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Noir the Battle to the Strong: Why I’m Afraid of Classic Cinema…

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir.

I have to admit, the “For The Love of Film Noir” blogathon is a very worthy cause. Bloggers from all around the world continuously blogging in order to raise funds to restore classic films. It’s something that I just couldn’t ignore the chance to be a part of – to have the chance to say that I helped restore a classic film print of an actual honest-to-goodness classic film. It was too great an opportunity to ignore… and yet I almost did. I hesitated as I wrote the comment agreeing to take part. My fingers felt heavy. My thoughts caught in wherever it is that thoughts catch. I wanted to blog about film noir for a week straight, but I was also genuinely terrified by the idea. After all, what do I know about classic film?

Too hot to handle?

Don’t get me wrong, I love classic film. However, I am also frightened by the idea of them. For some reason, I can blog all day and night about more modern and trashy films, but I get very self-conscious when addressing older films. When I look at my review of Doctor Strangelove, perhaps the review of the oldest film I have on this blog, I feel more than a little uncomfortable. As opposed to, for example, discussing the Coen Brothers’ reimagining of True Grit at great length. What is it about these classic films that make me feel so uncomfortable?

I think my film education has a lot to do with it. I credit my grandfather for my love of film. I used to stay with gran and granddad over the summers, and they’d also let me stay up late watching inappropriate films. So I saw The Shining at a young age, I grew up with Braveheart, I watched Don’t Look Now and I worshipped Richard Donner’s Superman. As a child, these were my foundations in modern cinema. You might argue that a true film fanatic would dig around, like some sort of pop culture archeologist, and I like to think I have to an extent – but I’m much more drawn to what has been built on top of that foundation.

It's not a black & white issue...

I am going to sound incredibly arrogant as I type this, but I like to think I am relatively well-versed in modern cinema. I am familiar with it. There are obviously millions of people out there who are far better informed and more articulate than I, but I feel I have studied modern cinema with enough passion that I understand it to an extent. I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese, because I’ve done all my homework. I reckon I could have a decent conversation with most other bloggers on the are of modern film and keep up.

However, I don’t share that range of knowledge on classic cinema. I have seen most of the big “classics” (but won’t pretend that I’ve seen them all), yet that doesn’t make me comfortable. I seek out films like Nosforatu and Metropolis, but I haven’t seen half the stuff I should have. And it feels disingenuous to pass myself off as somebody familiar with the area when I am, so clearly, not. There are bloggers who deal exclusively with these sorts of vintage cinema, and I honestly feel that I would do them a disservice to try to “bluff” my way through subject matter that they handle so perfectly.

Allow me to be Frank...

There’s also a more fundamental problem, I find, in watching older films. A lot of these classic films would have revolutionised the way that films are shot or edited, to the point where they inspired countless films that followed. A lot of proven styles and devices can be traced back to these original films. However, much like comedy, it’s hard to be thrilled with them in retrospect. When you’ve seen an idea expanded and deconstructed and reconstructed, seeing it used for the first time doesn’t seem quite so magical. I know that I should be impressed that these films did it first, but a lot of these tricks have become quite “common” over the intervening years – so it seems almost banal to watch them in their early stages of development.

I once made the argument, with regard to comedies, that a lot of the classic jokes have been repeated so often and become so engrained in popular culture that (however ingenious the original executions were) it’s hard to be impressed with the original source material. I think that’s true of a lot of older films employing and codifying a variety of tropes which we’ve come to take for granted in this day and age. While they were innovative and exciting when first released, the impact has been lost through years of repetition (even if a lot of that repetition is below par).

It’s not a conscious thing. In fact, it’s very subconscious. You could argue that I should somehow counter this – I am, after all, aware of the disparity and should take some action to rectify it to ensure my opinion is as objective as humanly possible. However, I’ve always found that my own reaction to films is largely emotional – I can acknowledge all the artistry and skill in the world, but I won’t like a film that can’t make an emotional connection. I can articulate my reasons and attempt to rationalise them, but it’s never objective. That’s part of the reason I avoid rating films, because I quite enjoy the subjective nature of my reviews – and I don’t think that it’s necessarily fair to even try to claim objectivity.

What if I don't recognise a towing accomplishment?

There’s also the worry that a classic might not actually agree with me. Part of it is undoubtedly the fact that the words “old” and “classic” are practically synonymous when it comes to film. One of my favourite jokes in the entire history of Family Guy sees the Griffens about to die, and – feeling the need to get something off his chest – Peter confesses, “I did not care for The Godfather.” The family is aghast and, in my opinion, they are right to be – but, then again, my brother doesn’t care for that film either (“it insists upon itself,” he remarks, borrowing from the animated show).

There’s something daunting in trying to tackle a film where the critical consensus has already been reached, and throwing your own crazy opinion into the ring. I like to think that I always have a damn good reason for disliking a film, but I need to be triple sure if I’m going to publish a dissenting opinion on a classic. That’s a lot of pressure to be the guy in the room who has a different opinion than everybody else, and to have to argue it – even when I don’t feel I have the expertise to back me up on that subject. There’s also the niggly little feeling I would get that I am simply disagreeing with the majority opinion to seem cool and edgy. So either I say something bold and outrageous against agreed opinion, or I agree with the consensus – in either case I don’t feel especially confident in my own judgement. Am I going with the safe or controversial options simply because they are safe or controversial?

You might argue that this is no different for modern films than it is for classic films, but I would respectfully disagree. I have a wildly dissenting opinion of Winter’s Bone, for example, that I feel quite comfortable about. The critical opinion of the film may be strong, but I don’t believe it’s had a chance to settle in stone yet. It feels like the debate is still open on a lot of films from the sixties until today. I think that becomes a lot less common once you go over fifty years.

The ORIGINAL Batman...

Which, I suppose, brings me to my final point – that final irrational and undermining fear that I feel nibbling away somewhere at the back of my brain. Many of these classic films have been the subject of scholarly debate for far longer. Many have had entire books devoted to them, which I have not had the time to read. I don’t think you can ever say everything on a given topic, but I do acknowledge that it becomes significantly harder to say anything original at time marches on.

Of course, this betrays what might seem to be an unearned self-assuredness, but it’s not quite so. I don’t dream that I could come up on an original thought about a film shown to an audience of ten people, let alone a film currently in wide release. However, with modern films, there’s a sense that the game is still in play. I would never suggest I could hit on an idea not already articulated 100% better elsewhere, but perhaps I might accidentally throw some words together which seem insightful. When it comes to older films, I am uncertain that I could ever write anything that anyone familiar with the work has never read. That’s not something that I, personally, feel comfortable with. I accept that it might not make sense, objectively speaking (as I’m sure there are books written about newer films too), but film for me has always been an inherently subjective experience.

Hat's off to classic films...

I don’t know. Reading back over them, they seem like very weak excuses (which, I suppose, they are), but they explain why I feel so uncomfortable. I don’t want anything I say here to be misconstrued, as is so easy. I do enjoy watching these films, but I just feel awkward writing about them. I might not write about modern films any better, but I do feel much more comfortable. None of this in anyway undermines the importance of these classics in establishing a cinematic playbook, the article really just explores my own sense of insecurity when it comes to these classics.

I wish I had the time to familiarise myself with classic cinema, but I don’t. So I’ll instead be looking at some of the films I’d be more comfortable with, but through a noir lens, looking at those films I watched with my granddad which inherited a lot from the genuine film noir experience. I do hope it doesn’t seem like a copout, and I hope you enjoy it. I hope we manage to raise some money, for what is a very worthwhile cause.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

13 Responses

  1. I’d encourage you to make some time for more classic films. Stanley Kubrick’s visual style is understood with a familiarity with Max Ophuls. For Scorsese, a familiarity with John Ford, Luchino Visconti and Michael Powell would be a good start. Just intersperse a few films here and there as your schedule permits.

    • Ah yes, but part of me worries that I would end up seeing Kubrick in Opuhl and Scorsese in Visconti (although I am not so much of a philistine that I am unfamiliar with the work of Ford – though I would hardly deem myself “educated”). In fairness, it isn’t quite that I don’t watch old films (though perhaps I don’t watch enough), just that I am uncomfortable discussing the classics, because I don’t feel I have the grounding to offer an opinion really worth listening to (which arrogantly flatters myself that I have an opinion worth listening to on modern cinema).

      Alas, I can’t “unsee” the work of modern directors, and so it becomes an almost academic exercise to try to chart the evolution of specific styles. It’s as if I’ve started at the end of the mystery novel, so I’m not entirely sure that I can appreciate the rest of it as doing anything more than setting the pieces in play. I know what these stylistic touches will grow into and, while they generate enough interest for me to seek out films like Metropolis, Nosforatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (along with Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, Psycho, the Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, etc), it doesn’t necessarily mean that I feel comfortable devoting the amount of time necessary to speak with confidence on the subject – particularly when I can barely keep up with the current output of mainstream American films (let alone foreign or indie productions).

      Part of me wishes that they taught cinema history in secondary school as a module of English, so that I might have had a chance to see these great cinematic evolutions as they originally developed, rather than seeing them after I’d become used to the techniques, approaches, styles, tropes and clichés which descended from them.

  2. I’ve always felt awkward writing about films simply because I largely don’t have the vocabulary, at least the visual vocabulary. But I decided, what the hell? I’m the audience, the movies were made for me, so my experience has some value. On my site, I’m simply looking at how I respond to a movie and asking myself, “Why?”

    I’ve learned a lot more cinema since I started, so I’m not quite as ignorant as I once was, but you can bet I’m one of the least visually and historically informed of the bloggers in the blogathon.

    However, I don’t believe you need to be a scholar or take a scholarly approach to appreciate a movie (or book, or … etc.). In fact, I think if you go too far analyzing you can bleed the life out of movie.

    • I think you’re right, and I think that I’ve become a lot more comfortable talking about film over the past few years. Compare the awkward early posts to some of my more recent efforts and (for better or worse) I’m a lot more comfortable now. I think experience gives me that. And suggesting that classic films are any different is admittedly an illogical and arbitrary distinction, but it’s one that I can’t really rationally explain (much as I may try).

      And, you’re right, I think if I just jumped on in there, I’d eventually get used to it. I might even find a voice that’s comfortable for me discussing Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart, but it would be like dragging nails on chalkboard for a while there – for both writer and reader, which isn’t fair for this fundraiser.

      While the readers might not be any happier with my actual output (though I hope otherwise), I am certainly more comfortable covering the more modern films I’ve chosen (which I hope makes them a better read). And if it took me a few years to become (let’s be generous) reasonably comfortable with the films I’ve grown up watching, I imagine the culture shock would be terrifying.

      My uncle-in-law has a joke he likes to tell. An economist and a non-economist are walking together. The non-economist says, “I wish I’d learnt a foreign language.” The economist replies, “No you don’t.”

      It’s hypocritical for me to say that I want to be comfortable talking about these classic films, because – if I really did – I’d sit down and I’d learn. Maybe next year I might, but I simply didn’t have the grounding this year – and, given the prestige surrounding the event, I felt I owed myself and the readers an explanation.

  3. I think I’m with Bill. The odd thing to me about your perspective is that classical Hollywood films weren’t made for scholars/critics; they speak to the everyman, in general, and therefore should be accessible to just about anybody. That said, I think it’s great that you’re going to talk about newer films; just give yourself a little more credit.

    • Thanks. Yep, I enjoy them – I agree that films are (perhaps more than any other medium) the most accessible form of entertainment. But I just feel that I need to do more than “enjoy” to write about them.

  4. Honestly, while I understand these types of concerns, I wouldn’t worry about it. I always used to worry about the same kinds of things, about how to approach “classic” cinema, but now I’ve come to believe that you (as in me, as in everyone) should simply sit down and write about a film regardless of its reputation or influence or canonical status. It can be daunting to find something to say about a bonafide classic, but the process of thinking about and writing about these films as though you’re just writing a normal review can be very helpful to stop thinking about the reputation and just think about the film for its own sake. Don’t get hung up on what everyone else thinks of the film: write what *you* think, and that should be interesting enough if you bring your own observations and your own ideas to the table.

    Of course, if you’d rather just watch about modern films, that’s your prerogative – but as Peter says above, an understanding of the classics will often only deepen your appreciation for and understanding of the more modern films that might draw on or reference them. I always like to say that some level of engagement with the French New Wave, for example, is absolutely vital to understanding a whole lot of modern cinema.

  5. Well done.

    I hate how I’m supposed to love, say, Casablanca because its classic. I don’t like romances, why would this change because of the color?

    • I think you make a good point. I’d respect Casablanca on an academic level for its place in film history, but I wouldn’t especially rate it. That might not be “fair”, given that it was spoilt for me by the films it inspired, but I can’t adjust the way I feel (even though I can make a semi-objective judgement that it’s an “important” film).

      • I think people should watch what they like and that a movie’s reputation is meaningless when it comes to enjoying it as a movie. Personally, while I respect and admire 2001: A Space Odyssey, it puts me to sleep. However, every so often I go back to it to see if it will finally click. Regardless, while I don’t argue people should watch movies they don’t like, sometimes it’s interesting to exam why I don’t like something, especially if it’s a movie others feel is a very good one. It usually reveals to me something about the movie, the culture and/or myself. For example, Kubrick has a kind of austere, clinical approach to his movies, as if he’s a step removed, and this is what I find off-putting. But that says more about me than Kubrick.

        With something like a Casablanca, I don’t think anyone should like it because of its reputation, but it becomes interesting looking at the why.

  6. I second Bill Wren’s statement that people should watch what they like. I’d just encourage you to be open to a variety of movies. Even if a movie has inspired countless cliches, there is usually more to it than the parts that have been imitated. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings this way.

    • Thanks for reading Joe. I think this is just a really personal post, rather than an especially rational argument. We are, after all, all pretty much irrational actors.

  7. I’ve been enjoying more and more classic films lately as part of my Hitchcock-catch up and my recent Gregory Peck fever 🙂 I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy black/white and noir classics, though reviewing them is quite daunting. Like Bill said, I feel like I’m not up to as a movie reviewer to do ’em properly. I’ll still give it a shot though and do the best I could… after all, a review could be more of an appreciation of what we have seen.

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