Film — 15 June 2015

by

Rick Segreda

For admirers of an established art form, there is probably nothing more painful than to experience it as the object of ridicule or indifference.  There is the aficionado of classical music, for example, who must suffer complaints that symphonies are boring. Or the professor of classical literature who attempts to engage students in his passion for John Donne or Alfred Tennyson, only to find himself staring at blank, bored faces who don’t ask him anything other than what do they need to memorize for their final exam.

This is no less true of the seventh art, cinema, which has only been in existence for approximately 120 years, yet has gone through more transformations, culturally and technically, than most other art forms experience in 500 years.  As a result, it has experienced unique problems regarding respect and admiration throughout its history.

One of which is the maintenance of interest in older films while newer movies continue to be made. This is despite the commendable efforts of such media venues as Turner Classic Movies and the American Movie Channel, which showcase old Hollywood, being that general audiences are only interested in movies as entertainment and not art. Consequently, an appreciation of pictures from the past, made in a time of different values and different norms, is limited to specialists.

And this presents a great challenge with regards to the tastes of a popular audience and that of specialists in cinema. Specialists in cinema, who are a minority, perceive the art in entertainment, while a popular audience only wants to have fun. Consequently, with greater frequency, there have been conflicts at presentations of old films, between those who go for aesthetic reasons, and those who expect recreation.

The problem with the latter is that because of the changes in societal values, attitudes, fashion, technology and culture in each decade, old movies often do not live up to the expectations of a new audience. They are inclined to laugh at the poor quality of the special effects in comparison to the standards of today, or a manner of speaking which seems artificial (the total absence of profanity, for example), or the conservative sexual morality. Meanwhile the specialists are enraged because something they value deeply is being treated with disrespect.

However, though some people are candid about their lack of appreciation for classical music or poetry, at the same time are inclined to be s]\lightly apologetic about it. Society obliges that the older arts be regarded with respect. Furthermore, it is assumed that most will not appreciate Johann Sebastian Bach or William Shakespeare without some effort as well as an understanding of the historical context in which the culture was created.

Unfortunately, our society does not afford the same respect for cinema. Though Shakespeare, Molière, and opera were in their time the equivalent of cinema, a form of popular entertainment for mass audiences, the world changed. However, the reputation of the artists remained strong. Consequently, it was expected that new generations would need a cultural education.

And perhaps so it should be with old movies. Maybe the time has arrived in which the young should be prepped to appreciate classical cinema in the same way they study classical sculpture and painting – in a historical context. This is hardly a new challenge for cineastes. For example, though film blogger, Matt Zoller Seitz, weighs in on the right side of this issue in his piece, “From Russia with Love is not unsophisticated, you are,” criticizing the superciliousness of new audiences towards old movies, he misses a major irony.

He makes note of a professor of film who expected “Singin’ in the Rain” to provoke delight, not derision, in his students, and how the academic chided his class for their smart-aleck presumption that precludes them from seeing the value in this musical classic. However, both Seitz and the professor he mentions forget that in “Singin’ in the Rain,” Gene Kelly and his co-director, Stanley Donen, parody silent movies in the film, playing up to the stereotype of silent-era actors being all exaggerated facial expressions and the plots all campy melodramas, even though in reality that was often not the case.

Simply put, audiences in 1952 were no more ready to reconsider their conditioned assumptions about old movies than they are now. It is only that an attitude of cultural condescension towards the medium has persisted over multiple decades.

Among other benefits that could come about in teaching new generations to be patient with old movies the way they are with older art forms, this could provoke a new re-appreciation the good manners and civility that were more common then, as well as a new admiration for coherent stories, rather than an excessive dependence on violence and sex in order to capture an audience’s attention. After all, if there could be a neoclassical movement in architecture, why not cinema?

 

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