Earlier today I was discussing the fact that on most areas of the internet, movie history is basically about 25 years long. This also applies to a lot of movie magazines, critical videos, and so on: you'll get people discussing movies in historical context, or making lists of the greatest movies or movie moments, but only from 1985 onward (if that). If an earlier movie shows up, it's almost a freak occurrence. An example is this guy, who makes great videos about movie clichés and corny lines, but includes very few movies from the '50s, '60s or even '70s.
I don't mean this as a "these kids today, why don't they know their movie history" kind of thing. For one thing, it's not just The Kids™. For another thing, you can't blame people for not being familiar with a lot of older movies. As I've said in the past, the only reliable way to learn about old movies (get used to the grammar and acting choices and all the rest) is by osmosis, watching them for entertainment and letting the style become something we naturally understand and accept. That's what the easy availability of old movies on TV used to do for us, just as the presence of "oldies" on the radio makes us familiar with pop-music styles from the '50s onward. (So someone who doesn't know much about '50s movies might know, if not a lot more, at least more about '50s pop music. It's in the blood.) But now the afternoon or late night black-and-white movie is a rare thing, except on specialty channels like TCM.
Without that, the only way to get into old movies is if you actively decide to learn about them, and you can't blame anyone for not wanting to sit through movie after movie as a learning experience. That's not what they were intended to be, anyway, and they don't come off well in that context. I kind of wish people felt guiltier about not getting into older movies (or pre-Sopranos television, or whatever), the kind of Boomer guilt that is visited on people who don't know the great pop acts of the '60s. But I'm not going to do the guilt tripping; if you don't have the style in your blood from an early age, a movie can be a chore to get through.
What I'm wondering is where the dividing line is: where does "movie history" now begin for the average film enthusiast? I used to think it was 1977, the year Star Wars invented movies. But it was pointed out to me that Star Wars may actually belong with The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and other movies in the freak category: "old" movies that people have heard of, exceptions to the rule. (These movies often tend to be kid-oriented movies like the three I've just named; people don't notice that Star Wars is in an older style because, when you're exposed to a movie at a young age, the style seems like a very natural thing.) There aren't a whole lot of movies from 1977 through the early '80s that are on the current radar.
It was suggested that the starting point for modern movie history is Terminator 2, the epitome of the modern masterpiece: a sci-fi special effects epic that takes itself too seriously. But I think that's placing it too late. You at least have to go back to Die Hard, the action movie that is still considered the foundation of all modern action movies (no one can do an action-movie spoof without spoofing Die Hard at some point).
So I would place the beginning of movie history in 1985, when The Breakfast Club came out. John Hughes' death, and the over-wrought celebration of his work at the Oscars, confirmed that his movies are genuinely part of the cultural consciousness; more than that, they're considered masterpieces of film comedy. They aren't anything of the kind, and that's my problem with the condensed version of film history that seems to be taking hold.
I'd compare it, in a strange and debased way, to the views of critics like James Agee who felt that movies had never really recovered from the introduction of sound, and that there was something special about the silent era that the sound era was struggling to recapture. If a critic thinks that the key period in movie history is a relatively short period, he will wind up over-rating a lot of movies from that period. And sure enough, silent-firsters were maybe a bit indiscriminate about what films they considered masterpieces. I get the feeling that the current trend is going beyond this; a lot of movie fans now remind me of a PBS old-movie host I used to see who refused to watch movies made after four-letter words were introduced. If someone is mostly comfortable with films made in his or her lifetime, and finds it a chore to sit through most older movies, then that's understandable, but it isn't any more understandable than someone who doesn't like movies that aren't "clean." And the result is similar; a world where there isn't much movie history is inevitably going to be a world where Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a masterpiece. Who knows what movies will be masterpieces ten years from now, when movie history begins in 1999 (much like TV history begins in the late '90s)?
Despite my plague-on-both-your-houses attitude in the last paragraph, I know this post comes off cranky. I guess it is. I would like to repeat that I understand why viewers wouldn't run around spending money and making special efforts to immerse themselves in movie or television history. Being historically-inclined, and maybe a bit more sympathetic to older film grammar (i.e. I still think movies today are over-edited, just as someone else would find an older movie to be under-edited), I have to kick myself and force myself sometimes to keep up with new developments; some viewing experiences come naturally to me, and others I have to work at. I don't blame myself for liking what I like, and so I don't blame anyone else for it either.
So the feeling is not so much crankiness, let alone blame, as sadness at something inevitable and unavoidable: movie history, and perhaps all of pop-culture history, is going to contract. There has never been a greater amount popular culture history accessible, in the sense of being there for anyone who wants to see it. But it's been a long time since there has been less popular culture history accessible in the other sense, of being something that the average person can assimilate without a long, hard slog.
I was going to say there has never been less interest in pop-culture history, but that's not true at all. Traditionally, people have been more interested in new books, plays, music. The idea of gathering to listen to a concert of old music, or building an entire repertoire of old plays, is fairly new. So maybe the current situation is simply the way it ought to be.