It’s not unusual for me to drop a lot of cultural references in everyday conversation. It’s part of my lexicon and most people get it. But I’ve been noticing for the last few years that whenever I reference older movies to anyone under 30, they instantly get that vacant expression in their eyes like they have no idea what I’m talking about. Sometimes, out of curiosity, I press them for a confession, and without fail the common response is “What do you expect? Those movies were probably made before I was even born.”
Well, yes. That’s simple and obvious. But to use this as a justification, well, quite frankly, doesn’t satisfy me.
I don’t criticize them for it. Nobody likes a confrontational old blowhard. I never did. But I will usually try to fill in their cultural gaps with a brief explanation of whichever old movie triggered their cold dead shark-eye expression in the first place. That’s the cue for these seemingly intelligent young people to suddenly feel the need to check their social media on their smart phone.
Mind you, I’m not talking about obscure, challenging, subtitled, foreign art house movies. The movies I’m usually referring to are such popular things as His Girl Friday, The Maltese Falcon, Samson and Delilah, Double Indemnity, On the Waterfront, Around the World in 80 Days, or Dr. Strangelove.
These young people don’t know who Bogart was, or Vivian Leigh, or Burt Lancaster, or Cary Grant, or Ingrid Bergman. Some don’t know there’d been a War of the Worlds before Spielberg’s, or that there’d been a radio broadcast of the story by Orson Welles that caused mass hysteria across the country, or let alone that H.G. Wells had written the original novel during the Victorian era. They don’t know there’d been a Planet of the Apes before Tim Burton’s monkey fest. And the few who do know, hadn’t seen the originals. With the exception of blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, and The Godfather, it seems most young people are barely even aware of any movie before Independence Day and Titanic.
As frustrating as it is, something about the puzzling logic that they shouldn’t be expected to know of anything culturally made before their birth simply won’t let me go. It’s the kind of thing that buzzes around in my head for days afterward. Why don’t they know? With today’s Internet, Netflix, DVDs, and hundreds of cable channels, these young people have incredible access to a virtually limitless library of movies, yet almost every time I mention something made before Clinton’s presidency, it’s like I’m speaking Latin to them.
And then a flip side of their ignorance began nagging me: how come back when I was a kid, with just five TV channels, did I know about all those older movies? Seriously, it’s an outrageous paradox. For all their access, young people see astoundingly little, whereas my access had been limited, but I’d seen so much more.
After mulling this over the last couple of days, I’m going to share my conclusions. Oh, lucky readers.
Up until the early 1970’s, movie releases were managed as if films were valuable objects to be carefully nursed through the distribution system. It wasn’t because Hollywood had any great respect or high regard for their movies, rather it was just a matter of simple, economic practicality. They worked a business methodology that was designed to wring every last possible dollar out of each title.
Wide releases were reserved for the bad movies. The idea was to push a stinker onto as many screens as possible hoping to haul in some quick box office cash before the bad word of mouth got out. But that was the exception, not the rule. What the studios normally did was this:
A movie was initially released only in the major cities. When its drawing power began to fade at that level, it was then cycled down through smaller markets into the midsize cities, and when those were exhausted, it dropped down again into the little towns, finally bottoming out at drive-ins and grindhouse theaters. It was a process with the goal of squeezing out every possible buck at a given level of exhibition before moving on to the next one.
Movies considered really special were kept on an even shorter leash. We’re talking about “Event” stuff like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Ben-Hur, Doctor Zhivago and so on. These kinds of cinematic Cadillacs would literally premiere in just a handful of cities and only in the most upscale venues, like Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, or New York’s Radio City.
I’m not throwing the word “event” around loosely. That’s exactly what these kinds of showcases truly were. They would offer souvenirs and programs on sale in the palatial lobbies, movies would open with a specially written musical overture, there’d be an intermission. And only after business had peaked at these kinds of imperial displays did a trimmed-back version of the movie trickle out into the usual distribution network.
This system of distribution preserved the entertainment value of a movie as it teased with expectancy in markets further down the ladder. I can still remember, as a kid in Tucson, hearing about movies opening in New York City and Los Angeles, and envying the people who could see the movie right now while the rest of us wondered how long it would take to come to our city out in the desert.
With this kind of release pattern, it wasn’t unusual for a successful movie to be in exhibition for a year. For the biggies, it might even take a couple of years before the last tired print rattled through a projector at some drive-in out in the boonies.
My point is that movies were only being seen by a limited number of people at any given time. In this way, all movies were experiences. When a movie finally left our neighborhood theater, it was usually gone forever.
Well, most of the time.
Some of the more prestigious movies, under this restrained distribution pattern, were able to retain a lasting appeal, a cultural echo, a sense that they were too special to only pass through the circuit once. The studios recognized that impact. These super-memorable flicks belonged to their own special class and were treated like rare treasures that were occasionally brought out of their sacred vault for re-release. It was a form of cultural resurrection. That’s how I got to see great classics like Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane, The Ten Commandments, and Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen.
Disney did things differently for their animation classics and re-released them about every seven years. The calculation was that it took that long for one generation of viewers to age out of a given movie’s appeal, and a new generation to age in. Disney also knew that, at a certain point, parents who had seen these animated jewels as kids would enjoy reliving the experience with their own kids.
Now, a little bit of history of how movies made their way to television:
In the early days of TV, the major studios wanted absolutely nothing to do with the little flickering box. Television decreased revenue like a thief in the night running away with the movie industry’s audience. It was a pillager, a rapist, a Pied Piper seducing viewers with its bluish glow. Television was the great evil, The Dark Lord. The studios prohibited their stars from making appearances on television. Many wouldn’t even allow a TV to be used as part of a living room décor on a movie set. The idea of providing television with movie programming was tantamount to cutting the studio’s own throat. But TV was definitely stealing profits from the studios, and eventually, dollars began speaking louder than ideals. Struggling studios needed the money and they figured most of their oldies weren’t doing them any good just sitting on the shelves gathering dust, so deals were struck.
The studios bundled their old movies in packages and sold licensing terms to local stations around the country. Where I lived in southern Arizona, we had five channels. There were the ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates, a PBS educational station, and an independent. Every Saturday night, the independent station gave us Chiller Theater where I was introduced to Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price. On Sundays, the ABC affiliate ran black and white science-fiction flicks from the 50’s where space creatures and atomic monsters attacked our childhood paranoia. On Thanksgiving, we got King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. What giant gorillas had to do with Thanksgiving beats me, but even to this day, it seems sorta weird not to watch a big ape on Turkey Day.
Some of my best childhood memories are staying up late with my father on Friday nights and watching the CBS Late Movie. There are images I still haven’t forgotten: a tentacled monster barging through an inn’s front doors in The Crawling Eye, Jack Palance’s arm being crushed by a German tank in Attack!, Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis watching in terror as the monster from the Id burns its way through steel doors to get at them in Forbidden Planet, John Wayne as a tyrannical trail boss who rides into Abilene to kill his own son in Red River.
When I was in grade school, telecasts were reaching a peak when there was a network movie on every night of the week. ABC had Monday and Wednesday, CBS took Thursday and Friday, and NBC copped the rest. Between what the independent stations scheduled throughout the day and what the networks were airing in prime time, there was almost always a movie on somewhere. And almost all of them were made before I was born.
My generation grew up exposed to much of what had passed for movie entertainment since the beginning of the sound era.
Because there were no VCR’s or TiVo, there was many a bleary-eyed morning as a result of The Late Show and The Late Late Show. Since we couldn’t record a movie for viewing at a more convenient time, we had to watch them at whatever time they aired, and many was the night I was awakened at one a.m. by my father. “Get up, Zipper, or you’re gonna miss Treasure of the Sierra Madre!’”
These movie experiences became a kind of cultural glue holding us Baby Boomers together. We were all seeing the same movies, seeing them at the same time in our homes on television, like some shared group ritual, entertaining each other at school as we played out the scenes, swaggering like John Wayne, twitching lips like Humphrey Bogart, doing lock-jawed imitations of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. I can still remember when Spartacus made it to television. The next day at school, some kid by the monkey bars yelled out that he was Spartacus, and the whole playground began responding with a cascading chorus of defiant sacrifice that, no, they were Spartacus.
Those years we spent parked in front of the TV as kids laid the bedrock for what would become the country’s first, and probably last, cinema literate generation. My particular age group was at the tail end of that generation, but we were just as savvy and we watched the oldest of the Baby Boomers go off to college and become filmmakers themselves. They jumped from playing out their favorite scenes in the schoolyard to a stratospheric level of cinematic artistry: We gave the movie industry Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg.
The great generational irony of that time was that while the youth of the day seemed to be violently at odds with our parent’s generation about damned near everything else like politics, race, the war in Vietnam, religion, economic disparity, social conventions, music, sex, drugs, fashion, etc., our movies remained a point of connection, a bridge across the generational divide.
While we celebrated the Consciousness Revolution and all the liberation that it promised, we also had a deep affection for classic movies. Long-haired peace and love types still enjoyed watching The Duke beat hell out of some bad hombre. A generation that had never known James Dean still identified with his smoldering rebellion. Bogart had died in 1957, but you could easily find his face on teenage walls in 1977 because, after Vietnam and riots and Kent State and Watergate, it was hard not to identify with Bogie’s hard-boiled disillusionment and cynicism. We identified with and adored the kiss-my-ass anarchy of the Marx Brothers.
I might spend one night telling my dad how his generation had thoroughly screwed up the world for my generation, but then the next night we’d be watching A Streetcar named Desire together. Sitting outside afterwards, he’d babble on about when he worked in New Orleans in the late 40’s until I couldn’t take it anymore and started ripping my t-shirt, yelling “Stella!” in my best impersonation of young Brando anguish.
It was the rare cultural torch that we Boomers took up from our elders. We may not have thought much of oldsters and their bow ties and corny music, but their movies were also our movies. It was a natural feeling after all. We’d been raised on them.
So, what changed? How did we get from there to young people now being completely ignorant of older films?
Actually, quite a few things changed.
Distribution patterns for one. Back in the day, as I’ve mentioned, wide releases were for movies expected to bomb. Today, it’s the standard. The average summer film opens on 4000 screens. They’re in every multiplex in the country. These mass openings roll out a tidal wave of publicity that practically beats us senseless. That sense of mystery and expectancy which used to go with waiting for movies to finally play at our neighborhood bijou is gone.
The life cycle of a typical movie in the 1960’s ran something like this: maybe a year in theatrical release, then a cooling off period of a couple of years before being licensed to one of the broadcast networks where it would air maybe twice a year over a period of 3-5 years, then another cooling off period before it would be bundled with other titles for syndication.
Today, the theatrical window is typically only four months, and with the saturation bombing pattern of modern wide releases, most titles have exhausted their viability long before that. DVD release comes in month five, pay-per-view the following month, and 10 months after a movie opens in theaters, it’s already on a premium channel like HBO or Showtime. And with the premium channels now multiplexed, it seems like a movie is never off the air as it rotates through a service’s various channels. That kind of overexposure absolutely kills the specialness that went with limited broadcasts.
When the premium channels are done with the movie, it’s sold off to basic cable networks for a short term, then bundled with other movies and sold back to the premium channels, then back to basic cable, and so on ad nauseum, until we’re completely sick of it.
When I was a kid, we couldn’t wait for a favored movie to show up for its one or two showings that year on television. Today, it seems we can’t get away from a movie.
When the entertainment industry started promising a science-fiction world where we would just push a button and be able to see pretty much any movie we wanted on TV, I was excited about it. That’s the world we’re supposedly living in now. I turn on my home satellite system and there are hundreds of channels to chose from. There’s so many in fact, I can’t always distinguish the channels from one another, let alone even remember all the channels at my disposal.
To help cut through the clutter and capture eyeballs, cable networks have slowly moved away from the kind of generic programming which marked the television years of my youth, to more channel-defining original programming. Those channels that still have a strategic use for movies tend to air, and re-air, and then re-re-air, only the shiny new popular titles they know are instantly recognizable to the mass audience. And what that doesn’t include are the old Hollywood classics.
For those that like old movies, we have to tune into TCM which is the only network that shows them anymore. AMC used to do it, but gave up.
In the 70s, each of the three broadcast networks usually had 15-20 million people watching a show or movie in prime time. Even when they aired a classic movie, it was inevitably seen by millions. But with the splintering of the mass audience into smaller niches by the proliferation of cable channels, audiences are simply smaller today. In an effort to boost it’s ratings, AMC changed its format from a classics station to one that focuses on original programming. It is now defined by Mad Men and Breaking Bad. With a new target audience that doesn’t recognize the value of old movies comes a new business model that promotes “The New Classics”, meaning newer, more recognizable films.
I’ve been reading a lot of cultural studies lately that suggest a strong disconnect between today’s generations and my own. The average 30-year-old has a curious disinterest in any number of topics that predate their own generational awareness, but there’s probably no disconnect as complete between this generation and mine as the dropping of this particular pop culture torch.
A recent interview with a writer who works for Saturday Night Live revealed that their staff is instructed not to reference anything more than three years prior because “a lot of viewers won’t get it.” Compare that to the SNL’s from the 70’s when I watched it. Those shows riffed on decades of old TV shows and movies because its writers knew that we all shared the same pop culture literacy.
Today’s youth want everything to be happening now, at this instant.
Put on an old movie, and young people will immediately grow impatient with what they view as antiquated technique. “What, no color?”
They don’t respect the oldies, don’t see their connection in the cinematic heritage chain.
Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder . . . irrelevant.
Citizen Kane . . . boring.
The questions in my mind right now as I write this are, Does it matter? Who cares? So what? Does this disconnect with the vast treasure trove of old movies really cost us anything?
This new, grounded-only-in-the-present sensibility ignores film’s magical ability to capture a moment from the past and breathe new life into it, making that long ago human experience present in the now. When I watch Lumiere’s recording of people walking around on a city street in 1896, or the ambient reality of Casablanca, or in any film from the past, it’s a form of time travel for me in which I experience something now that happened long before I was even born. This vicarious empathy is a powerful thing.
There’s a lot of choices out there, and some of those choices are old black and white movies. But they can’t be found by accident anymore. The first time I saw Laura and Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard, I’d simply been flipping the channels and was caught by a gorgeous old image. Those choices aren’t on television anymore. Now, with niche television and Netflix and the sweet trap of the Internet, you can always get what you’re looking for, but only if you know what you’re looking for.
In the way that young people cut themselves off from older aspects of our culture, it can only diminish them by dimming their awareness of where they came from.
As a culture, something is lost.
And our national mythology slowly disappears.