Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Golden Oldies

Recently I was watching some vintage movies, a couple of which we remember from the 1970s. I wouldn't necessarily call them classic films but two of them did very well at the box office when they were released. Support the theory or not, box office receipts have been and remain a measurement of a movie's success.

Sometimes it take a while for a film to be declared a classic. Even if a movie does not do well when first released, it may gradually develop a fan following as many devoted viewers returning again and again to see the film.

However the word classic is defined, that category would have to include a few down-right great films which had endured over time. Films like Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane and Casablanca surely fit into the classic department. These movie have all the elements of exceedingly high quality direction, memorable if flawed characters and rich dialogue.

To me, Casablanca stands out as one of the best films ever. This 1942 epic is set in unoccupied Africa during the early part of World War II. Despite the fact that the film was made over 70 years ago, there is a timelessness to Rick Blaine, his love for Ilsa Lund, with a touch of Nazi intrigue added for good measure. Casablanca is perfect on many levels. I could watch this film as often as it is shown, and often do, simply because it tells a complicated story in a simple and touching manner.

The two films I watched recently were both from the 1970s but are polar opposites.

Network (1976) was directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by the brilliant Paddy Chayefsky, it is set in the world of television news. The tone of the plot rings as true today as when it was filmed. Thanks to Chayefsky's genius and the insanity of the television business, the script was years ahead of its time. Chayefsky must have seen the future because he wrote about television news morphing into something entirely different than originally intended. To think that ratings would force TV executives to do almost anything to improve ratings. Unbelievable! In the film, television news needed to design features to entertain the audience. Stirred into action by Howard Beale's lead, viewers had to admit that they were as mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more.

The second movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was filmed one year later in 1977 yet seems amateurish by comparison. It was written and directed by Steven Spielberg. I loved this movie when it came out and have watched it many times during the intervening years. But watching it this week, I was struck by how it appeared outdated and stale. Perhaps this was due to the never ending development of technology. Not that film-making technology has evolved since 1977, but so much of the movie is based on outer space exploration and communication with aliens, apparently very much on our minds in 1977.

We have become a world of plugged-in, instantly communicating automatons, who can't cross a busy intersection without checking for emails. Watching the film as people struggle to communicate and understand why bright nighttime lights have arrived is almost amusing. In addition, Richard Dreyfuss and his family are just regular folks, working people with dysfunctional family lives. It is their inability to surf the net for answers or to reach each other by cell phone that seem so oddly old-fashioned. Dreyfuss nearly runs off the road while reading maps on his journey to Devil's Tower. Today his GPS would have guided him.

While I do not believe we should walk around in a daze plugged into one device or another, the imprint of technology is with us, perhaps to stay.

No doubt as our society continues to embrace certain technology and discard others, some movies will cease to be watched entirely. Perhaps they will be viewed simply as oddities. I was reminded of the many ridiculous sci-fi movies made during the 1950s, as we were uncertain of the long term effects of nuclear fall-out. Tales of giant insects walking through our cities and across our deserts - ants and spiders and larvae, oh my!

I'm not faulting the filmmakers for these discrepancies. It's simply an observation that some things will endure over time and others will fade.

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