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 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.
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.