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Movies and Timelessness
Gary McVey’s great post about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and its lively discussion thread, got me thinking about a question I’ve always enjoyed pondering (even though I’ve never been able to come up with a good answer): what makes a movie timeless?
Let me explain what I mean. I’m not talking about what makes a movie a classic. I’m talking about the fact that some movies seem to feel eternally modern and watchable, while others just look dated. This has nothing to do with the wardrobe or hairstyles or cars in the movie (after all, a film can be set in any era, including the past or future); it’s a difficult-to-pin-down quality of the filmmaking itself.
This came to mind a few weeks ago when I decided to watch The French Connection, which I’d never seen. Watching it, I could see why it was a big deal when it came out, but at no point could I stop thinking “Wow, this is such an early-’70s movie.” The depiction of 1971 New York was part of that, I suppose, but not the whole of it; there’s something about the cinematography, the editing, the acting, that just makes it look like a film no one would make today.
By contrast, The Godfather came out only a year later, and to me it looks absolutely modern and ageless. OK, maybe that’s partly because it’s a period movie, not anchored to the time when it was made. So how about Jaws, from just a few years later? That’s a present-day movie, meaning it’s set in the mid-’70s, but the filmmaking is absolutely timeless.
I can think of lots of other examples. Back To The Future, Part II presents a hilariously inaccurate vision of what 2015 would look like, and yet (to me, anyway) it doesn’t feel dated as a film. You could imagine someone making a movie like that today, as a parody version of a 1980s-inspired future. On the other hand, some of Paul Verhoeven’s science fiction movies (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), look very dated. They’re still enjoyable, but they don’t feel contemporary. I suppose that’s why some movies (like Total Recall) get remade.
Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz are both eight decades old, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. You could remake them, but what would be the point?
I’m sure there are those who will disagree with some of my examples, and that’s fine. Nonetheless, I think the question is still valid. I’m sure there are many factors that contribute to the timelessness I’m talking about. There have been lots of technical innovations in filmmaking over the years, and inevitably some techniques have not stood the test of time. (An excessive use of zoom lenses, for example, is one of the things that I think makes a film look dated.) So I don’t really expect an answer; I just think it’s a fun question to think about.Published in General
You point out a strange paradox in how period films feel timeless regardless of when they were made, whereas movies that are set in the “present day” feel stuck in their own era.
As noted in the film group, I recently watched “Chinatown” for the first time. Which, though a 70s movie set in the 30s, feels timeless. Perhaps recognizably made in the 70s (or anywhere between the 60s and the 90s) but it doesn’t feel stuck in that era.
Yes, that’s certainly a big factor much of the time. But it doesn’t always seem to be definitive. As @GaryMcVey pointed out in the comment thread on his Close Encounters post, that film is very much rooted in its 1970s period, but that doesn’t make it seem dated. It feels like a 1970s period film that just happens to have been made in the 1970s.
Ironically, that film opens with a caption that says “Present Day.” I’ve always thought that caption was a bad idea, because it has an inherent shelf life. It’s clearly not the present day anymore!
Yeah, every time I see that caption I think “putting that there is a bad idea.”
There are some period dramas from the 70s and 80s where the hair and makeup styles are still so 70s and 80s that it breaks you out of the time they are trying to put you in.
I think any drama is capable of being timeless. It’s trickier for special effects to pass. The beginning of The Terminator is probably the worst part of that movie in terms of aging, but the rest of it still puts you on the edge of your seat and brings you into the action and drama.
Or the music. Watching a period movie from the 80s that’s accompanied by a synth-heavy soundtrack just does not work.
I think a movie that puts forth truths of some kind remains timeless, regardless of the movie’s period, setting, or technology . . .
Would Annie, The Sound of Music, and The Wizard of Oz be timeless? Just trying to put some out there that I am familiar with. I’m not a big movie watcher.
You’re talking about storytelling; I’m talking about filmmaking technique. Regardless of the content of a film, or whether its message is timeless, the film itself might look very dated.
Well, I included The Wizard Of Oz as one of my examples; I certainly think so. Only the music seems old-fashioned, but in a good way.
To make any comment about Annie or The Sound of Music, I would have to confess that I’ve never seen either of them. And I’m not about to do that.
One of the reasons that films like The Wizard of Oz or even Star Wars feel timeless is because they’re not set in the real world. Even the Kansas of the opening bits feels artificial.
But this isn’t always the case because of other aspects like incidental music, film techniques, etc.
I begin to wonder if timelessness is kind of (or is intended to be) (or should be) the default, and it’s only errors in filmmaking that result in something being stuck in its time.
I guess there’s more than one thing that makes a movie timeless . . .
Movies that leap onto something cutting edge for their time are probably the most likely to become dated. That said, the things that might make a ’40s film look embarrassing to a ’50s audience won’t be as noticeable to a modern person looking at a ’70s film.
I went back to look at the original Gone in 60 Seconds and found it to be one of the most self-indulgent and unengaging films I’ve ever watched. I suspect that a compelling story with characters you care about is timeless in and of itself and that as long as you don’t overlay your film with plonking or jarring dialogue, music, or effects, you’re half way there already.
Your mileage will almost certainly vary.
I posted a review on one of the newer Dwayne Johnson movies and said it was fun, but it’s too overloaded in current cultural references and memes that it will never stand the test of time.
It was still a fun movie, but 15 years from now, no one is going to get that humor.
I wonder about that, too, when a movie has too many pop culture references. One example that comes to mind is in Back to the Future, an otherwise timeless movie, but when Marty McFly first goes back to the 50s he goes into a shop and asks for a Pepsi Free. Confusion results.
Those of us who remember that Pepsi Free was Pepsi’s initial foray into caffeine-free soda will get the joke. But younger generations won’t get that at all, even as they otherwise enjoy the movie.
I always try to imagine what a movie’s initial audience was like, and try to see it through their eyes. Casablanca would have a completely different feel for a 1942 audience, given it was right in the middle of WWII, than it does for a modern audience. It would have an immediacy that can’t be replicated.
And yet a movie with an offhand reference to the Beatles right after they debuted would age even better knowing what became of them.
That then becomes a game of just how well do you have a pulse on the culture?
How timeless is Barenaked Ladies’ If I Had A Million Dollars?
There’s another pair of movies that was released at about the same time that I would describe that way too: Destination Tokyo (1943) and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944).
A great post, and thanks for the mention, BXO!
One thing that’s always bothered me is abuse of the past. After all, it’s not around any more to defend itself. Movies like Pleasantville make it seem like the Fifties were a terrible time of racial bigotry, no fun and no sex. Same with American Hot Wax, which makes it seem like a very corrupt era, except for a few openminded champions of rock and roll and sexual freedom.
On the other hand, The Hudsucker Proxy, though more surreal than realistic, actually gives a better impression of what 1957 was about. Same with Back to the Future.
Godfather II was made in 1973-’74 and it’s a mixed case: a pretty good feel for the era, but it embraces the Left view. You’d think that Cuba was the most decadent, depraved, servant of American sin ever created. Yeah, Batista wasn’t so great. On the other hand, Cuba had a far higher standard of living than most Latin American countries back then, and no, it wasn’t just one big whorehouse. That’s not true to the facts and it’s not fair to the actual Cuba of 1959. You’ll almost never see any of that corrected by other films.
Like 1964’s Goldfinger. “My dear girl, drinking (Moet?) above 32 degrees is like listening to The Beatles without earmuffs”.
That’s usually been true throughout Hollywood history. Women’s hairstyles are seldom accurate. At best, as in Bonnie and Clyde, they’re a compromise between the time the film is set in and the time the film was made.
My wife worked for the Samuel Goldwyn Company. Sam Jr’s offices had the original copies of production files of his father’s films. One ordinary lined schoolbook had the handwritten notes of when each film in the Forties went into production. On one of them, the title Glory For Me was crossed out in ink with the new title written in: The Best Years of Our Lives. This was a huge hit, the biggest one Goldwyn would ever have, because it resonated so well with millions of families that were living through the adjustments when Daddy came home. Talking with older people, it’s hard to imagine the impact this film had in 1946.
Timelessness is overrated. Ralph Bakshi’s movies are 100% movies made in the 70s, and, unlike other movies people like to cite, they definitely could not be made today or really anytime outside of that brief period. I find his work far more compelling than The Wizard of Oz or Back to the Future II.
Aguirre the Wrath of God is a timeless movie if you wanted another example for “period dramas are most likely to achieve timelessness.”
I agree that Jaws, Back to the Future, and The Wizard of Oz feel timeless, though I saw those as a kid before I would’ve had a grasp of different decades. Hard to know if it’s just bias because to me (and a lot of people) those are just movies that have always existed.
Groundhog Day seems timeless.
The Zucker Brothers Airplane! suffers from that a bit.
There’s an extended Saturday Night Fever parody dance floor bit in the middle of the movie that was really funny in the late 1970s, but for anybody under the age of 50 coming to the movie now is just a big long “what’s this about?” scene.
There’s also a cameo by Howard Jarvis [Prop 13]…and the “I speak Jive” with Barbara Billingsley was MUCH funnier when everyone recognized her as June Cleaver.
I might add people have personal classics – movies we watch over and over again. They even may not be liked by the general public . . .
Not really what the subject of the post is, but I was watching “The Spirit Of St. Louis” today, made in 1957 about an event from 1927. We are now more than twice as far from the making of that movie as that movie was from the events it portrayed.
I don’t think there is a movie more rooted in time than Casablanca. It could not have occurred before August 1940 or after December 6, 1941 (assuming it took Rick a couple of months after the fall of France to move to Casablanca and establish Rick’s American Café). It was made in 1942. And yet there are few movies as timeless as Casablanca.
I think Coonskin is Bakshi’s best and a masterpiece.