Opinion: Why old movies matter

Opinion: Why old movies matter

By Anthony Patstone

Recently I’ve been reading this great book about movies called 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. Naturally, being a film buff I find it utterly compelling to read. From international classics to documentaries to foreign masterpieces, including even more obscure films, this book has everything a film buff could possibly crave. And as I’m reading about movies I also realized I’m reading about history, or at the very least, an artistic expression of history. But an artistic expression of history matters nonetheless. Indeed old and new movies offer a trip through history in two ways: artistic history and cultural history, both of which make up the content of this article. Before I explain these two fundamentals though, a very brief history of film is in order.

As a former film and art history student my fascination with the evolution of moving pictures has been a part of me since my late teens. But here’s what I learned through film classes, books, and personal movie watching: how film began is unclear as moving images was something that grew gradually. While the Americans often claim Thomas Edison invented cinema due to a series of inventions that permitted the viewing of images in motion it is the French Lumière brothers who shot the first short films projected on a screen in the late 19th century with such works as L’Arroseur Arrosé and L’Arrivée d’un Train à la Ciotat.

Whether it was Edison or the Lumières who invented cinema is not necessarily the most important thing because, cinema and moving images in general (including TV) evolved throughout history like any good form of artistic, industrial, or technological achievement. Indeed, various filmmakers and film « movements » defined and redefined cinema, such as the invention of science-fiction by the French George Melies in the early 1900’s, the German Expressionist movement of the late teens and early 20’s, the revolutionary use of editing in the Russian wave of early communist rule, the invention of sound in 1927 with The Jazz Singer, the French New Wave of the late fifties and early sixties, the American auteur revolution that began with Easy Rider in 1969, the Italian Neo-Realist pictures of the 1940’s and 50’s, the creation of the « film noir » in the US, or the « Dogma » style of the Danish in the 1990’s, to name a few. Film is a global art practiced around the world that progresses as humanity and technology congruently evolve. Though some critics debate the recent evolution of film, such as the use of CGI for visual effects, movies are still part of the human psyche despite the rise of television shows.

While current and future releases have and will continue to have value in the pantheon of film history I must make a point about old movies and why they matter, hence my title for this article.

First and foremost, old movies offer us a chance to appreciate and understand artistic history. What is artistic history? It’s as much about content as it is about style. These two characteristics of a film are important because they are the expression of an individual’s (or individuals) taste and vision, and since that individual is part of a community and a culture, it is a reflection of society’s mores. In other words, the Russian use of editing during the silent era for example, was an expression of a thriving and creative new Russian society, or at least one based on idealism. Same goes for the film Easy Rider, which established the director as that movie’s star and creator both at the same time. Easy Rider is a good example of how artistic expression reflects the period in time in which it was produced. As much about content as it is about style Easy Rider expresses the 60’s value system and cultural clashes of the era. The two bikers in the movie, played by also director Dennis Hopper and co-writer Peter Fonda, are « hippies » who eventually become corrupt by money, thus leaving behind their true « freedom », as the character of Jack Nicholson calls it. Whether you agree or not with the hippie movement is beside the point. What matters is the artistic expression of the film in terms of content as well as style, because it represents a period and philosophy once upon a time. Easy Rider matters because it expresses an artistic and cultural part of history.

While not particularly part of any movement, the renowned 2001 : A Space Odyssey, needs to be appreciated and respected, as well as seen in a historical context as its artistic expression influenced every science-fiction film that came afterwards, including StarWars and the Alien franchise. 2001 is a great example of a historically significant film that expresses no particular cultural context, unlike Easy Rider‘s hippie representation. 2001 is also historically significant in that it innovated a new way of telling a story by providing a more ambiguous approach to storytelling itself instead of the traditionally straightforward one. The 1933 King Kong is another example of a historically significant film that expresses no cultural, or little, context. Indeed the original King Kong is historically significant because it presented a new step in the world of special and visual effects.

Finally, a great film is a great film no matter how old it is. Is The Godfather any less intriguing because it is over 40 years old? In fact, in my opinion it is the passage of time that truly cements a film’s greatness. The German silent film Metropolis by Fritz Lang for example, was a box office failure back in 1926, but time has vindicated this movie which is now considered one of the greatest science-fiction films of all-time. Which brings us back to why old movies matter. They matter because they are an integral part of history and history matters because, it defines what and who we are today.

So enjoy the movies, old and new!


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Categories: Opinion

About Author

Anthony Patstone

Anthony Patstone was born in 1976 in Charlesbourg, Québec and currently lives in the Quebec City area. He studied Film and Art History at Université Laval. A self-proclaimed film buff he also enjoys being a full-time single dad, spending time with good friends, reading, baseball, and music.

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