Thursday, December 8, 2016

End of an Era - Classic Film Fan Series - Final Episode


There are many issues under discussion today among classic film fans: the discovery of lost films, the expense of restoration, and most especially: what constitutes a classic film?

This last issue is, oddly, the most contentious.  It is often divided among age groups (though not always) that a classic is a movie made during the period of the studio system, i.e., from the early days of the twentieth century through the 1960s.  I have maintained that a classic film is one made before 1965.  I am not in favor of turning the word “classic” to mean something good, or beloved, or timeless (some of the best classic films are “dated” and this makes them valuable for study) but rather as it pertains to film, should only be a label to categorize a movie by its era.  Is a Three Stooges short better than The Godfather movies?  Of course not. 
If someone enjoys Rocky (1976) better than they enjoy Golden Boy (1939), does that make Rocky the classic film instead of Golden Boy?  No.  Rocky is an Oscar-winning film from the 1970s.  It carries its own prestige.  But it is not a classic film.


I’m sure many classic film fans will read the above sentence and their heads are even now exploding in anger.  Sorry, but the point isn’t that your opinion is as good as mine, or that mine is as good as yours.  The point is to get beyond opinion and draft some sort of objective criteria so we may catalogue, describe, and share our information on classic films with future generations without muddying the waters about what we mean.  History has, for the most part, clear demarcation on eras:  the Jazz Age, The Restoration.  Art has clear demarcation on eras based on prominent style:  Impressionism, Dada, Modern Art.  Do we call an impressionistic painting Modern Art because it was painted in the 1960s?  No.  It’s an impressionistic painting produced in the 1960s.

This is the twelfth and final post in our year-long monthly series on the current state of the classic film fan.  We began this series musing on the unlikely campaign of Donald Trump. Our last post in November brought us to the stark and devastating realization that fascism is alive and well in America.  That’s quite a journey, one I had not expected to take.  Our movies, old and new, whether they address social issues or present fantasy, are a clear barometer of our pop culture, which makes them so important for study.

The label “classic” should be the least of our problems in our mission to promote these films, but if we can’t agree on even that, we won’t agree on which films to be worth saving.  We won’t be able to save them all.   

But to be honest, I must confess that my own definition of “classic” as films made before 1965 is only partly an objective assessment; in part, it is also a reflection of my age.  I was born in the early 1960s, and so when growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the movies made in these decades were not classic; they were new.  In my middle-aged woman’s eye, they will always be in that vague category of “new”.  (With the same prejudice a younger fan will consider a 1970s movie as “old” because it was made before they were born.  The criteria is personal, and not objective.


When The Sound of Music (1965) was first shown on television in 1976, it was a monumental prime time event—but not because it was a “classic”, but because it was a modern blockbuster.  That will seem ludicrous to younger fans, I know.  When I was growing up in the Baby Boomer’s joyous embrace of “Nostalgia”, the old movies we resurrected were just old (and some not very old at that).  Nobody called them classic films.  Classic was a label that came much later, like Film Noir.  Nobody called it Film Noir when I was growing up.  We were not a cadre of geeks—pop culture was still in the backwash of the Golden Age of film, which was still the gold standard of entertainment.

These movies were shown on every channel (even if there were only four channels) at any hour of the day.  The stars and character actors and bit players of those old movies were, for the most part, not retired and they were still working on television.  They were still part of popular culture.

The deaths of Judy Garland and Bing Crosby rocked mainstream society—not just old movie buffs.  Conversely, we had not yet entered the age of deep mourning for the loss of anyone connected with classic films as we are today, when it seems that each year we cling to the fewer and fewer left, and it is we, not they, that do not go gentle into that good night.  Today our classic film fandom is one part celebration of discovery, and one part mourning the “in memoriam” reel.

Baby Boomers were spenders and collectors, and most of the books, posters, kitsch, VHS and DVD classic film releases were meant for their consumption.  Younger generations will take over, and their exploration of classic films, their expression of their fandom will take different forms.

But there will be less of them. 

We’ve discussed in previous posts in this series that Turner Classic Movies is, with few exceptions, the main source of classic film viewing in this country.  Current discourse on whether TCM is diluting its brand by showing modern films to the detriment of classic film programming (while recommending wine from the TCM Wine Club) will be a moot point if younger generations do not even subscribe to cable television, as seems to be the case.

Many younger people get most of their entertainment online, and most of what is offered them through streaming and download services are modern films.  Their choice of viewing becomes narrower as they veer towards only current movies and TV shows.  They will be exposed to little that does not already interest them.  TCM’s venture into streaming cannot yet replace the range of its network offerings.

The Warner Archives release of films to the home market is very welcome, and we may continue to wonder if Universal will ever get on board, but even these may have a limited future commercial exposure.  Future generations will not have developed an interest in them enough to make it financially worthwhile to producers of DVDs and Blu-ray, or streaming, in a world where future generations have not been exposed to classic films on a scale grand to begin with -- enough to once again make these movies a force in pop culture and consumerism.

It has been noted that the collectibles market is currently depressed because the Boomers, who were tremendous consumers and are now at a point of downsizing in their lives, are not finding buyers for their “stuff.”  Younger generations are not interested.

We classic films buffs naturally attempt to share our love of these movies with younger friends and members of our families.  That will have a huge influence in their lives, and is a great gift to them.  But this is not the same as being exposed to classic films not as a special event or peculiar hobby, but as mainstream entertainment—something not just their parents are talking about, but their friends as well.

I had suggested in an earlier post in this series to teach classic films in school.  Another way to broaden the exposure of these movies to younger viewers might lie with the Internet, where they turn anyway for their entertainment.  We’ve seen how TCM and others are streaming and making available films for download, but these are still paid services.  There may still be another and more effective way to get new classic film fans.

YouTube, Internet Archive, and other free Internet channels.

Paramount has already set up a channel currently showing 91 of its classic films for free viewing.  The beauty of YouTube is not only is it free, but the operation is such that the viewer is immediately exposed to a number of other similar choices.  We’ve all spent hours on YouTube, not intending to, just because we were looking for something particular and got sucked in to watching several other videos.  The search engine is also effective.  YouTube has the power to expose us to old movies and old TV shows we had not known existed.  It is a smorgasbord of video pop culture history.

The video quality on YouTube obviously does not lend the best viewing experience—it’s not like sitting in a restored Art Deco theater watching a shimmering nitrate film—but it’s something free and easy to obtain, to spread the experience of enjoyment and knowledge of old movies, and is a channel that younger generations already know about and use frequently.  Classic film buffs—and the corporations which have a library they’d like to monetize—would be well advised to create new fans by building up in them a taste for their product.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) would be forgotten today had it not been shown yearly on broadcast television for a couple of generations.  Its popularity spawned VHS and DVD releases, toys, games, books, clothing—a variety of merchandise that came in the wake of its popularity, which came in the wake of its familiarity.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) would be forgotten today had it not been shown yearly on broadcast TV, and became so popular that not only is it firmly established in pop culture, but the copyright, which had lapsed, was scooped up again, making it once again a valuable product.

We see the same scenario with A Christmas Story (1983), which is not a classic film, but has become a beloved Christmas tradition, and again, firmly part of pop culture, with annual showings on the cable network TBS, which runs a 24-hour marathon every Christmas.  Because of this we can shout out lines from the movie.  Houses on the street where it was filmed have been turned into tourist attractions.  You can buy the iconic lamp, for heaven’s sake.

The popularity came with familiarity: an audience was not found, or mined, or marketed to—it was created from scratch.

The Boomers grew up watching movies on free broadcast television, became classic film fans in an era of a nostalgia craze fueling it.  However, the movies they watched were fading prints cut up for commercials.  The art houses showing them on the big screen were few and far between.  The only media by which favorite films could be owned and shown at home whenever they wanted was with 16mm film, a screen, and a projector.  Despite these challenges, an army of old movie buffs kept alive their interest enough for the media conglomerates to have a built-in consumer base when the technology developed to produce films on VHS and DVD for a new, huge home market.

To say that classic film fans have it easy today by comparison is not entirely true.  Yes, they have a better quality video experience, a large assortment of movies available for the home market, but their challenge is twofold:  having the money to purchase product that is continually being improved, restored and re-released (how many copies of our favorite films can we own?); and second, just being exposed to these films on a scale that enables them to digest them as part of their American heritage.

This last notion is, I think, something on which we need to focus more attention.  I am concerned not only on the astounding idea that a nation so passionately devoted to defeating fascism should recently embrace it—fascists used to be the bad guys, on that we could at one time all agree—but if a younger viewer cannot absorb a movie in the context of its era, then all the message, the art, the power, or even the technical beauty of a classic film will not penetrate their sensibilities.  They will consider classic films to be remote, incomprehensible, and merely weird relics of a primitive age.

In practical terms, there is a real disconnect for younger viewers in what they see in classic films—for instance, the racism, the sexism (as if these things have ceased to exist in their modern world), among so much else that they are unable to accept in a film when they looking for images that affirm their own experience.  It becomes not just a matter of taste—“my classic is not your classic”—but actually being intellectually or emotionally unable to critique the art form.  Finding little they can relate to in it, it becomes as lost to them as if they had never discovered it.

Take, for example, this review of a new release this year for the first time on DVD of A Woman’s Vengeance (1948), a movie we covered in this previous post.  The young reviewer is, as with many Internet writing gigs, reviewing the product, which is the new DVD.  She is not really writing an essay on the movie, though she attempts to discuss the plot as part of her product review.  She sounds as if she were reviewing a new gadget or cleaning product.  She displays an ignorance of the film, the era, the actors and classic films in general as an art form.  As a result, her tone is flippant, dismissive, lapsing into vulgarity in the modern attempt at communication that tries hard to be clever, and her judgment on the product is based on whether she feels is it a worthwhile purchase.  This is the most shallow and sophomoric “film criticism” that can be produced (not counting IMDb reviews, which are frequently baffling in their obtuse triteness and often rife with errors), yet it is now the prevailing style on Internet product sites.  Future classic film fans, however many they may be, will be getting the bulk of their information from such product surveys (assuming classic film blogs are not still floating around on the Internet and the algorithms are kind to us to generate at least some traffic).

There are a lot of movies still hidden in studio vaults, university archives, and a basement or two.  Will future generations seek them out, donate to have them restored?  Will they see any worth in even pursing this?  If Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927) is ever found, will future generations care?

Are we, the current classic film fans—from Boomers to Millennials—the last audience? 

There is, as those who have attended the TCM Classic Film Festival and other such events know a joyous and exciting social aspect among gatherings of classic film fans.  My hope is that many more of these festivals will pop up around the country, or just in the form of small regional clubs, so that it may be easier for fans to connect in person with others who love old movies.  This breaks barriers between generations and demonstrates the genuine camaraderie and inclusiveness that exists among classic film fans—even if we can’t agree on what a classic is.  How much the corporations cater to our interests, based on their ability to profit from it, will largely depend on our numbers and our demonstrated passion.  It will also depend on their ingenuity to create a market for their product.

One hundred years from now, someone just discovering Buster Keaton, Myrna Loy, or Humphrey Bogart will be captivated.  We know that.

But how many like-minded fans will there be left to share the joy?

This ends our year-long series on the state of the classic film fan.  I wish I could end it on a more hopeful note, but hope is a fleeting thing these days.  This will be my last post this year.  I have a new book to get out, and so I need some time.  I’ll see you back here on Thursday, January 19th for a new year of blogging.  I hope to accentuate the positive next year and find some hopeful and inspirational moments in classic film to discuss.  We’re going to need them.

Until then, may I wish all of you who celebrate a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah, and very happy and hopeful New Year.  Thank you for the pleasure of your company.

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Previous posts in this series are below:


Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees.

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.

Part 6 is here: John Greco’s new book of film criticism: Lessons in the Dark.

Part 7 is here: Tiffany Vazquez, new TCM host.



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The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.



Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Upcoming author event

My last post on the current state of the classic film fan series will be published here next Thursday.  Today a heads-up on my upcoming author event:


A close-up of two of my books on the shelf at Blue Umbrella Books in Westfield, Massachusetts, along with a notice about my upcoming visit to the bookstore on Saturday, December 3rd.

On November 16th, the local daily paper, The Westfield News, featured an article on my upcoming meet-and-greet at the store by Lori Szepelak.  That it made the front page of the paper was an special kick for me, for, as I mentioned in the interview, I used to write a weekly column for this newspaper over thirty years ago when I was a senior at Westfield State College (now Westfield State University).

I'm looking forward to meeting readers and shoppers at Blue Umbrella Books this Saturday, December 2nd from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., where all my books will be available for sale and signing.  Blue Umbrella Books is located at 2 Main Street, Westfield, right in the center of town on the common.




Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving


To our American readers:  Happy Thanksgiving.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.  (As they say in Plymouth, Mass.)



Thursday, November 17, 2016

Meet & Greet & Book Signing



I will be signing books and visiting with readers and shoppers at Blue Umbrella Books in Westfield on Saturday, December 3rd from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Blue Umbrella Books, located at 2 Main Street, Westfield, Mass., right on the common, carries all my books, which will be available for sale and signing. Please stop by and chat if you have the time.

Or start your holiday shopping.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Naive Idealism -- Part 11 of the State of the Classic Film Fan


It’s the idealism.  It’s the idealism (sometimes dismissed as propaganda, sometimes spurned as naiveté) that is most powerful about classic films and cannot be duplicated today.

We are in a more cynical age, where we mistrust idealism.  We also resent even the merest suggestion that a film might be preaching to us.  We don’t mind being preached to by hypocritical politicians, by hypocritical television advertisers who think they are telling us what we want to know or confirming our worse fears to induce us to buy their products, and by actual preachers whose personal wealth puts them in the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle category.

But if a movie tries to make us rally around a simple concept of decency, honor, and patriotism – by suggesting that we are all decent, honorable, and patriotic – the modern audience that does not like classic films hoots in derision (or worse).

“One might suspect their morality,” says the haughty Nazi officer of the compromised crowd of partygoers at the German embassy in Watch on the Rhine (1943).

I love that movie, loved it since I was a teenager, and marveled at its message of idealism in action.  “So the time has come,” Paul Lukas, the professional antifascist says, “This time it is of the utmost importance.”

So it is.  We finally vote this coming Tuesday.  This nation has not been in such crisis in decades, or in such danger since 9/11.  Some weeks ago, we discussed several movies in a series about fascism as represented in classic films: The Mortal Storm (1940),  Address Unknown (1944),  Storm Warning (1951),  Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964).

Eight years ago, I wrote another pre-election day post, a two-part series on Gentleman’s Agreement (1949), part 1 here and part 2 here.  In this passage from that series, I remarked on the surprising nastiness of the 2008 campaign year:

How interesting that today much of the former open vehemence of prejudice has shifted from the now socially unacceptable derision against race or religion to the more socially acceptable ridicule of political affiliation.

“Conservative” and “liberal” are used today like dirty words, accusing labels, where the opposing political party, or politician, or even individual voter, is vilified with a degree of condescension, arrogance, and meanness that would appall most of us were it applied against a person’s race or religion.
 It is no longer enough to simply disagree.  We must condemn. 

How naïve those words sound today, like those old movies that espoused idealism.  Our level of political and social discourse has sunk far lower; open bigotry is accepted by society and unquestioned in the media.  I could not imagine then that the fascists who reviled, taunted, and condemned Barak Obama for his paternal African American heritage would continue to do so for his entire two-term presidency, unchallenged by a media that reveled in any controversy fired by lies.  I certainly did not imagine that an evil, idiotic piece of filth like Donald Trump would ever become his party’s nominee for the highest political office in this country and the leader of the (formerly known as) free world. 

This is the 11th part of our year-long monthly series on the state of the classic film fan.  In my first post in January, I specifically referred to Donald Trump, in affirming our American idealism as such that he could not possibly be elected president.  From that post in January:

Today, we address the juxtaposition of classic films on the turbulent world in which we live today.  Are they merely an escape from a louder, cruder world?  Or, do they provide us with mental and emotional sustenance to cope with our modern, angry society?  Probably both, but that depends on the classic film fan.

So we find ourselves, we classic film fans, at a crossroads.  Are our old movies a model, or an escape?  In my youth, they were a model; for I had nothing to escape from that I was aware.  Now, in middle age, I don’t know.  My earlier confidence that Trump was not a threat to the vigor of our democracy was clearly foolish.  I did not imagine that so large a number of people in this country could be so devoid of intelligence or integrity to support him; nor a media so lazy, greedy and corrupt that it failed its duties as the Fourth Estate; nor a Republican party so eager to roll over and play dead. 

Frank Capra’s Prelude to War, the first in his World War II Why We Fight series would, understandably, be labeled as propaganda today, but it was a powerful teaching tool that easily instructed a populace about to face the greatest evil of modern times on why it would have to risk death doing so.  The film quoted politicians, scripture, the words of Confucius, and from the Koran, and talked about Americans as a diverse society free and strong because of its diversity.  It just assumed its audience agreed.  Such “propaganda” dragged conservative isolationists to the table, and to the fascists among us – certain Jew-haters and industrialists – it made them shut up.

Their brand of wickedness was no longer fashionable. 

How did it get to be fashionable again, and make idealism passé?

I love the old movies that lead off with a paragraph scrolling before the first scene.  We don’t have that anymore; nobody likes wordiness, or the feeling that they are being preached to.  Watch on the Rhine begins with these words:

In the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have believed that in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France would fall to the German invaders.

But there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way.  They had fought it from the beginning and they understood it.

We are most deeply in their debt…

Such unabashed idealism, so unashamedly taking sides against fascism, without reserve.  Of course, the movie, unlike the play on which it was based, was produced during wartime, so it took little courage to point out our enemies for what they were, though Warner Bros. had a better track record on that that the other studios.

Another movie, Meet John Doe (1941), which we covered here, was even more courageous for picking out a fascist villain that was purely American: a businessman who wanted to take political control for personal gain.  Sound familiar?  James Gleason, in a wonderful scene of slightly drunken disgust, implores the very naïve Gary Cooper to open those beautiful eyes of his and see what is painfully apparent:

You’re mixed up with a skunk.  A no-good dangerous skunk…

I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself.  I get mad for a guy named Washington, and a guy named Jefferson, and Lincoln.  Lighthouses, John, lighthouses in a foggy world…”

The fascist businessman is…

“…trying to worm his way into the White House, so he could put the screws in, so he could turn out the lights in those lighthouses…”

Leave it to Frank Capra to have the guts to risk calling the common folk a bunch of saps, and then raising them to herculean majesty when they see their error, and put the brakes on evil.  The little guys convince Gary Cooper to carry Barbara Stanwyck off the snowy rooftop and back to safety and a new fight, as James Gleason, cynical and yet idealistic, and thoroughly righteous member of the Fourth Estate taunts the businessman fascist,

“There ya are Norton, the people.  Try and lick that!”  And the movie ends with ringing of church bells and the triumphant swell of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

No, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen today in a movie.  We’re too smug. 

I wonder what the demographic is among political affiliations among classic film fans?  From what I have observed on blogs and social media, old movie buffs are a wonderfully diverse group, where both liberal and conservative voters are equally drawn to classic films and can unite in our appreciation of their artistry and value to our culture. 

“But I do not believe for a moment that he will be elected president.”

That was my comment in January.  I did not think that by November I would be so ashamed of my country for laughing at a vulgar joke, for allowing a faction of stupid bigots to forsake common sense and common decency in order to vent their vileness.

In my complaint that modern critics found Gentleman’s Agreement too preachy:

Casablanca is also dated and preachy, but its bad guys were the Nazis, so we don’t mind speeches against them.  In Gentleman’s Agreement, we are the bad guys, or we could be if we’re not careful.  That’s the difference.

Now I wonder if there isn’t a very large segment of our population—Trump supporters—that would, if they were shown Casablanca for the first time, cheer for the Nazis?

We’ll see on Tuesday.  As Paul Lukas, the professional antifascist, says in Watch on the Rhine when he fears the greedy George Coulouris will sell him to the Nazis for a price,

“We will wait, and we will see.”

If the outcome is bleak, will classic films continue to inspire courage and decency, or just serve as an escape from a society decomposing?

I suppose I am waiting naively, idealistically, for the happy ending, the ringing of bells, and the soaring strain of Beethoven's Ninth in the background.  But it will never come again.
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Past posts in this series here:

Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees.

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.




*********************
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.




Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.