Bill Mesce recently wrote an interesting and comprehensive article for Sound on Sight, “The ‘Gray Ones’ Fade to Black.” Though many points were well made, I respectfully disagree with the overall conclusion of the article. Yes, the distribution model for film has changed drastically since the invention of television, cable, and the repeat viewing success of summer blockbusters, but this increased availability has not caused a decrease in interest in the old classics. It has merely redefined what they are. As time marches on, more films are released and the company of the greats, the truly classic, grows. The younger generations don’t have less of an understanding or respect for film, they just have a different canon.
It’s a fact of art. As soon as permanence enters the equation, an ever-increasing catalog is created. Over time, many once notable entries fall away from the public consciousness and only those that truly resonate, that speak to the human condition and experience, remain. Shakespeare has remained popular, Marlowe is mostly unread; Mozart has remained popular, Stamitz is mostly unplayed. This doesn’t mean that readers are less sophisticated or that music lovers more disconnected from the past, it just means that different artists resonate with them. Cinephiles will always study the great films and pass on a love of them to their friends and families. Yes, fewer Joe Averages know Bogey and Bacall now, but I doubt it’s any fewer than knew Gloria Swanson in the ’70s for anything besides Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Rather than hurting film appreciation, the increase in availability has helped it. It has allowed nearly forgotten films to be rediscovered as classics. The Wizard of Oz (1939), for example, was a failure at the box office. It wasn’t until being made abundantly available in repeats on TV and on VHS that it became the cherished American classic it is today. International mega-releases have made movie premieres as big of an event as ever. One need only look at the lines around the block of costumed fans waiting for hours to get in to the midnight premieres of the Harry Potter film series and The Dark Knight (2008) for proof. Particularly in this economy, a night at the cinema is as much of an event as many can afford and though films open in thousands of screens at once, there are far more screens now for them to open on. For those tired of studio fare, most major cities have at least one art theater showing independent and more obscure films (and many small towns do to) and enterprising film fans can find screenings of classic films in many large cities.
As for clutter, this became a problem as soon as television invented the rerun. It could be argued that there is less clutter at the box office now than before – though more films exist and are available, most people are going to see the same ten or twenty films on a given weekend. With the increase of social media, people review, share, and quote a film with their friends the instant they walk out of the theater (or some times, frustratingly, even before). When it comes to Netflix and nights in, the “happy accident” is alive and well- the “You May Also Enjoy” features on Netflix and other similar services make a never before heard of film a click away. Even with all of the accessibility of film via the internet and pay channels, many people still just flip on the TV and watch whatever movie happens to be starting soon. People may not all share the same film lexicon, but the populace as a whole has seen far more quantity, variety, and, in my opinion, quality than ever before, and this is a good thing.
Though the way we see movies has changed, people haven’t. There has always been a percentage of the population uninterested in the art of the past, finding it too disconnected from their experience, and a percentage of the population uninterested in the art of the future, usually for the same reason. The middle ground is where most people live and is from where we get each successive generation of filmmakers, standing on the shoulders of the giants they studied growing up, developing and evolving the art form in new and previously unimagined ways. The best of the classics will always remain because they are true, because they speak to some part of the human soul and psyche, and because we are a species that values creativity and is constantly searching for a shared connection, be it with a person, an experience, or a memory. This is what film gives us and this is why the true classics will never die.