WHY OLD MOVIES?
by Frederick Bailey
Sitting in a screening room a couple of weeks ago, watching THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948), brought it home to me once again. Something I first realized years ago:
Movies are time machines.
They can literally take us back in time to a place that existed before we were born. And we can see with our own eyes what it was like back then, what it was really like…how people dressed and how they talked and what kinds of things they thought about and hoped for.
To me, that is an astounding kind of true magic.
Movies persistently create the Now, and yet that Now that has just been created never lasts. It’s gone in a flash. And yet we have a way to recapture it. To re-live it.
And that’s how we can see how we’ve changed, as a people, as a species, and at the same time we can see how we’ve stayed the same. The values that worked for those people back then…do they still work for us now, in our Now?
This provides us with a good reason not to reject the movies of the past.
Reject, you say? Who’s talking about rejecting the movies of the past?
Well, since you asked…
Often in my wanderings in this life, I hear younger folks complain about the screening of older movies. They say they’re not interested. They think old movies are boring. They complain about black-and-white, and they’ve got difficulties relating to those old actors.
What qualifies as an old movie to these folks? Anything made before the year 2000. And certainly nothing of any consequence or relevance was made before 1980.
For me and others my age, we find this attitude appalling. When I went to SMU back in the late ‘60s, we had no problem watching movies that were 20 or 30 or 40 years old. In fact, you couldn’t keep us away. We had a hunger for movies, any movies, and that included old movies.
I don’t know if any of these complainants are filmmakers, but if they are, what I want to say to them is this:
Take a look at what those people did back then and how they did it and how they felt when they did it.
Think of it this way: We need to pass down knowledge, respect, and even a love for past cinematic creations. Because if we don’t, then some day future generations may be ignoring our work, because they think it’s irrelevant, or because they don’t like the presentation format.
Why watch old movies? Here’s another reason. Look at the history of movie-making. The basic presentation format changes every 15 to 20 years:
- First, movies were black-and-white and silent.
- Then they were black-and-white with sound.
- Then came color and better sound.
- Then wide screen with better color and better sound.
- Then movies became available on videotape and you could watch them at home on your own schedule.
- Then came the digital revolution and DVDs and Blu-Ray.
- And that doesn’t include a few detours into 3D, Cinerama, 5.1 Surround Sound, and other gimmicks and technical advances.
So what’s next? We don’t know. But one thing we do know, for absolute certain, is that the presentation format will change. Again and again and again, with increasing regularity, every 15 to 20 years, if not sooner.
So as a precaution to these folks, especially if some of them happen to be filmmakers:
That means your movies, the movies you make, the ones you poured your heart and soul into… Those movies will also become obsolete because the presentation format is going to change. It is inevitable.
Does that mean that future generations should ignore your work just because they don’t use DVD players anymore?
What’s more important, the presentation format or the heart and soul of your work?
Prevailing styles also expand and develop over time. Filmmakers used to believe the camera should be an invisible presence, something the audience shouldn’t notice. In our Now, that notion has been discarded, and moviemakers don’t hesitate to call the audience’s attention to the camera by moving it all over the place in progressively more self-conscious patterns. To us it’s interesting and engaging, but that style is bound to evolve unpredictably into something new, maybe even undergoing a throwback to classicism. Future viewers might find our styles too busy and annoying and might not want to watch your work.
Again, what’s important, style or substance?
* * *
The reasons we look at old movies are manifold. As I’ve already said, there’s a lot to be learned from people’s hopes and dreams from 60 years ago. It’s a way to measure the human heart and the human condition.
But let’s be more selfish. Let’s say you don’t care about other people’s hopes and dreams. Then here’s another good reason for any possible filmmakers out there to watch the work of the filmmakers who came before you:
You can steal great ideas from them.
You can steal all kinds of things: story concepts, dialogue, sequences, angles, and set, prop and costume ideas. Old movies can be pure inspiration. Even bad old movies might have germinal ideas in them that can be plundered and put to work in your own movies.
And if you’re going to go ahead and be selfish, stealing good ideas from old movies can be very profitable.
For example, not many people know it, but the movie PITCH BLACK (2000) was, I’m quite sure, a blatant steal from a 1956 black-and-white movie called BACK FROM ETERNITY, directed by John Farrow, scripted by Jonathan Latimer from a story by Richard Carroll, and starring Robert Ryan and Rod Steiger. It’s about a plane crashing in the South American jungle, and the stranded passengers are threatened by a tribe of cannibals.
The creators of PITCH BLACK used almost exactly the same plot structure, substituting science-fiction for action/adventure, desert for jungle, and weird flying creatures for the cannibal tribe. Otherwise, you lay out the two movies side-by-side, scene-by-scene, and they’re nearly identical.
And yet, I never once saw a single reference to BACK FROM ETERNITY anywhere in the media reviews of PITCH BLACK, much less in the credits. Not even in IMDb. Sometimes I think I’m the only person on the planet (besides the filmmakers) who recognizes the source of PITCH BLACK.
These folks made a lot of money from borrowing that story-line. And I say, nothing wrong with that. Go for it! It’s an honorable tradition. Writers have been borrowing from other writers for as long as anyone can remember, starting with Shakespeare himself. Playwright Bertold Brecht advocated stealing only from the best writers.
When I used to work for Roger Corman back in the dark ages, we did it all the time. Steal a plot, switch it around, change the gender of the characters, fiddle with it, and soon enough, no one will recognize where you got the story.
Because after all that, you’ve made it your own.
Movies reflect the Rhythm of Life. That rhythm changes through time. When you watch old movies and they don’t have a lot of fast cutting in them, don’t get irritated at the pace. Just stop for a moment and think how you might have been brain-washed by the rapid editing so prevalent in modern media. Fast cars, fast women and fast food make us think all life should be in the fast lane. This is patently false. Use old movies to slow your head down and take a look at what life as we know it is really like.
Students of Life, you owe it to yourselves to know the work of the filmmakers who went before you. And if you’re a filmmaker, you need to know whose shoulders you’re standing on. You may come up with an idea you think is brilliant–but then you find out somebody told that same story decades ago, and maybe they had a better slant on it. Guess what–you learn from that.
And if you really think you’re not standing on someone else’s shoulders, then go ahead, take a step off those shoulders, and see how fast you sink.
Learn from your forebears and be grateful to them for what they went through, because they helped put you where you are Now.
There were a lot of very good movies made before 1999.
And if you’re a filmmaker and mean to succeed, you need to be familiar with as many of them as possible.
Following a three-decade career in the movie business, Frederick Bailey is currently a Directing, Screenwriting and Acting mentor at the International Academy of Film & Television. He recently wrote, directed and on-screen hosted two 45-min. educational documentaries for IAFT: DIRECTING and SCREENWRITING.
copyright © 2011 by Frederick Bailey