In Friday’s “Read On” column, Matt linked to some thoughts by Peter Labuza about films accused of being “dated” and films praised for being “timeless,” and what those terms actually mean, respectively. Our readers picked up the conversation from there. I recommend reading the whole thread, which features multiple long comments, but I want to excerpt and spotlight two of them, first from “flowsthead.”
It’s easier to gauge how timeless a work is if you work within your own culture. Cultures have traditional ways of telling stories and those ways change in largely straightforward fashion; even when something radical happens it’s usually only radical because it does the complete opposite of what was common before. It’s much harder to gauge how dated a work is if you’re not in tune with that culture. In other words, I can’t judge Japanese works from a Japanese perspective, even if I do my best to learn about the themes that an audience in Japan would recognize or find interesting. Craft is a bit trickier. I would argue that the people best at a craft are not those that invent it. The people that invent something or create/popularize certain trends are not necessarily those best suited to using those techniques in the work. This will be a controversial example, but I didn’t particularly care for Psycho or The Birds, the only two Hitchcock films I’ve seen so far. I can intellectually understand that what Hitchcock did might have been great and groundbreaking, but frankly the average craft of filmmakers is much better today than it was during his time. The language of cinema and filmmaking has evolved to the point that his influence is everywhere, but it has been built upon or perhaps perfected. … The special effects of the birds in The Birds I thought was distractingly bad and there’s really nothing to be done there. … I’d argue the story, character, and theme elements that seem dated from most older films is more due to the censorship at the time than to any other quality. There is plenty of great literature written at the time, and the films only seem dated in comparison because censorship will harm how real something feels; if everything has to have a happy ending then that will strain credulity and suspension of disbelief.
And then there’s this, from “He Hate Cans.”
I think there’s stylistically timeless and thematically timeless. The prior seems like pure luck. Who knows what conventions are going to last and which are passing fads (the reason why 3D has always been met with skepticism, it’s never been more than a passing fad). The latter, though, seems much easier to capture in a bottle, and while it’s nowhere near as simple as I’m about to make it sound, films that are about non-specific themes: love, youth, social justice, end up feeling more timeless than films that never transcend their specific time and place. Then there are the films that are outdated when they’re released, the only films I’m willing to think of as problematic. They’re “outdated” as opposed to “dated,” which I don't think should be a pejorative at all. Films about a specific time and place are perfectly valuable and interesting. Hell, you could argue that all films, even the timeless ones intensely reflect when they were made. Examples: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner would be something I’d call “outdated.” Silly and behind the times when it was even released. In The Heat Of The Night is “dated” since its themes are inescapably tied to the civil rights movement. But it’s still a good movie, about a specific time and place that’s relevant to society today, just not reflective of it. The Graduate I’d call “timeless” since learning to grow up yet wanting a more dynamic life than your parents seems to transcend generations, yet The Graduate screams the 1960s And of course all three of my examples were made in the same year. (P.S.: Everyone should read Pictures At A Revolution by Mark Harris.)
Before I weigh in on the concept of “dated,” I feel I need to defend Hitchcock, because I find your criticisms of him a little dismaying, flowsthead. I can see how the special effects in The Birds could be distracting, but otherwise I wonder if Hitchcock’s suffering some in your eyes because he’s so often talked about as “the master of suspense” whose Psycho is “one of the scariest movies ever made.” If you come to Hitchcock looking to be jolted, you may well feel let down. But in the meantime, you’re missing out on the shot-construction, the editing, the performances, the score, the dialogue, and the psychological depth. There’s very little in a Hitchcock film that feels routine. It’s the choices he makes in telling the story that make his a superior craftsman, and that have allowed his films to age so well. At any rate, before you give up on him, do try Rear Window. If that doesn’t win you over, then maybe you and Hitchcock will never be in synch. It happens.
Otherwise though, I think your points about culture, craft, and censorship are all valid, especially when expanding “culture” to include the culture of different eras as well as of different countries. I always find that it helps to try and project back to an earlier time when watching an older film—even an American film—while also remembering that people from the past are rarely as simple as they’re stereotyped to be. Pauline Kael once wrote about how she overheard two young people laughing about some corny old movie and saying, “And to think they bought that back then,” to which Kael wanted to interject, “No, we didn’t.” This ties in to what you’re saying about censorship, too. There were some aspects of human life and behavior that older movies weren’t allowed to address directly, and audiences knew this. It doesn’t mean the audiences themselves weren’t going home later and doing all those things that weren’t in the picture. (I would add though that self-censorship is always in flux. I’d argue that movies from earlier decades were a lot bolder about confronting issues regarding race and religion than movies are today, in general.)
As for your observations, He Hate Cans: first off, amen to your recommendation of Harris’ book; and second off, I think that designation of “outdated” is very useful. Oddly, the older I get, the more I’m drawn to the “outdated,” at least when I have a choice between otherwise undistinguished older movies. By which I mean: I’d rather watch The Graduate and In The Heat Of The Night than Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, but I’d rather watch Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner than some mediocre, non-“controversial” domestic melodrama from 1967. I find the “embarrassing” pictures of the past more edifying—not about what was actually happening at the time but about how Hollywood tried to deal with it.
One further point about “dated,” though, which ties in both to Labuza’s article and flowsthead’s points about craft: A lot of times it’s hard for filmmakers to know what’s going to throw off the audiences of twenty years from now. Music cues and trendy fashions are always a risk, but who knew that enormous cell phones were going to look ridiculous just a few years after they started popping up in films? And beyond fake-looking special effects, what about the effects that briefly became so commonplace in certain kinds of genre films that now they make those films look very much like products of their times?
This actually connects to the topic of an Exposition I’m working on that’ll be running later this week, so I’ll leave that there as a teaser. In the meantime, I’d be interested in reading other people’s thoughts on what makes a film feel “dated,” or “outdated.” And does that change as you get older and see more movies? Because I personally find myself less and less alienated from movies made before I was born. I struggled to adjust to them when I was a teenager; now I’m as comfortable with films made in the 1930s as I am with films made in 2014. Whether that’s due to increased familiarity or advanced age, I’m kind of afraid to ask.
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