Sunday, June 28, 2009

New and Old, Old and New

An interesting piece from Jeff Anderson over at Cinematical: A few movies out there, specifically Easy Virtue (255 screens), The Brothers Bloom (209 screens) and the new Cheri (opening this week on 80 screens), have taken it upon themselves to try and re-capture something of the style of old movies. Easy Virtue is based on a 1926 Noel Coward play, which was previously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928. Cheri comes from a 1920 novel written by the creator of Gigi (1958). And The Brothers Bloom is a new, original screenplay but it comes with some of the sensibilities of old films, namely snappy dialogue and hats.

I'm all for this, since many of today's movie fans who name their "all time favorite" films rarely list anything made before 1999. Aside from that at least half the cinema buffs out there is generally aware of a short list of classic films, which includes things like The Godfather, Dr. Strangelove, maybe some Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Casablanca, etc. And those are, of course, great places to start for those interested in looking at something beyond the IMAX screen. But there's a danger in labeling all that stuff "old movies." Not all of them come with country estates, or hats, or even dialogue.

Firstly, "old movies" come in an amazing array of styles. Just consider the Italian neo-realist movement (Bicycle Thief), the French New Wave (Breathless), the silent comedies, the German Expressionists (Sunrise), American film noir (Double Indemnity), screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby), samurai films, weepies, Westerns, etc. Believe it or not, there were even bad movies back then, but thankfully those tend to fade away while the good ones rise to the top. Then consider technical advances like sound, color and 3D, as well as slight adjustments in film stocks that make the 1950s films so boldly colorful and the 1970s films so gritty. Social conditions were also important. Films made up to 1934 were able to cross certain moral boundaries, but from that point up to the mid-1960s, strict censorship was in place (that's why Tarzan and His Mate, from 1934, is sexier than Gone with the Wind, from 1939).

Additionally, independent films were practically non-existent during these times (it was virtually impossible to get them shown at regular theaters). Most film was churned out by the studio system, with everyone working as part of the same staff. You could argue that having all your writers showing up for work at the office was a better system than today's, in which they hire a writer to turn in a draft, then hire a different writer to re-write it, etc. But in today's independent system, it's possible for a really clever script to slip past all the red tape, such as the one for The Brothers Bloom. And today, it's also possible -- thanks to everything we've learned over the past 100 years -- for a new degree of subtlety in movies (as well as new degrees of bombast; yes, I'm thinking of you, Transformers).

As for Easy Virtue and Cheri, neither of them effectively defines exactly what kind of old movie they want to be, and the marriage with modern times seems uncomfortable at best. But at the very least, they do acknowledge that the past actually existed. If your "all time" favorite movie was made in 2007 or 2008, you owe it to yourself to dig a little deeper. A good place to start is the IMDB Top 250 list, which comes entirely from users (i.e. "actual people" instead of critics). It's not infallible -- it contains three movies currently in theaters -- but it does contain many reliable classics. For the more daring, They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? contains a comprehensive, ranked list of the 1000 greatest films ever made, based on many, many different critics' lists. If you really love movies, you'll find that age does not matter.

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