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Modern Movie Meloncholia: Why “Nostalgia” Can Be a Dirty Word…

Do you know what I hate? I hate it when people ask, completely seriously, “why don’t they make movies like [insert classic here]?” anymore, or whenever anybody goes on about the “mindless franchise trash”that Hollywood pumps into cinemas year-in and year-out. It tends to happen quite frequently, when you hear movie commentators or viewers discuss the latest crop of empty and disappointing summer blockbusters, with the default position seeming to be an attack on modern Hollywood as an institution, bemoaning the decline of movie-making standards and an unchallenged assertion that old movies are – undeniably – better. I’m not arguing that Hollywood can’t do better, but I find this fixation on things past to be quite disconcerting – and, I’d suggest, rather depressing. Why are we more focused on what Hollywood was rather than what it could be?

Frankly my dear, I think it's a depressing outlook...

It’s the popular perception that there were more great films in the old days than there were today. Take, for example, the 2007 revised American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Films list, with the number of entries per decade broken down as below:

  • 1930s: 12 films
  • 1940s: 11 films
  • 1950s: 16 films
  • 1960s: 16 films
  • 1970s: 20 films
  • 1980s: 7 films
  • 1990s: 11 films
  • 200s: 1 film

While the 1990s are on-par with the 1940s, it’s clear that the bulk of “classic movies” were produced in the middle decades of the 20th century, at least as measured by the American Film Institute, with apparently only on truly classic film produced in the first seven years of the twenty-first century. I think the trend is clear.

This sort of assertions is hard to objectively prove, but I believe you’ll find any number of lists out there that will rank older movies higher and in much greater numbers than more modern films. In fairness, I’m not here to dispute those, because – truth be told – I’d probably rank older movies higher on any movie ranking list I was putting together, if only because I am more familiar with them and they’ve been afforded the opportunity to “stand the test of time.” I don’t know if I’ll love The Prestige as much twenty years from today, but I do know that I still love The Godfather or Platoon. And, to be frank, they seem like safer choices.

The Godfather of good movies...

However, while I respect how prudent such an approach might be, I worry about the conclusions we draw from it as a culture. Because we are cautious about newer films that haven’t been through the crucible of time, I think we tend to favour classical films more, and this feeds into the perception that all truly great films have to be old – because it’s possible for a film to be too young to be “classic” or “it’s too early to tell” or whatever reason. I can understand that approach, because I adhere to it, to an extent. That said, I do worry about the inherent conservatism of such a belief.

It leads to this belief that gets repeated again and again and again – to the point where it becomes almost unspoken gospel. We get the notion that old films are inherently better, and new films are inherently worse. Keep in mind that some old films are better. There’s a reason we’re still discussing Casablanca, and why It’s a Wonderful Life is a cultural landmark, and why everyone knows all the songs from The Wizard of Oz. I’m not launching an attack on these individual films that have established themselves as tried-and-true classics. I am more concerned about the idea that old films are better precisely because they’re old, and what that says about modern movies.

It's a wonderful film...

It’s common to hear movie viewers complain, usually during an understandable rant against a “disappointing” film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or The Expendables, that Hollywood can’t return to classical values. “They don’t make them like they used to,” is a familiar lament. “Somewhere, Hollywood forgot how to make good movies,” is another. Occasionally the discussion will reach its lowest ebb as someone remarks, “This is everything that is wrong with modern cinema.” I’m not going to stand up for any of the films that prompt this reaction, but I do find it interesting.

Truth be told, I’m not convinced that old films, as a rule, are any stronger than modern films. I had the pleasure of seeing Gilda last week, and had great fun imagining the critical lashing it would receive were it released today – but somehow it gets a “get out of jail free” card because it is a film older than most its modern audience. It’s poorly-plotted, full of holes and ends with a completely surreal happy ending that removes any hint of the saucy ambiguity the movie played with. It’s not a “classic”, and I’d argue it’s not even a “good”film. It’s middle-of-the-road to below-average, but it’s lauded because it’s so old.

"There's no cane in Citizen Kane!"

But that’s not my real problem with the philosophy. My real problem with this sort of philosophy is that it adopts an initial position that the past is, by default, better and anything that isn’t the past will always be inferior. The attitude suggests that movies today are somehow “broken” and the only plausible way to “fix” them is to return to “original factory specifications.” It implies that there is a right way and a wrong way to make films, and that the old way is right and the modern way is wrong.

I don’t subscribe to such a theory. While there’s definitely a wrong way to make a film, and it’s easy to point out fatal flaws and miscalculations, I don’t believe that there is one absolutely correct way to put a film together, and I don’t believe we can divine it by looking to the past. I hope that I can walk into a cinema and be blown away by something I didn’t quite expect, that shows a director defying all expectations and making a movie that works, rather than sticking to any old template that doesn’t really fit – whether it’s a classical structure and form from the Golden Age of Hollywood or the more modern format of big-budget blockbusters.

Play it again, Sam... and again... and again...

I want progress. I want new things. I want to believe that the best movie that will ever be made is in the future, because everything else is going to be a let-down afterwards. I’m not sure if I want to see it, but – if I did – I’d probably want it to be the last film I ever see. I think there’s something destructive about the assumption that Hollywood has already made all its truly classic films, and I honestly find it incredibly depressing. The past is a different country, one we can revisit on DVD at any time we want, but I want to push forward and forge a bold new direction. I don’t want Christopher Nolan as the next Stanley Kubrick, I’m happy with our Christopher Nolan as Christopher Nolan. I don’t want M. Night Shyamalan to be a “modern Hitchcock”, I want him to make his own films, and I want them to be good.

I’ve said this before, in discussing Del Toro’s aborted Mountains of Madness, but – if we want better films – we have to take some of the responsibility on ourselves, and stop passively whining and moaning about it. If you want Hollywood to make better films, you need to support them – not only through word of mouth, but through actually paying to see them yourself. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, but the studios who finance these films aren’t interested in armchair critics who sit back and snipe from their armchairs, and will never be convinced that anything modern Hollywood could produce can ever be good. The studios are interested in the people who buy tickets to cinemas, who pump money into DVDs, and the people who do show up and where they show up.

If Hollywood could make better movies, we'd be dancing...

We need foster the good films that sprout, rather than razing the entire cabbage patch. A lot was made about what the studios will or won’t make of the success of Inception, but it’s up to the cinema-goers to make sure that the healthy box office returns aren’t a flash in the pan, and can’t be casually dismissed when measured against the next generic and mind-numbing blockbuster. I think that dismissing modern films in their entirety is a way of shirking responsibility, and I think a fixation on the past as some sort of ideal is a waste of time and effort. The money we spend helps shape the films that Hollywood produces, and that’s a lot more power than people really think about – it is easier just to fixate on “the better times” rather than attempting to improve the future, if only because there’s less risk of failure.

I don’t know. I think I’ve just been a bit worn down by all the cynicism of late, and the inevitable sniping at this summer’s big-budget blockbusters. A lot of it is, admittedly, well deserved, but it just feels like there’s a lot of pessimism out there, and I don’t really see any call for it. After all, Sturgeon’s Law states, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” That was as true fifty years ago as it is today. I just really wish we’d focus a bit more on the ten percent that isn’t crap. On the other hand, I do find it a little ironic that I’m being so cynical about cynicism.

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9 Responses

  1. Man, you’re on a roll. I haven’t even had a chance to comment on “Gilda” yet.

    Do any of these top 100 lists state what the criteria is? How does a film make the list? By box office receipts? Critical reviews? Or actual viewings? I sometimes believe the lists are self perpetuating, if you’re on one list it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll be on the next- with a bit of jockeying around in standings to seem original.

    My favorite classic western of all time might be The Searchers. That does not mean I didn’t love Silverado or Lonesome Dove just as much. Or what about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Will it ever be compared to The Maltese Falcon. Probably not, they are so different and are so representative of their times. But I enjoy and appreciate both. They are all on my personal “100 Classic Films” list.

    Gilda never made it!

  2. Sounds like someone took “Midnight in Paris” very much to heart. Very thought-provoking post … I find myself mulling over the same questions often.

  3. Part of the problem is the depth of perspective. If you were to watch every film released in a particular decade you might have a better gauge for the ratio of crap to classic to make comparisons. For instance, think of all the genre flicks released in the 1930s and 40s once they had the new technology of sound worked out. You had plenty of horror and thriller flicks just like today that didn’t exactly deliver on those promises made in the trailers. There were also plenty of comedies and romance pictures that included bands from the Swing Era that were simply there because the sound of that music was hot at the moment of conception. And let’s not forget the obvious propaganda vehicles produced at the onset and right through the Second World War. It’s like anything in life, you produce a lot and potentially something amid all that production is going to rise above the rest, but all the rest that was produced sinks to the bottom of people’s perception of how that quality product was finally realized.

  4. Hey Darren, I appreciate your points, but I just can’t embrace them entirely. I’m no fan of Gilda, but I don’t think it is a fairly popular movie simply because it is old. The vast majority of my favorite films were made prior to 1980 and my favorite decades were probably the 1920’s to the 1950’s…but heck, there was PLENTY of crap made back then.

    Perhaps there were only very rare sightings of films as terrible as Baby Geniuses 2 or Battlefield Earth, but if TCM has taught me anything it is that when you view an ultra-high volume of old movies, you really begin to understand that below average movies have always been part of the cinematic landscape.

    That still doesn’t change the fact that I’m one of those people you are quoting up there. I’ve been known to say (and fully believe) that “they don’t make them like they used to”. When I say that, I’m not implying that good movies aren’t made today. However, when Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the only movie I’ve rated a 10 out of 10 in the last 25 years, I feel that corroborates my own personal opinion on this issue.

    For me it’s not about the fact that bad movies were always being made or that good movies are still being made. It’s about my own opinion that the highs of the past are not reached very often anymore. I do see a drop in quality at the “best of the best” level, while everything else seems to be pretty much the same as its always been. The Tree of Life proved, for me, that those highs can be reached today. But it happens soooo rarely and I see so many awful films that I must still say…

    “They don’t make them like they used to.”

    • No worries, Ben. Thanks for taking the time to reply, and for being very civil about it.

      I suppose there’s a great deal of “your mileage may vary” about what we make of “the best of the best.” I don’t know about the label “classic”, but if you asked me to recommend my personal list of the best films ever composed, there’d be a decent smattering from more recent times. I guess I just don’t like the idea that somehow everything was perfect once, and we got a bit lost. I don’t think perfection is – to be honest – a state one can attain, but it’s a goal to be pursued.

      How we approach that is our business, and shifts from era to era, but I don’t believe that “perfection” is so much a concrete location that we can be said to be any further from it (or even any closer to it, perhaps) than we were yesterday or forty years ago. I just think we need to take the rough with the smooth, and I worry that focusing with monomania on “classics” blinds us to the gems that we can find around us – and this is from someone who is so stereotypical the Godfather is among his very favourite films. Will I argue that Black Swan is as good as Casablanca or Citizen Kane? Probably not at the moment. Give it a few years and let it crystalise. Will I argue, on the other hand, that The Godfather measures up to Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction? Well, that argument I might be dumb enough to make. That and placing The Big Lebowski on the shortlist of greatest comedies ever made.

      I know I’m nuts! 😉

  5. The Big Lebowski is great! LOL. I saw it at theaters back in 1998, and liked it right away. Actually, I’m rather fond of the Coen brothers. The BRILLIANT No Country For Old Men was my favorite film of the last several years (until The Tree of Life).

    I still love modern movies. I’ll be seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes this weekend, which despite an absurd title, looks pretty good! My favorite movies just happen to be stuff like Make Way For Tomorrow, Seven Samurai, Mirror, Love Me Tonight, Charulata, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Third Man, Rear Window, etc.

    • It’s funny to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on bus posters here, because it reads from left to right as “RISE PLANET APES”, with one “of the” over the “PLANET” and one under it.

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