Changing Culture

Young people don’t know nuthin’.

Gee, I feel so much better having said that. Doesn’t mean anything, but it is sweet music to these old ears. Especially after going through the Empire magazine list of the 301 greatest films. This list was voted on by their readers and has become the subject of widespread pro and con debate.

Of course, this list is pretty meaningless. In truth, most of these lists are without merit except for the way they represent a specific marker at an exact moment of time. Such lists also say more about the people voting than they do about the subject. This is just a fact, whether it is the Empire lineup or the most recent critics’ vote at Sight & Sound. Sure, Sight & Sound has a lot more prestige thanks to its sponsor, the British Film Institute. But the point stays the same.

Professionally, I am inclined to take more seriously the Sight & Sound ranking. But in certain ways, the Empire list is infinitely more provocative. Oh sure, their list mostly represents the mindset of a large pack of mostly young, predominately male, fan-boy readers. In other words, the core demographic market that modern Hollywood is always chasing after. They may not be the average viewer, but they certainly represent a sizable chunk of the market.

But the list also represents a good measurement of the radical shift in film culture that has taken place over the past thirty years. The easy way to explain this is to completely backhand everyone involved on the grounds that they are totally lacking in any sense of film history and/or aesthetics. Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly true. The issue is far more complex.

At first glance, the Empire lineup strongly suggests that George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and Quentin Tarantino are the three greatest filmmakers to ever live. Also, it appears that the cinema has only been around for about forty years, the first twenty of which were seemingly weak and lackluster. With the exception of The 400 Blows and À bout de souffle, the French New Wave never existed. The New German Cinema? Never heard of it.

Ironically, some old guard classic titles such as M, Rules of the Game, and Bicycle Thieves are included, though at the bottom of the list. Likewise, certain major entries from the longer version of the Sight & Sound roster make the grade, such as The Searchers and Rio Bravo (though I must add that I have always preferred El Dorado to Rio Bravo—I know, they are basically the same movie but there is a difference).

But the most surprising entry is item number 300, Andrei Rublev. Yes, this is Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece (best seen in its original 205-minute version). No, you do not need to be Russian to watch this film, but it really helps. The movie is a complex, visionary, poetic, and intensely mystical and violent contemplation on the meaning of the Russian soul and its history. It stands in virtual opposition to everything found in contemporary mainstream cinema.

Which suggests that the list is not simply the result of feverish fan-boy dreams (in which cinematic art is judged by the explosions and the special effects). Sure, a lot of the list plays that way, but something more is going on. Some of it reflects the increasingly ahistorical context of the digital revolution. No longer is the past simply a foreign country. It is virtually an alien planet from which we occasionally receive murky reports. The past is also primarily in black and white, a format with which a young generation of filmgoers are less than thrilled.

Likewise, the whole language and structure of film has changed. It’s not the case that contemporary movies are superior (they are not). Nor are they more complex (they are actually simpler). But the whole sense of structure and presentation is distinctly, even overwhelmingly, different. The reasons are many and would take a book to truly explore, but it could be argued that this is a shift almost as radical as the change from Middle to Early Modern English. Modern film viewers are operating with a whole different sense of cinematic vocabulary.

Add to this the extreme dominance of the corporate mediated image. Contemporary movies (just like much of contemporary pop music) are produced, packaged, and handled as a product in a manner remarkably similar to Coca-Cola. This is most self-evident in the dominance of franchise movies in the mainstream film industry. But the effect spills out in every direction.

The radical changes in production and distribution can be found in editing, visual structure and presentation, as well as character structure and pacing. The average viewer attention span has decreased, while dramatic structure and characterization have arguably grown simpler (this point is admittedly more subjective and harder to quantify for purposes of a serious study).

As individual components, each change could be seen as minor. But film is not viewed as individual components, and the total synthesis of these changes is resulting in a very different form of both perception and content. In other words, a radically shifting and very different film language.

Which may be why many younger viewers look at old movies in much the same way that we quizzically perceive ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics: as flat, strange, and almost incomprehensible.

As with any artform, the essential nature and quality of film are in the eye of the viewer. So in some respects, this is exactly what old movies are becoming: incomprehensible not just as a matter of perception, but in actuality.

Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved