My Love for the Classics
A year back, I was traveling back from Chicago to Delhi, on the Air India flight. It was a long flight, close to 14 hrs, and one of the few good things was that Air India’s movies section had a good collection of classic cinema. So I just settled down into my seat and watched Ben Hur, I guess maybe for the umpteenth time around. Right next to me was a pretty young American girl, I guess in her 20s, traveling to Frankfurt to meet her boy friend. We did have a chit chat for some time, and I resumed watching the movie. She looked at what I was seeing, and asked me which movie was it. I was puzzled but replied back Ben Hur, her face went blank, and she asked me again and again about it. And then came the parting shot “Is there a movie like that?”. I almost fell off my seat. Now wait, this was not some obscure 50’s or 60’s movie which only die hard movie lovers knew of. Ben Hur was a movie that had swept the Oscars, was part of Hollywood folklore, had been discussed, parodied and analyzed to death all over. It has been consistently rated in the Top 50 of many movies list, and how could some one not even know about it? I mean this was Ben Hur, damn it. Now I am not sure, if that girl was the best representative of the Gen X, because I do know people in their teens and early 20’s, equally interested and aware of classic cinema.
But if we take the overall scenario, the awareness and knowledge about classic cinema is quite low. I have often bumped into movie lovers, who would go on and on about Tarantino, Nolan, Rodriguez, Fincher, but ask them about John Ford, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra or Howard Hawks, I more often than not ended up getting a blank response. Trust me I love Quentin Tarantino, but he would be the first to recognize that he owes his entire career to the 70’s B Cinema, and Reservoir Dogs to Kubrick’s The Killing. And it is not much helped by the TV Channels either. Only time Star Movies recognizes classic cinema is when they show old James Bond movies, else all it’s other movies are post 80’s. Some other channels like Sony Pix and Zee are better in that they do show some of the oldies. And then there is another group of movie lovers, who snobbishly dismiss classic cinema as being too “melodramatic, theatrical”.
Aah OK, 50’s and 60’s cinema being melodramatic, standard complaint against the classics. I guess in a way, it was fueled by the 70’s New Wave movement, led by the Movie Brat pack of Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Brian De Palma. The entire theory of 70’s Hollywood, being a revolt against the studio blockbusters of the 60’s and 50’s. And how they bought in the bold themes. But the point is the openness in the cinema had started earlier in the 60’s itself. Yes the 50’s movies were hampered by the Moral Code and McCarthyism, but by the time the 60’s came into picture, the culture was much more open. In fact the movie brat pack brigade of the 70’s was only building on what was already there in the 60’s. Movies like Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of them had begun to break away from the existing structure.
My concern is that the movie discussion has become heavily lopsided. Talk to any of the self proclaimed “Movie lovers”, most of their movie knowledge starts from the 80’s. OK, there are some who do have some knowledge about the classics, but again they suffer from another syndrome “The IMDB Top 250”, to these people, a movie is great only if it exists in IMDB Top 250, else forget it. So they will rave and rave about The Shawshank Redemption and claim it as the greatest movie of all time? Sure I do love Shawshank, but greatest movie of all time? Where does that leave the other prison dramas like Cool Hand Luke, Escape from Alcatraz, Papillion, to me some of the finest prison dramas ever made? Predictably right now Inception is being touted as the “greatest movie ever made”. Fine, great movie, but greater than Taxi Driver or Citizen Kane? How many of the movie lovers, who praise Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” as the finest holocaust movie, are even aware of Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker?
My love for the classics is not something out of sheer nostalgia or because I grew up watching them, it is because I see that on grounds of cinematic merit, most of them far exceed the present day Pop Corn stuff. The movies may not have the eye popping CGI graphics or 3D stuff, what they did have was some of the best writing ever, characters fleshed out with depth, brilliant performances. Sure, they might have been melodramatic, but give me the honest melodrama, over the “non acting” being passed off as acting nowadays. The dialogs might have been thunderous and bombastic, but more often than not made sense. Maybe the movies were not “dark” enough, but please remember they had to struggle against all sorts of moral codes, and political witch hunts. It was the classic era, that gave us a High Noon, one of the best statements on McCarthyism. And even when Howard Hawks responded back with the typically “American” Rio Bravo, that movie by itself still remained a classic.
My contention is that not all classic movies, primarily those from 70’s and before, were masterpieces. Like any other era there were an equal number of crappy and good movie. When we look down upon that era, we are in effect losing a part of our history. To me understanding the present without understanding where you came from results in a lopsided, shallow analysis.