Okay, let’s try this one more time. I have a new source for material, which is good, because the Chronicle and Insider Higher Ed have been pretty dull lately and I don’t want to go over my article count at the NYT. Inspired by all the discussion about how Twitter was the best way to keep up with events during the Arab Spring uprisings, I joined. I don’t think I’ve hit yet on just the right people to follow (suggestions welcomed!) but I do get pointers to some good stuff. Roger Ebert (a famously prolific tweeter) led me to this interesting article about why students today haven’t seen classic movies. What elevates it above “Hey you kids, get off my lawn” territory is a brief history of the movie distribution and movie-to-TV systems. I knew some of this, but not all, and hadn’t really thought about it this way. The comments are also interesting and present some valid counter-arguments. In teaching my “Politics and the Movies” class, I’ve seen both sides. It’s frustrating to encounter the “I don’t watch black-and-white” attitude (which is remarkably common), but it’s also true that some of the “classics” haven’t aged very well (the original “All the King’s Men” for example.)
His larger point on why we need to be familiar with old movies*–that they tell us important things about our past–seems right but runs the risks of (a) having old movies be treated like museum pieces rather than viable entertainment and (b) not distinguishing between good old movies which we should watch because they are entertaining and bad old movies, which might still have something to show us about the time they were made in. I’m not sure movies are the best way to do the latter, and not to make this distinction gives younger viewers a rationale to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There’s another reason to watch old movies–at least the classics–which I would have emphasized more than the author: the role old movies have in our cultural vocabulary. In that sense, they are like Shakespeare and the King James Version. Our language is littered with references that don’t always make sense if you don’t know the origin. Will future generations know what “We’re not in Kansas anymore” means? And if so, will they only know it from usage, or the actual origin? Does it matter?
*“In the same way that cutting ourselves off from any older aspect of our culture diminishes us by dimming our awareness of who we were and how that made us who we are, there is something lost when we turn away from the gray ones.”