Monday, May 7

Yesterday and Today at the Movies

Here we go with a discussion of movies of today and movies of yesteryear.  I hesitated titling this old movies v. new movies.  That sounds so either/or while I think it's more about and.  Movies have much merit regardless of when they were made, just as there are detractions.

It is probably important that we define some terms... namely, what is an old movie?    How far back do we go for a film to be called old?  A cousin and I recently had a chat about that very thing and  she said anything earlier than the 1980s is old.  I was at first surprised because I don't consider that to be the time of an old movie but I started ruminating about it and came to the immediate conclusion that it's a subjective thing.  Old to you may not be old to me or vice versa.  I recalled a young neighbor once told me an old film is anything not currently in the theaters.  Unfortunately, she added "No one cares about an old movie."  Um, I do.

There would be those who would certainly say an old film is one from at least one generation earlier.  If your parents saw it first-run, it's old to you.  If the film were made before you were born, it automatically gets classified as old.  I will likely buy into that one.

I have another focus, I guess, and it has more to do with the types of films that were made in the old days and ones that are made now and/or the type of Hollywood that existed then and now.

There was a time referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood and for sure I can tell you, it's not today.  It is generally considered to be from 1910 to the late 60s.   Personally, from 1910 until the mid-1930s, I think movies kind of stunk... so much so that in any other industry, that industry probably would have folded.  Technological advances and some pioneering types who wanted to entertain and make good money hung in there.  Maybe the late 1960s- early 1970s is right on the other end.  Movies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (both 1967)  are just three examples of films that changed the landscape forever.

So, ok, indulge me here.  Let's just say old movies are from 1935 to 1965 and new movies are from 1966 to present day.  I don't want you to have to read this whole thing to find out which I prefer and most of you know the answer anyway.  Haven't I said that my concentration in these pages is films from the 1940's, 50's and 60's?  Well, there you go.  But again, I find much to like in both categories... it's just that overall I prefer the films of yesterday.

Let's just throw out some words for you to mull over... acting/actors, writing, photography, special effects, studios or not, sex/nudity, violence, language... and let's work them in to the rest of this post.

Films were made in a particular way in the old days because of the studio influence.  Studios ruled (along with the censors).  Most people were under contract to a studio... actors, writers, directors, producers. costumers, editors, etc.  Much has been written about the advantages and disadvantges of that and while both are abundant, I like to say that one advantage is that we were given  better films through the trained brilliance of its employees.  Perhaps the day-to-day business of the tight studio rein wasn't so pleasing to some, but the product was often astonishing.  Today these studios, by and large, are business centers run by businessmen and owned by corporations that know little about the creative side of making a good film. Today it's all about the deal.  

The studio system was not all wonderful, however.  Many actors couldn't wait to get out from under it.  They hated the servitude, the morals clauses, being seen with the right people at some nightclub.  And while most of that has passed, actors now have to do it all.  They have so much to take care of that they can't have the time they need to devote themselves to the acting process.  Many don't even have to memorize lines anymore.  There are teleprompters.

In the old days they learned while they were being paid.  They did "B" pictures which were part of their training.  They were taken care of.  None of that is true today.  So really, in many respects, they really don't make 'em like they used to. 

The studios also had writers under contract.  Yes, they still longed to purchase the rights to famous novels or latch on to a Broadway play, but they had writers on staff who churned out stories, many of which were mighty fine indeed.  They were well-written, coherent, strong.  They were about something.  Dramas pursued topics of great importance, comedies sparkled.  Love stories were often the order of the day and for the most part, they were never done better.  (Stay tuned for the other side of the equation.)

There are good dramas today but the sad fact today is that it's more about spectacular visual effects, CGI, HD and 3D.  In the old days if a director needed 4000 cows for a scene, he had to locate and rent 4000 cows.  Today, maybe 100 cows are used and the rest really aren't there.  I don't think that's so bad.  It is obviously a tad more economical but we have simply gone too far.  There's little reason to believe much of anything anymore because it can be all dolled up.  And guess what?  I want to believe it... I need to.

There is no need to try to lump comedies of  long-ago yesterdays with comedies of today.  Check out AFI's list of the 100 greatest comedies and see how many are from today.  Bad writing, bad acting and a general malaise overcomes me with the boring monotony of the same actors and actresses appearing in these hackneyed romantic comedies of today.

Have you ever noticed, I mean really noticed, the clothes the women wore in the 1940s?  They were so elegant, stylish, so beautifully turned out.  Always.  Would you say that today as a rule?  Well, designers and dressers, some costumers so famous you knew them by name, were also employees of studios.  Today I think the actors bring their clothes from home.

There has always been good acting (and not so good). I don't think that has ever much changed. But the Golden Age gave us acting giants that had mystique.  I dunno... maybe mystique implies, to some degree, that yesteryear must be involved; maybe it needs to come with a bit of history.  But they had it.   Actresses of yesteryear didn't leave the house without hair and makeup in place and a dress freshly out of its plastic covering. Today... well gee, do we really need to say what we have today?   You can guys with their stubble, holes in their pants, flip-flops and women without their public face on, tattered clothes, baseball caps.  Bad behavior's often the order of the day.  I mean, you can Tweet these people... where is the mystique?  Frankly, mystique led to my sinking into my seat and loving a given a film.  It's like the difference between seeing some beautiful art at a fancy museum as compared to seeing it propped up against a folding chair at a swap meet.

In the old days I believe American actors were the best and today Great Britain, Australia and Canada have surpassed us. They have the great actors. Thankfully, many of them want to work in the U.S. One could say, where are the Katharine Hepburns, Barbara Stanwycks, Bette Davises, Jean Arthurs, Marlene Dietrichs? I understand that fully and while today there are Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, one would be hard-pressed to name too many more.   They are simply too visible and too accessible today and regrettably, many of them without the training of their predecessors.

Turning the tables a bit, one thing I detested about the films of yesteryear was censorship.  I found it ridiculous that married couples (really any couple) had to sleep in separate beds and if they just sat on a bed together, one of them had to keep a foot on the floor.  Even back then I don't think it was the foot that was the problem. 

If one ever used the word "breast," it had better be on a chicken.  Watch that cleavage.  Don't touch a butt, even if it's your own.  Sex?  In the 40's and 50's the displaying if sex was way too reliant on imagery, crashing waves, train entering a tunnel, etc.  The movies were a little too chaste for my tastes and wholly out of touch with how the world was living.  My parents did not sleep in separate beds so the censors of the day had no reason to protect me.

Then there was the usual sunny American ending.  I like happy endings, too, but come on, where was the variety?  Why did the bad guy always have to be punished?  Is he always punished in real life? 

So, is all that better today?  Sure it is.  The problem is... and this IS the American way... it's probably gone too far.  But just to give it all a little perspective, Europe has gone further.  Sex is a natural part of life and I think it should be displayed on the screen as is suitable to the story and with a degree of taste.  It's fine to hint at things as they did in the old days as long as that's not the only diet I'm ever fed.  And you know this is coming... if you don't want to see those movies, don't go.  Get an understanding of the current rating systems and go by it.

Violence.  I like it better today as well because I am a realism junkie.  I do not like gratuitous violence.  I'm fairly sure I don't need to see a head hacked off and rolling across the floor leaving a trail of blood. (I'm almost offended I wrote that.)  But violence is one of the things we've had in movies always.  Just watch some old Warner Brothers movies and see how Cagney, Bogart and Robinson dispatched some folks.  When it's done well today and there's cause for it, let 'er rip. 

I swear.  I may choose to not do it around you, but dammit, I think cussing is just what the doctor ordered when it's appropriate.  In those old days, to see two men stand nose to nose, spittle flying from their flapping lips and out of their mouths comes, "Golly, I am so mad.  I wish you wouldn't do that," well, I just wanted to scream.  People don't talk like that in real life... especially not today.  Once said, I did see a movie in 1992 called Glengarry Glen Ross, and I actually cringed at the language.  It blistered my ears.  I guess I must have some parameters here myself but I still stand by my swearing rule which basically is the same as violence.  Skip the gratuitous language but if it is warranted, aw go ahead.

I loved the black and white photography of the old days but I could never turn down a great color movie.  The look of some black and white movies in the good old days was about as good as photography could be.  See again Citizen Kane if you need a gentle reminder. Color photography in the old days could be quite good as well, of course, but much of it was garish and overdone.  Photography is far better today because the technology and equipment have advanced so greatly, without even going into the advantages of digital.  Could there be much debate on that?

One last thing.  Movies in the old days were made for adults.  There were some made for kids but most of the time the kids had to go to the movies their parents went to.  Today, movies are made for teenagers, principally young girls.  And they don't attend with their parents (eeeuuuwww), they go with other kids.  All young people want today is car chases and explosions and swooning over some hottie on the screen.  Good acting is not required.  Good writing is not required.   Four thousand cows aren't required.  The men with vision are no longer required.  Just show me the money.

One lovely exception is the indie film... where acting and good story-telling still mean something.  It reminds me of the so-called B Pictures of the old days.

As a result of this and so much more, movies are changing.  There used to be drive-ins and double features.  It was once one theater and today the multiplexes.  Television, of course, changed a lot of how we think of movies and how we saw them as well.  Years later it was VHS tapes and then DVD and then Blue Ray.  You rented them at your local store and later on from NetFlix.  Now movies are seen more on computers and iThings than they are at the movies.  Perhaps not in my lifetime, but there is likely a day coming when there will be no more movie theaters.

As for me, there is Turner Classic Movies... the best there is for viewing the old classics.  While they show their share of non-classics, it's really the only place to see films from the good old days.  I feel a smile coming on.


NEXT POSTING:  In the Shadow of Astaire and Kelly

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