With streamers offering more new movies and choice, Some Like It Hot, Casablanca and the like are being pushed off our screens. Will the next generation miss them?
What is your favourite film made before 1975? That was when Jaws was released and the summer blockbuster was born; when cinema, for some, died, while for others it became a lot more fun. Films made before the shark are from half a century ago and, just as nobody buys shag carpets these days, tastes change. Humour goes through phases, black-and-white turns to colour, scenes shot then would not be allowed today. Yet this is not about changing morality or new standards of decency. Art must last for ever, providing a picture of when it was made, so nothing will be cancelled over the course of this article. Watching old films should be entertainment and education, but lots of people no longer bother.
Last year, during a pandemic, 441 films were released at cinemas in the UK. In 2019 the number was a staggering 896, while 2018 holds the record of 916. Ten years ago only 577 films came out, but now it is standard to have 17 new films a week, and that is only cinemas. Who knows how many come out on streaming services, or how much TV we have to watch. We have leapt from cultural overload to cultural saturation, which raises the question of how, to all who are not cineastes, older films can survive in a system engineered to endlessly flog the new. Something, surely, has to give.
A few months ago Rick Rojas, a journalist for The New York Times, tweeted, "I broke a longstanding rule of mine to not watch movies made before 1975 so I could finally see Citizen Kane. It taught me a valuable lesson: These rules exist for a reason." Sweet Rosebud, the reaction was wild. "He's actually proud of this unique level of ignorance," one key film writer tweeted — hardly a considered response to one man's viewing habits, but soon hundreds were having a pop at poor Rojas, which in itself is a great advertisement for watching films made before 1975, because they do not have Twitter in them.
Rojas hit a collective film-buff nerve and was a study in patience, replying to abuse by saying he does not "gravitate toward old movies for entertainment" and, bless this honesty, "just can't get into old black-and-white movies". He also said he was up for recommendations, at which point the writer who had led the charge calmed down and suggested Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), while another added Some Like It Hot (1959).
Which is a terrific film. But let us be realistic — if you have a passing interest in films yet have reached 2021 without seeing Billy Wilder's classic, chances are you never will. Some, like Rojas, assume it is not for them because it is in black-and-white. For others who love cinema and have no issue what hue a film is in, it may just be one flick from the past too far. That is not to be sniffed at; rather, it seems inevitable. There are still the same number of hours in the day, but lots more to watch and more places to watch them. You do the maths. In 1981, 22 million people in the UK tuned into Diamonds Are Forever (1971) on TV. You saw films because they were on — nowadays there is choice.
Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, Disney+, TikTok, video games on consoles, video games on phones, YouTube, lengthy digital conversations with friends, making your own flipping films on a laptop, even good old reading — there is a lot to distract these days, so it is only sensible to assume that what will vanish, for younger generations, will be films made before their time.
I was born in 1980 and was introduced to Some Like It Hot by my dad, who was born in 1951. Assuming he did not watch it on the big screen when he was eight, he would have caught up with the comedy on TV in the 1960s, when channel-hopping meant only two or three options and you had to take what you were given. If I introduce my son, born in 2014, to Some Like It Hot, I will be pushing a film from 55 years before he was on this earth, with thousands made in between. I am sure he would enjoy it, but that is not really the point. The point is that there is still a path for younger generations to movies we consider classics, but it is getting a lot longer and more cluttered.
It is not even choice, but algorithm. I watch a lot of films from Hollywood in the 1970s, but the main recommendation on my film list on Netflix last week was 8 Mile, the 2002 Eminem movie. I have no idea why. The "Classics" genre on the service was headed by Jaws — what else? — and it took a lot of scrolling to find, say, American Graffiti (1973) and Funny Girl (1968), and who has the time to do that? Streamers operate by window-dressing their latest shiny offering, which exhausted viewers tend to click on, thus entering a loop of closed cultural recommendations before, lo and behold, Emily in Paris is recommissioned for a second series.
The other week the dull existentialist Anna Kendrick space yawn Stowaway was a big push on Netflix. So heavily flogged that it would take a very patient viewer to skip that and find, for example, the excellent existentialist space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, wherever that might be available. Ironically, more choice does not mean we necessarily choose — there are just more places to land, and it is all about ease. If somebody born this century decided suddenly to watch King Kong, they would take in Peter Jackson's version, or that one from 2017. The 1933 original does not stand a chance, partly because of availability and partly because of its style, which looks dated and slow compared with today's epic CGI monster mash-ups.
Similarly, does the brilliant Dam Busters (1955) stand a chance when Dunkirk (2017) stars Harry Styles? I do not think that even the Second World War movies of my teens, such as The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan, have a bright future. Our human links to that conflict are in their twilight years — only time will tell how much investment future generations have in a war that does not, for them, exist in stories passed down. Because culture is a conversation — a current one. What is even more important than watching old films to learn how they may reflect their time is watching new films to see film-makers commenting on today's world. Thanks to social media, conversation has never been so abundant in the arts world, and most of us are not talking about Casablanca. The discussion is about Promising Young Woman, Chadwick Boseman, some new Avengers TV series on Disney+, A Quiet Place Part II and not Citizen Kane but a film about Citizen Kane, Mank.
Rojas struck a nerve partly because people on Twitter love little more than a disproportionate ruck, but also because film and, in particular, cinema is at a crossroads. Thanks to the way streaming works and the closure of rep cinemas, places that highlight film history are under threat, replaced by so many multiplexes and franchise blockbuster spin-offs that there are now 180 hours of Star Wars available to watch. Yes, you can ignore all the noise, adjust your streaming settings to push more archive, less brand new, or sign up to the retro-leaning streamer Mubi, but that takes know-how that few have and a further expense nobody wants, so it is heading only one way.
Films have never been so easy to make or distribute thanks to digital advances, which means that record of 916 releases a year will soon be beaten, and this is not a celebration of the new shutting out the old, rather an observation. Just as people rarely drive decades-old cars any more, people will also stop watching decades-old films. Yet similarly to how everyone jumped on Rojas, I would be quick to judge someone who said, proudly, that they did not watch any films made after 1975, as opposed to before. For such people, the medium would appear to be dead, while it is truly very much alive — you just need to know where to look.
The pre-Jaws films to rescue first
Our choice of the films nobody should do without.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The most influential space film of all time.
An expressionist masterpiece.
Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx brothers at their most popular.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
A wonderful vision of love and loss.
À bout de souffle (1960)
Amazingly, some people have seen Richard Gere in the remake, not this.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean's sweeping epic still captivates.
The French Connection (1971)
Still one of cinema's best car chases.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Cross-dressing japes in the Marilyn Monroe comedy.
West Side Story (1961)
With a Spielberg remake in the works, make sure you know the original first.
The Third Man (1949)
Vienna is the backdrop to this superb, sad spy thriller with Orson Welles.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A wonderful explosion to colour — unforgettable.
Roman Polanski's perfect noir set in seedy LA.
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Bergman's relationship drama is the blueprint for Baumbach and more.
Seven Samurai (1954)
The influential Kurosawa adventure epic has not dated one bit.
North by Northwest (1959)
Pick any Hitchcock — but this is the most fun.
The Godfather (1972)
The first in Coppola's crime trilogy still shocks.
Blaxploitation, student poster favourite, very cool.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Neo-realism at its most moving, as a man loses his livelihood.
Love never dies, as this timeless romance proves.
Mon Oncle (1958)
Slapstick will never not be funny — like this Jacques Tati film.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London