A Teachable Moment: “Old Movies” and “Millennials”

Sherlock Jr., directed by Buster Keaton (1924). Image courtesy of Not Just Movies, accessible at http://www.armchairc.blogspot.com

My sister just brought to my attention a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by the film scholar and cultural critic Neal Gabler entitled “Perspective: Millennials seem to have little use for old movies.” In the essay, Gabler argues that with the popularity of new technologies such as social networking sites and the capability of streaming movies on smartphones and iPads, young Americans only focus their attention on movies of “the here-and-now.” While I don’t disagree with the author’s over-arching commentary, I do take issue with some of Gabler’s points, both major and minor.

First of all, no matter how much I hate the term, I am a “millennial.” Or so I have been told. But because print journalists, TV news anchors and reporters, marketers, and others rampantly use this word to signify a generation, as if “millennial” is self-explanatory, it’s less clear who really belongs to the group. According to that trusty old Internet repository of information known as Wikipedia, those born between 1983 and as late as 2000 or 2004 are by-and-large considered “millennials.” However, to suggest that my coming-of-age is the same as an eight-year-old’s is just plain insulting. We don’t have the same frames of political and historical reference, and we certainly do not share the same taste in movies, music, books, and information sources. Although Gabler uses that nebulous term somewhat reluctantly (“so-called millennials”), he never seeks to define it for his argument beyond implying that “millennials” are students in high school and graduate school, as he quotes instructors from each setting who lament that their students find “old movies” obsolete.

In fact, I was stunned to read one such person’s observation. According to Gabler,

“A friend of mine who teaches in the New York University Cinema Studies graduate program told me he was appalled at how little interest his students—future critics and film scholars, no less—had in old movies. For them, ‘classics’ are movies made in the last five years, and Scorsese is like Washington or Lincoln: ancient.”

I am a 2011 graduate of this very program, and so naturally I am curious as to who Gabler’s curiously anonymous friend is. But more importantly, based on my experience, this description of the Cinema Studies culture at NYU could not be further from the truth. Understandably, it is one man’s opinion, but I can tell you that an overwhelming number of my cohorts were only interested in “old movies.” For example, a friend of mine, a lover of Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy star vehicles, pretty much looked no later than 1967 for motion picture entertainments. I can’t even talk about movies that I watch with an even closer friend because movies in color barely register with her. She has no idea what is playing in theaters, and she is happy to repeatedly screen and discover lesser known gems from the silent era and Japan.

I like to consider myself a film historian of the contemporary moment because I am interested in how people—critics and audiences—respond to what is produced today. However, the education I received at NYU certainly deepened my appreciation for Classical Hollywood Cinema, or movies made during the studio era from roughly 1915 to 1965. That includes silent features, B&W pictures, and genres such as the film noir, western, melodrama, and musical. Now that I live at home, equipped with some premium movie channels, I can supplement what I have learned by enjoying Turner Classic Movies all day, every day. (Wow, that sounds like an advertisement!) For instance, a couple of nights ago, I caught my favorite “classic” leading lady Barbara Stanwyck in My Reputation (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), and I recommend it for her performance as a widow tentatively embarking on a new romance, family and friends be damned! Who says young people, particularly future film critics and professors, don’t like “old movies”?

According to Gabler, “rank-and-file millennials… find old movies hopelessly passe—technically primitive, politically incorrect, narratively dull, slowly paced. In short, old-fashioned.” Does this mean that he thinks those who go on for advanced degrees in film history and theory are “rank-and-file millennials” since such students are apparently disinterested in “old movies,” too? Besides, he’s also forgetting one of the golden rules about film production and consumption: it’s the story that counts. I, for one, will watch anything so long as the story interests me. It doesn’t matter if it’s in B&W, with actors I don’t recognize, or in a language I don’t comprehend. The way I see it is, every film presents an opportunity to broaden your horizons, and so closing yourself off to what is “old” limits your interaction with history as well as the present moment. After all, we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the storytellers who made films about us before. Thus, I shake my head in disbelief when Gabler writes that another university professor told him that his students found Orson Welles’s 1941 game-changer Citizen Kane “antiquated.” Perhaps it’s not the films so much as the instructors’ teaching methods that students can’t relate to. How can you fail to impart upon a willing audience how important Citizen Kane is within the history of film? Keywords for that lesson might include “deep-focus long-takes,” “Rosebud” as “MacGuffin,” “William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies,” and Welles’s anti-fascist theater troupe.

I love hyperbole as much as the next girl, but it is ridiculous to suggest, as Gabler does, that young people think that any movie not of the current moment is “classic” or “old-fashioned.” I don’t think social mores and aesthetics change so rapidly that young people can no longer relate to movies that came out five years prior. Perhaps Gabler would do well to direct his ire at movie studio executives and their resistance to changing their out-dated business model rather than the young people who see the movies that are aggressively marketed to them. Since his whole argument is premised on the fact that this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012) is a reboot of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, which began no less than ten years ago and wrapped up in 2007, I would recommend that he read Claude Brodesser-Akner’s matter-of-fact account of how rebooting superhero movie franchises works. It is as cynical as you think.

And what is with Gabler’s insistence that young people today “don’t seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did”? How can he know this, especially when he acknowledges there are no known studies that “examine the relationship of millennials to old movies”? Instead, he suffices to argue that films are thought of as fashion since what is new captures people’s attention more anything that is even just a little bit behind the times. What he calls “cinematic ageism” here I would label “presentism,” which is really no different than the biased, time-sensitive perspectives on any medium, which, to Gabler’s credit, he also points out is “the natural cycle of culture.” Combating presentism isn’t easy, but last year offered two high-profile attempts: both Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) sought to educate modern-day audiences on the pleasures of silent cinema by using unconventional storytelling methods (3D projection in the case of the former and the silent, B&W form of the latter). Remember, a good number of Hugo‘s theatrical spectators had to have been families, considering its built-in audience were fans of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Switching gears: toward the end of Gabler’s editorial, he argues that the immediacy of social networking updates precludes old movies from making a lasting impression on millennials since even new movies may become quickly passe through the form’s emphasis on what it is now. While it doesn’t seem that he is hostile to the idea of movies—however new—being part of an “ongoing conversation” on sites like Facebook and Twitter, Gabler is wrong to assume that it is impossible for an “old movie” to have a presence in these online avenues of communication. Obviously, examining these constantly updated “news” feeds is damn near impossible, but I am positive that at least some young Americans regularly evaluate, dissect, and debate with their online (and real!) friends what they have seen and what they will see, “old movies” included. Moreover, I’m hardly the only movie blog author who casts her gaze on pictures that are not of the current moment. But if I’m writing about them, how are they not part of the contemporary conversation, even if I publish on the margins?

Furthermore, Gabler has a point that our culture’s predilection for viewing films on screens that do little to enhance their narrative or architectural scope is problematic, but I don’t think this practice means that old movies are doomed to extinction. After all, so long as film studies programs endure at the university level and expand for high school students, “old movies” will always be a part of the curriculum for reasons I’ve already elaborated. Motion pictures are little over a century old, and they have been considered an art-form for even less time. Even the most cinephiliac among us have in no way seen more than the tip of the iceberg. The biggest threat to the legacy of “old movies” is the lack of compassion and funds for films that are in need of preservation. Of course, instilling a love for movies—particularly “old” ones—among “millennials” will help ensure our continued fascination with these pieces of (film) history. But how can we tackle this dilemma?

Right now, the future of film appreciation rests on the knowledge and talents of those who educate on topics related to film. I truly believe that if you are passionate about something and you can make even the most distant part of life, whether in terms of time, culture, or geography, relevant to someone else, then you are at a distinct advantage to effect change in that person’s thinking. In other words, if film scholars, critics, and historians can impart to students the significance of movies old and new, then these pupils will be empowered to turn on others with their own enthusiasm. Film, as an art and a business (just like fashion), marches on because there are always those who take notice and direct other people’s attention.

P.S. Happy Birthday to Barbara Stanwyck! She’d be 105 today.

4 thoughts on “A Teachable Moment: “Old Movies” and “Millennials”

  1. Excellent response to that article, I wholeheartedly agree with all your points. You are absolutely correct in believing that classic films can and do have a presence on social media. In fact, there is a very active classic film community on Twitter. There are regularly Twitter events called #TCMParty where people tweet along with movies being shown on Turner Classic Movies and I very frequently see people tweeting about the classic movies they watch on DVD. When TCM and Fathom Events had their special one-night screening of Singin’ in the Rain last week, lots of people were tweeting about the enthusiastic audience reactions they saw at the screenings they were at.

    1. Angela, thank you for pointing out that “old movies” do indeed have a presence on forums like Twitter. Your blog, The Hollywood Revue (www.hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com), is also awesome. It proves that “old movies” and film history matter, contrary to Gabler’s misguided ideas. I’ll be checking it often to keep me informed!

  2. The other day, my mother walked in on my friends and I watching Swamp Woman. I told to her that it was an exploitation movie from the 1960s. She proceeded to ask us several questions, the gist of which amounted to: “Why are you watching this uselessly bad movie from before you were born? It probably didn’t even have an audience when it was first out, fifty years ago.”

    I tried to explain to her that it’s pretty common; most of my friends have, at some point or another, rented an obscure old movie just for the sake of seeing it. I explained to her that, as it becomes apparent that movies are not just a form of entertainment but also a valuable insight into our culture, we started to become interested in studying them and not just consuming them. I told her that they were like books, and you could enjoy them even if they’re a hundred years old.

    The last one seemed to help her understand. Here’s the thing: I would actually argue the opposite of what Mr. Gabler argues. In my experience, because of the limited technology for viewing movies at home, the time-span on copyright laws, and the fact that movies were still relatively new, older generations actually view movies more as entertainment than younger generations do.

    I think that the fact that television was, until quite recently, a very limited medium with a handful of channels, older generations have more of a SHARED cultural background on movies. They’ve all seen the same old movies and, because the younger generation hasn’t, they think that means that the younger generation hasn’t seen any old movies at all.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Prinny White. You have a very good point, about older generations seeing films more as (escapist) entertainments rather than also objects for further cultural study. If my dad doesn’t have the news on, it’s Turner Classic Movies. He likes movies a lot, and he certainly thinks what’s produced now can’t compete with the movies he grew up watching. But unlike a lot of young people I know, he and others of his generation that I come into contact with aren’t much for analyzing movies.

      Your comment also made me think back to Gabler’s article. He refers to “friends” of his who teach film studies and quotes their impressions of youth’s relationship to “old movies,” but he never once interviewed a “so-called millennial.” Perhaps if he had, he would have a better understanding that our viewing habits vary widely. He probably wouldn’t have come to the same conclusion he does in his editorial, too, which, from the look of the comments section attached to the LA Times article, a lot of young people disagree with! So the question is, “Gabler, just who are these ‘rank-and-file millennials’ you think you know so well?”

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