February 21, 2018

HIGH NOON (1952) and the Temporal Transition

Starring Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian McDonald, Lee Van Cleef, Morgan Farley. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. (1952/85 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

You couldn't make a film like High Noon today.

I came to the sad realization that one of the greatest westerns of all time is in danger of becoming meaningless and irrelevant to an entire generation, and not simply because it's an old movie.

In addition to being one of the greatest, High Noon is also one of the most important. Allegorically, the film was always more than just another Hollywood oater, despite its deceptively simple plot. Additionally, it is a technical and visual masterpiece that plays as well today as it did nearly seven decades ago. Even outside of the context of the film, the very term, 'high noon,' remains part of our vernacular.

As played by Gary Cooper (who deservedly won an Oscar), retiring Marshall Will Kane was a hero we really hadn't seen in a western before. While certainly brave, he's not fearless. Kane is often uncertain of his own decisions, self-conflicted and torn between doing the 'smart' thing and the 'right' thing, even if the right thing could get him killed. Kane's not necessarily adored by all the townsfolk, either, though he's been solely responsible for keeping them safe over the years. As a man he once put-away is returning to town on the noon train for revenge, most of them want Kane to leave. Some fear for his safety, while others, all of whom refuse to help him, obviously fear for their own. A few simply hate the man, such as his deputy (a very young Lloyd Bridges), who resents being passed-over as the next Marshall.

"Tell me, Marshall...does this look infected?"
High Noon has been remade and ripped-off so many times over the years that one of its primary purposes has been largely forgotten. Screenwriter Carl Foreman intended this as an allegory in protest of McCarthy-era blacklisting (of which he himself was subjected to). Foreman's working relationship with producer/partner Stanley Kramer acrimoniously ended during filming due to their political positions during the Red Scare.

High-mindedness aside, High Noon still works wonderfully as sheer entertainment. Shot in beautiful black & white, the film is loaded with stunning imagery; the iconic image of Kane, alone in the streets before all hell breaks loose, still raises goosebumps. One of the earliest films presented in 'real time,' there isn't a lot of action per se, but with each ominous shot of a ticking clock, director Fred Zimmerman - with considerable help from editors Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad - masterfully piles on the suspense...

...all of which will sadly be forgotten by the relentless march of progress, not to mention our inherent laziness.

When bingo night turns deadly.
High Noon makes effective use of clocks throughout the story...always present in the background, relentless reminders that something bad is about to go down. You couldn't make a film like this today, not because the movie itself or its story have become dated, but because people are rapidly forgetting how to tell time using an actual clock. And I have the unfortunate evidence.

In the real world, I've been a middle school English teacher for about 20 years. I distinctly remember, during my first year, a kid named Kylie, who needed to use the restroom. At my school, students are required to fill out a hall pass, writing down the date, destination and time that they are leaving the classroom. The pass is then signed by a staff member, which allows the student to leave the room for five minutes to use the bathroom, get a drink or visit their locker.

Even though I was standing directly beneath the classroom clock, meaning it was well-within her field of vision, Kylie asked what time it was. I was momentarily speechless, briefly thinking this was the laziest seventh grader of all time. Then I quipped, "Look at the clock. It's right there." Without a hint of embarrassment, she replied, "I can't read it. It ain't digital."

I used to religiously read MAD Magazine as a kid and recalled one of Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side of..." comic strips, where the punchline was a child explaining to an adult that he only knew how to read digital time. It was meant to be a light-hearted observation of the disconnect between generations. Now here I was, face-to-face with the same type of kid MAD Magazine made fun of 25 years earlier.

Bruce Dickinson's clock.
By the way, Kylie didn't actually return to class for 15 minutes, which meant I had to write her a referral for skipping. She angrily protested that she was only gone for five, at which time I replied, "How would you know? You can't read a clock." Her response was that she simply knew what five minutes "felt like." She trusted her own internal temporal instincts over my ability to tell time, a skill I mastered in kindergarten. Kylie's mom took her daughter's side, of course, calling to berate me for writing-up her up, and "if my daughter says she was gone five minutes, then it was five minutes!"

I dunno...maybe Mom's belligerence was her way of overcompensating for neglecting to teach her dumbass daughter one of society's rudimentary requirements. The last time I checked, awareness of time was still among the most important of daily functions, right up there with remembering to drop your pants before taking a dump.

It begged the question: How does one make it 13 fucking years totally unaware of how a clock works?

I wish I could say Kylie's short-hand/long-hand limitations were an anomaly, but it's gotten worse since then. Today, I'd estimate that at least half of my students in each class do not know how to read a clock (I've seen studies suggesting that number could be as high as 80%). Most either rely on someone to tell them what time it is, or repeatedly check their phones, which they love to do in the middle of class with the hopes of sneaking-in a text or two. Just recently, one student came to class wearing an actual watch - a big, shiny gold one with hands, numerals and everything. I remarked how easy it must have been to tell the time with a watch that big. He replied he couldn't actually read it; he just bought it with Christmas money because big-bling hip-hop watches were cool.

"Uh...what the f**k?"
I'm not sure what's worse...that so many kids have never bothered to learn a skill nearly as basic as socks-before-shoes, that they feel it's perfectly acceptable not to know, or that an inability to grasp the concept of a traditional clock is becoming the norm. I've mentioned this in class on numerous occasions and the responses are always the same: Blank, uncomprehending stares or the standard retort, "It doesn't matter. I've got my phone," which is also the common justification for not knowing their own phone numbers.

One could argue that this is just a sign of the times. After all, cursive writing is no longer taught in schools. Cursive may be formal and fancy, but an archaic skill with no functional purpose in the real world. Traditional clocks, on the other hand, are not simply living room decor or rappers' wrist accessories. They remain part everyday life...in schools, offices, stores, malls and towering over us atop buildings. I can't imagine what it's like to see them everywhere and be completely clueless.

Similarly, what must it be like to watch a classic like High Noon and feel absolutely no suspense, no tension or rudimentary awareness of the ominous implications of the ticking clock, simply because you never bothered to learn how to read one? I suppose those who are blissfully ignorant of a minute-hand's function wouldn't bother with High Noon, anyway. It's black & white and doesn't star Dwayne Johnson. But if I ever showed this film to my students (which I should do, just to be an asshole), the very concept would be lost on half of them.

When today's temporally-challenged children begin to procreate, the ability to read a traditional clock will become increasingly rare, and I'm sure the day is coming when I'm standing before an entire classroom of kids completely ignorant of that mysterious ticking disc on the wall. In the grand scheme of things, the extinction of time-telling skills is probably a minor concern - unless a freak solar flare fries their phones - but it's kind-of sad that a classic like High Noon may no longer a timeless classic.

1 comment:

Sensei said...

Great post celebrating an important film and linking it to a contemporary issue.
I also love High Noon for Katy Jurado’s performance as a central woman of color character who is not demonized. She contributes to the town and makes her own choices. I love that.