Thursday, July 2, 2009

Modern films? Thanks, but no thanks

In his essay The Decline and Fall of the Movie, Leslie Halliwell uses the following quote from Jonathan Swift to encapsulate his attitude to the cinema, and in particular to explain how his love of Hollywood's golden age could sit happily alongside an almost total disinterest in and disdain for its present:
"I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth."
It's an opinion I more or less share. I too have my Peters and Johns - off the top of my head: Jaws, The Fog, Ghost World and The Straight Story would top the list - but the overwhelming majority of post-sixties cinema leaves me cold.
In particular, I have a loathing for the supposedly great works of seventies Hollywood - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, that one in space with the laser swords and the little robots, forget the name of it for a minute - that verges on the certifiable.
Even films I saw ten years ago and liked rarely hold up for me once a little water has flowed between us. Titanic, for instance, I initially had pegged as a glorious, old-style tear-jerker: the petty resentments of stuck-up critics who mocked the script and performances, I confidently predicted, would come to look as transparent and silly as those few who tried to write off Gone With the Wind. I was amazed to watch it again recently and see that they were right: it's a terrible film. Even the effects no longer impress overmuch: what we took to be realistic was in fact merely state of the art, and the trickery already looks almost as distancing, and fully as much a product of its time, as that of a fifties sci-fi movie.
Now, by and large, nobody gets uppity when I say that I hate the taste (and indeed the thought) of mushrooms. But for some reason I've often noticed people getting strangely resentful when I say that I don't watch new movies, listen to modern music or watch any television at all, as if I was expressing a judgement about their taste rather than mine.
Some of the more popular responses:
I'm being pretentious.
I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face.
It's a shame I'm so unyielding, because I don't know what I'm missing.

So when I read Kate's post on how she doesn't like new films I was waiting with baited breath to see what the fall-out would be.
Like me, she is a hardliner:

I know everyone around here is pretty obsessed with older films. But I'm not just pro-older films, I'm very anti-newer films. I usually get a very twisted, "you MUST be kidding me" look on my face when anyone, but anyone, asks me to go to see a new film in theaters. And no, renting it from Netflix won't mask the fact that it was made in 2004. It is still a new film, be it in a theater or at home. I'm prone to sulk in my bedroom when my family (who usually share my strict pre-1970 rule) cave in and rent something new.

The response was pretty supportive on the whole, but on other related posts dotted here and there we did begin to see some of that old annoyance rearing its head; in particular the objections that one is being merely 'silly', and also 'elitist'.
But what, on the face of it is so strange, or inconsistent, or hard to accept, about liking old movies and disliking new ones?
And what is elitist about having, and expressing, a preference?
That's the conundrum I intend getting to the bottom of here.

Firstly, though it baffles me personally, there is of course no a priori reason why a person cannot like both classic and modern cinema.
The thing that strikes me as odd is the almost automatic supposition that if one likes the former, one would, or should, like both.
It's a supposition that rarely works the other way round, I've noticed. I wouldn't expect anyone who rushed out to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ("screenplay by Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro's Transformers action figures": now there's a credit to fill you with hope for the future of the medium) to enthuse about Monroe Owsley, have strong opinions about whether Charley Chase is better in silents or talkies, or feverishly collect Irene Ware films.
Yet when I, to whom all of the above applies, say that I'd rather spend a week underground with a mobile phone salesman than another minute looking at Will Ferrell's face... suddenly I'm the one with the big attitude.
I have known people laugh when I say I regularly watch black and white films, as if I'd said I liked reading Beowulf by candlelight in a Hebridean cave. Black and white! The idea! I've met people who thought I was joking when I said I liked silent films. (Often old people, dismayingly enough.)
Well, choosing to spend ninety minutes in the company of Tom Cruise, or Lars von Trier, or Ken Loach, or Wes Anderson strikes me as pretty wacko too.

But the much more important point is this.
Of course there are some modern films that I have enjoyed, especially from non-English-speaking Europe, where, for the moment at least, both depth and style remain fashionable, but even these do not strike me as examples of the same thing as the classic movies with which I am obsessed.
I mean, what do they really have in common?
Just this (and, increasingly, not even this): they are both forms of visual representation created by passing a beam of light through a strip of celluloid on which photographic impressions of human activity have been recorded.
That's it, ladies and gentlemen. That's the common factor. That's the obvious and vital link that makes Mr Deeds Goes To Town an example of the same thing as Being John Malkovich, and makes me a crank or curmudgeon for loving the one like a firstborn child and hating the other with the kind of passion I ordinarily reserve for religious fanatics and salad.
How dare I?

Yet as I understand it, if you love old Hollywood, not just the list of approved masterpieces but the whole world and scent and flavour of old Hollywood, then you are in love with something that simply does not exist anymore, regardless of how good the occasional half-watchable film may still be on its own terms.
Classic Hollywood cinema is - and I mean this not as a judgement but as a simple statement of fact - a unique phenomenon, product of a unique set of circumstances and individuals, operating in a unique way at a unique point in time.
The studio system, long gone, produced a body of work that is to cinema generally what an illuminated medieval manuscript is to books generally. Shot almost entirely in studios, by contract artists, operating under an imposed censorship system, so that each studio had its own instantly recognisable atmosphere, regular stable of players, and totally artificial style.
This is what I love.
When that changed, as first the studio system and then the Hays Code collapsed, a clear before and after line can be drawn in the product.
The stars migrate from studio to studio, individual studio styles disappear, real locations, widescreens and other forms of pseudo-realism replace the artistic creations of the old studio photographers and set designers with drab singularity, and uniformity of manner and message gives way to a thousand discordant voices all vying to see who can shout loudest for your dollar.
These things, that make the earlier films so fundamentally different from what followed, are the specific things that attract me to them.
I have no passion for modern cinema. Even among the films I admired, hardly any have added something to my life, or given me any strong desire to see them again. Whereas if you told me I had just watched The Old Dark House for the last time I'd cry and fall over. Films are an interest, old Hollywood is a passion.
That's the difference.

It's a judgement call and I'm making it.

Now, this all seems so straightforward to me that I wonder if the problem isn't somewhere in the very terminology we use.
'Classic' is a slippery term. On the one hand it can be used as a judgement - to be deemed a classic is a marker of quality - on the other it is used as a description, to mean films of a certain age. (Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide covers all films pre-1960.)
For most people I think it means a combination of the two - a retrospective bestowing of approval on a film that has been around long enough to have stood the test of time, hence the tentative use of phrases like 'modern classic' or 'future classic' to refer to Fargo or American Beauty or Christ knows what other ordure happens to be flavour of the month this month.
I'd like to see these two meanings divorced, so that we can talk about classical and modern cinema just as we talk of classical and modern music. Yes, everyone knows classical music is better than modern music, especially those who claim otherwise, but that's not what the term means. It refers to a style only, and any related associations of higher quality spring incidentally from the terms of the drawn distinction itself.
So how about continuing to use 'classic' as a qualitative term to recognise individual quality, but 'classical' as a quantitative term to define that whole world, and way of doing things, that existed between the creation of American cinema and the collapse of the original structures and strictures, somewhere in the fifties.

One final point. I do realise I have spoken only about old and new mainstream Hollywood.
Many have written that yes, American pop cinema is a parched field of rotting weeds, but salvation is at hand in the great third way: avant-garde, art and independent cinema.
Personally, I find even less here to attract me than in the average Hollywood blockbuster. If classical Hollywood is Mozart - or at least Puccini - and modern Hollywood is Justin Timberlake, then this lot is Stockhausen. (I even saw Peter Greenaway's name come up - a sobering reminder that there are indeed corners of the world where this pompous buffoon retains the respect long withdrawn by those of us who have to share a country with him.)
I really don't mind whether I see Marley and Me again or not, but if you wanted me to sit through Broken Flowers a second time you'd have to nail me down.
More genuine creativity, inspiration, effort and love of cinema went into Police Academy 6 than Being John Malkovich.


Kate Gabrielle said...

What an insightful post!! You captured everything I had wanted to say in mine but couldn't-- I'm going to add your link to my post and post the link to this on twitter too...

ps. Those few comments I got that you mentioned about being silly for only watching old movies, etc. You notice they never commented on anything of mine before, like there are actually people who feel THAT adamant about making people watch new films, or trying to make jabs at people who only watch old films that they'd ONLY leave a comment when I did this post? It's bizarre!!

Radiation Cinema! said...


I love good movies, old or new. I just find, for many cultural, economic, and sociological reasons, I find more to love in the older movies.

I have a theory and a memory that you might enjoy: First the theory (it's hardly my theory, but I subscribed to it). Because of the advent and competition presented by television, film makers lowered their demographic target by about ten years (thinking that kids wanted to get out of the house more) - from thirty to about twenty (or less). Thus, movies prior to about 1960 had a more mature target audience.

Now for the memory: I remember seeing Star Wars (you know, that film with the light sabers) when it first came out with a friend. There was one large movie house where I grew up, none of this multiplex shit with pimply-faced shits talking on cell phones.

Anyway, this was the first movie that I can ever remember having a huge line - wrapped damn near out of the parking lot into the street. My friend and I were so intrigued by this, we spent an afternoon in line, just to see what the hubbub was about.

Afterwards, we were walking home, and I asked him what he thought.

He shrugged, thought a moment.

"I hate that kiddy shit," he said.


Matthew Coniam said...

Kate -
Hurrah! So glad you approved!!! And thanks as ever for your support!

Mykal -
Completely agree that the lowering of the age target was a feature of 'the big change' - would have added that if I'd thought of it.
I have an identical memory of Star Wars - I too saw it on release, and loved it. In truth, I have no ill-will for it even now. It's just that I'm 36 now...

By the way, taking a leaf out of your book... time for some more Radiation Cinema posts say I!

Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: It is indeed time (thanks for noticing). Check back later today. -- Mykal


I agree fully - I've very little in my massive DVD collection that comes after 1976 - Star Wars ruined the cinema you know. But man not liking The Godfather Deer Hunter - be real!!!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Great post, well-written with some excellent points. I think one aspect of "classic" films which makes that era distinctive is the unselfconscious storytelling, the showmanship, that makes the "artificial" element of the old Hollywood studio productions irrelevant.

Today's films seem weaker in part because of a self-conscious element to the look of the films. They try too hard to be blockbusters, or social commentaries, or the next new Happy Meal toy. There is no emotional connection to the film by the audience which is so sophisticated that it knows it's being marketed, not entertained.

It's interesting that some of the most beloved films of the last 20 years or so are animated features, which carry big-name stars for the voiceovers. The storytelling here at least is more bold.

A modern film like "Australia", which, even though I enjoyed, was in it's telling of a story circa 1940-41, unable to be little more than parody and camp. Granted, director Baz Luhrmann's style runs to the cartoonish anyway, but the excessive CGI and sense of self-conscious flippancy kept this film from being what it would have been if it had been actually filmed in 1940 - a grand, swashbuckling adventure presented with unabashed showmanship, yet focused on the characters, who stand in for us.

Of course, it might have also been littered with racial stereotypes. This is why I wish we could find a comfortable combination of modern sensibilities and the classic Hollywood style of filmmaking, without condescending parody, without the weak storytelling, without the obsession over current fad, without the marketing.

Matthew Coniam said...

Archavist -
I knew I was on a hiding to nothing attacking The Godfather but The Deer Hunter??? I didn't think anybody liked that anymore!!!

Jacqueline -
I agree almost completely. The point about Australia is especially important; that divorced from its true era, any attempt to recreate classical cinema comes off as pastiche. Titanic was another. I still prefer this to mainstream popcorn movies (never saw Australia but I'm sure I would have liked it to about the extent you did) but it's no substitute to the real thing.
But I also heartily dislike the sensibilities of modern films. Their list of ideological offences is plenty long enough, even without racial stereotypes.

Meredith said...

Just reading through your old posts so i'm rather late commenting but felt the need to defend myself a bit as i believe i'm the referenced poster on the calling people silly and elitist bit. I should not have made such a generalized statement as I did not mean it in the way you took it. You do not fit that description because you have chosen a preference (which i agree with) and have at least given newer films, mainstream and art house a chance. Clearly there's nothing wrong with knowing what you like, my problem only comes with people who aren't willing to give it any chance at all and will only use transformers as the model of modern american cinema as opposed to anything else (and i don't mean jumping straight to art house) which is what I find silly and elitist, simply hating newer films because they are new, rather than outlining the differences as you have. I do like newer films including some of the ones you detest like the deer hunter and american beauty, but you've made an excellent post and for the most part i'm walking away with my tail between my legs for sounding so stupid.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Meredith! Such a sweet woman! Good on you! Can't speak for Matthew, of course, but as lover of the old over the new (for the most part), well said! -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Meredith -
I really wasn't thinking of you, though you may have been the one that said that on a post somewhere... As I say, it's a standard objection I hear all the time.
I was just trying to pinpoint the strange reaction you get from a lot of people when you even begin to question the all round fabulousness of modern life, or imply that anything may have been better in the past. It's not just disagreement but something more primal; there's real anger in there, often, and a strange kind of fear almost. It's as if the game of pretending modern life is just the coolest needs only the smallest dissent to crumble...
As I said, this is usually unquestioned in most people, and old films routinely mocked with a severity rarely used in reverse. That's why it amuses me to do so some times. Newness really is one of the things I dislike about new films.
But this attitude of which I speak (and which, as I said, is at least as depressingly prevalent among the elderly as the young) is a very different kettle of fish (peculiar British expression, not sure if it ever 'travelled', apologies if not) from someone like you, who knows what they are talking about and is making a fair enough comment in a forum where all points of view are usually respected.
So I really wasn't singling you out at all and I'm really sorry if you took it personally. Your blog is great and it was not my intention!

Mykal -
You can speak for me on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and alternate Saturdays. But only if you use an English accent.

Meredith said...

thank you mykal :]

Oh no worries i didn't take it personally, just in case you did read that comment i just wanted to clear myself anyway and note a sort of middle ground in the matter (i'm a libra, what can i say). You make a very interesting point about the vehement reaction that some people have towards older films which i hadn't really noticed but is absolutely right. There's a sort of fear in it that I hadn't recognized and now wish to experiment with in some devilish way.

Avalon76 said...

I love Star Wars, but my love for it over the years has become inseparably linked with my childhood. I have no idea how I would feel about it if I saw it now, at (almost) 33. I saw (and for the most part hated!) the prequels.

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, I absolutely loved it too. I expect I can still quote whole chunks of it from the dialogue soundtrack LP. I'm just old enough to have seen it at the cinema on its first run - you, if my maths is correct, are just young enough not to have.
I really have no animosity for it at all in itself, only for its centrality in modern culture, for what that therefore reveals about modern culture, and for the notion that it is a work of great significance. I realise it's a figurehead, for both sides. I'd pick on something else if it made the point as instantly!

Karl La Fong said...

What I'd like to know, though, a year later, is...which do you like best, Charley Chase's silent shorts or the sound ones? And if the latter, Roach or Columbia (not such a tricky question)?

Matthew Coniam said...

Well, a year on I'm sure of my opinion but the basic paradox remains unresolved.
Basically, I think the silents are better, but I prefer to watch the talkies. Partly, but not solely, because I love it when he sings.
I do enjoy the Columbias, but they're obviously the products of a less happy age.

panavia999 said...

My resolute indifference to movies, music, TV even books after 1960 makes people think I am pretentious. Before I could vent on blog comments (because everyone else says everything so much better that I possibly could) I used to talk more to acquaintances about my fondness for old black and white movies and the response was mostly blank stares and they probably thought I was a crashing bore. To most people "Classic Movies" means Casablanca and Gone With the Wind which are merely the tippy tip of an iceberg. I just say "I prefer old black and white movies, especially the 30's". Due to parental rules, poor TV reception and living in a rural area, I have not seen TV shows or movies of the 60's -80's that are supposed to define my demographic. Even my musical tastes are far different - I love bagpipes and opera.
That said, I do love Southpark, Duckman, the first ten years of the Simpsons, lots of newer British comedy. I love a raunchy comedy fix.
I'm not stuck in a wayback machine, but if it's old, black and white, and features a Miklos Rosza score, I am hooked. I love the way Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone can utter rousing swashbuckling lines in a completely believable and sincere fashion. Who can do that now on film?

I like Mykal's comment about "Star Wars". I was in high school when that came out. Some critic had compared Star Wars favorably to the old Flash Gordon serials, so my father and I optimistically went to see it. We hated it. It wasn't like the old time fluff, it was just people exchanging wisecracks with special effects. (After all, there is nothing wrong with tin space ships bobbing on wires with sparklers for rocket fuel. ) Of course, all my schoolmates raved about Star Wars, I thought it was stupid, they called me a smartass.

Matthew Coniam said...

Afraid I wasn't sharp/old enough to see the insincerity of Star Wars at the time - or have any awareness of what it was copying.
It amazes me looking back at the films of the seventies and eighties, just how much of it is the work of people in love with old movies just like I am, and trying to recreate them just like I would if I had their jobs, and just not quite getting it right (not always their fault), and appealing to a new audience that does not have their knowledge of what is inspiring them, and loves it because they think it's something new. Serial-style action adventure, screwball comedy, sci-fi... it all came back and it was all just pastiche.
Still preferable to what followed, of course: truly modern, truly terrible films, made by the folks who were the AUDIENCES of Star Wars and Indiana Yawns.
As I say, I watch and enjoy newer films from time to time, but it's a totally diffferent art form. Nobody expects a music lover to like all music on the grounds that it's all music, (though they may enjoy the occasional pop song in an undemanding mood...)
But why do you Americans like modern British comedy so much? It's appalling, all of it!

panavia999 said...

I'm sure there is awful british comedy but I like what I've seen. I'm thinking of Miller and Armstrong and The Big Train for example. Maybe I have been lucky. My taste is ensemble and sketch formats and British comics are better at parody. As for sit-coms, I've simply never watched any US or UK shows.
If one is looking for an alternative to American comedy, British comedy is the most accessible. It's as simple as that.

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