Roger Ebert retweeted this article yesterday, and it addresses questions of my own that I have had for a while. Why is it that classic movies seem to be losing prominence with the general public? The author cites changes in movie distribution trends that limit the exposure of older films. He says that up through the 1970s, distribution tactics kept older films recirculating, either on basic television networks, or through theatrical re-releases. These days, movies follow a pattern of mass theatrical release, followed by DVD and pay-network releases a few months later. Eventually, those same movies get picked up on cable channels months after that. Therefore, the pool of movies to watch at any given time is usually limited new and semi-new releases that are played over and over on these different release formats. Gone are the days where you might be flipping through channels on the weekend and run into a Hitchcock or Hawks film. Because of this, newer generations don’t have a chance to discover some of these films, at least not through the same ways our parents did.
Even though there are greater avenues of access to classic film today then back then (Netflix, streaming video, etc.), one must make a conscious decision to seek them out. Being bombarded with other movie choices, and tons of other options on TV, classic movies probably don’t end up high on most people’s priority lists. I love TCM, but in all honesty it’s a cable channel that I have to choose out of the other 300+ options I have when I turn on the TV.
The main thing that got me thinking was actually the beginning of the article, where the author recounts an encounter with his student. The student asks, why are you showing us things from these movies we’ve never heard of? Then the author gives a list of what they were watching in the class. The titles aren’t obscure art-house films, but movies like His Girl Friday, Casablanca and Double Indemnity. I mean, you’ve never heard of Casablanca?
I remember reading another article about the Jimmy Stewart Museum last year, how they were struggling as attendance numbers were decreasing over the years. That article spoke of other museums and historic places dedicated to golden age stars who were facing the same challenges. Many said it was due to the interest level in these stars dropping off as those who grew up in that era aged, and the younger generation’s lack of interest. Debbie Reynolds was never able to start the museum for all of her studio treasures, and the collection is now being auctioned off. This is all saddening to me, as I feel movies are such a big part of our history, and it’s slowly fading away.
I guess in some ways it doesn’t surprise me. I was one of those people who didn’t really give a hoot about classic film. I did know some actors, directors and films by name recognition, and my parents brought us up on 1950s MGM musicals, so I wasn’t completely clueless. It wasn’t until I started to become interested in film myself that I started to realize that to have a solid grounding in what cinema is today, you have to look at the past. We do it with every other art form, why not film?
Somewhere along the line, watching classic film became my love, not just something I was doing for my own film knowledge benefit. I clog up my DVR (much to my family’s annoyance) with movies, I don’t think I’ve ever rented anything current from Netflix, and I’ve pretty much exhausted my local library’s DVD collection. I can’t imagine a world with out the talents of Stewart, Grant, Bogart, Stanwyck, Davis and Hepburn, the genius of Hitchcock, the versatility of Hawks and the wit of Preston Sturges. I hope they never fade away, nor do I think they will. Sure, some of these old films are somewhat dated, but others are timeless-that’s why they are called classics. They’re here for us to learn from, but also to enjoy.
I’d love to hear how some of you got into watching classic movies. My true hook was through Jimmy, Frank Capra and It’s A Wonderful Life , but that’s a story for another day…
Happy movie watching!