More lasting than bronze

My husband and I recently watched the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men, which I had never seen before.  I’m not generally a fan of old movies; my cinematic tastes run to fantasy and science fiction (surprise!), or action, or various other things not as commonly filmed in the days of black and white.  Also — to be quite honest — the style of acting popular back then doesn’t move me terribly much.  All in all, those movies often strike me as very dated.  I’d rather watch something more recent.

But before I get lynched by fans of old Hollywood, let me say: 12 Angry Men is an excellent movie. What I’d like to do is talk about why — and why I’m bringing this up in a forum that isn’t supposed to be about movies. I can boil it down to one short sentence.

Good words don’t age.

The single quality shared by every old movie I like is a rock-solid script. The sets can be cheap, the costumes fake-looking, the cinematography primitive, the special effects something a six-year-old could do in her basement today — but give me a good words, and I’m there. A compelling plot delivered via memorable lines will carry me past oceans of other flaws.

It ties into other things, of course; characterization is partly created by script, partly by acting, and bad (or dated) acting can undermine the best dialogue. Also, while I stand by the rhetorical force of my sentence above, it isn’t quite true that good words don’t age — since, after all, our notion of what constitutes “good words” can and does change over time. A lot of current popular comedy, for example, is probably too culturally-referential to still be half as funny in twenty years. To rephrase my point at greater length: I believe that, while trends can rise and fall with relative speed, in scripts as in anything else, there’s an underlying stratum of what our culture considers to be “quality,” and that one shifts much more slowly. And its staying power is far greater than many other aspects of the cinematic art.

Oh hey, lookit that — I make my living in a word-based medium. Raise your hand if you’re surprised that I think of a script as the thing that gives a movie enduring quality.

I’m quite serious, though. Maybe it’s just that film is a new medium, in the grand scheme of things, and so film-specific components of the art (like cinematography, or special effects) are evolving at a much faster pace, and therefore techniques fall out of fashion much more quickly. Words, on the other hand, have been around a Really Long Time. We haven’t always used them for the same kind of storytelling, but we’ve worked out some pretty durable techniques. Heck, if that weren’t true, I don’t think we’d still be honoring Shakespeare the way we do; his works consist of nothing but words.

My title on this is a quote from the Roman poet Horace, whose words are even older than Shakespeare’s. “I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze . . . .” (Points to the Latin geeks in my audience who can quote it back to me in the original.) He’s talking about his poetry, which still carries enough force that now, two thousand years after he died, it still leaps the language barrier to speak to modern audiences.

If I could do even a tenth so well, I would be happy.

What are some good words (or rather, stories containing same) that you think have aged particularly well? Or do you find yourself attracted to old stories for other reasons?

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  1. 1. Tim of Angle

    “The mind is its own place, and in itself
    Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

  2. 2. Carolyn Crane

    I’m with you on this! I’m not a fan of old movies either, but 12 ANGRY was just amazing, and so satisfying. I loved the words, and the psychology of the different characters, and also the cultural portrait of that time.

    I just saw District 9 last night, which was fantastic and harrowing, and it makes an interesting comparison with 12, because it’s about roughly the same sort of human impulses. Anyway, great post.

  3. 3. Ben Cirillo

    No one had a way with words like Hemingway.

    He could have written “Brett was starting to become more and more intoxicated and emotional as indicated by the rapidity to which she consumed the bubbly champagne.”

    Instead, he said the same thing with: “Brett’s glass was empty.”

    To co-opt a dirty joke: It’s not the size of the words, it’s the skill of the wordsmith.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Tim — Sadly, I wasn’t really able to work Milton into my most recent book, though I very much wanted to.

    Carolyn — What’s especially interesting is what they don’t tell you in 12: who “those people” are. You can guess, of course, but that careful void at the center of the script makes it easier to see how that kind of prejudice is a timeless thing.

    Ben — I’m not a good audience for Hemingway, unfortunately. I can’t tell, though, which of three reasons that is: a) his writing style is too stripped for my tastes, b) he tends to write about things that don’t much interest me, or c) I had him crammed down my throat in school. :-/

  5. 5. Lothair

    What constitutes “aged” for you? I’ve found that many of the most compelling lines from movies come from more modern movies. Not necessarily because they are more applicable, though I admit that does weigh in, but more because movies hit a point when the creators felt they were truly allowed to go, to write, and to tell stories. That’s not to say that I don’t have my own “classic” favorites.

    If you really want some good lines, a great story, and a movie that keeps me coming back every time, you have to go with Casablanca.

    Rick: Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean what you’re fighting for.
    Victor Laszlo: You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.
    Rick: Well, what of it? It’ll be out of its misery.
    Victor Laszlo: You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.

    Or:

    Yvonne: Where were you last night?
    Rick: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.
    Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
    Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.

    Or:

    Captain Renault: Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.

    And of course:

    Ugarte: You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.

    Take a look at Some Like It Hot for the quick banter and wonderful comedic timing and you end up with words that may not mean as much on their own, but when put together well, really fill out a story.

    And many times, I find that real classics just hold a great story to them. Sunset Blvd., The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, White Heat, and Rear Window. Add a few years to things and toss in The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Strangelove and of course, Cool Hand Luke. Now you have stories that have a message to them, some of the most memorable lines in Hollywood history, and even when they aren’t modern, they are still considered greats.

    You get a good movie, a real “classic”, and its words will remain, even after the topic isn’t as appropriate, even when the special effects aren’t as good, and even when people start calling it old. However, I would argue that this isn’t just because the words themselves are so good… but the way they are delivered, the feeling and emotion behind them, they way it is conveyed. Those are things that really keep it in your mind and let it roll back the curtain of nostalgia from time to time. Just my two pfenning.

  6. 6. JS Bangs

    I also love 12 Angry Men. My wife and I sat down to watch it a little reluctantly, and were riveted–it’s amazing how compelling a movie that takes place entirely in a single room can be. (Having typed that, I’m now trying to confirm that the film has no female characters onscreen, either. Not that this is a mark against the film, but it’s an interesting bit of trivia.)

    So, yes, all hail good writing. But my wife and I also love Charlie Chaplain films, which often have no words at all.

  7. 7. Chrystoph

    I think that, rather than quote, I would like to comment.

    In my opinion, one of the things that makes 12 Angry Men so durable is the fact that it is firmly based in people.

    A lot of modern story tellers have become very enamored of the potential for showing you things that we as a society are not capable of. Some examples include the Transformers, Start Wars/Trek, James Bond, etc. All of these are movies where the effects are larger than life. Unfortunately, they often obscure the story instead of enhancing it.

    12 Angry Men gives you a story of life and death, and personal conflict. It is a very simple scene with strong emotions. The passion is the thing that doesn’t change. It draws you to the people involved by giving you something to link to. “That could be me in the room.”

    I like Star Wars, and I have had the occasional fantasy of being in those epic events, but I don’t really connect to those people the way I can to 12 Angry Men.

  8. 8. Margaret Y.

    Did you see Kevin Smith’s first movie, Clerks? Terrible acting, filming, sets….just about everything.

    Brilliant script. And that is how everyone knew that Kevin Smith would be huge, and started throwing opportunities/money his way.

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    To quote Richard Pryor’s paraphrase of Regan: Yes but no.

    12 is a great movie with important words but as previously stated what’s more important is what is not said. Why are there 12 men (angry or otherwise) and no women? Why are they all white? Unlike the racial omissions/statements that screams from Peter Jackson’s epics, 12 is great for the omissions. I’m guardedly optomistic for District 9.

    With respect to Mr. Cirillo, Hemmingway was equally telling with his omissions. I tend to think his “glass was empty,” line referred more to libedo/machismo when considering Hemmingway’s constant theme/fear of emasculation.

    How about the total lack of sexuality in Star Wars. All those Fruedian-slips showing is enough to give ya the heebie-jeebies when you start to write some thing. What might our writing/words/omissions reveal about us? Will we be as brave as Lumet (directed, I know but he chose what words stayed in) or Hemmingway or Lucas? Or will we take the cheap and easy a la a host of directors and writers that have chosen to take no chances or push no boundaries.

  10. 10. Alma Alexander

    Elias – part of the answer to your questions is precisely the age of the movie. It’s fine to yell TODAY “why aren’t there any women on the jury? Why isn’t there anyone on the jury who isn’t lily-white?” – but I suspect that at the time that the movie was made, and the years before that since juries were instituted, those were the norms. A jury of “your peers” meant a jury of 12 white men. We might rail about that today, but that was the way things were then. I don’t think that was part of the “message” of the movie, as you seem to imply – the things that were not said out loud in that movie concerned issues of latent racism and classism, yes, but “why aren’t there any women in the jury” was not one of those issues – that was just setting the movie into its time.

    And I absolutely agree that a brilliant script consists of its silences as well as its statements. Sometimes the shadows are best exposed by shining a light so brightly that nobody can bear to look directly at it – and the eyes slide away, and find the shadows, and are held there.

    Good God, if people are still reading my books as many years after its publucation as there are between “12 angry men” and Marie’s current viewing of it, I’ll be one happy author. THAT is the mark of good words. Longevity and remembrance.

  11. 11. Elias McClellan

    Oooh but Mr. Lumet, like Mr. Kazan were oh-so adept at using norms of the day to comment on the institutional injustices of the day. In 12, the angry white men were deliberating the verdict of a Puerto Rican boy.

    However, I do agree with your contention, Dear AA (I would never presume gender/honorific based on my poor command of names) regarding norms, shadows, and light. Equally, just as I plead to fate for publication, I can only prey that if published, I might be read and debated 50 or 60 years after the fact.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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