Monday, May 10, 2010

When Were Movies Invented? 1977? Or Later?

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 clich├ęs 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.


Stephen Rowley said...

Great post.

I'll readily admit my forays into pre 1977 movie history are just that: forays. I love movies and love plenty of classic movies, but I can never pretend I have the natural understanding of, and affinity for, pre-70s movies that I do of the later movies that I grew up with.

I still feel that the Jaws 1975 / Star Wars 1977 is the day zero for many, but perhaps you're right and I'm just showing my age (I'm 34). I do have odd jarring moments when I think that something like Reservoir Dogs seems like a prehistorical artefact even to me sometimes.

Anthony Strand said...

Might I suggest 1984 as the cutoff? Again, maybe that's just me showing my age (I'm 25), but it seems like Ghostbusters is something everyone's aware of, as well as things like Nightmare on Elm Street and Sixteen Candles.

Kate said...

A couple of thoughts. I turn 30 this year, and I grew up on musicals and the old live-action Disney stuff. I remember watching "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" as a kid and thinking it was one of the funniest things ever, even though I didn't know who any of the cameos were. I recently tried to rewatch it, and I couldn't make it to the end because I couldn't stand all the shouting (really, more than half of that movie's dialogue is people shouting at one another). Did I have some new critical insight as an adult viewer, or have I lost the ability to appreciate the style of older movies because I don't watch them as much anymore?

I wonder if the lack of engagement with older films is partly due to the dearth of behind-the-scenes info and supplemental materials around them. Deleted scenes, outtakes, making-of features, etc. have become part and parcel of the watching experience, and older films just don't have as much to draw on because nobody bothered to document their own creative processes as much as they do now. (Whether such practices are a navel-gazing waste of time or a valuable communication and entertainment tool in their own right is a discussion for another blog, probably.) But maybe if there were more of that available for older films, it would be easier to understand why some acting/directing/lighting/editing choices seem so strange to us today.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Did I have some new critical insight as an adult viewer, or have I lost the ability to appreciate the style of older movies because I don't watch them as much anymore?

My personal view would be that you just had new critical insight. But I think that brings up the point that some things seem weird with the passage of time, and others were always seen as flaws even at the time. So Mad Mad Mad Mad World was always considered a movie where there was a lot of shouting and that was straining too hard to be funny; some people forgave it, others found it ruined the film for them, but it wasn't just the style of the time.

I think one additional thing that makes it tricky to watch old movies is that we (and I include myself) constantly have to ask ourselves whether something is bad, or if it's just old. Some things aren't flaws, they were just the way things were -- i.e. if someone thinks John Ford movies are poorly shot because they have less cutting and camera movement, that person is wrong. But some things aren't stylistic choices, they're just mistakes.

Unknown said...

Recently attended a meeting of a dozen writers and directors, half of us making musicals, in which everyone was supposed to bring a favorite film clip, as a way of telling everyone a little about their tastes.

I was stunned to see Rushmore, Once, The Fisher King, Enter Achilles, Amores Perros, Little Miss Sunshine and Up.

How out-of-place I felt with my "Isn't It Romantic" sequence from 1932's Love Me Tonight

D said...

You may be out of place but I think you picked the greatest moment in musical history - and one of the greatest in film history.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Blech. This post makes me sick. It reminds me of the 18-25 year olds who say Goldeneye is the best James Bond film ever; that is my age range BTW. You can't beat From Russia With Love or Doctor No.

Also as for my overall favorite film, The Petrified Forest. It's almost the only film with more than three ideas that dosen't fall apart.

Ricardo Cantoral said...
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Ricardo Cantoral said...


Though I wouldn't be upset if someone named Casino Royale. It's really one of the great Bond films and unlike Goldeneye it's not crappy time capsule of the action films of that era.

Thad said...

The reason I didn't really like movies until I was 17 or so is precisely because I didn't like the movies I was growing up with. I knew full well that cartoons didn't always suck (and that they don't have to now either) - I finally figured it out it was the same with movies too.

In fact I'd say the opposite of your post's title - movies pretty much died in 1977 in America (I'll give it to 1980 though).

Fuck my generation's taste in movies. I'll say it.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"Fuck my generation's taste in movies. I'll say it."

God bless you Thad.

Of course I have some modern day films that I like but mostly because said films has actors from a past generation; I'll watch just about anything with Charles Bronson.

moopot said...

I think the people here being dismissive of contemporary movies are being just as stupid as people who are dismissive of old ones - plenty of good movies are being made now, just as plenty good movies were made in the past. I think the problem is the fact that you're comparing the cream of the crop of old movies with the average contemporary film. Not every director was Hitchcock in the past, just as not every contemporary director is Uwe Boll.

Ricardo Cantoral said...
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Thad said...

I think the people here being dismissive of contemporary movies are being just as stupid as people who are dismissive of old ones - plenty of good movies are being made now, just as plenty good movies were made in the past. I think the problem is the fact that you're comparing the cream of the crop of old movies with the average contemporary film. Not every director was Hitchcock in the past, just as not every contemporary director is Uwe Boll.

Never said any of that and knew that card would be pulled.

The things I love most about American film usually happen best in films made before the 80s, but that's not saying movies today can't have that kind of quality. I thought Polanski's "The Ghostwriter" embodied a lot of what I like about film, just to use a very recent example.

The bottom line is that what plague a lot of young people's lists of favorite movies just aren't good movies by any standard, and they're usually C grade comedies that would be rightfully completely forgotten if they were made 40 years earlier. When their favorites lists are frontloaded with this crap, it makes me view my peers as unenlightened, and it's painful.

When I see "Goodfellas" on people's lists, I can see the reasoning behind that. But when I see things like "Billy Madison" on every other person's list, I keep thinking to myself, "These people would probably enjoy a blank screen!"

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"the problem is the fact that you're comparing the cream of the crop of old movies with the average contemporary film."

Well I am not. There are some bad, bad movies in the past. The internet archive of film-noir is chock full of 'em. However, even the merely decent ones show more personality then a lot of today's garbage.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Yet another prehistoric artifact extends kudos for this post.

It wasn't until I held a job in public libraries for a few years that I realized there was a sizeable swath of the public that was only interested in whatever the newest thing is. It never mattered what that new release was - just that is was new. Videos, books, whatever. etc. that had been in release for more than three months were "old" and ready for the scrap heap, in the eyes of many. This struck me as a mindless viewpoint and it took attending classic movie events at the Castro Theatre (and other San Francisco venues) and seeing enthusiastic audiences encompassing all age groups to restore my faith in humanity.

Perhaps we all favor whatever we grew up with. I saw tons of classic movies and cartoons (from silents through 1930's, 1940's and 1950's) as a kid in the 1960's and early 70's. To this day, I concoct film events out of all of the above, plus trailers, commercials, musical novelty shorts, WTF comedy, pre-Code stuff, etc. - and wouldn't have it any other way.

There are times when I see a new movie on the big screen and enjoy it, but, when it comes to post-1980 entertainment, I feel much more of an affinity with series produced for the small screen: SCTV, The Black Adder, seasons 1-5 of Red Dwarf, long-passed individual seasons (and cast lineups) of Saturday Night Live, etc.

Anonymous said...

The Petrified Forest is a filmed play not a movie.

Ernie Blitzer said...

Took a film history class in college a few years ago, with a bunch of hipsters/punks/alienated youth of my particular millennial generation. Watched John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" in that class, and you know what? The film worked: it got laughs in the right places, shudders, startled murmurs, etc. I was amazed in that class to see how great films can mesmerize an audience no matter what their frame of reference: Out of the Past, The Searchers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers...I think with Netflix that the way films are watched and people's individual film frame-of-reference mindset can be changed for the "DVD Activity" list of watched movies over the last three weeks includes Some Came Running, Days of Heaven, Adventureland, Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Big Street (terrific cast, but gah! What an ending!) etc. I'm not trying to toot my own horn or whatever about my movie taste, but to show that film education has never been more available or easier.

On the other hand, Jaime, I think you're 100% right about Agee and his ilk. It reminds me of how an interviewer remarked to US Senator Daniel Moynihan that it's a shame that Americans have such a short national memory, and Moynihan replying "Yes...and that's a good thing too!" I'm glad that the great films of the past have someone like you manning the barricades and, when duty calls, sounding the trumpet.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"The Petrified Forest is a filmed play not a movie."

Yes it is. It's a movie adaptation of a play.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Agee once write that a good film is worth seeing only once but a great film gets better with each viewing? Very few films would qualify as great under such a standard.

Anonymous said...

People who complain about how all movies today are terrible or pale in comparison to the Golden Age clearly aren't watching the right movies. There's a wealth of cinema out there beyond what's mentioned on "Access Hollywood."

Also, "The Petrified Forest" is a camp classic thanks to Bette Davis's truly over-the-top performance.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"Also, "The Petrified Forest" is a camp classic thanks to Bette Davis's truly over-the-top performance."

Truly OTT ? Then you haven't watched a lot of Bette Davis films. Honestly, you need to re-watch that film.

D said...

"The Petrified Forest" saved Bogart's career and provided a template not only for Bogie's future performances but for the portrayal of the American gangster in film but it was very stagey and as someone said was not really a movie movie.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

All adaptations of plays usually are "stagey"; It's a criticism of little consequence. The Petrified Forest with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart was a film and a brilliant one at that.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is "BEYOND THE FOREST" that he is referring to.

Kelli Marshall said...

I completely understand your point here, but I wonder if you're looking in the wrong "corners" of the Internet?? Perhaps try

-- academic blogs in cultural studies:

-- Noir of the Week:

-- TCM's Classic Movie Blog:

-- Observations on Film Art:

As well, just last week, I wrote a post on why Gene Kelly gets me all hot and bothered. =) If you're interested, you'll find it here:

Claire Doyle Ragin said...

I see two factors at work here:

The later you were born after the 60s, the fewer black-and-white films were likely to be a part of your formative years of movie viewing, and seen more as some weird oddity out of the past. My stepdaughter didn't like b/w movies until she got bored a couple of times and watched Some Like it Hot and some Harold Lloyd movies with me (on TCM). But most kids won't grow up with parents who watch TCM regularly.

And although TCM is a gold mine, there are so many options available for movie viewing that it's easy to favor the latest and most talked about if you're not a film buff. Back when the only options were (a) movie theatres, or (b) broadcast TV, the major networks regularly ran 2-3 year old films in prime time, and the independent stations ran whatever they could get, which was usually old and b/w. We saw a lot of movies simply because it was the only thing on at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon. In some ways that was limiting, but it also expanded our horizons to include movies we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

The Pop View said...

I will agree with one point: It's not possible to be awash in old movies as once one could be. I was born in 1963 and old movies were constantly on television. It's how the local television stations filled up time. There was the afternoon movie and the late, late movie and weekends filled with them.

As you say, it's now primarily one cable network, which does a terrific job, but it used to be that you could just switch around the dial (probably only 9 channels, as I recall, in L.A.) and just stumble across old movies.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I was 12 when Rocky first fought Apollo Creed, in 1976, and I thought that was the greatest movie ever made. It also won for best Picture over Taxi Driver.

Then in 1985, when I was 20, I entered the Rocky Universe as a Soviet Fight Fan, in Rocky IV, so in a way I made movie history.

VP81955 said...

I think the people here being dismissive of contemporary movies are being just as stupid as people who are dismissive of old ones - plenty of good movies are being made now, just as plenty good movies were made in the past. I think the problem is the fact that you're comparing the cream of the crop of old movies with the average contemporary film. Not every director was Hitchcock in the past, just as not every contemporary director is Uwe Boll.

To some extent I concur -- but the difference is, in those days ('20s through the early '50s), films were made for a large, communal audience. TV changed all that, broke up the movie audience into niche groups far more than before. And gradually, especially with the rise of home video and DVDs, the moviehouse became less and less a destination for adults (other than the family-flick crowd). Movies are now largely tailored for adolescent tastes; "adult" theaters (and I don't mean porn) are more or less gone, save for the handful of art houses or places showing foreign fare. There are indeed plenty of good films being made now -- trouble is, it's far harder to find them.