Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Get Off My Lawn Millennials (Actually You Can Stay It's Fine)

Twitter follower @kevinddaly pointed out a very interesting article in the L.A. Times by Neal Gabler called "Perspective: Millennials seem to have little use for old movies."

His thesis is "Young people, so-called millennials, don't seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did."  His evidence of this is the short turnaround time for remakes now what with Spider-Man getting a "reboot" so soon after the last cycle of it ended.  He also looks to anecdotal evidence from film school professors and university professors where he concludes "As taste goes, millennials seem to have a hard time relating to movies that are only a few years old."  He suggests that the Andrew Sarris generation loved old and new movies but this generation has no use for old movies, only new. 

Gabler tacitly acknowledges ("cinematic ageism is the natural cycle of culture") that every generation at some point pushes off the cultural dead-weight of their parents and fights for a cultural voice that "feels" to them to be current, new and vital.  When I was a film student in the 1990's, I had many film professors who came of age in the 1960's and 1970's film school scene.  They would sing the praises of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Leone.  But all my classmates wanted to talk about was Tarantino, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola. We were looking back on the VHS movies of our youth but these were also filmmakers still making movies at that time (save Lucas who had not yet ruined Star Wars with his prequels in these halcyon days).  I know I was sick of hearing about the French New Wave.  I didn't get Godard or Fellini.  I still don't.  I would rather be set on fire than watch Hiroshima Mon Amour.  There were certain black and white foreign films that meant nothing to me.  I could learn their place in history but they didn't move me. That said I love Billy Wilder, anything with Carol Lombard or Jean Arthur in it, and a slew of foreign films that make my heart sing or sink (The Rules of the Game, The Bicycle Thief, Chacun Cherche Son Chat, The Color of Paradise, Sun Alley).

Many of my compatriots in film school didn't talk about movies as high art.  There was a definite divide between people into independent films, those making experimental films, people riffing on Spielberg, and those making documentaries.  It actually was the nice thing about our film program that all those people could make the types of movies they wanted to make.  I'm not sure most of us had much to say but we were learning at least a storytelling language.  Maybe later we'd have things to say.  Before digital video, this was an expensive process.  Not everyone could make a film.  Not everyone could afford to.  I certainly could not and that economic repression was pretty severe.

I prefer today where there is more democracy in the system.  As costs come down more people can express themselves.  But on the flip-side of that, when I worked in film distribution I saw a lot of content because people could express themselves...but few still had anything new to say.

Millennials have the great fortune to be sitting on a mountain of content. And the great misfortune of having to sort through that mountain of content to find anything that speaks to them.  I doubt they are the first generation to be focused on the "new."  Gabler alleges that millennials somehow are so obsessed with novelty that it "obliterates the past in the fascination with the present."  Really? Millennials?  It's such an easy cheap answer.  When I posed the question as to whether teenagers today could connect to the nostalgia and regret in Follies, a show written in the 70's about reminiscences from the 1940's, several young people could not even believe I had asked the question.  Of course they have nostalgia and regret.  It's not a limited by age.  I see a lot of folks on twitter talking about the TV shows of their youth (even if their youth happened like yesterday).  It might not be what Gabler wants them to be reflecting on but how is it less legitimate.

I feel like Gabler's article is meant to be a generational lament for perhaps his generation, but I'm not sure it should also be an indictment of how another generation does it.  Let's be clear.  I'm not a millennial.  I call millennials when I can't get my iPhone to work.  I spend lots of time lamenting TV isn't as good as Buffy was.  Or that no one remembers that Matthew Broderick killed someone once over in Ireland.  I'm old enough to apparently remember things people now don't know about.  I love classic Hollywood cinema and I could talk for days about how much Gregg Toland is a god if you just watch Citizen Kane.  I think knowing film history is important if you want to talk about cinema, write about it or make movies.  But what you take from that history will be unique to you.  You don't have to love Fellini.  You can think he's stupid.  I'm telling you it's ok.

Somehow I find myself on the millennials' side in this argument.

I really like social media and as Gabler calls it the "sustained" conversation about media that exists today.  We take our opinions from the movie theater sidewalk into the twittersphere.  I love that I can see a show in London and tweet to people in New York about it.  Or that I can be anywhere in the world and read reviews from the New York Times on my telephone....that I carry in my hand.  I'm pretty excited about how online voices have a space in the dialogue of today.  I have ended up in conversations with journalists, actors, writers, and critics and would never have had that opportunity without social media.

We now have You Tube where any reference you want to make to a song, movie, TV show of the past can probably be mined for a clip.  This commercial brings me back to when I was a kid.  I shared it on Facebook.  My older cousins (in their 50's) saw the clip and then told me a story about my Dad having done some of the fish shaped carpentry work at the aquarium in the 70's.  I had no idea.  The past can be served well by the present.

Old films won't disappear because the Sarris generation has them in a vault somewhere.  I've seen the pictures of the bunker.  As long as Washington, DC doesn't outlaw the incandescent light-bulb (seriously) then movies of the past will always be preserved and be viewable (interesting MoMA's film archives are preserved on film even if the work was shot on video or digital video but they need incandescent light-bulbs for the projectors).  Gabler fails to mention that we've lost many of our art house cinemas, double-feature shows, and cheap movie-theater experiences. You can't blame that on the millennial babies.

Now we've got Netflix with an incredible array of films you want to see, you should see, and you don't ever need to see again.   In the old days, I had to drive to another town to rent an art-house movie on videotape that maybe would not work.  More history is available at the click of a button now.   

Hollywood might be making remakes of movies that came out five years ago and apparently every comic book character ever created will get a film these days, but let's not forget that Hollywood is also making incredibly shitty art house movies for the Gabler generation (see for example, The King's Speech) and arty movies about margin calls without a single margin call in them (Margin Call).  HOLLYWOOD IS MAKING ART HOUSE MOVIES ABOUT STRIPPERS. (Magic Mike).   All of those films have roots in cinema of the past.  The biopic, the intellectual thriller, uhm The Full Monty.   So if all you saw were those movies, you would have a connection to the past.

I'm just not worried about this.  I feel like the films that are important will survive.  But what is important as culture evolves will change.  I learned that from seeing Mr. Burns, last month.

I wonder if the professors who complained about their students had revised their outlines much in the last twenty years.  Citizen Kane is great.  But are you showing students today how it impacts what they look at today.  Are your lessons in cinema rooted in history but made relevant by connecting to the people sitting in front of you?   It may be their journey to find Citizen Kane, love it or leave it.  I'm happy it's a film I saw and loved and seriously I could talk about Gregg Toland all day...yeah and Orson Welles but without Toland I mean it would not be the same film.  But if you don't get Citizen Kane, and you love movies, I hope you find your Citizen Kane.

It's not however He's Just Not That Into You.  I don't care if you own that on Blu-ray.  That's not your Citizen Kane.  Keep looking. 

Mr. Gabler, maybe I hang out with too many millennials on the internet but I'm not worried for our future.  Our past will be as preserved as it needs to be.  And it will certainly not be your version of the past and it won't be my version of the past.  And maybe that's ok. 

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