stores, lobbies of buildings, etc., there is music from some 24 hour radio station being piped in at high volume—or at least a giant TV screen showing some (equally loud) mindless pop show.
And it’s my observation that no one, including the employees of these places, is listening to this music. I believe that if you were to just freeze the population of a supermarket at any moment and ask every customer and employee if they’d like to have the music shut off, you’d get around 90% of them saying yes, PLEASE shut it off.
Yet if you ask someone—a manager—to either shut off or at least turn down the music, they get irritated; you are instantly classified as a pain-in-the ass. Why can’t you just be a nice customer and put up with Lite-FM or The Best of The Eighties like everyone else in the store? In every chain store they will tell you that they’re sorry, but it’s company policy—they have no power to turn it down. Is there an actual individual at Chase Manhattan headquarters in New York (or Dubai) who has issued the order to commit mayhem by music in every one of its branches?
In fact, during the very few times the music in one of these places suddenly stops for some reason—even for a moment—there is a comparative sense of stillness and peace that is akin to getting a shot of morphine or being magically transported to 19th century Walden Pond.

I guess this is all part of the craziness of the modern world—at least the modern American world—where everything you see and hear has to be faster and louder and more mind-shattering every day, or… Or what, we will be left alone with our own thoughts and feelings; with the world and our minute and fleeting presence in it, as it really is?
Well, thinking about it that way, I suppose I have to understand. After all, who wants to see and hear and feel things (internally and externally) as they really are? If you’ve ever tried to meditate or sit in silence, either in a group or alone, you know how hard it can be—seems almost impossible to deal with your thoughts and emotions.
Still and still… even when I was younger I loved those rare gaps in the day when you suddenly, through plan or accident, had a few moments of silence or repose—a temporary cessation of the constant noise, busyness, thoughts and emotions that hover around you like a hive full of bees; That brief skip in time when the planet (and your brain) seems to stop spinning and you see through the automatic twitching and jumping of daily life to the clear blue stillness of eternity beyond…
(And I know some people, friends or correspondents from the cyberspatial universe, who have sought out these gaps and turned them into the dominant part of their lives. I think this happens sometimes when people get into their older age. They stop grasping, find what brings them comfort, both spiritually and materially, and make the choice to occupy this space in whatever relative peace and contentment the world will allow.)

But for the beleaguered mass of humanity, a kind of noisy desperation takes hold. There is an unconscious sense of herd passivity and shrugging acceptance of THE BIG NOISE. The lemming part of the brain says, “You see you can’t beat them—you might as join them”. The great irony and sadness of history—including the present moment—is that “them” is us.
But since most of the world doesn’t realize this, the loony carousel keeps spinning, as if by some invisible, overwhelming power.

So the what the fuck—keep that music pumping, swipe or tap or insert that credit card, get that new app, install that faster software and get those bigger speakers. And as for the old farts who can’t take it? Well, let them stick permanent plugs in their ears or take a time machine back to the idyll of their uncomplicated, peaceful childhood.
I suppose it’s just my nature, but I liked the time—long gone now—when I could go into a hardware or drug store, or a bank or supermarket and not hear any noise except what was organic to the place itself.

Oh, and by the way, after all this ranting, I do recommend Bridge of Spies.

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