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November 17, 2010


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Nicolas Leblanc

So, Glenn, what DID you say to Anderson Cooper?

I recently encountered the "old movie problem" when discussing film with fellow students and boy was I depressed afterwards : I discovered that anything that's more than 30 years old was considered OLD and should NEVER BE SCREENED AGAIN on account of OLD = BORING. I really don't know what it is that makes watching a movie from the 10s/20s/30s/40s feel like homework for others. (Is there an equivalent in painting or literature? If yes, when is it considered "old"? Pre-20th Century?)


With literature, I'd say the dreaded "old" designation is reached pre-1980. It depends on who you're talking to, of course, but adventurous souls might explore the murky scribblings of writers fromt he 70s and late 60s, sometimes.


If I could still drink, I'd have a drinking game in our store for every time someone asked for an "old movie" or a "classic" and invariably, they meant something from the 70's or 80's.

Topic; I hope the Criterion release of MODERN TIMES means CITY LIGHTS is getting the same treatment sometime in the future.

Johan Andreasson

With painting I think it’s the other way around. Most people look with pleasure at paintings from the 19th century and earlier and regard modern art as homework.

Glenn Kenny

@ Nicolas: You know, now that I think of it, I actually DID say something to him along the lines of "Blow-Up" specifically not being THAT old. Only in a jocular, friendly way. And I didn't call him a "clot." I don't even think I really thought that-I think Cooper's pretty okay of his type, really. I just wrote that to be "funny."


At my place of employment, a coworker was recently extolling the wonders of "The apartment" to two younger people (early 20s). Both of them winced: "ugh, that old movie? We've seen it. It's awful!! So boring!!"

End of times, kids off my lawn, etc.

The Siren

Despite the depressing stories in comments, tthis, THIS is why I continue to say that Glenn gets too little credit as an indefatigable spreader of sweetness and light and tidings of great joy. A brief, beautiful defense of old movies. Love for The Rink. And for Chaplin. I want to romp through meadows and strew flowers and cuddle ducklings now. And it's all Glenn's fault.

My final, indeed my only word on what our host astutely call the "false dichotomy between Keaton and Chaplin" involves painting. I had an art history professor who one day was discussing the old debate, Picasso or Matisse. And a student asked him which artist he preferred. He snapped, "Why pick when I can have them both?"

That summarizes my entire attitude toward rankings, come to think of it.

Paul Johnson

In a restaurant, recently overheard the following conversation between two fellow patrons talking about movies:

First girl: Oh I caught this really old movie on TV last night. It's a classic, but I can't remember the title. You know, the one where what's her name is on a road trip with a friend, y'know, that chick who got a mastectomy - blonde girl?
Second girl: Christina Applegate?
First girl: That's right!
Second girl: And the other one was Cameron Diaz?
First girl: Yes!
Second girl: The Sweetest Thing!
First girl: Yes, that's it!
Second girl: That movie's a fucking classic.

I'm sure they were lovely people. Morally superior to me in every way I bet. Probably have all sorts of hidden talents, unlike me. Second girl spoke with a possibly sarcastic tinge to her voice that slightly complicates the scenario. Still, episodes like these keep me up nights, staring out into the darkness, wondering just how long we've all got. No more than a few months, or so I've been reckoning for the last decade or so. Makes it difficult to get stuff done.

Michael Dempsey

Some possibly relevant anecdotes culled from films/English conversation classes with European and Asian ESL students aged 18 to early 20s:

To many, an "old movie" is anything released before 2000.

Where movies are concerned, a large number of them can go from zero to stone bored in 60 seconds. This happens if a movie doesn't serve up virtually nonstop blasts of action and overt special effects from frame one.

Presented with a movie that doesn't do this, they promptly get busy playing with their iPods.

Lots just want their old favorites, which meant "The Hangover" and "Pretty Woman" but also any action movie. Cool as these people may be, they've got their comfort zones and don't want to step out of them even for a short time.

Asked after watching "The Godfather" (spread out over four classes and two weeks) if they considered the machine gun slaughter of Sonny (which none had seen before) a violent scene, they labeled it mild.

Virtually all had never seen a black-and-white movie. Introduced to same via "I Walked With A Zombie" and/or "High Noon", most reacted more or less dutifully -- not for any auteurist or other film critic reasons but purely because of the black-and-white cinematography, which they considered primitive because it lacks color.

Re "High Noon", there was discontentment over an 85-minute buildup of mainly (to them, inherently dull) character interactions before the one big action sequence, which isn't exactly colossal by present standards. A few knew vaguely of Grace Kelly; Gary Cooper didn't ring a single bell.

"Zombie" left several in an "eh" state because it lacks graphic violence (though they were told about Production Code, budgetary, and technological reasons for this) and concentrates instead on poetic eeriness and shadowy uncertainty. Informed that a remake of "Zombie" is pending and asked how they'd make one...

Attention spans were often short and severely distracted. One student couldn't describe the final moments of "Zombie" two minutes after seeing them -- not because of problems with spoken English but because the movie's lack of constant modern-media-style stimulation left him unable or unwilling to focus on what he was watching.

Yet some "old movies" got good responses: "The Pick-Up Artist" (the zippy pace, the elegant color images, the girl-group songs, the urban setting even if it is late-1980s New York City, pre-"Iron Man" Robert Downey Jr.), "White Dog" (the unusual true story), and (surprisingly, given now set-bound and dialogue-heavy it is) "Rope".

I won't rant about "kids today" who "don't have any respect." I recall how complacent this geezer talk seemed during my own youth. Besides, it's a vast oversimplification of a significant social change that's long been underway and hasn't reached its conclusion.

But it does seem that the widespread responsiveness by young people to "old movies" (defined in whatever way) -- cultivated by innovative critics (James Agee, Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, David Thomson, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Andre Bazin, and innumerable others past and current here and abroad, in tandem with the rise and the ongoing elucidation of the auteur theory and other approaches -- is in some kind of jeopardy.

This cinephilia culture may even be headed for extinction, perhaps within a generation.

Depressing indeed, if true.

Or is all this a transition to something new and vibrant in another way (something that might include rather than extinguish the foregoing) about which we shouldn't be whining but which we should be awaiting with interest?

Best, it seems, to continue reading the tea leaves carefully.

Oh, and quite a few of the girls think Leonardo DiCaprio, whom they saw in "The Aviator" and (in theaters) "Shutter Island", is looking a bit ewww-old these days.


Not to derail the conversation from filmic topics, but this all reminds me a bit of the time a young coworker told me how excited she was to be seeing Green Day that evening, a group who she defined as "classic punk." I later determined that the high pitched whine I subsequently heard was generated by the resonance of Joey Ramone, Robert Quine, and Joe Strummer simultaneously spinning in their graves.

I second lipranzer's hope for a CITY LIGHTS Criterion release. My first taste of Chaplin and still perhaps my favorite.

Stephen Whitty

Mr. Dempsey, what you write is extremely sad and yet feels absolutely true.

In some small defense of younger fans, I think it's important to remember that, say, "The Apartment," at 50 years of age, is as remote to them as the original "Phantom of the Opera" was to some of us when we were 16. I happened to enjoy it then (as did a whole generation of budding film lovers, Carlos Clarens' "An Illustrated History of the Horror Film" tucked under our arms) but I knew I was in a special minority. Even then, a movie more than 15 years old felt ANCIENT to most of my friends. That doesn't seem to have changed.

Yet I do wonder if -- much as I love it -- TCM has in some ways hurried this forgetfulness along by becoming not just the one-stop shop, but in most cases, the ONLY place to see older movies on television. Back in the Pleistocene era, in the NY area, absolutely every broadcast channel -- all seven of them -- ran older movies, often in prime-time and almost always throughout the weekend. Wonderful accidental discoveries were common. Now you can click through a hundred cable channels without seeing a one, while even wretched movies of the past few years seem to show on an endless Mobius loop. It's a de-facto canon of mediocrity.

Nicolas Leblanc

@Michael : "This cinephilia culture may even be headed for extinction, perhaps within a generation."

I fall exactly in the same age/nationality group as your students, and as a point of comparison, I first saw 'Zombie' a few weeks ago and it stunned me. I suppose that I'm not alone and that cinephilia isn't going to die, there's just going to be fewer cinephiles. And the films themselves are still here (we're on a thread about 1916 movie out on blu-ray) being re-edited in the newest technologies. Plus the Internet facilitates the communication between cinema aficionados from around the globe (like just right now on this comment board).

The only problem will be the frustration that everyone here seems to endure as they find no-one in their immediate surroundings who shares their enthusiasm for the oldies. It's annoying, but in no way fatal to cinephilia.

Castle Bravo

The reason younger people don't connect with movies past a certain date is because the movies are the product of an era they don't recognize.

For me, born in the mid-70s, when I was growing up, I always felt a disconnect from anything prior to, at best, the mid-50s, if not later. It was the acting style, the ways people dressed, the way the movies felt like filmed stage plays, and, of course, the Hays Code impositions. What I saw on screen in no way represent anything I recognized as the world I knew.

People often forget that times change. We're not living in a standstill. A lot of people born in the 1980s absolutely consider Back to the Future an absolute classic. People born in the '90s, and raised on fast editing and so on often don't get movies made prior to the '80s.

It's not because the movies are old, per se -- it's that stylistically the movies don't resemble movies they were trained to watch movies on, and the society being portrayed (a pre-digital society) is unrecognizable to them. We get so caught up in our own experiences that we sometimes can't fathom that our experiences are not everybody else's experiences.

This is a very pragmatic thing. I'm not saying it's right or wrong. I'm just observing a very real and understandable phenomenon.

Hollis Lime

@ Nicolas:

I don't think that there will be fewer cinephiles, per se. You have to realize that we are living in a transition period. Whenever a counterculture becomes popular, it is almost invariably because of fashion, not because of some sort of genuine belief in aesthetic or political ideals (why do you think Godard made "Masculin Feminin"? He's satirizing a generation). I have no doubt that "good" cinema will once again become popular amongst young people, but there isn't any young filmmakers today sparking anything. Nobody fashionable. That will change eventually, especially with economic collapse happening now, amongst other things. These sorts of explosions tend to eventually come out of response to collapse.

Pete Apruzzese

Wonderful piece, Glenn. Knowing that The Rink is an extra on there just bumped Modern Times to the top of my Christmas list.

@Stephen Whitty - I think you've nailed why people of our approximate age/generation don't find 'old' movies to be 'old' at all. We could see them almost any time. Hell, we didn't get a color TV until the mid-70s, so black & white seems almost more real to me anyway. :)

The Siren

Nil desperandum, my friends. The Siren is an evangelist. I wouldn't spend the majority of my limited free time writing about old movies, and usually pretty goddamn obscure old movies at that, and sending my ravings out into the Internet void--for no pay, it's worth adding--unless I thought this was a taste others could pick up. I subscribe to Lauren Bacall's remark, that if you haven't seen a movie, it's new to you. Certainly there are lost souls out there incapable of sitting through anything that amp up the adrenaline. But there are also, even as I type this, about a half-dozen teenage girls in my Twitter feed who spend an astonishing amount of time discussing everything from Robert Mitchum to Norma Shearer with the fervor I used to bring to (here's a confession for you) Duran Duran.

I'll add my own possibly depressing story, from the WSJ a number of years ago. There was an infamous incident on Northweest Airlines, where the combination of a huge snowstorm and a wildcat labor dispute left a couple of jetliners stranded on the runway for hours and hours. As the toilets backed up and people got restless, the flight attendants asked if anyone had a video on them that they could use to get everyone's mind off the situation. One young man, college age, had a copy of Citizen Kane. He'd just seen it in a class and fell in love with it. He offered it up and the flight attendants popped it in. Maybe five minutes went by before people started groaning. "Boring!" "This is black and white!" "Who wants to watch this?" After a little while longer the flight attendants took it out and handed it back to him. Most people on the flight would rather re-read their magazines and complain to each other than watch Welles' masterpiece. The poor young man was crushed, and said so to the WSJ reporter.

Now you could take that as a terrible story about modern taste, and on dark days I do. But you could also focus on the boy with the Citizen Kane tape.

He counts, too.

Hollis Lime

Wonderful point. Another thing to realize is that I'm sure at least some of those people yelling to turn the movie off are just trying fit in. If only there were some that spoke up that they wanted to see the movie. I bet there were people that didn't want it turned off, but didn't say anything.

Gordon Cameron

Reading this thread got me to wondering when I first started paying attention to "old" movies. Many of them were rerun on TV, although as a child the one that I remember most strongly is "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," which always seemed to be on, and which wasn't really that old in the 1980s.

My first exposure to Chaplin -- except perhaps those IBM PC Jr. ads, and occasional clips on TV -- was, I think, a class video screening of "The Gold Rush" round about 7th grade. I seem to recall enjoying it. My 10th grade history teacher made us watch "Casablanca" as part of a World War II survey. I'd tried to watch it on video before, but had gotten confused by the plot and stopped about 10 minutes in.

My dad bought videotapes of various old films -- particularly Citizen Kane and Ben-Hur. By the time I watched Citizen Kane (I was 15 or so) I had heard of it and its reputation. It was altogether different than I imagined it would be; nothing in my previous experience of movies could prepare me for Welles's style, and for a while I didn't quite know what to make of it. Ben-Hur was one of my first epics, a movie so long and roomy that I could lose myself in it.

When I was 15 or 16 I saw "Mr. Blandings' Dream House" and was struck by how clever the dialogue was. I recall thinking, after watching it, that movies really were better back in the day. Of course, the TV-perennial classics (Wizard of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life, particularly) trickled in during my childhood, so that I can't remember when I first saw either of those films.

At some point, a switch flips, I suppose. By the time I was 16 or so, I had appointed myself a Film Buff -- mainly as a result of my dad's videotape selections and a heavily-perused copy of Roger Ebert's "Movie Home Companion," given to me circa 1988. Once you identify yourself as a Film Buff, you seek out old movies *because* they are old, and steel yourself to watch them even if a part of you fears they are going to be boring.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks, Gordon. It's true that getting the cinephilia bug can be largely a matter of temperament. Castle Bravo, who can make some good points when he's not doing the other thing he likes to do, is correct that we don't live in a standstill. It's also worth remembering that prior to somebody getting the notion that it was, or could be, "art," popular culture was meant to be disposable. Indeed, part of what makes a lot of it interesting as art has to do with the fact that a lot of it was manufactured or created with that provision in mind. CB recalls that watching older films he often felt a "disconnect," and that disconnect is very real, and it's even more real for people who aren't inclined to give a toss for the larger issues at hand that way that CB is. By the same token, your disconnect is not my problem, and I don't really care if you can't "relate;" to me that has little to do with aesthetics or, subjectively as far as I'm concerned, even enjoyment. When I was watching movies as a kid I didn't care whether or not I "related" to the characters, in part at least because I was desperate to get the fuck away from everything I DID relate to. And even today when people tell me they didn't like so-and-so or such-and-such because they couldn't "relate" to any of the characters, a part of me tends to...well, never mind.

But this is why I can't get overly exercised, the way someone like Jeffrey Lyons does, about the fact that these kids today can name every hip-hop star on the planet but don't know who Humphrey Bogart was. Hate to break it to you, gramps, but that's how the racket is engineered to work in the first place. We happy few may be the exceptions that prove the rule; by the same token, I think that anyone, given a little prepping, ought to be able to appreciate the exquisite skill and imagination that went into the creation of "The Rink," almost a hundred years ago. (I really can't get over that!)

Chris O.

"I also mused that the best way to get over the tendency to draw some false dichotomy between Chaplin and Keaton is to watch more Chaplin."

I wish you'd go into this a little more, though I wholeheartedly agree with The Siren's eloquently-put (as always) sentiment.

Ted Kroll

A couple of my standards for 'old':

1) Any THING that was made before your birth is old. Therefore, VERTIGO which I saw when I was eight years old will never be 'old' to me. Kim Novak will always have a special vah vah voom. The same was for my father and silent era Lillian Gish.

2) Any ONE who born 20 years before you is old. That means you are never really old in your mind until you realize that there isn't anybody around who is 20 years older than you are - then you're really old.

By that standard, I am getting close to the edge of 'old'. But I tell you, to have seen VERTIGO first run as a wide eyed kid was one of the greatest experiences of my life even if that makes me (and VERTIGO) old according to the clock.


I seem to remember Joe Swanberg saying that Jackass was his favorite movie of the decade . . .
I can't wait to see Modern Times on blu-ray (which amazon informs me they shipped yesterday along with Night of the Hunter).


When I taught a silent cinema class last year, the students thrilled to Chaplin and Dreyer, stood puzzled (but in a fascinated way, like folks examining an object they didn't quite get but still really felt something for) by Gance's NAPOLEON, and adored PANDORA'S BOX (oddly, Keaton left them cold, although they admired the technique). In the intro to cinema class, THE GOLD RUSH and CITY LIGHTS are always big hits, especially the former; oddly (or maybe interestingly?) they have more trouble with early sound Hollywood (like GRAND HOTEL) than silent film-- it's the Barrymore brothers who tend to inspire more of the "that feels old" comments than Chaplin's gold prospector (although they usually stand in proper awe of Garbo). Mine might be a unique case, but I think Chaplin and that period of cinema can still inspire passion among teen- and twenty-somethings.

Paul's story really depresses me, though. THE SWEETEST THING is just a travesty of a romantic comedy, a genre that deserves so much better.

Scott Nye

So much of it is context - if you're assigned to watch an "old" movie in class, or as homework, it's going to feel like work. It wasn't until late high school that I enjoyed ANYTHING we watched in class, and we watched The Princess Bride in eighth grade (I have come around on that one).

When I first discovered Pulp Fiction, in my sophomore year in high school, I - like a lot of people who discovered Quentin Tarantino around that age - quickly devoured all things Tarantino. And in an interview, he mentioned how much he loved Howard Hawks, and specifically cited The Big Sleep. Later that summer, The Big Sleep was playing at a local rep house, and because Quentin Tarantino said it was cool, I figured it must be pretty damn cool. And sure enough, I loved it. Still do. I thought it was a little slow, but I pretty instantly picked up on something that's stayed true to this day - who CARES if it's slow if it's this great? Why WOULDN'T you want to extend that experience as much as possible? What a shame it would be if it was over too fast.

So I must have been...seventeen when I saw my first classic movie (aside from Disney films). At least the first one I really responded to. The next spring I was co-directing a very noir-inspired play I wrote, and showed The Big Sleep to the cast so they could get a sense of what I was going for. I didn't recommend they watch it at home or anything. I borrowed the school's theater, sat them down, and for two hours, we were all in that world together, laughing at every damn line. They went nuts for it. It's all about context.

The Siren's right, though. There are lost souls out there, but anyone with an ounce of curiosity and the right avenue will have no trouble.


On a recent thread somewhere else, some kid posted that SCOTT PILGRIM was "the KILL BILL of my generation." KILL BILL is, what, six years old? It's gotten totally absurd.

I've attended recent revivals of VERTIGO, JAWS and GOLDFINGER, and afterwards in the lobby, all the comments by the "kids" were along the lines of "slow," "boring," "dated" and the delightful "I thought they were never gonna show the fuckin' shark."

But it's not just movies, it's everything. They're all in a goddamn hurry and have no patience for anything, in either entertainment or real life. I've seen countless people (especially in NY) jaywalk in front of a moving truck so they wouldn't have to wait five seconds for the light to change. It's really depressing.


All this stuff is anecdotal, of course, but from the moment I took an interest in movies made before my birth, I knew I was in a very small minority. All through high school and college, I never met more than a handful of like-minded folks. And this was in the 70s and early 80s. Not even a stint as a grad student in film school in the mid-to-late 80s changed my perception, because most of my fellow students (most several years younger than me) were there because STAR WARS blew their adolescent minds. I'm sure that few of them had seen any of the older canonical films until their professors screened them. I remember one of the most promising students had never heard of Sam Peckinpah or Katharine Hepburn. So I'm just not sure that it's really any worse now, and at least the happy few have much easier access to the old films than my generation did, what with TCM, home video and the Internet. Keep hope alive.

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