Classics or treasures, we know what we like
Lovers of new music don't think of Mozart and Beethoven as "old music." Why should lovers of new movies think of "Casablanca" and "Some Like It Hot" as "old movies"?
The question came up at a Harvard symposium on film criticism last month, and in the run-up to the Oscars this weekend I've been trying it on a few friends.
Should showing a movie of 50 years ago be regarded as a lesser artistic event than a first-run picture? What if it's a Mozart, a manifestly better movie than the new one?
There's the story of the man who wouldn't go to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony because he'd already heard it. Would it be just as ironic for him not to go to Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" because he'd seen it?
I've just met someone who saw "Lost in Translation" five times, and it's still fairly new. She's seen "The Triplets of Belleville" twice. Will anyone be watching these movies 50 years from now?
Perhaps future counterparts of the young 1960s film devotees in Bernardo Bertolucci's current picture, "The Dreamers," will. True aficionados want to sit in the front row at the cinémathèque so they will be the first to receive the images from the screen. One review calls this a silly notion - but a beguiling one - since they're watching old movies.
Or are these films as undated as Mozart to them?
A medium-quality American film is better than a medium-quality French movie, according to a European critic quoted at the Harvard symposium. Wacky comedian Jerry Lewis is often cited as a darling of French intellectuals.
Perhaps because I go back to the formative years of long-gone double features - two movies for a dime at matinee time - I have a soft spot for medium (or worse) American movies. I loved Warner Oland or even Sidney Toler as wise Charlie Chan, never realizing he was an ethnic caricature. Or that Tarzan was swinging not only through trees but through belittling views of Africans. Or that "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Frank Buck might not be environmentally correct.
Only years later did I catch the grown-up wit in beloved Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. Even in comparatively enlightened retrospect, Bill Robinson seemed to be inviting me into the fun, not playing Uncle Tom, as he smilingly danced with little curly Shirley Temple.
And there were the bouncing Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland flicks - couldn't anybody join in "Let's put on a show!" As for mythmaking, the fake-looking shipboard scenes were part of the grand artifice of "King Kong" (the black-and-white original, of course, not the overdone color remake).
I react this way after being serious enough to read about Eisenstein and the art of montage, and Cocteau and the art of "accidental synchronization" in film music (which I am even now practicing by dubbing family bands onto videotapes made from silent home 8mms). Oh well, I must be among those the late critic Pauline Kael described as "the surprising number of people [who] seem to be educated beyond their own tastes."
With Mozart, an expert's recognition of past elements in the music may be interesting but hardly vital to the listener simply enjoying it. With movies, part of the enjoyment is any viewer's recognition of the past preserved on the screen.
This may be a distant past as reproduced in a John Ford western. Or the past that was the present when a movie was made: the Depression background of jaunty musicals and Will Rogers comedies; the World War II of battlefield patriotism and the escapist thrills of film noir.
I asked another new acquaintance if he was interested in movies. "Old movies," he said. I gave him the symposium song-and-dance about Mozart, and he said maybe the films he likes should be called "classics."
The wife of a real movie buff held out against this elevation: "They're entertainment," she said.
"She's so Calvinist," said her husband with a smile.
Rightly or wrongly, I took her to mean that movies are on an artistic plane to which "classic" does not apply.
The United States Library of Congress uses another term. Its National Film Registry designates films as "national treasures." It now lists 375 of them, as reported at the beginning of its 16th year. It uses the expressing of American culture as a criterion, including "Casablanca" but also double-feature stuff like "Tarzan and His Mate." The library doesn't select a movie until at least 10 years after its release. The rest of us don't have to wait or demand an expression of American culture. We can find treasure in a Swedish allegory, a British mystery, or a Japanese version of Shakespeare. (Is "Throne of Blood," as some argue, the best "Macbeth" on film?)
Maybe movies of all the arts call for the old line "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." This is "the sort of thing you say when you need to stop the argument in its tracks because you simply can't bear to address its realities," said the late columnist Michael Kelly a couple of years ago.
But let's live dangerously and "address the realities." Who doesn't know much about movies? It's not a matter of being educated beyond your own tastes, as Kael deftly put it. With movies - new or Mozartean - you can say, "Even if I know a lot about art, I know what I like."