Classic Film in 2012: The Opposite of Extinction

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Neal Gabler’s suggestion in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times that old movies are “dinosaurs,” looking forlornly in the eye-rolling face of the generation (the under-30 “Millennials”) that will finally and irrevocably consign them to the creative ash heap.

As I understand it, the thesis of Gabler’s commentary is this: kids today are in the implacable thrall of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter and will always default to that which is top of mind for the popular cultural Borg so they can (virtually) bond with their peers.  And that leaves classic film out in the cold of the modern media landscape, because it doesn’t (as Ed Norton once said) “zip the modern way.”

This is a provocative theory, but it’s only, perhaps, 25% accurate.

There’s no doubt that social media dominates the conversation nowadays (both on-line and off-). If you don’t believe me, just count the number of conversations at your next family bar-b-q that include the phrases “did you see?” and “on Facebook.” And then look around at who is making those references. It’s not just the tattooed/bearded under-30 hipsteratti. We’re all being dragged by the tractor beam into the social media Death Star, from kids to grandparents and everyone in between.

I’m 42, which means I fall into that “in between” category. And, for the record, I’m more addicted to social media sites than my 13-year-old niece. I’m not saying I’m proud of this. I’m sure that some day, while the scythe-wielding reaper is packing my valise for the final voyage, I’ll probably wish I spent less time back in 2012 worrying about re-tweets.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a Twitterholic – I started watching more old movies than I used to (and I was watching plenty to begin with). I’ve been a fan of the classics for more than 30 years, but the technology of Twitter (and other on-line services) has allowed me to connect with classic film fans in a way I never even imagined was possible. And now, thanks to the phenomenon of “live tweet-alongs,” I get a chance to watch movies with my fellow film buffs practically every night.

If you’re a a fan of Turner Classic Movies and you’ve spent any time on Twitter you probably know there’s always somebody tweeting about what they are watching, 24/7/365. All you have to do is set up a simple search for #TCM – in the Twitterverse we “Post-Millennials” call that a hashtag – and you can see the tweets of anybody else who is watching at that moment. In addition, there are pre-scheduled, group tweet-alongs using the hashtag #TCMParty that happen on a regular basis, as well as other live tweet extravaganzas like the Drive-In Mob, where participants collectively watch films on streaming sites like Netflix or You Tube and crack wise, gush or share trivia.

During peak viewing hours, these tweet-alongs can include dozens of participants and hundreds of tweets and have, on occasion, resulted in trending status on Twitter. While they may not generate the organized, pre-meditated buzz of, say, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, they have caught the attention of media brands like TCM, which has experimented with official live-tweet events featuring film historian and critic Leonard Maltin.

FACT: If you’re trending on Twitter, you are most assuredly part of the conversation. And that alone disputes the notion that death is impending for classic film because it’s forgotten by social media types.

Now for part 2 of the thesis (or is it part 1?): young people aren’t watching classic film. This is the only area in which Gabler is partially, and I believe temporarily, correct (thus the 25%).

At this moment, old movies are predictably and consistently available on only one national cable channel – Turner Classic Movies. The late, lamented American Movie Classics (now known as AMC) still airs an occasional classic, like an ex-lover teasing you with a drunken grope at the office Christmas party, but those are few and far between, and mostly post-1960 action films. Networks like MGM-HD, Starz Retroplex, and Fox Movie Channel air older films during certain dayparts, but they are not widely distributed and nearly impossible to find in a 1,000-channel universe. That leaves TCM.

This ghettoization of the black & white (and a lovely ghetto it is) means that young people today simply do not have the exposure to classic film that I had growing up during the late 1970s. Ironically, we had exponentially fewer channels back then, but a far more diverse viewing experience. If I had a 24-hour channel devoted to cartoons in 1978, would I have been watching classic films after school on The 4:30 Movie. Probably not, and that would have been my loss.

Even so, when I discovered the Marx Bros in the Dark Pre-VCR Ages of 1978, thanks to my father, I still had to work hard to see their movies. I’d scan the TV Guide each week in hopes of finding one of their 13 feature films, or Groucho’s solo efforts, on one of my local channels. When they were on (usually at 2 a.m.) it required an elaborate set of negotiations with my parents:

“Mom, I promise I will set my alarm, go to sleep two hours early, get up and watch the movie, and go right back to bed! I promise!”

Of course, I didn’t go right back to bed. I stayed up to watch post-movie reruns of Burns & Allen, The Abbott & Costello Show, The Life of Riley, etc., before sneaking back into bed moments before my dad got up for work. My love for all things retro was programmed into my pre-adolescent brain during those late-night sojurns into the past, but it was my little secret. I mean, the other kids (and my teachers) knew about my odd obsession, but they didn’t share it, despite my near-constant evangelizing.

Halloween, 1980. That’s me as Harpo on the left. I convinced my friend Willie to play Groucho, even though he had never seen a Marx Bros movie.

To learn more about the Marx Bros in the late 1970s, I had to troll libraries and used book shops, which involved begging for rides and/or money. Today, just about everything the Marx Bros ever did is on recorded media, and most things that were written about them are readily available, immediately.  To suggest that they (and old movies in general) are somehow closer to obscurity now than they were 35 years-ago, when not a single one of their movies was available on home video – because home video didn’t exist – is complete and utter absurdity.

Which brings me back to the issue of the age group of the viewers.

I was 9 when I saw my first Marx Bros film on free, over-the-air television. That is likely never going to happen again. But the lack of broadcast ubiquity is being effectively challenged by TCM with their summer-time Essentials Jr. showcase for families, and their national, one-day only screenings of kid-friendly classics like SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. The 60th anniversary screening I attended last week featured dozens of kids in the audience, and those kids are likely to seek out more classics from on-demand sources like Netflix, iTunes, You Tube, Hulu, and Amazon, all of which feature a wealth of classic content. All these kids need is for a parent or grandparent to show them ONE great old film, and a budding classic film buff can be created.

What about the kids in college and their early 20s who spent their entire childhood never seeing a black & white movie (other than the beginning and end of THE WIZARD OF OZ)? Don’t count them out. A growing number of young, outside-the-box thinkers in college and their early 20s are discovering classics and attaching to them a certain retro cachet. Look at the people who attend the annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, many of whom are under 30. And pay attention to the demographics of the people who live-tweet classics on TCM. These are not just middle aged weirdos like me, dialing in from the assisted living facility. There are many young fans of classic film who are active on Twitter, and even more who run classic film blogs and Tumblr sites. If you don’t believe me, just do a Google search for “Classic film” and “Tumblr” and pay attention to the number of young women who think Cary Grant is “dreamy” (or whatever is the equivalent word is today).

Last night I went to see THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) at Film Forum, and I was struck by the presence of a group of six women in their late teens (I wasn’t being creepy, I promise). At first they were snickering at the dated special effects and somewhat broad nature of the acting, but as the film progressed, their ironic hipster smirks faded. They stopped laughing and started gasping; one even watched the famous “cat scene” through her fingers. This happens frequently, I believe, when people who are no longer open-minded children discover classic films. They start by pointing and laughing, as any immature person does at that which is different. But as they watch more, some slowly become attuned to the frequency and develop a genuine appreciation for these old movies, just as I did at 2 a.m. alone in my bedroom, 35 years ago.

And while I may snicker derisively at these hipsters when they go to Urban Outfitters to buy retro-fabulous USB turntables, I know there’s a good chance a Sinatra LP may end up being played at some point. And it’s a short jump from Sinatra music to Sinatra movies, and so on and so on.

Like with any drug, all you need is the gateway.

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film and TV obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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8 Responses to Classic Film in 2012: The Opposite of Extinction

  1. Laura says:

    All I can say is “Yep!!” Every point is right on. Excellent piece.

    Best wishes,
    Laura (who was also allowed to go to bed early and get up in the middle of the night for old movies in the late ’70s!!)

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks, Laura. I still can’t believe my parents let me do that. But I’m certainly glad they did.

      • Laura says:

        The deal with my parents was as long as I had good grades I was free to do the go to bed early and set the alarm thing (grin). Needless to say that was a good motivator, LOL. I try to explain doing that to my kids and they can’t even comprehend it — that if I didn’t get up to see a movie (hacked up, with commercials) in the middle of the night, I might not have the chance to see it again for *years*.

        Best wishes,
        Laura

  2. Will, why have you been keeping this awesome new blog under wraps? I wouldn’t have found this if I hadn’t seen a Twitter conversation between you and Laura!

    Back in those VHS days you mentioned I was the kid force feeding my friends the oldies after school. Some of them liked it, others, well sometimes they at least came back. I felt a bit like the dinosaur then, as a teenager, the only person in my circle who liked these dead black and white movies.

    Today’s popularity make old movies look plenty hip in comparison to where I found myself 25 or so years ago. And what we could watch then was a mighty limited list compared to today. Sure, the Marx Brothers would come on if you waited long enough, but heck TCM just showed that one Elizabeth Allan movie I had hoped to get my hands on this week. If I were waiting for that one in 1987 I would have managed to see it, well, this week!

    As a semi-recently minted member of the over-40 crowd myself I have to agree regarding social media and the blogs, Tumblr sites, Pinterest accounts springing from it. When I’m talking old movies on Twitter or Facebook, generally I’m the only one graying in the conversation.

    At any rate, coming from a perspective that begins in the early 80’s and leads to now I feel that the kids love old movies more than ever before. Perhaps if I were 20 years older, old enough to have enjoyed the 60’s nostalgia boom first hand, I’d feel differently. But that’s not the case.

  3. Aurora says:

    As always, Will – you’re a joy to read. Besides the way you phrase things, I can also relate with what you say. We grew up during the same time in the same City so were exposed to some of the same things, movie-wise. The 4:30 Movie played an integral part, if not THE, in my film-loving life.

    I didn’t read Mr. Gabler’s article but sure as hell hope he read yours. I am constantly fascinated and in awe of the many (very) young people who we’ve connected with via Twitter who not only love old films, but love Silents AND are passionate experts in them. I agree with you that “old” films are trending UP in all manner of ways. It’s ironic that modern technology and social media are the facilitators.

    Aurora

  4. John McElwee says:

    Splendid piece. So insightful … and true. Thanks for the best response I’ve seen so far to Gabler’s artcle.

  5. Pingback: Links 7.24.12 « Speakeasy

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