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A Beginner’s Guide to Classic Cinema

the Turner Classic Movies logo

Remember when these guys showed movies made before 1990?

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment the transition occurred, but at some point between junior high and marriage I traversed the divide between casual movie goer and hardcore film geek. There came a time when I realized that I was no longer satisfied with flavor of the week mentality that meant I took interest in what ever movie got the most talk time in the cafeteria. It started with a willingness to watch black and white films and before I knew it I was pouring through the classics like an addict downing every fermented drop in the house.

The funny thing about film is, the medium has been around for more than 100 years. So when people tell me they refuse to watch a movie made more than three years ago I find myself getting aggravated. You know the type, always watching the latest trailers can’t stop talking about the big summer blockbuster, even if it was directed by Steven Segal. The horror! The horror! Truth is, I used to be that guy. But after getting smacked in the face by the Fast and the Furious and receiving even greater unpleasantness from George Lucas’s millennium debacle I began looking elsewhere for my flick fix.

I by no means consider myself the end all and be all of film experts, if that were the case I’d be working at a sweet archive like the Toronto International Film Festival Cinematique. But not the one in Cleveland. Nothing on Earth could force me to move to that abomination. But allow me to offer a few nuggets of knowledge from my own cinematic education.

There are a number of things one has to keep in mind when one sits down to watch a movie made before the year 2000. The most important is the change in pacing. Our perceptions of events in film are based on a collective consciousness that has been growing since some guy named William Lincoln started spinning drawings of horses around a wheel. At least that’s what I remember from elementary school history. A little wheel with horse drawings pasted on the inside. Anyway, as we see new and exciting things in movies we soon fail to find them new and exciting and begin to accept them as commonplace.

The Discovery One exterior

2001: A Space Odyseey is like the Energizer Bunny.

The most obvious example of this is the evolution of the spaceship in movies. Recall if you will the opening scene in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. For just under 35 seconds we get this fast-moving shot that takes us from a portal on a spaceship out to a wide-angle rear shot that allows us to see the entire ship juxtaposed with a burning star. And a weird space thunder storm, but disregard that for now. J.J. Abrams did not invent this shot. This is nothing new in sci-fi epics. But, the fact is he did in less than a minute what it took Robert Wise nearly three minutes to accomplish in the first Star Trek movie. But even in 1979 this was considered an excessively long scene by anyone but die-hard fans. Star Wars had brought us light years ahead of Stanley Kubricks long, drawn out exterior shots of Discovery One two years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

So rule one when approaching old movies is be prepared to take it easy. The action won’t be flying at you faster than a McDonald’s hamburger. Movies like Apocalypse Now, Dr. Strangelove, or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly may seem to drag on forever, but if you start with that expectation they’re never as long as you thought and you will enjoy them more. Think of it like a cross-country train ride in a first class dining car circa 1910. Sure, it was slower than a 747, but you had more leg room, better food, and fresh air. At least until you hit a tunnel.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance on marble

It's like eating a bowl of chocolate covered frosted sugar bombs with chocolate milk. Blech.

Once I learned to take it easy and start a movie with the expectation that the plot would develop like the suburbs of Montana I had to overcome the next hurdle. Black and white. Contrary to my belief, not all black and white movies are little more than tap dancing sap stories about the guy getting the girl no matter what on sets so pristine even the cockroaches wear tuxedos with tails and top hats. As I kid I was willing to accept that the first few minutes of the Wizard of Oz were in black and white because Oz was more colorful than the language on a Brooklyn street corner, but when my mom flipped on It’s a Wonderful Life I made a mad dash to the fresh cookies in the kitchen before sneaking up to my room to ogle the ToysRus catalog.

But when I got a little older I got brave and sat down to watch the whole thing, and wouldn’t you know it? It’s the best Christmas movie since Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Wait…well technically that fits my personal wibbly wobbly timeline so I’m going to run with it. Movies like the aforementioned Dr. Strangelove or The Asphalt Jungle still tell fascinating, and humorous in the case of the former, tales often better than 80 percent of the films in theaters this year. My love of photography went a long way in developing my interest in black and white cinema because without color the director often finds other ways to catch the eye. For example you Bill Cosby fans may recall his joke about shooting cows derived from the 1963 Paul Newman classic, Hud. The movie itself is a bit lackluster but it won a well deserved Academy Award for James Wong Howe‘s cinematography. One of the best framed scenes is in fact a prelude to Cosby’s cow shooting scene. Instead of a wide shot of a bulldozer digging a hole to drive the cows into Howe fills the screen with the bulldozer’s blade from a worm’s eye view. I found it particularly dramatic.

But the colorless fun doesn’t stop with Duck Soup. The final frontier for many a blossoming film geek is the silent era. But considering this post’s current length I think I’ll let you get back to whatever remakes Hollywood has come up with for this weekend. I’ll have to explain why subtitles are my best friend and why my all time favorite sci-fi flick is from 1927.

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11 Responses

  1. “MMMYESSS MY MOVIES ARE CLASSIER THAN YOURS. Lets bust out the caviar and make fun of the COMMON FOLK at the movie the-aters. From the safety of my YACHT, of course.” – Enosh, paraphrased

    • Even though you’re just being your usual dick self, I will respond. You are, of course, missing the point entirely. I’m just helping people find more movies to enjoy by freeing them from the burden of sifting through all the garbage Hollywood is producing. Old movies are at an advantage because as films age they are forgotten in order of watchability. So if a movie made in the 30’s is still in the public conscience today it can only be because it has some value to viewers. Those movies which have been allowed to slip into the public domain have done so for a good reason. Their only remaining use is for stock footage requirements.

      • Oh come on I haven’t made an “enosh is a pretentious asshole” joke in forever. But you’re also forgetting one major factor. The movies that are being produced, or the “hollywood garbage” as you refer to it, is being created because that’s what sells. Maybe movies aren’t so slow anymore because we have evolved into a society of people with ADD. It’s like who cares lets blow something up. That’s why movies like this are made http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0385639/
        Also, I had a mental image of your monocle flying off in surprise when you read the first comment. That alone was worth the effort. 😛

  2. The only reason you haven’t made that joke recently is you seem to enjoy making it while we’re actually hanging out. As to your argument, movie production is the poorest example of a supply and demand model I can recall. Movie making is far from an exact science but the basic principle the big time distributors follow is go with a proven formula and make it PG-13. Independent films are the game changers and Hollywood is nothing but copycats with gigantic budgets. And while we are likely becoming a society with an ever decreasing attention span it’s not a trend that has to be followed. The human brain is capable of shutting out the constant advertisement blips and the 15 second Youtube videos, it just takes effort. In order for people to make that effort they need to be properly motivated, which is my intention with this post.
    Also, Death Bed sounds like an epically awful, and therefore awesome, B Horror movie. That’s another thing I’d like to cover in my next post. The appeal of the bad movie.

    • Sorry what? I started to read your response but then watched cat vids on youtube instead. Ha ha! They’re riding one of those little robot vacuums, that’s adorable!

  3. As one of the lead developers of Enosh’s pretentious douchebaggery, I feel I need to chime in. Lots of people have preconceived notions on older movies simply because they are old. I agree that these notions are a bad thing. However, people who tend to only watch movies made within the last three years, usually aren’t looking for the same kind of movies a those mentioned. I love many different kinds of movies from Fast Five to Tree of Life, but not everyone does. It’s the difference between sitting down and reading James Patterson versus John Steinbeck. You can’t make someone like older movies, but when they come out of Inception with their minds blown, tell them to go watch The Usual Suspects.

    Oh, and Enosh, your transition between casual moviegoer and hardcore film geek happened during the Die Hard marathon.

    • Hahaha! Oh what a weekend that was. I still maintain that Die Hard 2 is Bruce Willis’s worst film. Not that it was his fault. It’s just a poorly written movie. Did I tell you I did a Robocop marathon a while back? Wow, that was all kinds of awful. I don’t know how people can like that series.
      You do have a point about James Patterson though. Some people just want mindless movies about road trips, sex, drugs, and gratuitous explosions to take their minds off of their daily lives. But I want to make sure that those of us whose minds were blown by Inception know how to find and enjoy movies like Memento and The Usual Suspects. Or 12 Monkeys. That was a killer Bruce Willis film. I might need to watch it and review it again.
      On the other hand, for James Patterson fans there are movies like Order of the Black Eagle and other similarly ridiculous movies of which they should be made aware. Present day Hollywood didn’t invent gratuitous cliches after all.

  4. I’ve been dying to see order of the black eagles. I hear it is awesome. You need to do a follow up post listing all the movies that people need to go back and watch. Mostly so I can yell at you for what movies you forgot, but also to help those find their way. Or you can just copy and paste imdb’s top 250. That really covers most of it.

    • Ugh. The only imdb feature I hate more than the new idiot proof site design is their lists. Seriously! I don’t care who mj23forevs considers to be the hottest Latino actresses of all time. I realize that the top 250 is actually just an aggregate score but I felt like going on a rant. Plus why in the world is Goodfellas at number 15? I can think of a million movies better than that. Also, the Godfather Part II was better than part one and both are better than Shawshank Redemption. You see what you started? I must flee before this gets out of hand.
      Making my own list might not be a bad idea as long as I’m careful not to slip into the random imdb user format.

  5. […] now that you’ve no doubt been inspired to rush out and watch the entirety of AFI’s top 100 list what will you do with yourself? You […]

  6. […] of time, if you recall my warning about the pacing of older movies it certainly applies here. Yet aside from the opening scene the […]

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