No more old movies

31 October, 2008

It’s a sadly true truism that young people react to discovering a movie is in black and white in the same way they would react to stepping in dog shit. Read the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and you’ll see they really are offended that someone could recommend such a thing to them.

Well, things have probably been that way since the invention of colour film. Stupid people are hardly a recent invention, after all. More worrying is the lack of opportunity young people have to be exposed to these important and sometimes great products of Western culture. Old movies used to be a cheap-and-cheerful way for TV stations to fill their schedules. Students would stay up for the late movie, enjoying the unpredictable mix of horror, historical, hard-boiled and screw-ball’d. Occasionally they’d even catch a landmark like Citizen Kane, or cult classic like Cat People, and because they knew the cinematic language they knew these were important films without having to be told by some old grump in a bad suit.

In the 1980s, Australians with televisions were lucky enough to be able to watch Bill Collins hosting The Golden Years Of Hollywood, every Saturday. He would present a colour film at 8.30pm, followed by a black and white film. The presentation was simple and effective: after the opening sequence (famous clips from old films accompanied by an orchestral version of “That’s Entertainment”), music from the score of the night’s first film would swell, while the camera would zoom out from a framed poster or still of the film, revealing “uncle” Bill in one of his trademark brightly-coloured jackets.

Bill would give us idea of what the film was about, and then he would drop in a tidbit or two about the production, perhaps quoting from an actor’s memoirs, and finally suggest something of interest we should look out for. Halfway through the film there would be a sort of intermission, in which Bill would enthuse over what we had just seen, perhaps commenting on a significant point we may have missed.

In this colour feature part of the show, we saw classics like The Wizard of Oz, Ben Hur, Gone with the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, and North by Northwest. In the late segment, we saw films noirs, comedies, war movies and horrors. With the later timeslot and more obscure charms of these less famous items, staying up for the second feature felt like a really adult pursuit.

I’m profoundly grateful to Bill for this education in film. It’s now said that DVD commentaries are like a film school at home, but they can’t match The Golden Years of Hollywood for a thorough immersion in the filmography and language of cinema. DVDs must always be watched selectively, and it’s too easy to be the victim of one’s own ignorance or timidity, compared with the guidance of a seasoned aficionado.

Without the opportunity I and my generation had, what is the cinematic experience of the younger generation? For most of them, Star Wars is the oldest film they’ve seen. They’ve never seen a Hitchcock movie, or a Cecil B DeMille film. They’ve never seen Bonny and Clyde, or even A Fistful of Dollars. They have no idea who Cary Grant is; they only know Alec Guiness for his cameo appearance in Star Wars; they don’t know who was supposed to have said “Play it again, Sam”, let alone in what context. They’ve never heard the theme music to Gone with the Wind, or The 3rd Man. They can’t even guess at what they’ve missed, the fairyland power of these vividly recorded dreams of mythic simplicity.

Don’t be fooled by the plethora of collector’s editions and boxsets now available – these are feeding the appetites of a final generation, who know they’ll never see these films again unless they have a copy in their own home, and who have no way to pass on their knowledge short of tying up their children in front of the TV. The multitude of entertainment media have led to short attention spans in the young audience, and corresponding fragmenting of older forms into bright, loud, sound-bite chunks. Long movies without frequent bangs or crashes are passe. No one cares anymore, and profundity of feeling is nearing its extinction.


I was inspired to write this post by a review of Have You Seen …?, a rambling rant on movies and assorted vagaries by one David Thomson. I’d just like to take issue with a couple of opinions he reportedly holds. I agree with him that the Oscars have been routinely awarded to worthy but dull films that no-one really wants to see again, but, to go through the other issues one by one:

1. Ben Hur does have its longeurs, but also has a gripping central conflict and impressive action sequences. Monty Python were right that the pace of a film deteriorates whenever sacred connotations come to the fore.

2. The Rules of the Game (“the greatest film by the greatest director”) is a mature literary work in terms of themes of social comment; however, it doesn’t exactly jump of the screen in execution.

3. Swing Time is not as good a film as Gay Divorcee, Follow the Fleet, Shall we Dance, or maybe even Carefree (and neither is Top Hat).

4. Bringing Up Baby is not funny, and such charm as it possesses evaporates with the ascerbic presence of Hepburn.

5. Tracing the decline of Hollywood movies to the premiere of Star Wars (“the disastrous event”) is wrong-headed, given that work’s overt homage to old space opera serials (as seen in its simple good-against-evil plotting), Odyssean narrative, and relatively sedate pacing. Star Wars led directly to several estimable science fiction movies including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. Its cross-media saturation (toys, T-shirts, etc.) is limited in imitation to a couple of big budget children’s films per year, and was besides hardly unprecedented (see the Universal monsters franchise, and Fanderson paraphenalia). The only direct negative impact of Star Wars was in leading to an expectation by studios that every movie must be an immediate blockbuster, or else yanked from the screens as a failure – and this is hardly the fault of George Lucas or his producers.

More culpable are the Friday the 13th films (leading to the undying teen slasher movie, which has practically nullified the horror genre), and the classic sci-fi pulps of James Cameron (Aliens, The Terminator). Cameron is a great B-film director, but the big budget gloss and spectacular sound design of these movies led to them being taken more seriously than they deserved, and their rapid-cutting, big-chinned machismo bloated and developed into a universal style of action movie.

Most culpable is the corporate culture of Hollywood, the ultimate result of the continuing demand for big budget films after the end of the studio system. The greedy, culturally irresponsible mindset of Hollywood’s large production names is the main reason almost every major film of the last ten years was a waste of celluloid.

But there were a couple of solid entries (e.g. The Bourne Identity, Fight Club) that may give us hope – perhaps Hollywood isn’t dead yet. Perhaps there is still an audience ready for intelligent well-told stories that don’t pander to pretention. That audience will need regular feeding, or else they’ll lose interest and go away, and then it really will be the end of the movies.


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