When I was growing up, I had a number of opportunities to watch older movies. And I have to confess (with no small amount of embarrassment) that at the time I really didn’t enjoy many of these films. I lumped together “all movies made before the 1970s” as if they were one genre, and wrote them off as stodgy, boring, and “not for me.”
Fast forward 20 years, and — thankfully! — I now see “older movies” in a slightly different light. Sure, there are some older films that are boring or poorly made, but the exact same thing could be said about any number of recent films. I think it’s important for film fans to watch a variety of film types, and that includes classics from years ago. Watching older movies provided historical context I was previously missing and also deepened my love for film as an art form.
One of my favorite things that I’ve gained from watching older films is an appreciation for Hollywood history and how much the industry has changed over the years (although it’s also interesting to note how certain principles of good film-making have remained constant). You all know that Star Wars is my favorite franchise, but that franchise never would have existed if George Lucas hadn’t been inspired by the creators who came before him.
It’s also valuable to watch older films and use them as a window into past culture and society and get a peek at what people’s lives were like in previous decades. True, the average person in the 1960s wasn’t living the glamorous life of a Hollywood star, but movies capture the cultural tone, music and clothing styles that were popular at the time, as well as the general way people viewed the world.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock to getting into older films is their more dated aspects — and I’m not just talking about avocado-colored carpet or an abundance of leisure suits. For example, as a female geek, I’m sometimes disappointed by older films and their roles for women (or lack thereof). In some of these films, women are treated as secondary to the male characters, and they are too often relegated to the role of “love interest” or “damsel in distress.” For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller North by Northwest starring Cary Grant was a great film that had me riveted from start to finish, but I was bothered by how Eva Marie Saint was treated in comparison to her male co-star.
When I watch an older movie, I try to evaluate it in light of the time it was created in. I can appreciate certain parts of it — such as the acting, cinematography, and plot — while simultaneously criticizing the treatment of the female characters. Watching a film and then discussing its issues in a nuanced manner not only builds community amongst film fans, it helps us all evaluate movies in a deeper and more insightful way.
It’s also fair to note that just because a movie was made before 1970, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically going to have content that’s sexist, racist, etc. Film makers were capable of forward-thinking ideas then too, and they used their movies to make important statements about the world around them.
Another misconception I once had is that black and white films are not as engaging as color. There are so many black and white masterpieces out there, where the filmmakers use shadow and lighting as a powerful storytelling technique. I still remember watching Strangers on a Train for the first time for the ESO podcast. What a great film, and it was absolutely riveting — no technicolor needed.
By the same token, don’t feel pressured to like a movie just because it’s a classic. And just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean watching that movie was a waste of time. I really didn’t care for Spirited Away (I wouldn’t classify it as an older movie, but it was the best example I could think of at the moment). However, watching Spirited Away was still worthwhile because it’s a culturally significant animated movie. Watching it — and evaluating my own response to it — taught me things about myself and the world around me.
I know I need to do a better job of watching more movies from Hollywood’s past, though that can be challenging with so much streaming content to keep up with these days. Still, I’d argue that it’s worth your time to take a pause from what you’re currently watching and check out a classic or maybe even a hidden gem that doesn’t get discussed enough.