A Monument More Lasting Than Bronze

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


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.