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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal/Theological Notebook: Flu Recovering; Reading on Galileo; Mickey Rooney as History Lesson 
27th-Dec-2008 03:35 am
A Whole World Out There
I went to bed before midnight last night and slept for 14 1/2 hours, which is now why I'm up at 3:30am. I do one thing right and get screwed up another way. So back to being nocturnal. Still feeling better, mostly just weak now, with the headache not nearly so bad and fever mostly gone. It's been a movie kind of day. Got sucked in this evening by Turner Classic Movies, which happened to be what my TV was still tuned to when I turned it on, originally intending to watch a DVD over a meal. And then, boom: an interesting interview with Mickey Rooney, an old movie short on Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who figured out the medical need for hand-washing by doctors and was ridiculed by the medical establishment for it, Lawrence of Arabia (which I had just been toying with the idea of watching as I perused my DVD collection), and then the 1952 Ivanhoe (while reading a bit in The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History for reference), bringing me to now, just short of 1am.

Since then I've been reading some essays in The Church and Galileo, a volume I picked up a few years ago at Notre Dame, from their series Studies in Science and the Humanities from the Reilly Center for Science Technology and Values, and edited by Ernan McMullin, a professor there. Notre Dame is where I first got turned onto the distinct field of the History of Science, and that news story I saw the other day got me looking a little more closely at some of this research. As I mentioned I've been increasingly interested in the way that the story of the Church's mistaken judgment of Galileo four hundred years ago is employed by people today. The embarrassing incident at La Sapienza University in January, where a group of professors began raving about Galileo as proving there was an utter wall between faith and reason – so as to silence, in the name of academic freedom, the planned address by Benedict XVI who has been a constant champion of the power of reason – is a classic example of the dangers of educated people acting beyond their competence. (Which I'm sure that I do all the time, too, and, of course, should justly be corrected and aided from doing such things more.) The treatment in later years of the incident with Dr. Semmelweis, mentioned above, is much more realistic an example of how such affairs as the Galileo Affair ought to be judged and remembered: the recognition of a dreadful error made because of the establishment of a certain kind of scientific perspective, but not made as an incident into an ideological dogma for all time.

I have to say, the Mickey Rooney interview was fascinating. As I've had a few – very basic, of course – historical conversations with my niece Grace, I've been amazed to watch those moments of awareness dawning in her eyes, as she excitedly learns something new about the context of the world into which she was born. The recentness of things like cell phones and computers was astounding to her, and moreso that electricity itself was only a few generations old. Suddenly, she had to imagine a world utterly different than anything she knew. So I'm hoping that she'll coax stories out of her grandparents with the same pleasure that I did from mine, and try to get a handle on just how much has changed in such a short time. So. Mickey Rooney. While the interview was from 1997, the fact that Rooney is still alive and is working (Night At The Museum, anyone?) makes him the last great voice of the Golden Age of movies, and that's another way in which I hope Grace and the rest of my nieces get to know something of how their land has changed. Despite all the mistakes one can take from film (Did everyone in the 1930s spontaneously break into song and tap-dance in the street?) there's so much you can pick up from the history of film. I didn't know who Mickey Rooney was when I first saw him in The Black Stallion, I just knew that I kind of liked him.

To hear him talking not just about being a child star in the Golden Age of film, but to talk about his time in silent film before the "talkies" came along, and about his experience of vaudeville just made me realize once more How Fast It's All Been. That's still living memory. Oral tradition. He was a vaudeville performer, a silent movie star, a Golden Age movie star, who Cary Grant unhesitatingly described the most talented figure in the industry. He now maintains a website. As I think of the nieces and nephews coming to understand the story of the land and the world they have been born into, it struck me while listening to the interview that it would be amazing for them to hear the thing themselves, especially while he was still alive, and to realize just how dizzying it all is, this last century and the change it has seen. If there's anything movies do well, it's let you see something: that's the whole medium. And while movies can be shady or downright awful in trying to represent history, as an historian I swear by movies' ability to always convey their own period's sensibilities.
Comments 
28th-Dec-2008 04:42 am (UTC)
My sleep schedule has been way off the past three days.
I will look at the Rooney website. Surely there must be one or two other actors from the classic age still alive (maybe not working) - Elizabeth Taylor, who was with Rooney in National Velvet, for example ~ although she is younger than he.

But in the interview does he mention his performance of Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffanys? Whenever that movie comes up nowadays, Rooney's portrayal of a Japanese(-American) is criticized harshly. Not so much that he did a bad job, but that the movie's producers made a hideous (non-PC)choice in choosing him (or any non-Japanese or non-Asian) to play Yunioshi. Well, he is played as somewhat bumbling and maybe stereotypical Japanese. But this was in 1961... I just mention this, because it is everybody's current favorite gripe about the film.
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