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Tonight, Turner Classic Movies was playing a bunch of Laurel and Hardy movies. Now, I'm what you might call a freak for old movies. But I've read a lot more about Laurel and Hardy than I've seen of them. I wasn't in a hurry to. Not because I didn't think I'd like them, so much as because I resented them for making a successful transition to sound film.

My rationale was -- their silent work had nothing that couldn't be carried over to sound. So they came over just fine. While others, who had brought a unique flair and kinesis to silent movies, were now forced to stand stock still and flap their lips like everyone else. Sound was the Tower of Babel, and it turned everything that had been clear into noise. A little softer...a little louder. Noise.

But so. TCM and its Laurel-and-Hardy marathon. I decided to have a sit-down and see what was what.

Their style was never what you'd call laugh-out-loud. You -- and they -- could see the joke coming a mile off. The fun was sharing their disbelief, at each other or at the rest of the world, as they observed how far people could dig themselves into a hole without stopping to check what they were doing.

But there were wonderful things out of the blue. Way Out West had them doing an innocent little step-dance in time with a cowboy song. And Sons of the Desert had Laurel as Hardy's neighbor, constantly forgetting which door was his. He was like a balloon, being sucked by the eddy of Hardy going into his own door, and following right behind. Then, when Laurel would try to leave, he'd come back for his hat, and get stuck there as if by static charge.

But in the middle of Sons of the Desert I left for a little while. I came back to see Laurel and Hardy in fezzes, chuckling madly about having fooled their wives about where they were.

Something about the fezzes. Something about Hardy's frantic amusement with his own cleverness, chortling grainily on the mid-thirties film soundtrack, made my stomach turn over as I realized they were dead. Everyone in this movie was dead. Everything they had ever done or liked or loved was dead. It was so dead that to even look at their work like this, on an antiseptic cathode-ray device at twenty-odd frames a second, was to look into death. Not as an ending, not as memories or legacy for the future -- but as something so unrecognizable, so irrelevant to the living, that if anyone showed them these movies there would be no flicker of recognition for anything human.

Dust in the shape of men.

That's what it's like to love old movies.

Maybe it would have been better to let the old nitrate negatives deteriorate into dust, as they literally do -- and did, before meddling ghost-hunters saved them. Thinking to find something for the living. A catch, a hook. Bait to catch the living for the dead.

Looks delicious. Want a bite?