Modern Films? Thanks, But No Thanks

Guest blogger Matthew Coniam writes:

In his essay The Decline and Fall of the Movie, Leslie Halliwell uses the following quote from Jonathan Swift to encapsulate his attitude to the cinema, and in particular to explain how his love of Hollywood’s golden age could sit happily alongside an almost total disinterest in and disdain for its present: “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.” It’s an opinion I more or less share. I too have my Peters and Johns – off the top of my head: Jaws, The Fog, Ghost World and The Straight Story would top the list – but the overwhelming majority of post-’60s cinema leaves me cold.

In particular, I have a loathing for the supposedly great works of ’70s Hollywood – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, that one in space with the laser swords and the little robots, forget the name of it for a minute – that verges on the certifiable. Even films I saw 10 years ago and liked rarely hold up for me once a little water has flowed between us. Titanic, for instance, I initially had pegged as a glorious, old-style tear-jerker: the petty resentments of stuck-up critics who mocked the script and performances, I confidently predicted, would come to look as transparent and silly as those few who tried to write off Gone With the Wind. I was amazed to watch it again recently and see that they were right: it’s a terrible film. Even the effects no longer impress overmuch: what we took to be realistic was in fact merely state of the art, and the trickery already looks almost as distancing, and fully as much a product of its time, as that of a ’50s sci-fi movie.

Now, by and large, nobody gets uppity when I say that I hate the taste (and indeed the thought) of mushrooms. But for some reason I’ve often noticed people getting strangely resentful when I say that I don’t watch new movies, listen to modern music or watch any television at all, as if I was expressing a judgement about their taste rather than mine.

Some of the more popular responses:
I’m being pretentious.
I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face.
It’s a shame I’m so unyielding, because I don’t know what I’m missing.

But what, on the face of it is so strange, or inconsistent, or hard to accept, about liking old movies and disliking new ones? And what is elitist about having, and expressing, a preference? That’s the conundrum I intend getting to the bottom of here.

Firstly, though it baffles me personally, there is of course no a priori reason why a person cannot like both classic and modern cinema. The thing that strikes me as odd is the almost automatic supposition that if one likes the former, one would, or should, like both. It’s a supposition that rarely works the other way round, I’ve noticed. I wouldn’t expect anyone who rushed out to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (“screenplay by Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro’s Transformers action figures”: now there’s a credit to fill you with hope for the future of the medium) to enthuse about Monroe Owsley, have strong opinions about whether Charley Chase is better in silents or talkies, or feverishly collect Irene Ware films. Yet when I, to whom all of the above applies, say that I’d rather spend a week underground with a mobile phone salesman than another minute looking at Will Ferrell’s face… suddenly I’m the one with the big attitude.

I have known people laugh when I say I regularly watch black-and-white films, as if I’d said I liked reading Beowulf by candlelight in a Hebridean cave. Black and white! The idea! I’ve met people who thought I was joking when I said I liked silent films. (Often old people, dismayingly enough.) Well, choosing to spend 90 minutes in the company of Tom Cruise, or Lars von Trier or Ken Loach or Wes Anderson, strikes me as pretty wacko, too.

But the much more important point is this: Of course there are some modern films that I have enjoyed, especially from non-English-speaking Europe, where – for the moment at least – both depth and style remain fashionable, but even these do not strike me as examples of the same thing as the classic movies with which I am obsessed. I mean, what do they really have in common? Just this (and, increasingly, not even this): they are both forms of visual representation created by passing a beam of light through a strip of celluloid on which photographic impressions of human activity have been recorded.

That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. That’s the common factor. That’s the obvious and vital link that makes Mr Deeds Goes to Town an example of the same thing as Being John Malkovich, and makes me a crank or curmudgeon for loving the one like a firstborn child and hating the other with the kind of passion I ordinarily reserve for religious fanatics and salad. How dare I? Yet as I understand it, if you love old Hollywood–not just the list of approved masterpieces but the whole world and scent and flavour of old Hollywood, then you are in love with something that simply does not exist anymore, regardless of how good the occasional half-watchable film may still be on its own terms. Classic Hollywood cinema is – and I mean this not as a judgement but as a simple statement of fact – a unique phenomenon, product of a unique set of circumstances and individuals, operating in a unique way at a unique point in time. The studio system, long gone, produced a body of work that is to cinema generally what an illuminated medieval manuscript is to books generally. Shot almost entirely in studios, by contract artists, operating under an imposed censorship system, so that each studio had its own instantly recognisable atmosphere, regular stable of players, and totally artificial style.

This is what I love.

When that changed, as first the studio system and then the Hays Code collapsed, a clear before-and-after line can be drawn in the product. The stars migrate from studio to studio, individual studio styles disappear, real locations, widescreens and other forms of pseudo-realism replace the artistic creations of the old studio photographers and set designers with drab singularity, and uniformity of manner and message gives way to a thousand discordant voices all vying to see who can shout loudest for your dollar. These things, that make the earlier films so fundamentally different from what followed, are the specific things that attract me to them. I have no passion for modern cinema. Even among the films I admired, hardly any have added something to my life, or given me any strong desire to see them again. Whereas if you told me I had just watched The Old Dark House for the last time I’d cry and fall over. Films are an interest, old Hollywood is a passion.

Now, this all seems so straightforward to me that I wonder if the problem isn’t somewhere in the very terminology we use. ‘Classic’ is a slippery term. On the one hand it can be used as a judgement – to be deemed a classic is a marker of quality – on the other it is used as a description, to mean films of a certain age. (Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide covers all films pre-1960.) For most people I think it means a combination of the two – a retrospective bestowing of approval on a film that has been around long enough to have stood the test of time, hence the tentative use of phrases like ‘modern classic’ or ‘future classic’ to refer to Fargo or American Beauty or Christ knows what other ordure happens to be flavour of the month this month. I’d like to see these two meanings divorced, so that we can talk about classical and modern cinema just as we talk of classical and modern music. Yes, everyone knows classical music is better than modern music, especially those who claim otherwise, but that’s not what the term means. It refers to a style only, and any related associations of higher quality spring incidentally from the terms of the drawn distinction itself. So how about continuing to use ‘classic’ as a qualitative term to recognise individual quality, but ‘classical’ as a quantitative term to define that whole world, and way of doing things, that existed between the creation of American cinema and the collapse of the original structures and strictures, somewhere in the fifties.

One final point. I do realise I have spoken only about old and new mainstream Hollywood. Many have written that yes, American pop cinema is a parched field of rotting weeds, but salvation is at hand in the great third way: avant-garde, art and independent cinema. Personally, I find even less here to attract me than in the average Hollywood blockbuster. If classical Hollywood is Mozart – or at least Puccini – and modern Hollywood is Justin Timberlake, then this lot is Stockhausen. (I even saw Peter Greenaway’s name come up – a sobering reminder that there are indeed corners of the world where this pompous buffoon retains the respect long withdrawn by those of us who have to share a country with him.) I really don’t mind whether I see Marley and Me again or not, but if you wanted me to sit through Broken Flowers a second time you’d have to nail me down. More genuine creativity, inspiration, effort and love of cinema went into Police Academy 6 than Being John Malkovich.

For more of Matthew’s views on film, visit Movietone News.