Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Will Movies Last?

Fellow film buffs - especially those of us with an appreciation for old movies - should definitely check out this dialogue at Stuff of Dreams.

The Derelict watched some old movies with a friend of his who is an "old movie novice", and he was a little disturbed by some of her comments, like:

I really just think that movies just aren't really that important. Like, who cares if people forget about Waterloo Bridge or whatever other movie? What's going to happen if they're forgotten? Nothing. Most movies have a short shelf life. I know all of the movies that I like, I'll remember and pass on to future generations, but all of the older movies I've never seen? Who cares?

The Derelict sums it up:

I’m really, I dunno, disturbed by the fact that movies are so disposable. It was something I’d been thinking about for a long time actually, in relation to old movies, to movies in general, to movies as art vs. movies as cheap, quick entertainment... Movies are pop art, for the most part, and I guess it’s to be expected that pop art will have a short shelf life, whether it’s a catchy tune on the radio, a TV show, or a movie. I would like to think that certain movies will last in some form two hundred or three hundred years from now, the way great literature of the past has lasted into our own century, but maybe that’s expecting too much.

My own take on the "will movies last thing?" is a bit less pessimistic. I think that "the Hollywood movie" is one of America's great contributions to world culture from the 20th Century. So, representative movies like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz will last as part of the popular culture. More obscure movies probably will be remembered only by a (relatively) small number of cognoscenti, but this isn't any different from what has happened with literature. Thanks to high school and college lit classes, there's still a general audience for The Great Gatsby, while a "lesser" but still interesting and enjoyable book like The Magnificent Ambersons is read by many fewer people. And, ironically, even among today's arts and culture buffs, that book is probably best known because Orson Welles turned it into a movie. And I'd love it if more people besides me and the folks in the William Dean Howells society were excited about a book like A Hazard of New Fortunes, but I bet it'd be easier to find someone to gab with about The Maltese Falcon.

But all I can do is guess about the future of "old movies". I can't help but think that the digitization of everything is going to continue.

But I don't necessarily think it's a terrible thing for "old movies" to become something appreciated mainly by film buffs. I'm more concerned with this tendency to reduce arts and culture stuff to nothing more than a choice about how to spend leisure time. (I do this myself, of course, too.) There's something appealing to me about the admittedly hokey and old-fashioned idea of "art appreciation": that is, you should spend time learning about great works of culture because doing so will make your life richer, and not simply because art and literature can be enjoyable or can offer an escape from the day-to-day.

Still, I have mixed feelings about turning to academia and the museums to conserve popular art. On the one hand, keeping these movies around, keeping them - even marginally - part of the cultural consciousness is a truly good thing. On the other hand, I'm not sure a movie like Citizen Kane is best served by thinking of it as a piece of "museum" art. I brought this up on a message board recently, but I think the problem a lot of non-cinephiles have with Citizen Kane is that they approach it with a sense of awe and expect it to deliver some kind of "high art" experience. I think the movie (to i ts credit) works at a lower level than all that: if I was introducing the movie to first time viewers, I'd emphasize its humor and theatricality, its gothic weirdness and visual invention. As much as any Hollywood movie, Citizen Kane is an entertainment.

Anyway, I also sympathize a little bit with the Derelict when it comes to the more selfish reasons for wanting to get people into "old movies": I'd like to be able to have more face-to-face discussions about old movies. (And I didn't find too many fans of old movies at film school, either.)


The Derelict said...

Hey Jon, thanks for the plug (btw, I'm a girl, though I guess my blogger name is sorta ambiguous, sorry).

Since education is my chosen profession (for now ;)), I'm very tempted to want to preserve these films in a classroom in an, as you say, "art appreciation" kinda way. But I know it wouldn't work -- as LeaJo pointed out, resentment often sets in when we're told we have to like something.

And you're right about CITIZEN KANE. The first time I saw it I was shocked by its humor, its cleverness, the kinda bravura of it all -- it wasn't a stuffy "art film", it was a Hollywood movie! Not meant for museums but for movie houses and popcorn and all the rest.

And the digitization of everything is certainly encouraging (as is the availability of channels such as Turner Classic Movies, Fox Movie Channel, etc.). But culture as a whole has become more fragmented as technology provides us with more and more choices. In the old days (my parents' era) older movies were shown on late, late shows or on Sunday afternoons on one of four or five channels that were the only television channels available. Now movie buffs have access to specialized cable channels, but the specialized channels don't always manage to grab the casual viewer. Only It's a Wonderful Life, Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music, and occasionally (do they even show it anymore?) The Ten Commandments make their way onto the ABCs, NBCs, CBSs, etc.

Technology has provided us each with our own channels, our own music, our own media, so that there is less and less of a shared national culture. When I think about that I again become very sympathetic to the "art appreciation" angle.

I'm so torn! :)

Jon Hastings said...

btw, I'm a girl, though I guess my blogger name is sorta ambiguous, sorry)

Ooops, I'm sorry - I need to read more carefully!

Yeah - fragmentation is a big issue with me, too. There's so much stuff that it seems like without some kind of art appreciation-type program, things are bound to get lost...