I spent a lot of time in January catching up with older movies I’d always meant to see. I jumped around from one era or genre to the next, but as a general rule I wanted to hunt down movies that were at least 50 years old. The most recent one I watched was 1973’s The Long Goodbye; the oldest was 1933’s The Kennel Murder Case. (Sites like CanIStream.it and InstantWatcher really come in handy.) I didn’t really start out with a plan, and my goal was only as focussed as “watch more movies.” But it was one of the most rewarding movie-watching months I’d had in a long time, which made me wonder: why?
The answer’s simple: I was hungry, and they fed me. This is always a lousy time of year for new releases, and the past few years I’ve just hunkered down and thought warmly of the South by Southwest Film Festival, which comes in March and always seems to bring titles that put gas back in my tank. I saw three new releases to review in January (though one opened on February 1), and they were all terrible to a degree: Gangster Squad, The Last Stand, and Stand Up Guys. In between those burdensome trips to the theater, I wanted to explore movies that could remind me of how much I loved the medium in the first place.
Part of the problem with loving movies is knowing where to start when you want to find those great new experiences. Hundreds of movies are released every year in the U.S. alone (PDF), and the pattern’s mostly held for decades, meaning there are thousands upon thousands of American-made movies I haven’t seen or even heard of yet. Staring up at that relentless annual wave, it can be easy to stick with new or recent releases and catch up on slightly aged movies via cable or streaming services. It takes more effort to seek things out, even if they’re trivial or fleeting or turn out to be bad. It’s not that it’s hard or anything; this is still movie-watching we’re talking about, not pilates. It’s just that on-demand services have gradually conditioned us to find the film of least resistance, and to take the fewest steps from logging on to selecting a movie.
That work is worth it, though. There’s a phrase I heard probably 15 years ago that I’ve never forgotten: If you eat mince all day, you won’t know steak when you see it. I have no idea who originally said it, and I’m probably taking liberty with it, too. The point is that if you sustain yourself with nothing but processed filler, you won’t know a good meal when it’s right in front of you. And a large percentage of movies in any given year are probably going to be filler. Filler’s the worst: it’s not memorable enough to be bad or good, and it’s designed to do nothing but distract you from what you really want. It’s rewarding work to keep looking for those films that are more challenging, more interesting, more entertaining; the ones that are just better.
It’s also worth doing because seeing a variety of movies from multiple eras can remind you just how broad the definition of “good” can be. More accurately, you look for different things, especially in terms of pacing, editing, and structure. It’s so easy to think that movies all have to look like they do right now. We don’t even know we think it, which is where the problem starts. But by constantly looking at movies from different eras — by training ourselves to respond to different methods of filmmaking, different social contexts, different styles and sounds — we can shake loose the chains of the multiplex and start to feel film for what it is: a breathing, changing thing.
Here are the non-2013 movies I saw last month:
The Naked City (1948)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
The Stranger (1946)
Across 110th Street (1972)
Appointment With Danger (1951)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Sleep, My Love (1948)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
Some were better than others, but every one was worth seeing. Another peril that every generation faces is the idea that they (meaning we) are the most advanced, the most educated, the most artistically insightful, simply because they’re (we’re) the latest thing to come along. But movies 75 years old can be as dark and weird and funny and sexy as anything we can make today, and they’re just as resourceful with their own technical means as today’s filmmakers. (Hitchcock gets amazing mileage out of miniatures and rear-screen projection in The Lady Vanishes.) The Stranger is amazingly grim, and notable for being the first Hollywood movie to show actual footage from World War II concentration camps. Witness for the Prosecution has some of the best suspense and twists I’ve seen in years. His Girl Friday is so funny you can’t catch everything the first time. The Long Goodbye is a sad, wistfully funny movie that’s perfectly 1970s.
You get the point. It’s restorative to find these works and see what they look like today. To get a slightly bigger picture on film and its history. To turn away from the scraps and demand a feast. It’s worth every bit of effort you can give it.