Do movies have a sell-by date?
I’ve never thought so. But the other day, a popular website posted their choices for “the 50 best romantic comedies in movie history.” Forty-nine of them had been released since 1980. The one outlier, “Harold and Maude,” dated way back to 1971.
Apparently, their idea of “movie history” doesn’t stretch back quite as far as mine.
The list was quickly greeted with howls of outrage on Twitter (as most things are). Where was “The Apartment”? “It Happened One Night”? “His Girl Friday”? “Annie Hall”? One of the list’s compilers responded with an online smirk, sarcastically thanking people for being upset. After all, that merely meant more clicks and ad revenue for the site so, you know, the joke was on us.
Sort of the modern version of the kid who would say something idiotic in third grade and then, when you glanced up, chortle “Ha ha — made ya look!” (Which is why I won’t link to the site here and give them even more clicks. Ha ha.)
Since then, some writers have responded with their own lists, listing favorite romantic comedies from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. I don’t need to repeat their efforts here. You probably could easily come up with a dozen of your own faves. (For me, the honor roll would have to start with “The Awful Truth.”)
But what I would like to question — and, honestly, attack — is the idea of “old” movies.
Peter Bogdanovich, the late director (and journalist, and occasional “Sopranos” cast member) hated that term. “There are no old movies,” he liked to say. “There are only movies you haven’t seen before.”
When I first heard that, I sort of wondered what he meant, or why the phrase bothered him. Now I recognize the ageism. Calling something old is the new way of dismissing it, of brushing it off as out-of-date and ultimately inconsequential. That’s why we’re awash in businesspeople promising to “reinvent” their industries, of politicians with “fresh” ideas. What’s gone before is, well, gone.
It’s an annoying prejudice in day-to-day life. It’s ludicrous when applied to art.
It also seems to disproportionately apply to cinema. In other disciplines, works that have come before — whether it’s Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” — are seen as classics, as part of a continuum. They’re not simply written off as old, and true aficionados appreciate them on their own terms.
When it comes to the movies, though, many people feel comfortable ignoring anything made before they were born. Black-and-white movies? Forget it. Silent films? Are you kidding? And I’m not even talking about teenagers, or casual fans. I’ve taught film students — many of whom want to make their own movies — who seem to think cinema started with “Pulp Fiction.”
Oddly, it’s a problem that stems, I think, not from lack of access to media, but from too much.
When I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, our TV options consisted of Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. Seven choices — and that was considered a lot. But the thing was, every one of them programmed movies, every day. Because there was no cable then — never mind videos or DVDs — most of these were older movies, from decades past. And they were simply part of the programming, seamlessly integrated with the new. You grew up just accepting them.
Today, though, we have hundreds of channels — and most of them only want to present something new and exclusive. Apart from an occasional, seasonal tradition — “The Ten Commandments,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” — the networks don’t run older movies at all, while the rest of the stations and streamers promote their own content. It’s easy to find any of a hundred new horror films or slapstick farces on Netflix right now. But a classic film? That takes some doing.
Sure, TCM is still an oasis. There are a few others. But it’s hard not to flip through the channels and hear “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” playing in your head. Only now, it’s more like 1557 channels, most showing nothing but ever-changing, ever-disposable “content.”
This isn’t just frustrating to movie lovers, though. It’s actually bad for our culture.
In other countries, many children still grow up on ancient folktales — Norse sagas, Greek myths, Arthurian romances. But we’re a relatively young nation. We don’t have a wealth of stirring stories passed down from generation to generation. The few we used to have — the adventures of Paul Bunyan, say, or the tale of Johnny Appleseed — faded away long ago.
No, in America, the movies are our mythology, or used to be. They were a common cultural touchstone, and a way of explaining the land we lived in, and the people we met here. They provided cautionary tales, moral lessons, national symbols, cultural archetypes. They still can.
You want a feel for America’s non-interventionist stance pre-Pearl Harbor? Look to Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” You want a sense of the macho bravado that often drives America’s foreign policy? Watch some John Wayne. You can’t understand the “lost cause” myth that still persists in much of the South? Check out “Gone With the Wind” again.
Hollywood films have helped shape America, and Americans, on everything from patriotism and stubborn self-reliance to gender roles and ugly racial stereotypes. It’s not all pretty. But it’s relevant to who we are, and you can’t be truly culturally literate without at least a nodding acquaintance with the films behind it.
But where do people get exposed to them? Less and less on TV, it seems, and only rarely in school. By the time they have graduated from even the most mediocre high school, most students will have read “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Raven” and “Of Mice and Men.”
But it’s doubtful they will have spent any time in class watching a vintage film noir or screwball comedy. And they’re the poorer for it.
So perhaps it is not their fault that a bunch of young writers can’t appreciate any art older than they are. But it is their loss.
And, in the end, everyone’s.
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