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When home video came out in the 1980s, I remember thinking what a boon it would be to old movies.  Suddenly, these films would be available to view at any time, not just when TV stations randomly chose to telecast them.  In theory, this would lead to more young people checking out all these movies that were made before they were born.

But I think the opposite might have happened, mainly because brand-new movies were also made suddenly available for home viewing.  When many of us were young, virtually the ONLY movies we ever got to see on TV were those from a bygone era; hence, if you wanted to watch a movie, chances are it would be an old one.  In short, we were nurtured on old movies and thus developed a sense of movie history as we were soaking them in.  But, with the magic of VCRs (then, later DVDs, downloads and net-streaming), suddenly one could watch all the latest releases and no longer have to bother with older product.  Why watch a dusty old black-and-white classic when the latest techno-blockbuster was readily available for instant viewing?

Well, apparently, Neal Gabler picked up on this trend, writing an interesting piece in the L.A. Times on it this weekend.  His concern is prompted by the release of the latest "Spiderman" film, a "reboot" (fancy name for remake) of a movie that is ONLY 10 YEARS OlD.

When questioned [about whether it was too soon for such a remake], a producer of the new picture snapped that anyone who asked that is "too old." He may have been dismissively arrogant, especially to geriatrics over 30, but he may also have been right.
Gabler wonders if the youth of today are predisposed to dismiss any movie that is not "of the moment," not an "event" of which they can be an integral part.  
But the new "Spider-Man" betrays something else — something important about the young audience's relationship to film. Young people, so-called millennials, don't seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did. They think of them as fashion, and like fashion, movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention. Living in a world of the here-and-now, obsessed with whatever is current, kids seem no more interested in seeing their parents' movies than they are in wearing their parents' clothes. Indeed, novelty may be the new narcissism. It obliterates the past in the fascination with the present.
Gabler makes the point that this has not always been the case.  He points to the recently deceased film critic Andrew Sarris, who was able to excite younger generations of the past with his analysis of movie history.  And, although college is still a place where a love of older films can be nurtured, on the whole Gabler finds that the youth of today...
...find old movies hopelessly passé — technically primitive, politically incorrect, narratively dull, slowly paced. In short, old-fashioned. Even Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man is a Model T next to Andrew Garfield's rocket ship of a movie. And Model Ts get thrown on the junk heap.
He provides some anecdotal evidence to support his supposition:
As taste goes, millennials seem to have a hard time relating to movies that are only a few years old. A friend of mine who teaches in the New York University Cinema Studies graduate program told me he was appalled at how little interest his students — future critics and film scholars, no less — had in old movies. For them, "classics" are movies made in the last five years, and Scorsese is like Washington or Lincoln: ancient.

Another friend who teaches at a prestigious university told me that while a good number of his self-selected class of undergraduates studying film history did respond to many of the old films he showed, for example Hitchcock movies, they expressed only cold admiration for many other classic films, including "Citizen Kane,"which they found antiquated. And yet another friend, this one a high school teacher in California heading a film class, said his students were bored by "The Godfather." He won't be teaching the course again because there wasn't sufficient interest.

Gabler thinks that the real reason this is happening can be found in the technlogical culture of the day.  Thanks to social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc., movie releases have become interactive events, in which fans of individual movies and franchises can begin obsessing over the films long before their scheduled release dates, an obsession that can continue on into the films' early runs.  New films, thus, become a part of young people's social lives in a way that older films cannot.  
What this points to is that movies may have become a kind of "MacGuffin" — an excuse for communication along with music, social updates, friends' romantic complications and the other things young people use to stoke interaction and provide proof that they are in the loop. A film's intrinsic value may matter less than its ability to be talked about. In any case, old movies clearly cannot serve this community-building function as they once did. More, the immediacy of social networking, a system in which one tweet supplants another every millisecond, militates against anything that is 10 minutes old, much less 10 years.  All of this makes it tough not only for old movies to survive but for movie history to matter. There is a sense that if you can't tweet about it or post a comment about it on your Facebook wall, it has no value. Once, not so long ago, old and new movies, middle-aged audiences and young audiences, happily coexisted. Movies brought us together. Now a chasm widens between the new and the old, one aesthetic and another, one generation and another. It widens until the past recedes into nothingness, leaving us with an endless stream of the very latest with no regard for what came before. Old movies are now like dinosaurs, and like dinosaurs, they are threatened with extinction.
I had some personal experience with all this awhile back when I taught a cinema course in the high school where I work.  At first, I showed movies that I felt were seminal events in movie history and with which all culturally literate people should be familiar, but, as the years wore on, I found myself showing more and more recent films just to keep the students from collapsing in heaps of boredom onto their desks.  Evetually, the class became just too painful for me to teach and I gave it up.

I have had some luck with older films, but this has been mainly with Advanced Placement students and only after studying a particular literary work on which the movie is based.  Two that have been fairly successful are 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire (the girls - and some of the boys - still drool over Marlon Brando) and The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.

But those two have been the rare exceptions (I long ago gave up showing the 1940 version of The Grapes of Wrath, since I rarely saw a raised head by the time The End came up on screen).

One wonders what will happen to all those great films of the past after the next few generations pass on.  It's a sad prospect to contemplate.

Originally posted to Rolandz on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 02:58 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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