Friday, 16 November 2018

On films being dated

Last week there was a column in a Swedish newspaper about the year 1968, in particular its music. The writer compared some albums released that year with films and claimed that most films "feel hopelessly dated" and have "aged without any dignity" and mentioned as examples 2001, Where Eagles Dare, Planet of the Apes, Bergman's Hour of the Wolf and a Swedish farce, Åsa-Nisse och den stora kalabaliken, as opposed to the music which, he claimed, in general had aged well and was still very good.

My first reaction was, obviously, that the man was a fool and hey, there were many good films made in 1968 (Bullitt, Once Upon a Time in the West, Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, Bergman's Shame)! An angry tweet was forming. But on second thought it occurred to me that he had not said that all films were bad and that he might like those very films. By mentioning some good films from 1968 I would not disprove him and my tweet was discarded before posting. And he was right in the sense that most films from 1968 are probably not any good (imdb has 21,566 titles just from that year). But that is not something unique for films but true for works of art in general. We remember a few masterpieces and classics but the overwhelming majority of what has been created is not very good, and never was in the first place. The foolishness of him was for thinking that music was different from film. Sturgeon's law ("ninety per cent of everything is crap") probably applies there too. But such an observation is not particularly interesting.

You may think I am over-thinking that irrelevant column, written with no thought, but there is something interesting here, something this column was a good example of. The real flaw with the piece is very common, something I frequently criticise my students for, and which can even be seen as a common flaw in humans' conception of history. What does it actually mean to say that something is dated?

When that columnist said that most films have aged without dignity he made several assumptions from the fact that he did not like these films. If something has aged badly it must have been the case that it was once considered good but not so anymore. It would be weird to say that Ed Wood's films, like Plan 9 From Other Space (1959), have aged badly because they were never considered anything else than bad.

But I think we can assume that 2001, Åsa-Nisse and Where Eagles Dare are overall regarded much the same way now as in 1968. Hour of the Wolf is so strange and particular that it becomes meaningless to say it has aged in any direction. It was as weird in 1968 as it is now. You could argue instead that these films have not aged at all and the same kind of people who liked them then probably likes them now. I was a huge fan of Where Eagles Dare as a teenager, and I have it on blu-ray, but I find it a bit boring now. Not because the film has aged but because I have.

Planet of the Apes is somewhat different and it probably does not have the same kind of audience now as then. But what might conceivably be said to have aged are costumes and makeup, although I would not say they have aged without dignity. Quite the contrary.

And regardless of what one might think of those films they remain watched and liked and they continue to be a part of our culture. For that reason too it is also peculiar to argue that they have dated badly.

Some years ago a distinguished Swedish film critic said that after having re-watched The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959) he realised it was very dated. He did not like it as much as he once did. The presumption here is that during that time the film had changed, or aged, and he had not. I think you might more plausibly argue that it was the other way around.

The connection to my students is that they frequently say that a film is dated when they do not like it and say it was ahead of its time when they do like it. In view of the fact that they have not seen more than a small handful of older films they are not really in a position to argue whether something was ahead of its time or not. They have no frame of reference and only their prejudices to go on.

What is underlining all thinking about something being dated is an idea of progress. If an older film presents an idea of gender or sexual relations that someone today thinks is conservative or old-fashioned, she might say the film is dated; that when the film came out this was how everybody viewed gender and sexuality whereas now we have progressed and are more enlightened or some such.

But whatever view of gender or sexuality you might find in an older film can also be found in films today, and in society at large. If something is prominent today, and can be found in contemporary art, what does it mean to say it is dated? To what an extent must a view on for example social issues be less common today than it once was for that view to be considered dated? There are quite a few things in contemporary society I disapprove of but in many cases I am often in a very small minority when disapproving. It would not make any sense for me to say that a film from, say, 1952 is dated just because it is positive to one of those things I disapprove of if people today in general are just as positive about it as people were in 1952, whether I approve or not.

The beliefs that once a given film might have been considered a masterpiece but now we see that it is dated due to themes and subject matter; that something was of its time or ahead of its time; that nowadays we are wiser and more progressive and enlightened, are usually based on a smug ignorance, which can at times be quite intolerable.

It is a similar case with style. It is for example common to say that older films are slow, and that this makes them dated. As if His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks 1940) is slower than The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr 2011). Most of the current superhero films and Michael Bay's Transformers are pretty slow in the sense that they are very long, take their time, are to a large extent pointless exposition and in the end there are seemingly endless fight scenes of little value. Almost any given film from Fritz Lang' sound period, or from Darryl F. Zanuck or 1930s Warner Bros. or early Kurosawa or Bergman and so on is like a Lamborghini in comparison. Some would perhaps counter that I find The Avengers films slow because I find them uninteresting and yes, that is true. This is the point. Whether something is slow or not is a matter of personal preferences and somewhat irrelevant as a statement on cinema in general. Unless your argument is that today people find films interesting (and therefore not slow) whereas in them olden days people thought films were uninteresting and therefore slow.

There are also those who say that a film is dated because of what people wear or what technology they use or do not use, for example when people do not have mobile phones. But that is clearly pretty dumb as it also means, for example, that all current period pieces are by default dated. Where does this argument take us?

There are times when it is relevant to say something is dated, but rarely in the way it is generally used. Acting style and ideas of realism are among things one might discuss as being dated for example, and I am all for having such discussions. But it should then mean something more than "because I did not like it".


Unrelated but fun: the expression "the hour of the wolf" or "vargtimmen" has become a saying because of the film. The phrase and concept was invented by Bergman and did not exist beforehand. Much like The Sarah Siddons Award was invented by Joseph L. Mankiewicz when he wrote the script for his film All About Eve (1950) and then two years later it became a real prize handed out for acting in the theatre, like it had been in the film. (This year it went to Betty Buckley.)

1 comment:

  1. When I finally did have a chance to see THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, it seemed "dated" in that it seems like a response to '60s European art cinema, '70s New Hollywood (and even softcore porn) in ways that mark it as a product of the time when it was shot more than any other Welles film. But it also contains a critique of machismo and engagement with gayness that seem ahead of that period, although it could be criticized for not going far enough with them. 2001 may be "dated" in that it looks and feels much different than contemporary sci-fi films tend to, but to most of its champions, that's exactly what's refreshing about it. It's easy to blame films like 16 CANDLES and ANIMAL HOUSE for sexist behavior without acknowledging how much attitudes about alcohol and consent and the concept of "date rape" have changed drastically fairly recently, at least in the U.S., and feel superior to the culture of the '70s and the '80s without realizing these ideas will continue to change.