Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The challenge of old movies

Want to know how certifiable a movie fanatic I am? I actually keep an Excel spreadsheet noting every movie I see and the date on which I first see it. About a year ago, realizing I'd been keeping this list for literally half my life (since 1994, just before my 17th birthday), I attempted to identify the movies I'd seen during the first half. I got some help from Wikipedia, which has articles listing the films released every year (most of the major ones, at any rate). One thing I've determined is that I've seen well over a thousand films in my life--but perhaps three-fourths of them have been ones made within my lifetime, starting in the late 1970s.

This was a bit of a surprise to me, since I remember watching lots of old movies as a kid. But when I think about it, there are indeed an astonishing number of classics I still have not seen. And when I do get around to seeing them, the experience isn't always as satisfying as it's supposed to be. Part of the problem is a feeling of being intimidated by a movie's reputation. It's tricky trying to sit back and enjoy a Great Movie when I'm conscious of how I'm supposed to be feeling the weight of its Greatness at every moment. This is a big reason why I still have never watched Citizen Kane, and why I had the DVD to Lawrence of Arabia for a long time before I gathered up the courage to stick it in the drive.

The genre I find easiest to appreciate regardless of period is comedy. I was raised on classic comedy--the Marx Bros., Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin (who remains one of my favorite filmmakers to this day), Danny Kaye, the Three Stooges. I believe comedy is essentially timeless as long as it avoids topical humor, as these old movies generally did. Good 21st-century comedies like 40-Year-Old Virgin or Borat may be more profane than their predecessors, but the underlying principles of humor haven't changed. I can't say the same for dramas, westerns, romances, or horror films.

There are four basic challenges to becoming engaged in older movies. One I am not dealing with here is advancement in special effects and other technical matters. Everyone agrees movies have improved over time on that score. Instead, I wish to focus on those areas that pose significant and non-superficial barriers between modern viewers and even the best films of the past:

1. Changes in decency standards

While I find many of today's movies overly coarse, those made at the height of the Hays Commission had the opposite problem. They couldn't talk about sex in anything approaching a candid manner and were forced to employ ridiculous euphemisms, which can be hard for a modern viewer to adjust to. When I watched His Girl Friday, I had already seen the 1974 version of The Front Page with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, based on the same play. Being a big Matthau/Lemmon fan, I loved the '74 version, and while I enjoyed the older movie as well, I was conscious of its limited ability to depict certain plot points. This actually led to a couple of good lines, as when Hildy reports that a character got shot in the "classified ads." At other times I felt the movie suffered from the constraints, as when it presented Mollie Malloy as an old maid rather than (as in the original play) a prostitute. And I'm sorry, but I just can't have as much affection for a film that omits the play's hilarious closing line, "The son of a bitch stole my watch!"

Some old movies have an innocence that looks laughable today. I saw the Oscar-winning 1938 film Boys Town when Newt Gingrich hosted a showing of it on TNT in 1994. Gingrich felt people should watch this movie to learn how to help today's troubled youth. The movie tells the story of Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) and his heroic efforts running an orphanage. His motto is that there's "no such thing as a bad boy." And indeed, most of the boys we see in the orphanage behave like perfect angels, except for one played by Mickey Rooney as a juvenile delinquent so terrible he actually smokes, plays cards, and acts sassy toward the grownups. (As a neighbor of mine at the time put it, "Sounds like the typical yeshiva bochur.") Despite these immeasurable crimes, Father Flanagan somehow manages to get through to him in the end and make him into a good kid, a message of great relevance for today's crack babies.

2. Changes in moral sensibilities

This category covers a lot of ground, but it's most notable with attitudes about race. Movies from the '30s and '40s are often shockingly racist, and when they are, I'm thrown right out of the picture. Duck Soup is one of my favorite comedies, but when Groucho utters the line--"My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that's why the darkies were born"--the movie for me just stops dead. (Few people today are aware that Groucho was actually referencing a hit song from the time titled "That's Why the Darkies Were Born" that was supposedly satirizing racism, but it still sounds pretty offensive to modern ears.) And that's just dialogue. The stereotyping of nonwhite characters in films from this period is so awful it leads to the sadly ironic fact that films from this period tend to be more watchable when they feature all-white casts.

3. Lack of freshness

It may not be fair, but movie ideas that were once highly original can come to seem banal if they get imitated enough. Hitchcock went to great lengths to keep the surprise ending to Psycho from getting leaked, but by today's standards it seems almost trite. (As Nicolas Cage declares in Adaptation, "The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personalities.") I recently saw Casablanca for the first time, but it feels like I've seen it my whole life. It was like deja vu as I watched, memories from my childhood of stuff I had seen that referenced the film coming to the surface of my mind: an episode of Moonlighting, a scene from one of the Naked Gun films, parts of When Harry Met Sally, you name it. There's also something surpassing strange about hearing lines like "Here's looking at you, kid," "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here," uttered in earnest. While I did enjoy the movie, it was certainly not the same experience moviegoers in the '40s had. It was like viewing some grand antique.

4. Differences in filmmaking style

This section will be much longer than the previous ones because it deals with a characteristic of movies from the '30s and '40s that has always been obvious to me but which, for reasons that escape me, I have rarely seen discussed: they look and sound a great deal like plays. Watching a movie from today doesn't usually feel like seeing a group of actors up on a stage; it's more like looking into a window at a real-life scene. I don't just mean that the sets look more convincing, but even more that when the actors talk, they tend to sound a lot more like real people having a conversation. To show what I'm talking about, let's examine two clips, one from the 1939 version of Of Mice and Men, the other from the same scene in the '92 version:

Did you notice what I noticed? Not only is the first movie clearly being filmed on a stage, whereas the second is filmed in actual woods (or at least provides the illusion of it), the differences in acting style are striking. In the older movie, the actors deliver their lines loudly and in an almost sing-song manner; in the later film the actors speak practically under their breath, with minimal intonation. The acting in the first clip is more stylized, in the second more naturalistic. In short, the actors in the original film seem to be acting, whereas in the remake they're behaving. The second clip therefore has a more lifelike feel (despite the fact that it's the only one of the two to feature background music, a point to which I'll return shortly).

I am not cherry-picking here; this is something that has consistently stood out for me whenever I've watched movies from the '30s and '40s and compared them with later films. It is most noticeable in dramas, but it exists to varying degrees in all genres. And of course there are exceptions. Jimmy Stewart was always more naturalistic than Nicolas Cage has ever been, but in any of their films they are surrounded by actors whose style contrasts with theirs.

None of this should be surprising. When talkies were invented, movie actors naturally adopted the conventions of what had previously been the only dramatic art form involving speech. They imitated the way stage actors spoke because that was all they knew. Over time, as the technology improved and as film came more into its own as a respectable medium, the styles of stage and screen diverged and naturalism gradually became the norm on screen; I believe the transition was complete in American cinema by the early 1970s.

What do I think of the change? It depends. The two Of Mice and Men adaptations are similar overall, but as an admirer of Steinbeck's novel I always preferred the '92 version. I had an easier time connecting emotionally with characters who sounded like real people when they spoke. This standard of judging movies is surprisingly rare, from what I've seen; people just don't want to admit that the naturalism of modern film has advantages.

It also has disadvantages. Among other things, I believe it contributed to the disappearance of musicals in the 1970s. The musical is, after all, very much a genre of the stage, and to have today's movie characters burst into song can seem odd and inappropriate in a way that it never did in previous eras. Music is still important in today's movies, but most of it is in the background: the scores (one of the few non-naturalistic aspects of movies to have increased over time) and the video interludes (a form that gradually replaced musical numbers in the '60s and '70s, and which in my opinion is one of the most annoying features of modern cinema). If a modern movie character sings, usually there's a rationale within the story, such as if the character is a professional singer.

All of this has led to a looser definition of the word "musical," which nowadays often means simply "movie with lots of songs in it," even when there are no numbers. The Golden Globes, for example, have applied the term to films like Walk the Line which are only "musicals" by virtue of concert scenes, video interludes, and the like. When modern movies do feature traditional numbers, the effect is often curiously artificial.

A lot of people like to ignore this fact and pretend nothing's changed. There's not much acknowledgment that musicals didn't just happen to fall out of fashion (the way, say, westerns did), but that the whole underlying approach to filmmaking changed in a way that made the conventions of musicals seem out of place. In the olden days, making a film as a musical was such a normal and natural choice it could even be fairly peripheral to the film itself. For example, most of the Marx Bros. and Danny Kaye films, remembered primarily as comedies, happened also to be musicals. Today's movies don't have that freedom.

The resurgence of movie musicals following the success of Chicago happened in part, I think, because the 2002 film found a unique way to reconcile the conflicting conventions. In this film, a woman played by Renee Zelwegger dreams of one day becoming a vaudeville star, and most of the song-and-dance numbers are presented as fantasy sequences where she imagines herself and other people performing on stage. As a result, the distinction in this movie between a musical number and a music video is blurred to the point of irrelevance. One IMDB commenter suggested that the film was "ashamed to be a musical," but I'm not sure it would have been as successful if it had simply ignored the problem.

Alas, many of the movie musicals since then have done just that. When I first saw Dreamgirls, I noticed it wasn't until about thirty minutes into the film that a character starts singing on the street (as opposed to on a stage or in a studio). Up to that point, the movie had seemed like a low-key, serious drama, and I have to admit I found the sudden break in realism that late in the story rather jarring. I thought to myself, "Wait a second...this is a musical?!" I've had that sort of experience with at least a couple of today's musicals, but I've never had it with the musicals of old. They don't have anything to apologize for.


My point here isn't that modern movies are intrinsically "better" than older ones, or vice versa. I just think there needs to be more recognition of the effect that the evolving conventions have on different generations of moviegoers. For sure, younger people who consider older movies boring or incomprehensible are missing out on something. But people who celebrate the old stuff as some kind of gold standard that nothing today could match up to, and imply that anyone who disagrees is simply lacking in culture or taste, aren't exactly helping matters either. Speaking personally, as I continue to enrich my knowledge of films of the past, I've had the best experiences when I've understood the movies in the context of their time and was prepared to adjust as needed. Holding them in godlike esteem doesn't do the trick for me.