The “Gray Ones” Fade To Black

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How come you only show us clips from movies none of us ever heard of?”

She was 30, a single mom who’d admirably gone back to school for a business degree to better things for her and her family.  She’d taken my film appreciation class as an elective, a break from the grind of her business classes, expecting it would be – her word – “fun.”

But, due to the aforementioned “movies none of us ever heard of,” she was not having the anticipated fun.

I explained, “Because most movies were made before you were born.”

Simple and obvious, it still didn’t satisfy her, and the unasked next question in her eyes I guessed to be, “But why do we have to see them?”

Most of my class – not all, but most – I knew felt similarly.  They didn’t say it but I could tell:  rolled eyes, glazed eyes, eyes glued to smart phones they mistakenly thought I couldn’t see hidden in their laps under their desks instead of on the projection screen.  The occasional snoozer, head down on his/her desk.

Mind you, we’re not talking about obscure, challenging, subtitled art house imports.  The class was a chronological study and by the time my business major had been frustrated enough to say something, “the movies none of us ever heard of” included, among others, Dead End (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), This Gun for Hire (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), On the Waterfront (1954), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Dr. Strangelove:  Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), In the Heat of the Night (1967), 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Patton (1970), Network (1972), Chinatown (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979).

Not to mention they didn’t know who Bogart was, or Stanwyck, Lancaster, Grant, Fonda, Bergman…  Some didn’t know there’d been a The War of the Worlds (1953) before Spielberg’s (let alone that there’d been a – “Really?” – book!); that there’d been a Planet of the Apes (1968) before Tim Burton’s monkey fest.  And those few who did know, hadn’t seen the originals.  With the exception of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and (for just a few) The Godfather (1972), it seemed most of them didn’t know any movie before Independence Day (1996) and Titanic (1997).

As frustrating as it had been, something about my business major’s question wouldn’t let me go.  It buzzed around and around in my head for days afterward.  I wasn’t sure why,

then it jelled for me:  why didn’t they know?  The Internet, Netflix, DVDs, dozens of cable channels…my students had incredible access to a virtually limitless library of movies, yet almost every day I went into class it was like I was speaking in tongues to them.

And then a flip side of her question presented itself, also nagging at me: how come back when I was a kid with just six TV channels, I knew about all those classic (and even more not-so-classic) flicks?

After mulling it over for a couple of days, I had my epiphany:  an outrageous paradox.  For all their access, my students saw astoundingly little; and as limited as my access had been, I’d seen so, so much more.


Up until about 1970, movie releases were managed as if pictures were valuable objects to be carefully nursed through the distribution system.  It wasn’t because Old Hollywood had any great respect or high regard for their product; they had no illusions that they were handling some kind of – God forbid – art. This was a matter of simple, economic practicality; they adhered to a methodology designed to wring every last possible dollar out of each title.

Wide releases were reserved for anticipated disasters:  you pushed a flick onto as many screens as possible hoping to haul in some quick box office cash before the bad word of mouth got out.  But what you normally did was this:

A movie was initially released only in the better theaters only in the major markets.  When its drawing power began to fade at that level, only then was it cycled through smaller markets, more downscale theaters, and then dropping down another tier to second- and then third-run houses, finally bottoming out – depending on the era – at drive-ins and grindhouses.  It was a process with the goal of squeezing out every possible buck at a given level of exhibition before moving on to the next one.

Movies considered special, top-of-the-line, one-of-a-kind releases were kept on an even shorter leash.  We’re talking the kind of big budget spectaculars we’d probably refer to today as “event” pictures; movies like Gone With the Wind (1939) , The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and so on.  These kinds of cinematic dreadnaughts would premiere in – literally – just a handful of cities and only in the most upscale venues, like Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, or New York’s Radio City.

I’m not throwing the word “event” around loosely:  that’s exactly what exhibitions at these showcases truly were.  There’d be souvenirs and programs on sale in the palatial lobbies, movies would open with a musical overture as if they were Broadway plays, there’d be an intermission.  Only after business had peaked at these kinds of imperial displays did a trimmed-back version of the movie trickle out into the usual distribution network.

Whether the movie was a megamillion-dollar epic or a routine studio release, this limited distribution pattern could preserve the entertainment value of a title for months, with those movies generating positive word of mouth teasing out a tantalizing expectancy in markets further down the ladder.  I can still remember, as a kid in Jersey, hearing about movies opening in New York, and envying the few kids whose families had the money to “jump across the river” to see a movie in The City while the rest of us wondered how long it would take to come to our side of the Hudson, and then to our neighborhood.

With this kind of release pattern, it wasn’t unusual for a successful movie to be in exhibition for as long as a year.  For the biggies – the Ben-Hurs and such – it might take a couple of years before the last tired, pitted print rattled for the last time through a projector at some drive-in out in the boonies.

Still, for as long as a movie might be on the exhibition circuit, it was only being seen by a limited number of people at any given time.  In this way, all movies – no matter how pedestrian – were evanescent experiences.  A movie came to the neighborhood theater, and, once it left, it was gone forever, like – to steal a line from Blade Runner (1982) – “tears in rain.”

Well, most of the time.

Some of those prestigious Radio City-caliber releases were able, under this restrained distribution pattern, to retain a lasting appeal, a cultural echo, a sense that they were too special to only pass through this life once.  When you saw Gone with the Wind or The Longest Day (1962), you knew there was never going to be another movie like that.  Ever.

And the studios recognized that impact.  These super-memorable flicks belonged to their own special class, were treated like rare treasures occasionally brought out of their sacred vault for rare occasions – a re-release — possibly to be seen for the last time by an older generation who fondly remembered them, and a newer generation which had only ever heard about them.

While re-releases were a regular feature of the old distribution model, they were rare enough for individual titles for a re-release to be considered as much of an event as a movie’s first time on screens.  It was a form of cultural resurrection.  That’s how I got to see – on the big screen – movies like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, even the everybody-in-comedy-worth-a-damn It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (with the re-release promo line recognizing just how dysfunctional the 1970s were: “If there was ever a time for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it’s now!”).

Considering its age, I would guess Gone with the Wind would probably be the re-release champ, showing up on the big screen every so many years decade after decade (Wikipedia lists eight theatrical re-releases).  But the man who had re-releasing down to a science was Walt Disney.

Disney re-released his animation classics – pictures like Bambi (1942), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), et al – about every seven years.  The calculation was that was how long it would take one generation of viewers to age out of a given movie’s appeal, and a new generation to age in.  Disney – always a far-sighted guy – also anticipated that at a certain point parents who had seen these animated jewels as kids would enjoy reliving the experience with their own kids.

Re-releasing made sense in a cinema world where there was no aftermarket.  A movie made its money in theaters and that was that.

Until television.

Initially, many of the major studios wanted nothing to do with TV.  As TV ownership increased, movie attendance decreased, and Hollywood considered the little flickering box a thief in the night running off with the movie industry’s audience, a pillager, a rapist, a Pied Piper seducing ever more viewers each year with its bluish glow.  Television was the great evil, The Dark Lord, so much so that some studios even had embargos on their contract players making TV appearances, or even against having a TV appear in a movie as, say, part of a living room set’s decor.  To actually provide TV with movie programming was tantamount to aiding and abetting a Class A felony.

But in Hollywood, even then it was already a long-established tradition that the dollar spoke louder than ideals, and the big ice-breaker came in 1955 when RKO sold the TV rights to740 of the studio’s features.  It was kind of like, “How dare you, you miserable little box, showing up on my doorstop with your hand out, wanting my prized — .  Wait, how much did you say?” The other studios – most of whom, like RKO, were financially struggling at the time – looked at the millions RKO had reaped, figured most of their oldies weren’t doing them any good sitting on the shelves gathering dust, and thereafter followed suit in a torrent of similar – and even bigger – TV deals.

The studios bundled their old movies in packages, and syndicators sold these packages to local stations around the country.  The licensing terms might run as long as 20 years, but that was fine; in those days, there was no advantage to a quick turnover.  Buying these big blocks of movies, and holding on to them for such long periods gave TV stations the ability to not only build up substantial film libraries, but to develop their own market-specific programming traditions.

Where I lived in northeastern New Jersey, we were part of the New York metropolitan viewing area, then and now the biggest, most densely-populated TV market in the country, big enough to support six channels:  the flagship stations for the three broadcast networks (WCBS Channel 2, WNBC Channel 4, WABC Channel 7), three independent stations (WPIX Channel 5 which would later become part of Fox; WOR Channel 9 which would later become part of UPN, and then MyTV after UPN folded; WPIX Channel 11, which would later be part of The WB which evolved into The CW); and one “educational station,” WNET Channel 13 (later part of PBS).  Every Sunday morning, Channel 11 had a Bowery Boys flick.  Every Christmas, they’d air the 1934 version of Babes in Toyland with Laurel & Hardy.  On Thanksgivings, Channel 9 would run, back-to-back, King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949).  What giant gorillas had to do with Thanksgiving, I’ll be damned if I know, but there reached a point where it didn’t seem like Thanksgiving without the big apes on a tear.  Saturday night was for the kids with Channel 5’s Creature Feature at 8:30, and then at 11 came Channel’s 9’s Chiller Theater. Those Saturday night slots were where I was introduced to the Frankenstein monster and vampires, werewolves, alien invaders (I’ve hardly met a male of my generation who doesn’t remember the original Invaders from Mars [1953] – an indelible concoction of silliness, low-budget embarrassment, visceral childhood paranoias, and brilliant visuals).

Stephen Whitty, reviewer for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, one of the largest newspapers in the New York metro area, remembers the varied “flavors” of the different NY stations:  “In the NY area…you had Channel 2 running MGM pictures, Channel 5 had Warners and old Universal titles, Channel 9 had RKO and a lot of British imports, Channel 13 ran foreign imports and silents, and Channels 4, 7, and 11 divvied up the rest.”

Another childhood memory:  Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie (keeping in mind that, in those days, you could make a pretty good movie for a million bucks). MDM had a unique scheduling strategy:  they’d run the same movie every weeknight at eight, then run it several times each day on Saturday and Sunday. For a kid, that kind of encoring was like a form of hypnotic brainwashing.  There were images I still haven’t forgotten after sitting through them as a thrill-hungry 10-year-old, watching them a half-dozen times in a week:  a tentacled monster barging through an inn’s front doors in The Crawling Eye (1951), Jack Palance’s arm crushed by a German tank in Attack! (1956), Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis watching in terror as Walter Pidgeon’s “Monster from the Id” burns its way through steel doors to get at them in Forbidden Planet (1956), John Wayne trying to single-handedly save a railroad bridge from being washed away by a flood in Tycoon (1947), having a crush on one of the eponymous women of Atlantis in Hercules and the Women of Atlantis (1961 – Channel 9 had all those cheesy – pardon me — mozzarella-y Italian-made Hercules movies).

As much money as Hollywood could make selling its oldies, the movie industry still hadn’t “gone all the way”…but the potential revenue for selling newer flicks to the major networks was too tempting to ignore for long.  In 1961, NBC debuted NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, a weekly movie slot featuring comparatively recent films which soon became one of the network’s highest-rated spots on its schedule.

The studios were still careful about how much exposure their product received.  There was an embargo period on new movies; they couldn’t be sold to TV for at least several years after their theatrical runs.  And some movies – Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – were held back from TV for decades.

The prices the studios exacted for their biggest features steadily rose.  By the late 60s, the nets were paying an average price of $800,000 per title, a four-fold jump from what NBC had been paying at the beginning of the decade, while particularly upscale flicks went for much more: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) went for $2 million; Cleopatra (1963) for $5 million.

As far as the networks were concerned, the movies were worth the money.  Movies quickly proved themselves to be tremendous draws.  From the mid-1960s until the late 1990s, one of the several prime time movie slots on one or another of the networks finished among the highest-rated programs for the season, often among the season’s Top 25.  Network movie telecasting reached a peak in 1968 when there was a network movie on every night of the week: ABC had Monday and Wednesday, CBS took Thursday and Friday, and NBC copped the rest.

One memory I have shows you how big a deal movies were for the networks – and for their audience.  As a kid I remember that during the tail end of the summer, NBC would air a 10-minute (I think) spot at the end of one of its movie nights promoting the top end titles they’d be premiering throughout the upcoming season.  Most of the movies they were running – even the best ones – hadn’t gotten that kind of advance promotion when they were in theaters!

Between what the network affiliates were airing between network programming blocks, and what the indies were scheduling throughout the day, and what the nets were airing in prime time, there was almost always a movie on somewhere at most times of the day.

Stephen Whitty remembers:  “When you got home from school, there were old movies on Channels 4, 7, 9, and 11 to choose from; weekends, Channels 5, 9 and 11 all ran horror movies on Saturdays, while The Late Show on Channel 2 ran classics.”

Emmy-winning producer/writer/director Bill Persky (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl) remembers the same cinematic horn of plenty:  “In the 50s through 80s, movies were the equivalent of TiVo – when there was nothing to watch, there was always a movie…Many a bleary-eyed morning was the result of The Late Show and The Late Late Show. Since you couldn’t record them for later, you had to put in real time to watch, and many was the night I was awakened at one a.m. by a call from a friend – ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is on!’”

Granted, not every market was as cinematically plush as New York.  I went to college in Columbia, South Carolina, a rather feeble market by New York standards.  Columbia only had three network affiliates and the only movies they carried were those on the network schedule.  Out in more rural parts of the country, there were areas that didn’t even have all three networks!

Still, in a number of cities, a generation of young people was growing up exposed to much of what had passed for movie entertainment since the beginning of the sound era.  The local stations gave us the oldies, the nets the newer flicks we might’ve missed in theaters (or wanted to see again).  We might not have known John Ford from Henry Ford, but we saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and They Were Expendable (1945).

As Peter Biskind tells it in his 1998 account of Hollywood’s creative explosion in the 1960s/70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:  How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, as much as TV, movies became a cultural glue holding us Baby Boomers together.  We were all seeing the same movies, seeing them over and over when they were re-run on TV like some shared group ritual, entertaining each other playing out their scenes, swaggering like John Wayne, twitching lips like Humphrey Bogart, doing lock-jawed imitations of Burt Lancaster (“I’m a pig!” – Vera Cruz, 1954) and Kirk Douglas (“Odin!” – The Vikings, 1958).  I can still remember when Channel 5 got the rights to West Side Story (1961) when I was in high school.  The next day, you couldn’t pass down a hall between classes without hearing the snap snap snap of any number of students snapping their fingers a la the Jets and Sharks.

Those years parked in front of the TV as kids laid the bedrock for what would become the country’s first – and perhaps last – cinematically literate generation.  As we grew older and went off to college, some of us actually studied movies, some studied how to make movies.  From our ranks came a truly memorable class of filmmakers who quantumly jumped from replaying favorite scenes in the schoolyard to a stratospheric level of cinematic artistry:  Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, Lucas, Spielberg, Friedkin, Schrader and others.

The great generational irony of that time was that while the youth of the day seemed to be violently at odds with The Older Generation about damned near everything else – politics, race, the war in Vietnam, economic disparity, social conventions, music, fashion, Women’s Lib, Gay Lib, sex – movies remained a point of connection, a bridge across the generational divide.

While the Boomers made the landmark convention-busting movies of the 1960s/1970s possible, they also had an affection for the classics.  Long-haired peace/love/dove types still enjoyed watching John Wayne beat hell out of somebody; a generation that had never known James Dean still identified with his smoldering rebellion; Bogart had died in 1957, but you could still find his face on dorm walls in 1977, usually a still from Casablanca (1942), because after Vietnam and the urban riots and Kent State and Watergate, it was hard not to identify with tavern-owner Rick’s disillusionment and cynicism; and out of that same fed-uppedness with the rather sorry shape of the world at the time, we equally identified with – and adored — the nose-thumbing, nose-tweaking, kiss-my-ass anarchy of the Marx Brothers.

I might spend one night telling my mother how her generation had thoroughly screwed up the world for my generation, but then the next night –

Hey, I just saw On the Waterfront (1954) for the first time.”

Good, huh?”

And off we’d go, me babbling about how blown away I was by Brando’s performance, her still blown away by how good a young, in-his-prime Brando had looked in a T-shirt.

It was the rare cultural torch that we Boomers took up from our elders.  We may not have thought much of oldsters and their skinny lapels and corny music and their Richard Nixon, but their movies were just as much our movies.  It was a natural feeling; after all, we’d been raised on them.

So…what changed?  How did we get from there to, “How come you only show us clips of movies none of us ever heard of?”

Actually, quite a few things changed.

Distribution patterns for one.  Back in The Day, wide releasing was for movies expected to bomb.  Today, it’s the standard.  This summer saw Bridesmaids open on over 2900 screens; Scream 4 on over 3300; Fast Five on 3644; Thor topped 3900; and Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides debuted on 4,155 screens.  On opening weekend, there’s hardly a multiplex in the country that isn’t running that weekend’s major release…often on more than one screen.

And these mass openings roll out on a tidal wave of advance, shrill, multimedia hype – promos, gossip items, behind-the-scenes pieces — searing those titles deep into the consciousness of even the most determinedly disinterested.  That sense of mystery and expectancy which used to go with waiting for buzz-worthy titles to finally come to the neighborhood bijou is gone.  J.J. Abrams recently told Entertainment Weekly how hard it was to maintain that brand of longed-for mystery around this summer’s Super 8, the 1970s-set sci fier he directed for producer Steven Spielberg:  “There are a lot of advantages to living in the age of instant information.  The downside is that we know about things more than we want to.  By the time the movie comes out, not only do we know everything about its production, you’ve seen a trailer that’s told you almost everything.”

Even after TV came along, the exposure of any given title remained somewhat limited.  The life cycle of a typical movie in the 1960s ran something like this:  maybe a year in theatrical release, then a cooling off period of a couple of years before being licensed to one of the broadcast networks where it would air maybe twice a year over a period of 3-5 years, then another cooling off period before it would be bundled with other titles for syndication.  TV appearances were rare enough that even some movies which had been shown on TV still retained enough drawing power to make a re-release viable (“See Lawrence of Arabia/The Wild Bunch/Spartacus/Gone With the Wind et al on the big screen again as it was meant to be seen!”).

Today, the theatrical window is typically only four months, and with the saturation bombing pattern of today’s wide releases, most titles have exhausted their theatrical viability long before that.  DVD release comes in month five, pay-per-view the following month, and 10 months after a movie opens in theaters it’s on a pay-TV channel like Home Box Office or Showtime.  In the early days of pay-TV, a movie might run four-six times a month, appearing in only three months of its one-year license period, but now it might air two-three times that many times in a single month every couple of months, and with pay-TV services now “multiplexed” – each service offering multiple channels – it may seem like a movie is never off the air as it rotates through a service’s various channels.  That kind of overexposure can’t help but kill the specialness that went with rarity.

Usually after pay-TV, a movie is sold to a basic cable network like TBS or A&E for a short term (12-18 months), then is bundled with library product and sold back to pay-TV, then back to basic cable and so on ad nauseum, generating fresh revenue with each turnover.  It’s not unusual to see highly “playable” movies – the type of flick which draws an audience no matter how many times it’s aired – finish their license period on one channel one week, and show up on another the very next week (in fact, at this writing, I’d just seen Kelly’s Heroes [1970] on TCM over the Memorial Day weekend, then saw a promo for the movie’s debut on The Military Channel’s Officer and a Movie slot the very next weekend).

Whereas 40 years ago or so you couldn’t wait for a favored movie to show up for one of its two or three plays that year, today it seems you can’t get away from a movie.  Any movie.

Well, not any movie.  If it sometimes seems cable stations continually draw from the same limited pool, you’re right.  Says Stephen Whitty:  “TV has given up on classic movies.  Yes, TCM runs them around the clock, but it’s the only station (we won’t count AMC, which mostly gave up…).  And if you don’t like TCM’s theme of the day – Alice Faye, say, or Westerns – well, you’re out of luck.  Every other station runs films from the last five years or so, which is fine, but hardly representative of the art.”


Because of “clutter.”

What’s clutter?

Clutter is the average cable system offering a bit over 100 channels of programming (mind you, this is an average, meaning there are systems with much more), so many that subscribers can’t always distinguish them from each other let alone even remember all the channels they have at their disposal.

To cut through the clutter and capture eyeballs, cable channels have moved, over the last 30 years, from the kind of generic programming which marked the early years of the business (old movies and TV shows) to more channel-defining original programming.  Those channels that still have a strategic use for movies tend to air – and re-air and re-re-air – those titles they know are instantly recognizable to the mass audience.  And what that doesn’t include are the old classics, the black-and-whites – what my kids, when they were younger, called “the gray ones.”

Josh Sapan, president and CEO of Rainbow Media which owns cable channel AMC, puts it this way:  “In the 70s, each of the broadcast networks had 15-20 million people watching each show or movie in prime time.  If a network – or even PBS – aired a classic film, it was inevitably seen by millions.”  But with the splintering of the mass audience into smaller niches by the proliferation of cable channels, “Audiences, with rare exceptions, are smaller today.  The choice and diversity on TV and the Internet has made some wonderful films victims of their obscurity.”  This was, Sapan admits, part of the reason AMC in the early 2000s re-formatted itself from a classics station – almost a twin of Turner Classics – to one focusing on original programming (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and – according to the channel’s promo spots – “The New Classics” – the more familiar films from the 1960s, 70s and up.

Stephen Whitty says the expansion of the cable spectrum has been a case of “…be careful what you wish for…when I was a kid, I imagined a science fiction world where I would just push a button and be able to see any movie I ever wanted on my TV.  And that’s the world we’re supposedly living in now.  Except take a look at what TV is really offering:  six different channels showing Land of the Lost (2009) with Will Ferrell, another half-dozen running The Bounty Hunter (2010) with Jennifer Aniston.  It’s like TV has become the Multiplex from Hell, only on a six-month tape delay.”

There have already been any number of cultural studies suggesting a strong disconnect between Gen X/Yers and their predecessors; a disinterest in any number of topics, both of large import and small, predating their own generational awareness.  But perhaps there is no disconnect as complete between this generation and those before it as the dropping of this particular pop culture torch.  Or perhaps “dropping” is the wrong word; a disinterest in picking it up might be more accurate.

A writer who’d worked for Saturday Night Live in the mid-90s tells me that even then writers were being instructed not to reference anything more than three years prior because “a lot of viewers won’t get it.” Compare that to SNLs from the show’s debut years in the 70s when the show riffed on decades of old TV shows and movies, its writers knowing that they and we all shared the same pop culture touchstones.

My old film teacher, Dr. Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap, now president of South Carolina’s Wofford College, describes it as “…a new sort of simultaneity…wanting everything to be happening now, at this instant, with consequences still to be determined.  In a curious and debased fashion, it resembles a Zen-like insistence on the here and now.”

Curiously, disturbingly, that disconnect is just as strong among many young people – like my students – who study film.  Says Bernie Dunlap, “Film students often need to be taught to excavate (a film), but unsophisticated viewers grow impatient with what they view as antiquated technique (“What – no color?”), and, of course, they tend to limit their experience of a film to the crudest level of storytelling.”

I once interviewed director John Dahl (The Last Seduction, 1994) who frequently speaks to filmmaking students.  The new Gen X/Y aspiring filmmaker doesn’t share Dahl’s generation’s respect for the oldies, doesn’t see their connection to the cinematic evolutionary chain.  Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder – irrelevant. Citizen Kane: boring. “These young people,” Dahl told me, “have never seen Double Indemnity or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They probably think they’re just dusty old pictures.”

The question I usually come to when I write these musing pieces is, Does it matter?  Who cares?  So what?  This new simultaneity, this disconnect with the vast treasure trove of our cinematic heritage – does it really cost us anything?

Bernie Dunlap – the man who kindled a passion for movies in me, and taught me how to truly, deeply understand, appreciate, and enjoy their magic – says it does matter.

The new, grounded-only-in-the-present sensibility “…ignores what has always been for me the magical ability of film to capture and reenact a present instant from the past.  What’s so astonishing about Lumiere’s recording of a baby’s breakfast, or visitors to the Paris Exposition – or, for that matter, the ambient reality of Casablanca or any film from the past – is that it enables us to study and re-experience that ‘now’ over and over.

This is, of course, what (film theorist) Siegfried Kracauer meant when he spoke of the ‘redemption of physical reality.’ It’s also at the heart of Werner Herzog’s new documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), in which he attempts to retrieve the ‘now’ of prehistoric cave painters flickering into life – the analogy often used to explain the psychological power of film.”

In the same way that cutting ourselves off from any older aspect of our culture diminishes us by dimming our awareness of who we were and how that made us who we are, there is something lost when we turn away from the gray ones.

(The) greatest choices were made by accident,” says Stephen Whitty.  “The first time I saw Laura (1944) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), I’d been simply flipping the channels and was caught by an image…there are no longer any happy accidents.  Just as newspapers offer surprises to their readers – you turn the page to jump with something and there’s an article on something you hadn’t even thought of that catches your interest – so did (pre-cable broadcast) TV.  Now, though, niche cable and Netflix offer the same sweet trap as the Internet – you can always get what you’re looking for, if you know what you’re looking for.

So people go online and read opinions they already agree with.  People go on Netflix and stream movies they’ve already heard of.  Nobody grows an inch.  And our national mythology – which is The Duke and Sam Spade and Some Like It Hot (1959) and Psycho (1960) – slowly disappears.”


  1. Ricky says


  2. […] more on this topic, read Bill Mesce’s article on Sound on Sight, which explores why classic films, which are now more available for screening […]

  3. PB210 says

    Follow-up to Dick Tracy references:

    “Elmer’s Pet Rabbit” [WB/1941] – Elmer wants to see how Dick Tracy made out in the funnies.

    “Easter Yeggs” [WB/1947] – Elmer can’t miss with his “Dick Tracy hat”.

    “Porky Pig’s Feat” [WB/1943] – “Hey, look! A Dick Tracy character! Prune Face!”

    “Knights Must Fall” [WB/1949] – “Look at the new Dick Tracy character! Accordion head!”

    “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” [WB/1946] – The whole cartoon.

    “Dumb Hounded” [MGM/1943] – Droopy is seen reading Dick Tracy at one point when the wolf comes in to find him yet again!

    “Northwest Hounded Police” [MGM/1946] – Same as above, except this time, Droopy is reading, “Duck [!] Tracy” (though I doubt Tex was directly referring to “Piggy Bank Robbery”).

    “Farm Frolics” [WB/1941] – The dog who fetches the paper and reads the comics wants to read “Dick Tracy”.

    There was a Dick Tracy reference in “Hobby Horse-Laffs” (WB, 1942).

    “Buck Rogers” (Duck Dogers, anyone?) also get some shout outs. (Rogers stared in the pulps, though.)

  4. PB210 says

    Russell H says:

    September 2, 2011 at 5:18 am

    I’d like to mention the fading from memory and experience of the theatrical short cartoon, once a staple of TV. Growing up in the New York City area in the early 1960s, at any given moment in the afternoon one could find on TV the cartoons of, not just Warner Bros. and MGM, but Fleischer (not just Popeye, but Betty Boop and the Color Classics), Van Beuren, Terrytoons, and Walter Lantz, spawning a generation of cartoon buffs and collectors. As for features, maybe Walt Disney would show an occasional excerpt from one on his Sunday Night show, or a couple times a week we’d get a short on THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB reruns, but several times a year one could see on TV GULLIVER’S TRAVELS or MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN.

    It pains me that my young nieces and nephews have no idea who is Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or Popeye or Woody Woodpecker, or that animation can still be funny without fart jokes, celebrity voice-casting or pop-culture references.

    ——————Actually, those 1930’s and 1940’s cartoons routinely mentioned Dick Tracy and other prominent franchises of the day.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Back in the 80s, me and some friends went to one of the now-defunct Greenwich Village art house cinemas which was showing a 2-hour program of all WB cartoons. The house was packed (all people who’d grown up watching them on TV). I never heard so many people laugh so hard so incessantly. By the end, I was literally in tears, exhausted, and my throat hurt from laughing so much.
      In other words, I feel your pain.

  5. Tim says

    “And here’s the problem: the “classics” are a static list of films settled on by a concensus in your lifetime.”

    Actually, the impressive thing is that the canon continues to change and expand. It’s not something a certain generation decided on and that was that – it’s still dynamic. Yeah, films like “Citizen Kane” and “The Rules of the Game” are going to be staying there for a while (rightfully so for the latter – Renoir is the greatest of all directors) – but in the meantime, certain directors rise and fall in the pantheon, and certain films that hardly made a stir upon their original release gain greatly in acclaim decades after their opening (while other “undeniable masterpieces” are now justly obscure.) Filmmakers like Mikio Naruse and Jean Gremillion and Miklos Jancso (and so on) have gained much greater attention than they had 30 or 40 years ago, and are now rightly recognized as among the greatest of all filmmakers.

    “How they hold up to a modern audience varies wildly. Someone who grew up with “The Godfather” as a standard for nuanced performance and wholly enthralling visual technique and technology is going to struggle to sit through the comparitively simplistic, overwraught “Gone with the Wind”.”

    Well, I’m not a big fan of “Gone with the Wind” – but you have to realize that “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” are doing completely different things. The former isn’t “simplistic” compared to the latter (its storytelling and technique are actually very complex, even by today’s standards) – it’s merely operating in a very different mode.

    Yes, there are different stylistic devices at play in a lot of older films that younger viewers are going to have to get used to – but it is quite possible to come to appreciate those devices and even begin to realize that those devices were often as sophisticated and as well thought out as the “realistic” stylistic choices of many of today’s films. In other words, it’s not a concession of “well, they didn’t know better” but rather “they did things differently.”

    “A film viewer who loves Tarantino or (early) Kevin Smith is going to have zero patience for “West Side Story” or “Oklahoma!”.”

    That has nothing to do with increased sophistication (“West Side Story” has about 20x the sophistication of any of Kevin Smith’s films), and more to do with changing tastes. “West Side Story” is still a great film for many, including many younger people (myself included.)

    “And even to a film student, if you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s final cut of “Blade Runner”, there isn’t a much point in investing nearly 2 and a half hours in “Metropolis”.”

    Huh? “Blade Runner” shares some of the design of Lang’s epic – but they’re two entirely different films. It’s not as if they’re treading so much on the same ground that watching one makes the other redundant. I do think that “Metropolis” does somewhat suffer from the “style over substance” problem, but that’s not because of the era in which it was made – after all, some of Lang’s other films from the same time, including the first two Mabuse films, are wonderful and still fantastically entertaining.

    “and the poorest of indie filmmakers have managed to leapfrog the 35mm stock of 60 years ago in visual quality with inexpensive DSLR cameras.”

    Yeah, that hasn’t happened. Special effects have greatly increased in quality – the quality of film prints have not. The films of Max Ophuls and John Ford and Kenji Mizoguchi leapfrog almost all modern filmmakers in visual quality.

    “The march of both craft and technology has given us many more engaging, personal ways to tell stories than the wide, long-duration shots and dutch angles of yesteryear;”

    Ah, the “technology keeps improving so films are only getting better and betterer” argument. Of
    course, like the “the quality of digital cameras leapfrog 35mm stock” argument, it’s a load of baloney. The reason, of course, is because though certain aspects of the craft and technology have evolved (though you are underestimating the variety of techniques available to older filmmakers – plenty of exceptions to the “rules” involving camera movements and shot length and camera angles can be found as far back as the silent era, just as the films of Jean Renoir and many other great old filmmakers are just as personal and stylistically theirs as any of the great filmmakers today) – other important aspects have been neglected. The films being made today aren’t a culmination of all the positive technological and storytelling advances of previous eras – rather, they emphasize certain aspects while neglecting others. And those aspects that are emphasized aren’t necessarily more “relevant” to our times – they’re just different.

    Here’s the thing – there were a ton of great films made in the past decade, and I’m quite confident that there will be many great films made in the decades to come. One might have to look harder to find a lot of those films nowadays, but they’re still out there. I don’t buy an argument that film has gotten worse over time (generally speaking – there may have been decades/eras that were better or worse than others, but as a rule they’ve stayed pretty much the same) – but at the same time, it’s rather demonstrably true that they haven’t gotten better over time either. The fact that a true appreciation of some of the great works of the past may require some adjustment for those brought up on “Transformers” or even “The Godfather” doesn’t mean those films are somehow flawed or poorly dated (just as it shouldn’t be a sign of the archaic nature of past novels that someone who has only read JK Rowling and Chuck Palahniuk will require a period of adjustment before coming to appreciate Tolstoy and Waugh and Melville and Austen.) Films (and music and novels and paintings) are products of the time in which they were made, and thus will have concerns and styles and attitudes unique to that time – which is one of the reasons great older works will always be relevant and fresh. The new doesn’t eclipse the old in quality, because the old is doing different things from the old. All artforms evolve over time (keeping in mind that, in reality, “evolution” doesn’t inherently mean a movement toward something greater – toward some end point – but rather it simply means “change”) – certain elements of the form will get better, others will stay the same and others will get worse. It’s for that reason that something made now will always look and feel quite different from something made 100 years ago, no matter whether it’s film, music, literature, sculpture, etc., and no matter how many centuries that form may have had to “evolve.”

    And because a lot of the stuff that makes those older films so good isn’t found in today’s films,they’ll even often feel quite new and fresh to young viewers, in spite of being brought up on “The Godfather” and Tarantino.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Tim —
      I gotta tip my hat. I think you made the point better than I did. No, I’ll change that. You DID make the point better than I did. Beautifully — and fairly — stated.

  6. […] top documentaries (purportedly of all time), which doesn’t contain a single one made before 1988. This recent piece by Bill Mesce goes into further details about why the focus seems to have shifted. Some of the changes in content […]

  7. Russell H says

    I’d like to mention the fading from memory and experience of the theatrical short cartoon, once a staple of TV. Growing up in the New York City area in the early 1960s, at any given moment in the afternoon one could find on TV the cartoons of, not just Warner Bros. and MGM, but Fleischer (not just Popeye, but Betty Boop and the Color Classics), Van Beuren, Terrytoons, and Walter Lantz, spawning a generation of cartoon buffs and collectors. As for features, maybe Walt Disney would show an occasional excerpt from one on his Sunday Night show, or a couple times a week we’d get a short on THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB reruns, but several times a year one could see on TV GULLIVER’S TRAVELS or MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN.

    It pains me that my young nieces and nephews have no idea who is Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or Popeye or Woody Woodpecker, or that animation can still be funny without fart jokes, celebrity voice-casting or pop-culture references.

  8. Ashley says

    Finally got around to reading this and just wanted to add that I’m 25 (also known as Gen-Y) and one major difference I notice between my knowledge of “classics” and my friends’ lack of knowledge is that I was raised by a Baby Boomer on TCM.
    My mom loves classic films and together we would watch Gone With the Wind, His Girl Friday, Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Bridge On the River Kwai (her favorite). I remember being a kid and sleeping in on Saturdays to watch early morning cartoons (of course), followed by TCM with my mom and whatever westerns my dad was a fan of.
    Today when I talk about the greatness of classic films with my friends, I often hear that they can’t watch “gray” movies because it hurts their eyes, they fall asleep to classics or they’ve never seen the original Wizard of Oz. It’s sad, but they’ve never been exposed to the classics.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      You’re a good person, Ashley.

  9. SF says

    I’d have to agree with something someone else said in the comments. I think you’re incorrect in lumping Gen X with younger audiences who aren’t aware of or interested in the past. That has certainly not been my experience.

    I’m not even sure it’s true for Gen Y. It’s the generation after, which doesn’t really have a name yet, where I think you start to see less of an interest in the products of the past.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I’ll grant you that the detachment has increased with each generation. It was probably terribly inexact for me to peg it to generations since its more pegged to changes in distribution patters which don’t coincide. My Big Idea is that, as young viewers, they’re not exposed to the great American film library because of how the media environment has changed. Back in the 80s, there was certainly a good deal of library product on the early cable channels and being accessed in the new home video market. By the 90s, less so; by the early 00s, it’s a desert. So, there’s something to what you’re saying.

  10. Andrew Perron says

    I very much appreciate the primer on the history of film releasing, and the relationship between it and TV. However, I have to disagree with your main point. There’s several reasons, but since I’m pressed for time, I’ll only deal with the one I haven’t seen while skimming the comments:

    The ’60s and ’70s were when the only-six-channels system was in its prime, right? So, during that period, the movies being shown would have been about twenty to thirty years old.

    Well, during the current day, everyone seems to be complaining about the amount of nostalgia people keep dipping into – for stuff about twenty to thirty years old…

    1. Bill Mesce says

      There’s a fair bit of truth to what you’re saying. I remember a huge retro turn in the 1970s for the 50s thanks to AMERICAN GRAFITTI. I do see a lot of retro interest in fashion, lifestyle, music…a whole gamut of cultural aspects.
      But movies? It seems to me a little different.
      The 20-30 spread you mentioned for my generation represented an enormous evolutionary leap in mainstream commercial cinema both in terms of the stories that were being told and how they were being told. You’re talking about the change from THE MALTESE FALCON to CHINATOWN; from GUADALCANAL DIARY to APOCALYPSE NOW; from WHITE HEAT to THE FRENCH CONNECTION and so on.
      Frankly, I don’t see that same change over the last 30-odd years. Oh, superficially: hairstyles are less puffed, less vinyl in the costuming, the appalling Georgio Moroder synth scores have gone by the boards (thank God!). But has the actual sensibility changed? Aesthetically, mainstream movies have gotten even more hyperkinetic, graduating from an MTV music video rhythm to one that approximates video games, they’ve gotten louder, the effects have gotten grander, but have the movies really grown up much beyond TOP GUN, SPEED, FLASHDANCE? Thirty-odd years ago, Hollywood saw the money you could make plugging into an adolescent fantasy view of the world and has only flogged that horse harder.
      If people were looking back nostalgically at THE GODFATHER, FULL METAL JACKET, LAST TANGO IN PARIS, all those touchstone films from a period that closed down in the early 80s (say, roughly, the same gap you’re talking about), I’d say, yeah, what you’re saying applies across the board.
      You can still find movies like that…struggling on the indie circuit. But you rarely, if ever, see that kind of flick making headway — as it once did — in mainstream commercial cinema. And, while my experience with the young audience may be limited, I don’t hear them talking about those movies either. In fact, few of them have even ever heard of those movies. I’m actually quite surprised at how few of them have even see JAWS or the original STAR WARS — the two movies generally given credit for kicking off the blockbuster era and with whom you would think a young generation of viewers might think of the way we thought of our oldies.
      Jeez, you watch JAWS now and it plays like Ibsen compared to what hits summer screens now.
      (Boy, did I sound crotchety there — sorry. It’s a good point you bring up.)

      1. Andrew Perron says

        Honestly, I think you’re simply looking in the wrong places. The Transformers/Battle: Los Angeles/Drive Angry “dumb blockbuster” movies that come out over the summer are an easy target, but… well, just to pick out one of the movies I actually saw last year, are you really going to say that Inception had either a plot or a visual style that could’ve been done thirty years ago?

        1. Bill Mesce says

          I thought INCEPTION was a terrific flick and I think Christopher Nolan is an exceptional filmmaker. His great gift has been to somehow, within the framework of big budget spectaculars, still turn out something with its own voice, something unique and fresh. I would say even to people who don’t like him, give the guy credit — his stuff doesn’t look or sound like anyone else.
          But if you look at the top 50 releases from each year of, say, the last 20 years, or the top-earning releases of the last couple of decades, it can be depressing.
          There are a lot of terrific films out there, but few of them are in the commercial mainstream.
          Look at this decade’s top earners and compare them to, say, the 1960s. A list of the top 80 earners of the decade includes a lot of dreck, but it also includes:
          Do they all hold up today? Doubtful. But these were all mainstream releases from major studios, all aimed at an adult sensibility and were all box office champs.
          I have no doubt you can find that equally terrific films from the 2000s, but I doubt more than a handful would be from the major studios and/or box office kings.
          You have a point when you say I’m looking in the wrong places. My point is there was a time when I wouldn’t have to look at all.

  11. Ranjit Sandhu says

    Hi Bill,

    A friend alerted a bunch of us to your article, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed. Though I basically agree with much of what you say, I am tempted to play devil’s advocate – or advocate’s devil. May I? Yes? Good! Allow me to meander aimlessly.

    Using the same sorts of anecdotal evidence you use, I can assure you that, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I could not share with anyone my love of the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton or Laurel & Hardy or the other great comedians. This is contrary, of course, to your experience. The other kids had never heard most of those names. Oh, I guess most had heard of Charlie Chaplin in passing, and a handful had some vague awareness of L&H. But that was about it. When I discovered that there was more to cinema than the great comics of the 1910s-1930s, I found myself nearly alone once again. Until my mid-teens I could not find anybody in my circles who cared about Bogart or Fellini or Russell or De Sica or Renoir or anything else that interested me. Then in 10th grade I found a few. Very few. I could count them on one hand and still have three fingers left over. Simply put, the other kids and young adults and even older adults didn’t know, they didn’t want to know, and they all thought I was nuts. As far as movies were concerned, they knew only the current releases that were being advertised heavily. You can’t imagine how thrilled I was when others finally discovered George Burns – courtesy of OH GOD, of course – and how disappointed I was that nobody cared to explore his other works.

    What was your experience, really? Were the movies you describe widely enjoyed by all your classmates? Or by just a few?

    More memories are coming back to me now. I remember parents chiding their children for being so faddish as to become fans of Scott Joplin’s THE ENTERTAINER, thanks to a new movie called THE STING. “Oh you kids just care about the new stuff. You don’t know anything about real music.” I tried to explain to those parents that, actually, THE ENTERTAINER was older than they were. I didn’t seem to make much of an impression.

    The parents of the parents were no better. “Their” music and “their” movies were better than their children’s music and their children’s movies, and it was certainly far superior to their grandchildren’s music and movies. But they knew nothing of what came before that. To hear them talk you’d think that music had first been invented in the swing era and that cinema was created around Susan Hayward.

    A few decades ago I came to the conclusion that one of the problems is imprinting. The stuff we were conditioned to enjoy between ages 13 and 23 is the only stuff we will ever enjoy. Everything older is laughably bad and everything newer is just a lot of painful noise.

    Am I any different? Depressingly, no, I’m not all that different. I had the good fortune to be brought up not by parents, but by a television set. I had the good fortune, also, to have a mother who selected my programming: Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Mae West, Burns & Allen, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Jimmy Durante, Steve Allen, Jack Benny, and a host of others, including, of course, Bugs Bunny and the rest of that gang. At that time I had no idea that much of what I was watching was old in any way. I was convinced, for instance, that Laurel & Hardy’s movies were all brand-new. Without being at all aware of the various ages of the materials I was viewing, I gravitated mostly to the older items. I never understood why the neighbor kids were watching MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and LOST IN SPACE. Why weren’t they watching the Marx Brothers? When I was 10 a friend came over while a Marx Brothers movie was on TV. I tried to make him watch it but he couldn’t bear it for even half a minute. To be fair, I must confess that the reverse held true as well: When I would go to his house during Channel 5’s “Creature Feature,” I would be bored witless. So from age 6 until today, I’m stuck in that same rut. Imprinting indeed. Those clowns remain at the center of my thoughts, and I refuse even to look at an Adam Sandler or a Steve Carrell movie. I don’t know what they’re like. I don’t know what their voices sound like. And I don’t want to.

    Are you all that different from your students? Well, let’s take a test. Some years ago I became intrigued by a theatrical company called Gilbert & Trowbridge. Mrs Trowbridge in particular got unanimously rave notices and was beloved and celebrated everywhere she performed. I was so impressed that I named my cat after her. A year after her husband died, she remarried. Her second husband was one of the greatest and most popular comedians that the US has ever produced. He was a household name. He was a sell-out even at theatres that had been doing consistently poor business with other attractions. He did a lengthy tour of the British Isles and made a fortune there. OUR AMERICAN COUSIN was written specifically for him, though he never got a chance to perform it. You know who I’m talking about, yes? Of course you do. Josh Silsbee! Who else? Are you yawning yet? Are your eyes glazing over? Do you have any interest in learning more? Or are you wondering why I’m boring you with information about people you’ve never heard of? Anyway, after Josh died, the younger generation wanted nothing more to do with his sort of silliness, for they were convinced that with their new entertainments they had something superior.

    There’s a second problem, even more serious than imprinting. As the most maladapted animals on the planet, we survived only by inventing narrative, by which we could hand down collective knowledge. We later learned to thrive because that story-telling capability allowed us to plunder the earth relentlessly. Stories are in our nature. They are our nature. But we no longer tell stories. Two hundred years ago most people could live off of the land if they needed to. Nowadays we’ve all become dependent upon services beyond our control. If the authorities were to shut off our power and water, we’d all die. Similarly, over the past century or so, we have lost the ability to invent stories, to tell stories, to have the patience to listen to stories. We are no longer even able to understand stories. Why is this? Marketing. We have been robbed of our story-telling talents. The so-called stories on TV series and in movies are, with the rarest of exceptions, mindless. They are as bad if not worse than the worst comic books. Stories are no longer our hobby, they are commodities, written by talentless hacks, sold in boardrooms, promoted by advertising agencies and PR firms, sold to make countless millions for executives. We have all become addicts, and our innate narrative urges find their release only in rotten CGI adventure tales.

    Now let’s look at some of the movies that are considered “classics” – a misnomer if ever one there was. DOUBLE INDEMNITY – is that a good story? I don’t think so; it’s just a dime-novel crime tale of no significance. GONE WITH THE WIND – a silly soap, terribly acted by Vivien Leigh. BEN-HUR – corny as can be and absolutely pointless; Gore Vidal, the principal (though uncredited) scriptwriter, put it best when he called it “a dreadful film.” THE GRAPES OF WRATH – a horrendously directed adaptation/amputation of a powerful book. What do these movies teach us? Nothing. How do they transform us? They don’t. Wouldn’t our time better be spent studying medicine or astrophysics or oceanography? Rehabilitating a slum? Helping homeless people get their lives back in order? Protecting a forest from a developer’s landfill? So why do we like these movies? Certainly not because they’re good. We like them because we saw them at an impressionable age, and we arrogantly expect others, seeing them in a different context, at a different age, to be as spellbound as we were. Sorry. That won’t work.

    Another thing to consider is the origin of the movies we call “classics.” We live on the North American continent, the lands inhabited by the American Indians, and later by the Méxicans. We are latecomers; we are occupiers; we know nothing of the legacies and stories of those whose lands we occupy. Our “classic” movies reflect that. They are about us, exclusively, as though those who came before us, and who are still here in great numbers, are unworthy of any consideration. While we’re comfortable with that, we have to understand that we’re not winning a lot of friends by our attitude.

    Now there are movies that I firmly believe are objectively good and even important. For a little over fifty years, beginning in 1880, subversive comedy flourished in the US. Belly-laugh comedy in vaudeville and movies had a transformative effect. When 1,500 people in an auditorium are all laughing uncontrollably, their differences are all erased. It doesn’t matter that the people sitting next to each other are right-wingers, left-wingers, Arabian, Jewish, German, British, Irish, Comanche, Tewa, Méxican. Once people laugh together, the programmed hostilities are rendered neutral. That was all squelched, of course. Some will argue that it was changing tastes and economic circumstances that killed belly-laugh comedy. I don’t accept that for a moment. Belly-laugh comedy was murdered, deliberately. People have been conditioned not to laugh anymore. I showed THE GENERAL to a group of interns some years ago, and they never so much as cracked a smile. Actually, they were horrified that the movie was taking the “wrong side,” concentrating on characters who were Southern. I ran a 35mm print a year or so later to a mixed audience, and again, not a laugh (except for one woman whose laughter was forced). I saw no evidence of even a smile. Ditto for Laurel and Hardy. Ditto for the Marx Brothers. Ditto for Harry Langdon. It is rare that such movies register anymore. And that brings us to marketing. Advertisers have determined, correctly, that we all have “comfort zones,” areas of familiarity, areas that we don’t like to tread outside. So advertisers know that if they want to sell something, they have to make it familiar to us – intimately familiar. They saturate the market with their loathsome junk, bombard us with images and logos on billboards and on the sides of buses and in TV commercials and in radio spots and on magazine covers and even on dividers on grocery-story conveyor belts. Once we’ve seen these things enough, they sink in and become familiar and comfortable. Anything advertisers do not promote is therefore strange, foreign, uncomfortable, “weird,” downright creepy. You used the word “brainwashing.” That’s the perfect word for this phenomenon.

    Yes, there were the exceptions. You and I were among those exceptions. There were others too. When ANIMAL CRACKERS got a saturation booking for its re-release in September 1974, people attended only because they were in the habit of going to a new movie every week. They had never heard of the Marx Brothers before, and, to my amazement and delight, they were all laughing uproariously. When Chaplin reissued a number of his movies in 1974 there was a good turnout of mostly younger folks (30s on down), who couldn’t possibly have seen these movies before, and they were all entranced and were laughing as loudly as the human lungs allow, laughing until the tears were flowing. And then in 1979 I attended a double feature, and was interested to see that in the audience with me were a group of AA members who had come along as part of a field trip. I thought it odd that one of the movies to which they had prepurchased tickets was a WC Fields vehicle: THE BANK DICK. It was obvious that no one in that group had seen Fields before, and they, again, were laughing like maniacs. But those were the exceptions. Would any of these people seek out further Marx or Fields or Chaplin? I strongly doubt it. It was a one-time experience, and they would then happily move on to LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY and never give another thought to what had so delighted them for an hour or two.

    Another thing we all need to keep in mind is the presentation. A movie properly projected in a movie palace to a large appreciative audience is a vastly better experience than that same movie shown on DVD in a classroom. A silent movie properly projected in a movie palace with appropriate live accompaniment by a pit band or orchestra or theatre organ, shown to a large appreciative audience, is different from that same movie cropped and run at the wrong speed on DVD with a canned piano track. The two experiences are so different that they are, effectively, two different movies. What are students really experiencing in a classroom? And do I understand you correctly that you show only clips? A clip will make no one swoon.

    So are we any better, or any wiser, than the uninterested and bored students you describe so well? I would argue that we are no different, no better, no wiser. And to respond to another point you make: Who has ever been cinematically literate? Someone who’s cinematically literate would be able to talk easily about silent movies from Greece, would be able to talk about the social and political significance of the various schools of filmic arts throughout Africa, would be able to talk about the business pressures behind the evolution of movies in China…. Who can do all that? No one that I know of.

    Shall I conclude with two more anecdotes? I attended a silent movie at the Samuel Goldwyn screening room at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I wore my Harry Langdon T-shirt. The ticket takers were curious about the image on my shirt and asked if it was Buster Keaton. No, I replied, it wasn’t. Well, hmmmm, looks sorta familiar. Who was it? I declined to supply the answer. AMPAS is committed to hiring only people well-versed in movies, and if those two ticket takers were unfamiliar with Harry Langdon, then the Academy had made a mistake somewhere. Here’s another one: At a gathering of my fellow office workers, we got to talking about cats. One fellow asked me my cat’s name. Mrs Trowbridge, I told him. He asked why. I said that I had named her after an actress. He was curious, and asked if this was an actress he would be familiar with. No, I said, she was an actress in the 1820s. He was surprised: “I didn’t know there WERE actresses in the 1820s.” And that demonstrates, in a nutshell, why I have such a difficult time carrying on conversations with most people. It’s not only fifty-year-old movies that we’ve forgotten….



    1. Bill Mesce says

      Ranjit —
      Your intellectual prowess has thoroughly intimidated me. I would still respectfully disagree with many of these points, but you point out that the core evidence in this issue — on either side — is subjective experience.
      I do wholeheartedly agree with you when you say that we’ve lost the patience for listening and tell stories. I’ve taught a Short Fiction overview course for a couple of semesters, and the first works my students read are Poe’s THE TELL-TALE HEART and Maupassant’s BOULE DE SUIF (which none recognize as the template for STAGECOACH, HOMBRE, and a couple of other flicks because they never heard of STAGECOACH, HOMBRE, and the other flicks). I cannot tell you how dishearteningly many of my students give their chief reason for liking the Poe better as being, “It’s short.”
      And a word about whether or not my experience was typical. Growing up I lived in two very different parts of the state. None of us were precocious cinephiles and neither were our parents. We flipped on the TV and this stuff was there. We didn’t think anything of it. It had ALWAYS been there. We didn’t know the pedigree on it, we didn’t know that we were sometimes watching iconic actors as well as actors whose names even our parents couldn’t remember. And, most of what we saw wouldn’t exactly come under the heading of “classic” at some Cahier du Cinema round table.
      I think that goes to your point about imprinting. Maybe some of us were just lucky.
      In any case, thanks for your incisive response.

      1. Hope says

        Hi, Bill-
        Thanks for the kind reply. I’m curious if you really believed your students’ explanation that they preferred Poe because his stories were shorter? I taught ‘Amontillado’, ‘Paste’ and ‘The Necklace’ together in a Forms of Creative Writing class, and it strikes me that my students liked Poe because he telegraphed very clearly. More subtle stories can be intimidating to talk about in a classroom, presumably because they require more interpretation and I think people are afraid to put a foot wrong in public. Perhaps the same is true of older films? Certainly, the new viewer might suffer from a lack of context that the original film audience had?

        Of course, with Poe you have the added benefit of being able to show those great clips of Vincent Price!

  12. Richard says

    It should be obvious to anyone who is perceptive that we live in a vastly inferior culture today. The pop culture of 1925-40 was a golden age for a reason. If one looks at it broadly–the films, the music, musicians, literature and theatre of that era, it dwarfs the cultural equivalents of today. We have no John Ford or Fred Astaire as we have no George Gershwin or Rodgers and Hart.
    Also, the Great Depression, rise of fascism and nazism, have no equal today. The struggle to survive has been replaced by mostly navel-gazing and narcissism.
    People always like to flatter themselves in thinking their era is the best of times–in fact today, we live in the new cultural dark ages. For instance 3-D is the excuse for “we’ve got no ideas”. The real gift is getting people to understand they are constantly being “hustled– sold cheap entertainment candy, because they never tasted the caviar.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Richard —
      As cynical and pessimistic as I am about the direction things are heading in, I’d still be balky about bandying around the word “inferior.” Back in The Day, they turned out a lot of junk. In fact, most of it was intended to be completely disposable, a diversion that only had to survive at a theater for a week, two at most.
      There’s a lot of good stuff out there these days. It’s not in the commercial mainstream, sadly, and don’t get me started on the mentality of most of the big box office sluggers (I’d hate to think TRANSFORMERS is going to be one of this generation’s touchstones).
      It’s more chaotic, less connected to what’s come before, certainly post-literate, paced at an ADD rate, but as I listen to my Eve 6 tape, watch THE KING’S SPEECH for the third time, watch WILFRED and LOUIE and remember when only HBO was willing to push those kinds of limits, send nasty thoughts at AMC for not bringing MADMEN back until next year, I’m not ready to take that last step to inferior.
      But come back to me NEXT year, and we’ll talk.

      1. Richard says

        I really liked your essay, but I think you’re ducking the “quality” issue in regard to my comment. Our aim today is very low. Craft is at a minimum.
        Of course every era has its fluff and junk–1930’s films were the television shows of their day. Yet its amazing the consistency of quality of pop culture considering over 5000 feature films were made 1930-39. (Not counting serials, shorts, animated films, etc).
        Try even quickly made obscurities like “They Won’t Forget (1937)” or “The Last Flight (1931):” which are every bit as substantial as the “The King’s Speech.”
        Ever listen the the tens of thousand of pop/jazz/band records made 1925-1940? Some fluff, but amazing levels of musical craftmanship. Thousands of superior musicians. We are far behind it today.
        I have lived many years (I would guess, a lot longer than you). Yet with all our iphones and computers, and 24 hour cable–I have never seen such mass stupidity in the public. I don’t taunt here. It’s very sad. Technology (misused) is making us dumber.

      2. Simon Tarses says

        I’m sorry to have to bust your bubble, but there are a ton of Transformers fans (two generation’s worth), as shown by the number of fan clubs, conventions, and fan art about the show (not to mention the comic books and TV shows.) Here’s a sampling of said fan art and cosplay (dressing up in costumes):

        Transformers fan art

        Transformers Cosplay

        The problem I see here is that people like you (old fogeys one and all, no matter how young you are) just want the young to regurgitate the past on and on, without any development of any culture of their own, and so instead of at least making an attempt to understand said culture or said youth, it’s all to simple to denounce everything that happens today as shit, simply because it isn’t the old movies/TV shows/novels/stories of today (and without any effort on your part or anybody else here who’s commented to even discover if there’s anything good or great in culture today-have any of you ever seen the TV series Avatar: The Legend Of Korra or its prequel series Avatar: The Last Airbender? Or watched anything considered by the youth to be good without being condescending jackasses?) The attitudes displayed in the comments above me have only shown that as long as they are held, the apathy of the youth being decried here in the article will continue.

        Some final words on culture that I want to leave you with that sum up how retrogressive all of this nostalgia is (it was a bit of a longer statement about a fan-made animated Superman short made in 2011, but it works for me):

        This incessant focus on stuff that has already been made leaves less room for new stuff, since time/money/energy are all finite quantities. We cheat the future when we do this. Our kids will need ideas that have greater relevance to them, which means they should be relevant to US now. Superman, while profitable, increasingly represents a world that perhaps never existed but certainly has passed away at this point. People’s desire for a ‘saviour’ is shifting to a personal desire to save themselves and help others in the process. Our mythology must reflect our own lives and not some corporate fantasy if it is to have real relevance. There is a reason why the first Matrix film became the phenomenon that it was, and it had little to do with 360 degree camera movements. The new superman film had arguably better effects, yet it failed to find resonance.

        Something else on the over-entitlement classic fan films like you is owed to you and older movies: Nostalgia: a Sport for the Privileged

        Articles like these are why I prefer to watch older movies than to talk about them.

        1. Bill Mesce says

          Ooof, harsh!
          Simon, when it comes to always making room for the new, a mythology relevant to the present generation, and all the other topics along those lines you touched on, I don’t disagree with you; not one bit. The same dynamic was at work for every generation previous to yours. What you’re saying is neither new nor unique to today’s young audience. That in mind, bravo to you! Well said!
          And I also agree that we old farts do tend to wallow in nostalgia at times, and that some of this reflection on oldies may be no more than sentiment. So, again, a tip of the hat to being on the money.
          What I’d like to think my point was — and perhaps I made it poorly or muddied it up with nostalgic sentimentality — is that every generation builds on the generation before, either by taking the useful and evolving it, or by losing the dead wood. We still poke around in the dirt trying to figure out how Neanderthals live because we think there’s something worth learning however irrelevant their lifestyle might be to ours today.
          But that learning opportunity isn’t present today to the degree it used to be when it comes to film simply because younger viewers don’t get the exposure to the oldies that they used to. Yeah, you can access them through Netflix or other pipelines, but if you don’t know they exist, why would you?
          In the 60s and 70s, then up-and-comers like Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, Penn, Frankenheimer, Lumet, Peckinpah, and a host of others definitely struck their own, unique, (then) contemporary notes, but it was often built on (or designed as a contrary response to) what had come before.
          If we old farts sometimes seem dismissive of the new stuff, consider that — at least at times — because we do know the oldies, we realize that what you may consider to be fresh and contemporary is, in our eyes, a jazzed up rehash. In other words, once you get past the startling technology, some (and I emphasize, just SOME) of that new mythology isn’t so new, isn’t so fresh, isn’t so unique, and is sometimes SO un-new, un-fresh, and un-unique that it hits us as stale. It’s not because our tastes are more discriminating (they’re not), because we old fogies are somehow smarter (we’re definitely not), or because we’re out of touch (well, I try not to be, but my kids would probably side with you on this one). It’s only because we’ve seen some of this stuff before. Sometimes more than once.
          We actually DO hunger to see something new, something that sparkles by going beyond what’s been done before. And if we seem grumpy about what’s out there, sometimes it’s because beyond the hype and the remarkable effects, we don’t see it. We see something that, at its core, is unremarkable, and painfully familiar.
          And as far as THE TRANSFORMERS go? Hey, I saw the first one. I had fun. I laughed. But the other benefit of having logged a lot of time in a movie seat is I’ve come to know the difference between fun and good. Hell, I’ve cried, laughed, and got excited at movies (even back in my day) I knew were crap, but that was ok. Everybody likes a Twinkie. But I know a Twinkie isn’t French pastry, and I know just because more people would rather eat Twinkies than broccoli doesn’t make them good for you. Jeez, the other night one of my kids caught me watching one of the old Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies, wrinkled up her face and said, “My, God, Dad, you used to like this stuff?”
          And we did. Guilty admission: I still do. It’s just now I know what it is…and what it isn’t.
          Thanks for the comment, Simon. I admire your fire.

  13. Jonathan says

    I appreciate your point about the different methods now in use for distribution and broadcasting, which could place less emphasis on, and give people less exposure to, classic and quality films.

    However, as others have pointed out, I think you also need to remember the vastly greater amount of content and media of all sorts that people have to contend with today. That’s going to necessarily result in much harsher filtering standards, which could rule out both works with lower technical sophistication (black and white, for example), and movies about people with whom the viewer has less in common (since the time gap has increased by 30-40 years).

    Furthermore, the increase in available media is going to correspondingly reduce the degree of shared culture even within a single generation. Your students aren’t going to have as much in common with either you or each other as you might expect. The one exception is the case of things widely advertised in the recent past. This explains the SNL rule of sticking to the past few years – it’s the most likely area of common experience for viewers.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Oh, I agree with you, Jonathan, wholeheartedly. I’m just not sure that lack of cultural cohesion — or cultural continuity — is a good thing. That’s not old fogie ah-those-were-the-days thinking, but a sociological practicality (in my old fogie view).

  14. JamesBrummel says

    I appreciate your article, very thought provoking. I remember when seeing a favorite movie was a cherished, highly anticipated event. There was no video, cable. It either had to be in a theater or on 1 of 7 tv stations. The limited access made the viewing so much more exciting, special. I wonder then, what it must have been like hundreds of years ago, when in order to hear a favorite piece of music there needed to be an orchestra in town. Imagine the intensity of hearing Beethovens 9th for the first time in years, knowing it may be the last time you will hear it ever. Gosh!

    You have to remember I’m the guy who pointed out that white mice rarely encounter levers in their natural environment, so how could we be measuring their intelligence using them, so I am a bit of a pill. But what if you took some of your students favorites and scrutinized them as you would a classic? Its great to be exposed to new things, but it is also pretty eye opening to see something familiar in a new light.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Movies of old that were intended to be great cinema usually haven’t held up that well. The movies that became classics had typically been intended as nothing more than the week’s dose of movie house entertainment.
      I’m curious to see what movies from the last 20 years become a new generation of classic. the very nature of what’s entertaining has changed and it’s just hard for me to see things playing out in parallel to previous generations of film.

    2. porkchop says


      I love thinking about the hard times of listening to music hundreds of years ago. Mozart’s Requiem, for example, was played once at Mozart’s funeral, once at Napolean’s funeral, and once at Chopin’s funeral; 3 performances in 75 years. More people heard that piece of music on the opening day of “Amadeus” than in the first century of its existence.

  15. Mike Doran (aka Lowbrow Crank) says

    Yes indeed, Bill, we in ocupied Chicago did get the same movie packages that you got in the NYC area.
    At home I’ve got a collection of old TV Guides dating back to 1949, through which I can trace the history of movies on TV. Start out with poverty-row pics that had fallen into public domain, lower-level Bs and Cs that were sold off to distrbutors so companies like Republic and Hal Roach could stay in business, on into the ’50s when RKO made a deal with that Texas store chain to put their whole film library on TV*, and ultimately the majors putting their vaults into the market place. All history, and I still can get surprises just by looking at the old mags.

    * That RKO deal is a good example. The C&C Super Co. got the Rko library, and sold the TV rights to stations in perpetuity. Because of this, we in Chicago can still see old RKOs on Channel 7 in the late weekend hours right up to the present day (and that means biggies like KING KONG and CITIZEN KANE, not just the B stuff).

    Mostly, this seems to about the fact that the older ones among us have that sense of history I referred to in my earler comment – we connect the movies and TV we grew up on, back and forth, old and .. well, less old, and it’s of a piece to us. It hasn’t occurred to us to limit ourselves to that of which we only have direct experience.
    I mean, what fun is that?
    If I’m watching COMMUNITY with people who are, say, 20 years younger than I am, and I point out Richard Erdman in his running bit part, and I tell them that he’s one of the greatest comic actors with a long CV in movies and TV … well, imagine the looks I get.

    Man, this is depressing. Better quit while I’m behind.

  16. […] but I do get pointers to some good stuff. Roger Ebert (a famously prolific tweeter) led me to this interesting article about why students today haven’t seen classic movies. What elevates it above “Hey you kids, get off my lawn” territory is a brief history of […]

  17. Voice of Reason says

    When you watch an old movie, you have to know what you are getting yourself into. Most of the older movies contradict the statements they are making with the utterly stupid sentiments of the era. A sensible person can often look past the fact that the only person in the movie that isn’t Caucasian is sweeping floors and calling someone 20 years younger “Sir.” A sensible person can often look past the outrageously male-driven themes and distortion of history that older films offer more than newer ones (although it’s still terrible). But, often it’s annoying and makes any person with a clear mind want to turn off the movie about 40 minutes in and consult a history book. Older isn’t better. Everybody in the major league is better than Babe Ruth ever was. CD’s sound better than vinyl. Lebron James jumps higher than Pisol Pete. Food now tastes better than it did before etc etc etc etc

    1. Bill Mesce says

      That’s all entirely true. But sit through THE HANGOVER or TRANSFORMERS and tell me what they encapuslate about our present era? I’m not sure you won’t see the same paradox.

    2. Richard says

      Sir, you are the perfect example of the problem. You know nothing…but pontificate about everything. In fact, you seem to be very bigoted in your judgements.
      A great popular historian, David McCullogh once said that many people are guilty of “presentism” the idea that everything is better today, becuase you live today.
      If the typical laptop computer has more power than the Apollo capsule that landed on the moon in 1969–that does not make you superior. In fact, one could easily argue that the MEN (no woment here) involved in that space mission had more vision, intelligence and courage than you could ever conceive of.

  18. […] Ebert retweeted this article yesterday, and it addresses questions of my own that I have had for a while. Why is it that classic […]

  19. John says

    In a post I wrote about this piece, I wrongly attributed authorship to Roger Ebert. Like many readers, I came to the piece via Ebert. The authorship has been corrected. I apologize for the error.

    Read the post:

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Not a problem, John. I’ll take getting confused with Mr. Ebert any day.
      So, does he like me? Or does he LIKE like me?

  20. Art says

    This is a definitive piece that establishes theories only touched upon in other articles I’ve seen in recent years. Like all who read it I have a few thoughts, etc.:

    1. I know it is simply a typo but Channel 5 in New York was WNEW.

    2. I associate “Babes in Toyland” (or as it was called in its TV incarnation, “The March of the Wooden Soldiers,” with Thanksgiving rather than Christmas.

    3. I believe Channel 11 was also in on the Saturday night horror fun with “Thriller,” though I can’t remember for sure.

    4. Thank you for Stephen Witty’s reference to the British films on Channel 9. In fact, every August WOR had its British Film Festival with the great Rank and Archers films playing every night during the month, usually after a Mets game, which in those days would begin at 8 p.m. and hardly ever last past 10:30!

    5. Growing up in the New York area, one of the strangest, and yet most popular ways of watching a movie was on Channel 7’s The 4:30 Movie, where a single film would be broadcast over multiple days, usually two but in some cases three or four were it a particularly long flick (“King of Kings”). An announcer would always provide a recap of the previous day’s scenes before Part 2 (or 3) began.

    6. It is almost mind-boggling that ABC still shows “The Ten Commandments” every Easter, which I never miss watching in real time. (It’s now a beautiful print with scenes I never remember seeing in the ’70s broacasts). And although I have never been all in with NBC’s exclusive rights to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it is incredible that it airs in prime time every holiday season.

    7. Although I can understand the appeal of coming upon a movie on TV out of the blue, I would never leave my movie watching to chance. Every Sunday I would scour Newsday’s stand-alone TV “book” of programming for the coming week and determine in advance what movies I would be watching. Often it required choosing between two great films running at the same time on different channels. Pre-DVR life taught one the importance of being decisive.

    I do not have any meaningful film watching experience with young people, but I will never forget wanting to show my nephew, then maybe 12 or 13, a rented VHS of “Vanishing Point,” which I inexplicably saw with my dad when I was my nephew’s age and never forgot, especially the scene with a naked girl on a motorcycle. Figured it was action-packed enough for him to like as well. But about halfway through he said, “This is really old school, isn’t it?” What can you do?

    Thanks for a great read!

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Hey, Art, nice to hear from somebody from the neighborhood.
      VANISHING POINT — I remember a time in the 70s when it seemed to be on the bottom half of almost every double bill (remember double bills?).

  21. Mike Doran (aka Lowbrow Crank) says

    I came here by way of Roger Ebert’s site.

    There’s another villain here that needs to be mentioned:
    the demon pseudo-science known as demographics.

    Most of those who do the programming for TV channels and theaters are devoted to the belief that the only audiences worth courting are the youngest ones – the 18-35 year olds so coveted by advertisers.

    The modern blockbusters are tailor-made with this “audience” in mind. Anyone who’s had the misfortune to “age out” can just go off and cry in their beer (at least they’re old enough to buy it).

    I’m a ’50s kid, born in 1950, which means I got my “film school” from the four TV stations here in Chicago back then. Channel 2 had MGM, channel 7 had RKO (Movietime USA), channel 9 had Warners, and everything else was up for grabs, from poverty-row to postwar “quota quickies” from Britain. Wouldn’t call it “education”,exactly, but that’s what it was.

    Back then, you watched whatever was on. No ad agency expert was there to tell you that you weren’t supposed to be interested in something that was made before you were born. This is Demographics at work – and this is why the Gray Stuff is now pigeonholed as “for oldsters only”.

    I suppose that it wouldn’t be OK if you slammed your pointer down on your students’s desks and told them to pay attention, that they might actually be able to connect the old with the new. That’s what I learned as a kid, when so many of the B-movie talents from both sides of the camera moved into early TV. I was a credit reader, and so many names could be found in both ’30s movies and ’50s TV: history before your eyes.

    But that leads us to how nobody these days seems to have a sense of history, of how the past and the present are connected and flow into each other …

    … and that, as Mr. Moto quoted Mr. Kipling, is another story.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Hadn’t thought of it in those specific terms, Mike, but you’re right. Maybe the worst thing to happen to TV was them figuring out how to make more money through demographic targeting (on the other hand, with a 90% failure rate among new series, I’m not sure how much good all that demo research is doing them).
      Seems like you were watching the same film packages in Chicago I was watching in NY!

  22. Erika says

    While many others here have waxed philosophic about the points in the article and as a non-film student I wouldn’t dare compete, I can say that in my experience, as with anything that requires passion and dedication, there has to be an interest–which is generally passed down from one generation to another.

    In literature, there are genres which appeal to one that may not appeal to another. I have known people who will consume everything written by Hemingway and yet have no regard for any of the great Russian writers. There are people who read every evening but are focused on modern ‘pop’ fiction and have never picked up Dickens, James Joyce, Toni Morrison or any other ‘highbrow’ authors because they’re ‘boring’. Are those writers so? To an educated literature enthusiast, of course not! But who is to define for the common man what they should read so they read ‘the best?’.

    We should all see the ‘greatest’ films, but we are at times stymied by generational growth and perceptions, I think. My mother, though she grew up in the 50s and 60s, had no appreciation for ‘film’ other than as an entertainment. She saw James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn–Brando–on the big screen, when their films were released, and she had no interest in why those films were great. They were an afternoon out to the theater.

    Her daughter, on the other hand, knew only shadows of those great performances, and isn’t a film student, but my favorite activity of the day is to watch classic film and study it, to see its brilliances, its distinctions and its history. I do enjoy the modern blockbuster and the modern filmmaker, too, but just because method acting has overtaken the more staged performances doesn’t mean a film is any less significant. For those who seek out film and respect its history, you’ll find the same passion for it as you did back then.

    And if you troggle on down to the English department and jump into a general literature class, you will find the same phenomenon among the English students who aren’t much different than your film students, moping and complaining about ‘archaic writers’ whose language is too difficult to read.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Erika –
      I have no doubt that, to some extent, you’re right. But I’ve also had the experience of teaching English and Education students who frankly admit they don’t like to read.
      Now, why somebody would major in Ed or, especially, English, when they have a low tolerance for the written word is utterly beyond me. I have had students like you who are curious and eager to understand what made great oldies great. Right now, however, I’ve had more experiences like the one I just mentioned.

  23. Lou says

    Why can’t we appreciate the old and the new? It makes for a more interesting

    1. Bill Mesce says

      We can. We just have to want to, and that goes for us gray-templed types being willing to hunt outside the mainstream to find the AND THERE WILL BE BLOODs and the latest Coen Bros. brain tickle, etc, as much as it goes for the under 30 set being willing to exercise some patience for something that doesn’t have the pace of TOUR OF DUTY.

  24. Terry Lee says

    Bill, hope you didn’t pull anything patting yourself and your fellow boomers on the back; I’ll be paying for your Medicare for a long, long time!

    Your thoughts on the shared cultural experience of having more limited viewing options are valid, but here’s the flip side; because younger audiences have grown up being able to watch just about anything, they only watch what they want. That mean a simplistic mind that only enjoys cheesy action blockbusters and banal toilet comedies, or it can be a legitimately sophisticated viewer who just doesn’t enjoy the “classics”.

    And here’s the problem: the “classics” are a static list of films settled on by a concensus in your lifetime. How they hold up to a modern audience varies wildly. Someone who grew up with “The Godfather” as a standard for nuanced performance and wholly enthralling visual technique and technology is going to struggle to sit through the comparitively simplistic, overwraught “Gone with the Wind”. A film viewer who loves Tarantino or (early) Kevin Smith is going to have zero patience for “West Side Story” or “Oklahoma!”. And even to a film student, if you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s final cut of “Blade Runner”, there isn’t a much point in investing nearly 2 and a half hours in “Metropolis”.

    Does this mean that pre-color material is dead? Absolutely not; but films that stood on their spectacle, their technical innovaction, and their star power have been surpassed as actors have passed on, and the poorest of indie filmmakers have managed to leapfrog the 35mm stock of 60 years ago in visual quality with inexpensive DSLR cameras. The march of both craft and technology has given us many more engaging, personal ways to tell stories than the wide, long-duration shots and dutch angles of yesteryear; and this is a double-edged sword that makes bad stories and bad performances look better than they are, it’s also made a tedium of watching a lot of films that stood up better in the decades before cable. And that’s still not to say that all the technical tour-de-force masterpieces have been surpassed; to this day no one’s done a racing film that looks better than Frankenheimer’s 70mm “Grand Prix” of 1966, just as one example.

    And this is something that happens with EVERY generation, in film and every other art form. I’ve run into PAs and runners who haven’t even seen “Pulp Fiction” or “Clerks”… now there’s a kick in the gut.

    The upside is that the home experience is now closer than ever to the theater, and that may resuscitate a good number of films that need a high-resolution copy, a large, wide screen and properly balanced sound to be appreciated.

    But at a certain point you need to let go and admit that your generation watched too many irredeemably stale westerns, produced a whole generation of great directors BECAUSE THERE WERE SO MANY OF YOU (baby boom, remember?), and even then you had noteworthy hacks in their midst (Brian De Palma ring a bell?).

    Upset that recent generations haven’t paid attention to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”? Yeah, that’s how your parents, or at least parents like them, felt about their kids not listening to Les Brown or Perry Como.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      First of all, Terry, you may be off the hook — it looks like my Medicaid is going to get cut inevitably.
      There’s a lot of truth to what you’re saying. We had favorites that were not particularly good, and there were good films we didn’t really appreciate — as with any generation.
      Classicism is about what DOESN’T date, and the difficulty is it may be mashed in within the same vehicle with stuff that does.
      But to take your example of Les Brown and Perry Como, when I was a young, pain-in-the-ass know-it-all, you’re right, I thought it was time for those guys to hang it up. Sadly, it took me years to see the value in those guys (well, Les Brown).
      My point was that through the unasked-for gift of exposure, we DID like what our parents liked as well as what was coming up in our generation. The mainstream commercial audience could draw a line from those stale Westerns to THE WILD BUNCH. Part of the power of BUNCH came from directly assaulting all our stale Western expectations built up from watching banked up stale Westerns on TV. We knew what a new generation of movies was rebelling against; that’s what made the rebellion so exciting.
      But trying to be as dispassionate as I can (and acknowledging the kind of emotional distance necessary to make the judgment may not be possible), I can’t look at this summer’s worth of releases and say this is in any way a similar dynamic.
      Maybe I AM just a crotchety old fart, too narrow-minded to see the value in one interchangeable superhero movie following another, or why a good story even needs 3-D.

  25. PeaceLove says

    Enough with the youth bashing! You’re all full of yourselves!

    I’m a product of the great film era you cite, having been bred on film in the 70s & 80s, studying film history & theory in college and then working in the film industry for most of a decade. I, too, love the classic Hollywood films, and even more so the great European and Asian art house films that invaded youth consciousness in the 50s & 60s (and continued to be taught into the 90s and beyond). A lot of these are great films, no doubt.

    But I also have to be honest with myself. A lot of “classic” films are, frankly, pretty musty to modern eyes. My son loved Chaplin & Keaton as a very young child of 6 or 7 but watching them with him I could see how draggy they are to modern eyes. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great classic, but it’s extremely Hollywoody & hidebound. Get past the Bogie worship (and he is compelling but hardly subtle) and the film just doesn’t hold up all that well compared to the sophisticated, multi-layered storytelling found in the best modern entertainment. I still love the film; I’m just honest enough to admit my beloved is mired in 60-year-old conventions and my reaction is heavily influenced by my 12-year-old self’s first viewing 35 years ago.

    Same with a lot of “classics.” Viewed through historically trained eyes, An American in Paris is a jaw-dropping musical & visual masterpiece but to many modern viewers it’s of mainly historical interest. The best of the best — the aforementioned Kind Hearts and Coronets, works by Lubitsch, Renoir and Welles — still hold up because they evince a certain sophistication and modernity that’s missing from so many other classics.

    But, for the most part, young people shouldn’t bury themselves in the past just because “adults” tell them they should. They should find their own passions, their own path. Culture doesn’t progress by the worship of the past but by the forward march into the future. My son doesn’t appreciate The Beatles? Quelle horreur! Obviously, he must be a dummy with no taste!

    Someone once said, “As kids, we all like to think we’re hipper than our parents. Then, when we become parents, we like to hope we’re hipper than our kids.”

    I’m not saying some students are not shallow and uncurious, but anytime a post essentially attacks a whole generation because they fail to adequately appreciate the beloved culture of a previous generation…well, that’s about the time I yank out my bullshit deflector, pop in a DVD of A Trip to the Moon (that Sci-Fi classic!) and remind myself that we don’t all see the world the same way.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      There’s almost nothing you’ve said, PeaceLove, that I would disagree with.
      My point was that by growing up with those stodgy, dusty, stagey flicks, we knew not to hold their stodginess, dustiness, and staginess against them. You don’t think I know the original MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a so-sweet-it’ll-give-you-cavities bit of hokum? We knew it THEN! But we’d grown up with it and were used to it, and it didn’t stop us from lining up around the block to see 2001.
      New generations have always developed new sensibilities, but I’d like to think they should be ADDED sensibilities instead of SUBSTITUTED sensibilities.
      Or let me put it to you another way. I once challenged a class of accelerated high school students to go for a one-hour walk in the park with no cell phones, no NOTHING — no portable communication or entertainment devices at all. Just them, a path, and a walk through the park.
      You should’ve seen them, PeaceLove: it was like asking heroin addicts to go without for a day.

  26. A. P. Saget says

    Don’t forget: in addition to TCM, you can find a boatload of classics, foreign films, documentaries and silents at your public library. I’m 19 now, but I really got into film at the age of 11 by just picking old movies off the shelves at the library and taking them home to watch on my computer – nobody kept tabs on how young I was, so everything was up for grabs (I saw Blue Velvet when I was 13! Kurosawa’s Ran at 12!). I recently discovered anything they don’t have on rotation can be ordered and had within a month. And a library card is always free, and that cannot even be beaten by Netflix.

    Unfortunately, not a lot of girls my age have similar taste, or ability or willingness to debate artistic merits, so dating can be all the more frustrating for a cinephile.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Yeah, but think of the magic when you do find a girl that does.

  27. […] I liked this write up way too much not to post it. Reading it reminded me of my days as a film tutor and that great […]

  28. Krystal says

    All I can say, Bill, is “thank you” to your student.
    If she hadn’t complained, her question wouldn’t have haunted you ’til you wrote this amazing, comprehensive & articulate essay thoroughly describing how we devolved to this point.
    Though Canadian, I still completely relate to your article. A late-end boomer, raised by TV in the 60s & 70s, I’m in agreement with so many previous posters here(especially Louisa, David, cadavra & Paddy). I can’t remember how many times my mother *let* me stay up late to watch Moby Dick or Cat Ballou whenever they were on(to this day I have no idea what my fascination was for either film; having re-watched Cat Ballou I found it the cheesy, silly entertainment it likely was, but at 7 or 8 I was just so drawn to it. Maybe it was Lee Marvin?)

    As it’s been stated so many times before: how can we move forward, without any knowledge of our past? This must include the arts/entertainment field as well as history, philosophy, literature, sciences — all parts of our cultural identities, otherwise we truly do lose out as a society, and moreover, as human beings!
    Thank you for a fantastic and worth-it read. Your student might just be deserving of an “A” for inciting this!

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I hope she doesn’t see this or she WILL be coming back to me about her grade.

  29. […] Despite films being more widespread and more available than ever, modern audiences have even less film literacy than ever. […]

  30. Joseph says

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I was so very lucky as a young kid in the late 70s and early 80s. My father shared his love of Westerns and war films and anything with Deborah Kerr. My mother shared her love of thrillers and film noir and anything with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Every Sunday morning, channel 35 in Orlando would show an Abbott & Costello movie followed by a Blondie movie. Growing up as essentially an only child — my siblings were all grown up — classic movies become practically my second language, if you will.

    When I went to college in the 90s, I was taking a class on the Soviet Union and was shocked that only one other student had ever heard of Doctor Zhivago (let alone see the movie or read the novel). I’ve been a high school teacher the past two years, and I’ve seen the disconnect become even more marked; not only did most of them express disdain for classic films, but they also didn’t know who today’s supposedly major film stars are — they couldn’t identify Natalie Portman or Anne Hathaway — but they could identify all of the Kardashians.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I was sitting with a group of students from my college Short Fiction course. Somehow, the conversation drifted around to politics. I asked them if they knew who the governor of our state was.
      I’ll let you guess the rest of that and tell you that your students not knowing who Natalie Portman is might be the least of your problems.

  31. Paul M says

    I’ve found the old movies that kids today seem to respond to the best are adventure films and swashbucklers, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power and Burt Lancaster. The more action the movie has in it the better. And of course the Wizard of Oz, which remains as watchable today as it was in 1939.

    Growing up in the late 70’s old movies were still hyped by non network station movie nights as if they were new. In ’79 my grade 5 classmates most often chose the Magnificent Seven as their favorite movie (until I reminded them about Star Wars, which would not show up on TV ’till years later).

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Oooooo, MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Da-rool, da-rool…

  32. Jenny Lens says

    There’s a general and thorough lack of interest in ANYTHING older than a few years. Art, history, news, politics, even music. It’s not just “The Liveliest Art” (Arthur Knight). It’s lack of curiosity, impatience, distraction of bright, shiny objects like phones and text msgs. It’s a general disconnect within ourselves and our world …

    –I grew up READING about so many films and stars I NEVER heard of or saw. I took as many classes as UCLA Extension I could, even though I was never a film student. I drove all over LA to art museums and weird theaters to see films NO ONE was talking about.

    –I had NO idea who these people were in The Pictorial History of the Movies. WHY were they in this book? But the whole topic fascinated me. And yes, I shared the same references as the author. I knew the power, allure and fascination of Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, War of the Worlds, plus Rita and Gene in Cover Girl, ALL in black and white. I didn’t grow up w/color TV.

    –Turned me into a famous punk rock photographer. I wanted people to be as fascinated w/punk, another cultural revolution, as I was w/early movies. IT worked. People are grateful I took so many photos and shared them w/the world. Interestingly, people love my black and white images as much, if not more, than my color images. But not b/w films, which can be so superior to color! To my surprise, horror and amazement, few care about old films. Wassup with that??

    –I FELT and KNEW the power and importance of KNOWING our cultural history. How it connects us on a very deep level, gives us so much insight into ourselves and each other, society, and so much more. Those who don’t know their history, are doomed to lose it …. and that is but one reason we are seeing a rather total disregard for anything beyond txt msgs ….

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Jenny —
      I love — and am a bit in awe — of how you turned that reverence for what had come before into a passion for wanting people to appreciate something of the present. Kudos to you, and thanks for writing.

  33. Zenbob says

    I was delighted by your superbly written article. I’m fortunate, I guess, growing up before the cable revolution. My mother used to wake me up frequently to watch the late late show because she worried that I would never be able to see classics like “Bringing Up Baby” or “Duck Soup” or “The Maltese Falcon” in a theatre. I have children, and they love the storytelling of classics of yore. But they have peers who have never seen a B&W picture, who have never heard of Chaplin or Keaton, and have never seen Fred Astaire dance.

    Enjoy what you can enjoy. Change what you can change. Do what you can do. You’ve done a service with your excellent article. I hope many people read it.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Well, YOU read it, and from your comments, that feels good.

  34. ev says

    I am so glad I gave my daughter the gift of old movies- as many as I could. At 26 and a film school grad, she loves not only the old b&w classics, but the silent ones too, just as much as she likes many “newer” movies. She doesn’t even have TV, only Netflix and Blockbuster so she can watch them. Among her favorites are Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Hepburn, Tracy, director John Ford and on and on… I hope she is able to pass this on to her children some day. It’s the only way that these will stay alive, instead of ignorance making them disappear forever from memory.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      As one of my old bosses likes to tell me, You’re doing the Lord’s work — keep it up.

  35. Jason Pankoke says

    Amazing that this is making its way through the Interwebs only a few days after a grad student friend of mine was telling me how he made reference to “Citizen Kane” in a class and his student had to ask what that was. Good, compelling read, Mr. Mesce.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Tell your friend I know the feeling.

  36. sanford sklansky says

    Really good article. I am 64 have to sons 28 and 24 and I am sure they have not heard of any of the titles you mentioned. And you only mention movies going back to the 40’s. Well Gone With the Wind was 1939. But you don’t even mention some of the great silent movies. Now with video stores closing you can’t even find some of those older movies. I do have one quibble, but maybe it is just my memory is false. I live in Racine Wisconsin. I don’t remember having to wait very long to see new movies. I remember seeing Ben Hur and I don’t think it took that long to get here after it opened in places like Chicago or New York.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      There was a caveat in distribution agreements placing a radius around showcase theaters — any venue within that radius couldn’t show it while the big houses had it.
      Undoubtedly, in my congested part of the country, that had a bigger impact in delaying release of a film to smaller houses than it did in parts of the country where populations were spread across more territory.

  37. Jersey Jack says

    Thank you for the informative, entertaining, and wonderfully-written piece. Great job. You hooked me good when you talked about those big movies that had limited first runs. I went to see BEN HUR in a bus filled with high school Latin students, our Latin teacher planning the trip, getting permissions that took months. The highlight of our whole year. 1960, maybe 61, and the trip to the one and only Cinerama Theater in Hollywood took an hour. That chariot race had us gasping and screaming.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I only got to see BEN-HUR on a re-release. I show the chariot race sequence to my film students who are still amazed that there was a time when the only way to mount something like that was to actually DO it! Build the arena, stock it with thousands of costumed extras, then send a flock of stunt men racing around the track.
      Today, you just KNOW that’d all be CGI — so where would the excitement be?

  38. Pony R. Horton says

    Mr. Mesce,

    I really enjoyed your article. I am a film maker, and I was born in the late 1950’s, raised just a short distance from several movie studios here in the San Fernando Valley. When I was a kid we had our three network channels, CBS, KNBC, KABC, and four locals and two or three UHF channels. And I, too, remember the way they used to run movies.

    I remember what big events it was when they first-ran, on network TV, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, EARTHQUAKE, or BILLY JACK. I also was versed enough in editing that I could tell, sometimes from memory, where a network had censored something that was heard or seen in the theatrical version of whatever film I was watching. One of the few exceptions was when KABC ran, one school afternoon in, I think, 1972 or ’73, EVEL KNIEVEL, and they did NOT EDIT OUT the swearing, and I mean words like “sh*t”, etc. I had just come home from junior high school and the film was starting, so I watched, knowing where the swear words were supposed to be. I was quite stunned when they RAN THEM UNCUT, and even then I remember my respect for whoever let that get aired went up.

    I must say, though, as a kid who was raised on Disney color films, it took me DECADES before I could learn to appreciate the “gray ones.” And I came from a family of photographers and at least one film industry person, so I had no excuse. The only reason I can offer for my own distaste (at that time) for B&W classic films is that, on a deep emotional level, I always found B&W moving images to be deeply depressing. It was like waking up to what you hope will be a bright, clear day only to see it’s leaden, overcast. gloomy, and pouring rain. Also, there were times when the way people seemed to interact or relate to each other, seemed… off, I don’t know, kinda… weird. Not like the normal way my friends and family spoke to me or each other.

    It did not help that back in the ’60’s we had a crappy TV set, or that many of the prints being telecast were on their last legs, not to mention the generally poor quality of local broadcast stations at that time. What we were seeing often looked, honestly, quite awful. No wonder it was depressing.

    My appreciation of B&W happened, ironically, thanks to Turner’s colorizing every B&W film he could lay his grubby hands on. As a photographer, and aspiring film maker myself, I finally recognized how special such a visual art was (yes, at their best even Hollywood films can be art) and that what Turner was doing was somehow sacriledge. As I matured into an adult, I decided to, as you put it, “excavate” some of what are the best films ever made, modern cinematic techniques notwithstanding.

    I will say, every year for me, Easter it was ALWAYS The Ten Commandments on TV, or The Wizard of Oz in February, and of course Christmas was simply not Christmas unless It’s A Wonderful Life was on TV somewhere.

    It’s natural for many of us to ignore the past as irrelevant, stodgy, dusty, clumsy, or just… old and not “with it.” And it’s also possible there could be an emotional reason that has little to do with the film’s heritage or story, and more to do with the simple physiological reactions we experience when exposed to certain colors or wavelengths of light. Most B&W images are simply not going to feel as emotionally fulfilling (uplifting?) as full-color ones.

    Also, even though I grew up with films and movies, I still needed to not only be led gently and willingly to the trough of classic films… I also had to LEARN HOW to view them, in order to truly appreciate them.

    These days it’s MUCH easier to film whatever your imagination can dream up. Between computers for post VFX and the newer, high-end cinema cameras that you can fit into a purse or small backpack and shoot near-IMAX-quality films with, and the proliferation of inexpensive production gear, it is no longer the major industrial expedition to film on location, or achieve stunning camera moves, that it was in the that first Golden Age of film.

    To me, that consideration of the past, of the great difficulties encountered daily by visionary film makers of that era, that helps engender true appreciation of the films from before my time.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      A nice commemoration, Pony, thanks for sharing it.

  39. Hope says

    Wonderful article–as someone in my late 20s, I think even I note a diminishing return on TV programming from my childhood to now. It’s sad, really. Yet, I wouldn’t say all is lost–I’m writing about movies and culture in a creative writing program full of undergraduate and graduate student movie lovers–we’re all Netflix junkies with a greater variety of movie interests than might be typical of people our age. I know a few teenagers who are similarly passionate about movies, who I’ve met through our dept.’s outreach programs for young writers. Thankfully, some of us are still interested.

    There’s the secondary issues of access and information overload, however. NPR did a story about information overload in our culture and the necessity of being able to filter some of it, to get to the best things- A 25-year old has to filter a good deal to get to Prix de Beaute or Pandora’s Box, but it happens.

    And then there’s mainstream access. For younger moviegoers, I think this is particularly relevant, because our generation is getting slammed by blockbusters and Michael Bay franchises. If you don’t live in a town with an independent cinema presence, the blockbusters may be all you ever get to see on a big screen, and increasingly on cable, as you point out. That has to have an impact on your appreciation for older films–that you would only be exposed to them on the small screen, in all likelihood.

    And it’s not as if projectors are inexpensive, either–when I mentioned how much I’d love to see “The Thin Man” in it’s original scale, a movie-buff friend suggested I do what he did: befriend the AV coordinator at his church. Apparently, they would go to church during the week when it was empty and watch old movies on the projection equipment. Just imagining that makes me smile.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Oh, aptly named Hope, I would’ve given my eye teeth for a couple of more students like you!

  40. Carl Olds says

    Thank you for your informative and passionate article. I also face this question from my Film Appreciation students; in fact, one of my former students sent me a link to your article! Some of these students are even older than my almost-40 years, and they too ask me why they have to watch these movies.

    You address the issue of volume, both in the sheer amount of movies coming out and in the sense of loudness, the constant bombardment of the immediate fostered by Facebook and Twitter. I think, though, that there is also a matter of proportions that my students don’t understand. As great as the movies of the past are, we generally only remember the great (or sometimes truly terrible!) films. Most of the studio output from 1941 is just as unmemorable as that of 2011. Who will really remember “Your Highness” five years from now? The great ones usually rise, even if like “Citizen Kane” it takes twenty years.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Good point, Carl. The studios — especially during the heyday of the old moguls — turned out an incredible amount of junk.
      And we got to see a lot of that, too! I keep thinking of the weekend horror movie slots we had: THE MANSTER, INVADERS FROM MARS, DINOSAURUS, every Frankenstein monster/Dracula/Wolf Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon sequel. We got the kitsch and the cream. You know, I miss the junk as much as the good stuff!
      Anyway, from one Film Appreciation vet to another, keep fighting the good fight…and my sympathies.

  41. Kate Kulzick says

    I grew up on many of these old classics. I was imbued early on with a respect and love for classic musicals, westerns, noirs, you name it. Yes movies were much more available in the theater when I was a kid, but my family didn’t go to the movies. I still have a strong memory of us all going to see Apollo 13 together on the big screen- we just didn’t do that. (I was 10.) My film education came through VHS and, when I was in high school and we finally got it, cable, particularly TCM and, back when it still aired full operas in the original language instead of 99% reality TV, Bravo.

    I’m with Robert. I don’t think kids have changed at all. Sure there are many who don’t understand or appreciate classic film, but I doubt it’s a larger percentage of the population than those in the 70s who didn’t understand or appreciate silent film. It’s just easier to remember and be frustrated by the kids behind us at the movie theater talking about how Guess Who looks hilarious (to take it back a few years to a particularly egregious and mind melting overheard conversation).

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Kate, I wrestled with that idea that maybe, on the whole, things weren’t THAT different back in my time in terms of younger people appreciating classic films.
      What I came up with is this. It’s not that they had inherently better taste, or some special insight into what made the classics classic. It was a simple matter of exposure. Because of the distribution patterns of the day, they’d been exposed to these tremendous library of oldies from the time they were kids. They didn’t view them as classics, or even as oldies; they were simply part of the cultural environment for them.
      That exposure isn’t there any more, hasn’t been for quite some time. My generation wasn’t “better” — just luckier.

  42. tiffany lee brown says

    1) please do not paint these generations with such a wide brush. i and most of the people i know have seen the frickin’ Maltese Falcon. maybe we’re educated and maybe we’re snobs, but we’re not idiots. of course, i’m talking Gen X. can’t really help you with Gen Y, who are rarely lumped in with Gen X as you’ve done here, because the two generations are often wildly, wildly different.

    2) but here’s something we do have in common: not just “clutter” on TV, but an absolutely overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips and bombarding us at every moment. whatever films, ads, media, and TV you and your Boomer friends had access to in 1965? we grew up with exponentially higher amounts of that. we are immersed in enormous amounts of Stuff, created every day by our peers on YouTube and our professionals in Hollywood, AND nearly everything created in the entire 20th century.

    though i, personally, am a believer in having some knowledge of and continuity with the culture and history of previous generations, it’s unreasonable to expect all of us to have the same touchpoints as Boomers or Silents or Goldens. due to the proliferation of media, technology, and information, we are unable to keep up even with our own generation.

  43. […] quite a long piece, but it is worth reading. Bill Mesce’s The “Gray Ones” Fade To Black, brought to attention by Ebert. posted by Sheila Ryan in aesthetics, archives, art, business, […]

  44. Vincent says

    Some good thoughts here, but one more angle, if I may: Not every classic film available in the vaults were necessarily sold to TV stations as part of studio packages. More than a few were deemed a bit too racy, sexy or violent to be shown on television to mass audiences that, in those Levittown, one-set-in-the-living-room days, included children. As a result, many of those movies were either never part of TV packages or, if they were because of sheer name recognition (think “King Kong”), were censored and sanitized.

    One that got through the cracks was the Paramount anthology “If I Had A Million,” a 1964 viewing of which showed Wynne Gibson stripping down to lingerie and taking off her stockings as her streetwalker character, now $1 million richer, went to sleep in a fancy hotel…alone. My mother, fearful of the effect on a 9-year-old boy in Syracuse, N.Y., hurriedly changed the channel, and I never got to see the segment with W.C. Fields (my main reason for viewing).

    The pre-Code revival of the past 20-plus years, begun by Turner’s original TNT and later TCM and aided by the likes of Mick LaSalle’s superb book “Complicated Women,” has brought an array of films largely unavailable from the ’40s to the ’80s to the forefront, waiting to be discovered. These are comedies, musicals and dramas with sexiness and wit and without raunch. (Compare Lubitsch’s “The Smiling Lieutenant,” with the outrageous song “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” to “The Change-Up.”)

    A tip to instructors using classic film in their courses: Add some of the better pre-Codes to the menu.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Vincent, that’s a thought to consider, but they already think 60s/70s movies are too slow and tame!

  45. Louisa says

    This is so strange to me- I’m only 28, but when I took a film appreciation course in high school, I was already a fan of Bogart and of Hitchcock. I’d seen many movies that were made before even my parents were born, and counted Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca in my top ten favorite movies. What’s more, most of my class seemed just as engaged and knowledgeable. Maybe a result of growing up in a quirky college town?

    But the attitude you’re getting astounds me. I know these movies aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’re taking a theatre history class, you should expect to cover medieval passion plays and Shakespeare before getting to RENT. If studying literature, Chaucer comes before Franzen. Why should film be any different? It’s a class, meaning a place in which you learn, not one in which you watch movies you already know for fun.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Boy, Louisa, do I wish you’d been in my class!

  46. cadavra says

    Bill, I could’ve written this piece…but not nearly as well. In recent months, I’ve attended revival screenings of films as diverse as REAR WINDOW, GOLDFINGER and JAWS (all in color, BTW), only to hear kids grumbling in the lobby afterwards about how slow and boring and “old” they were; one guy actually growled, “Man, I thought they were NEVER gonna show us the f—ing shark!” I once set up a screening of THE WILD ONE for studio execs who were thinking of remaking it; they all trooped out after 20 minutes, declaring it “stupid.”

    Worse, alas, it’s not just movies–vintage television, music and of course theatre also leave them uninterested. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Cadavra —
      They got the movie they wanted: they got DEEP BLUE SEA. And weren’t we all the better for it?
      I remember interviewing a film director who had given a number of lectures at west coast film schools and it seemed he would forever be troubled by the student who referred to “that classic, THE ROCK.”
      Yeah, it’s their loss, but we have to live with it.
      Thanks for your comments.

  47. David says

    Thank you for this excellent article. As a child in the sixties and a teenager in the seventies, I was introduced to so many legendary films through television.

    I first saw King Kong, To Kill A Mockingbird, and All About Eve during weekend or late night movie blocks on our local midwest TV stations. It’s such a shame that it’s impossible to find that experience any more.

    Your description of the distribution process during that period really puts it into perspective. Those event movies, where our family would dress up and go to the one theater in town where something like Mary Poppins or Ben Hur was playing, are treasured memories for me. That kind of distribution created cultural and family bonds that reached far beyond the business model.

    In your piece the thing that seems to be missing for me is an answer to your student’s question. I used to teach introductory graphic design, and I always looked forward to the lessons about gray scales, because it meant that I could introduce my students to black and white cinematography.

    When announcing that I would be showing a film, I got comments like “It’s not one of those movies made before we were born is it?” I’ve mulled that question over in my mind for years now, and your article finally helped me answer these questions which should never need to be asked.

    I would respond to the students by asking why they would be attending college only to learn about things they already know. Doesn’t higher education contain an implicit understanding that, as a student, you are opening yourself up to a wider world? If what they’re looking for is ignorance and prejudice, they shouldn’t be spending major money for something they already get in abundance for free.

    School is a place where students defer to the wisdom, education and informational wealth that a teacher can provide. Film students can easily continue to just know what they know and not know nothin’ more, or they can learn about the wealth that’s inherent in movie history. They can learn to read the filmic language, and experience wonderful treasures from a bygone era that teach us about history, cultural tastes, visionary image making, incredible talent and legendary achievements in the art and history of cinema. Or they can just keep focused on finding the latest dumb thing on their phones.

    I would also suggest that they learn how to use those phones to not be dumb, and to find all those great movies from the past that are out there to be discovered. That’s one method I use. They just have to learn to love the sense of discovery. But if they only want to know stuff from their lifetimes, they’re wasting their time and money in school. That kind of person is going to be left behind in life by their peers who are smart, wise, and educated.

    A teacher is there to guide students toward the knowledge which will make them richer and more understanding of their world, and open up their options for a lifetime. Anyone, whether they’re students or not, can find these treasures if they learn to value them. The only thing standing in their way is themselves and their love of ignorance.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      David —

      You should’ve written the piece. That was beautifully put. I’ve taught business majors with no interest in business, English and Education majors who don’t like to read, Public Administration majors who don’t follow the news. Why should film majors be any different?

      Thanks for your well-expressed comments.

  48. Paddy says

    I am shocked to learn that this is not merely a Swiss (or a European) phenomenon. I’ve been growing up in the 70s and 80s glued to the television, reveling in the classic A to C pictures. But kids in their twenties are completely ignorant. They don’t even TRY. Just the other day I was told off for mentioning Steve McQueen. “How am I supposed to know him? He died before I was born!” I’m used to glazed eyes when I quote from a movie, but it’s getting worse and worse. People simply don’t care. I myself learned some valuable lessons about life – just by watching movies. Watching the classics should be required at every school. Movies can be as valuable to a persons development and personal growth as for instance history books or philosophical classes.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Paddy —
      thanks for your comments.
      You’re shocked? Your email depressed the hell out of me! I thought this was an American thing.
      I did a piece around Christmas last year listing some movies and top-of-the-heap stars my Fall class didn’t know, and McQueen was one of them.
      Man, one day you’re the King of Cool, the next, you’re, “Who?”

  49. Robert says

    Wonderful read. I do hesitate to accept some of your statments (perhaps I just don’t want to believe that this is where we’ve gotten). Yet I wonder if the story you relate is reflective of the universal experience or that of you and your fellow lovers of film. If so, then the comparison is between movie lovers of 40 years ago to the indifferents of today. But movie lovers of today have seen Casablanca, and Double Indemnity, and even some Tarkovsky and Dovzhenko (to drop some names). We do still stumble into great discoveries, but through Netflix recommendations and scouring the IMDb. Did those who cared less about films stumble into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or were they busy watching TV like Marcus Welby MD, Hee Haw, Adam 12, Medical Center, Maude, Chico and the Man (all among the top rated shows of the 70’s all somewhat less than significant cultural touchstones). Did those who cared less about films see movies that required an effort to seek out? If they were made to watch Pandora’s Box would they have groaned that it was a film that they’d never heard of just like people of today? Have people changed that much? The distribution model has shifted from advertising based on quality to hype. Get as much money as youc an out of the first weekend before people realize the movie stinks. But people do still realize when a movie stinks. Bad films drop off over 50% before the second weekend. Good films like the Pixar movies or last year’s True Grit have legs, they add to a new and ongoing national mythology. As for the old mythology, it’s more accessible than ever, you just have to want it. And people do want it. People still discover it. Just not in the way you did. It’s discouraging that your students’ attitudes were dismissive of the classics, but I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. People today care less about John Ford, just as people of the 70’s cared less about Herman Melville and people in 40 years will care less about Christopher Nolan. But I don’t despair. The “Gray Ones” will never completely fade to black. No generational apathy is that strong. Sam Spade will outlive us all.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Robert —

      Thanks for your passionate comments. I can only say I hope you’re right.
      My point was that we WEREN’T looking for them — they were just so plentiful you couldn’t help but bump into them.
      I think Stephen Whitty’s point touches you’re own: if you look for them, you can find them. We just didn’t have to look for them back in The Day.
      I do think there are still people passionate about film from all ages. The people here at Sound on Sight are proof of that as is your letter, and for those people, all the New Media pipelines are a godsend.
      But to people who don’t know what they’re missing — and my feeling is that’s the bulk these days — it’s a set-up designed to insure they go on not knowing what they’re missing.
      This was, after all, a class where we also discussed Literature, and I brought up Hemingway and my students brought up the TWILIGHT books and Danielle Steele.
      To your point, I’m not sure college kids were ever overly fond of Hemingway. But I do think they knew enough not to bring up — in my day — Jackie Susanne.

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