My previous two posts have dealt with movies, and by specifically looking at The Martian and Black Mass, have peered into the question, what makes a movie good or bad? We hinted at an answer of empathy, though a more direct analysis is in order. In addition, these posts discussed other film-related topics like the problem with depending on Rotten Tomatoes for opinions and the problem of commending acting in a movie when we don’t know what we’re talking about. For the last post in this series, we are going to look at another cinema movie matter: What’s better, old or new movies?
Now this can be a difficult discussion because everyone has opinions on this subject. In fact, this topic comes from a conversation I had with a couple friends. They contended that best movie lists like AFI’s Top 100 were misleading and didn’t list the best movies but rather the most influential. We’ll return to that particular claim but first let’s look at just how different old and new movies really are.
There is a difference in style between new movies and old. This difference is not inherently good or bad, it’s simply there. One stylistic difference is that old movies tend to rely more on dramatic acting—really hamming it up—while modern audience tend to prefer realism. Over-the-top is not inherently better than realism in acting, it is merely different.
Another example of differences between now and then is the preference for darker stories. This is clearly seen through the history of Superman films. Superman (1978) was both a critical and box-office success—people loved it. It was generally lighthearted and didn’t take itself too seriously. In 2006 when another violence-avoiding Superman was attempted via Superman Returns, audiences were not thrilled. It was not until 2013 that audiences got what they wanted—the complete destruction of Metropolis—in Man of Steel (though critics were still not pleased).
Movies are tailored to fit their era and audience. Jackson made an action epic out of Tolkien’s often whimsical Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that is exactly what his audience, and critics for the most part, wanted. In nearly all cases, differences in style do not correlate will differences in worth. Campiness, realism, optimism, or darkness do not determine a movie’s greatness.
Still, many would contend that movies are getting better. The classic film Citizen Kane actually helps make this point best. Orson Welles famously made one of the greatest movies ever with his first excursion into the medium. He achieved this by studying the films of his past (namely Stagecoach), seeing how they operated, what they did well, how they told their stories. He used the strategies he gleaned to create his cinematic masterpiece. And in the same way, movies today have the benefit of the past. A director is always building on what came before, letting others make the mistakes and having access to all the best.
On the flip side, many would argue that this has made modern movies worse. Filmmakers are lazier now, they don’t have to think creatively and don’t have to be true innovators. Moreover, they now have the added obstacle of cliche. Because we’ve built up such a catalog of movies over the last century, filmmakers must warily avoid overused tropes and techniques.
And then there is the proposition that those making movies these days are not interested in art but in cranking out any trash that will earn a buck. While that is largely true, it should be noted that studios have always been interested in making money. Nevertheless it has not been until recently that they have had the knowledge of what mass audiences eat up and have obligingly produced narratively hollow motion pictures. The Hollywood process makes it hard for pure ideas to make it to the big screen.
Going back to the conversation with my friends, I think the answer to our question is twofold: First, the influence of a film is a necessary part of its greatness. While a film’s novelty may fade, the courage and ingenuity it took to create it remain constant, and should be taken into account. Second, I plainly conjecture that older movies are just as good as newer movies. Admittedly, when making lists like AFI’s Top 100, critics may compensate a film for its influence or equalize them for a perceived handicap (“For its time…”), and that is clearly an unfair way to assess cinema. But, I don’t think these classic films need the adjustment; they simply require the right attitude.
This change in attitude is something that I have been developing in myself for several years and hold in the highest regard. It is the ability to transplant our spirit into a past movie-watching experience. We train ourselves to watch a movie like the audience it was made for, so we can soak up all that the director intended. In this way, we can experience the true value of any given film.
I would argue that cinema is the greatest of all art forms. And as such, we cannot afford to miss out on the classics. They are, of course, informative for how we should understand movies in our own time. But more than that, we are cut off from a world of art if we ignore what came before. There is worth to be found in every age of the silver screen.