Monday, October 24, 2016

My Journey as a Classic Film Fan

Being a classic film fan, for me, has been a relatively solitary experience.  I have one tried-and-true companion on this journey (my brother, for whom nothing in this article really applies, and for whom I am most grateful to be able to text names like Robert Mitchum and Norma Shearer and not get a blank stare), but as a whole, most of the world of classic cinema for me is largely a lonely affair in my celluloid world.  That was why I was struck recently by the wonderful journalism done by Todd van Der Werff at Vox about how easy it is to see classic movies...and how hard it is to become obsessed with them in the age of Netflix.  As a result, I wanted to do a reaction piece talking about my journey into classic cinema and some of the struggles that exist as a result.

I was probably about eleven when I started to properly investigate classic cinema, but I had always had a window into that world.  In VanDerWerff's article he talks about a proverbial grandparent who welcomed you into a classical realm of cinema, but in my case I suspect it was more a proverbial parent, at least at the start.  My parents would watch movies with my brother and I on Saturday nights, and I became obsessed with learning more about my parents themselves through their cinematic tastes-learning what their favorite films were, and how I could better understand people through the movies.  This extended to my grandparents, and with that I sought out films like The African Queen and Trail of the Lonesome Pine and Tora! Tora! Tora!, and eventually, in no small part due to the Oscars, I began to realize that films were categorized and there were lists/awards that guided you into a journey of better understanding of cinema.

Two lists in particular formed this love of cinema, perhaps equally to the Academy Awards: the Greatest Films of All-Time lists created by the American Film Institute and Entertainment Weekly.  The AFI list opened up a far more interesting debate than what my almanacs could provide in terms of a list of Oscar winners.  After all, the AFI had the audacity to name a movie like It's a Wonderful Life as the best film from 1946, even though Oscar had rewarded The Best Years of Our Lives-this was a novel concept as a child for me to be able to have differing opinions of the movies put in front of me by critics and to think about how films aged differently.  I began to seek out every film on the list (a task that took several decades, I might add).

The Entertainment Weekly list further informed my education.  One of those sturdy hardcover editions of a magazine (though mine has become tattered through the years thanks to near constant use), it wasn't what you'd expect from modern-day Entertainment Weekly (films like The Breakfast Club and Mean Girls aren't ranked alongside Citizen Kane).  Instead, it was a pretty classy affair, and had me start a conversation about foreign films, pictures like La Dolce Vita and The Bicycle Thief.  This is also, most likely, where my journey of using my parents as a crutch likely ended in classic cinema-my parents were more well-versed with the world of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly than of Claudia Cardinale, but I went on, wanting to become a more ardent student of the cinema.

As VanDerWerff points out in his article, some of the ways I supplemented my passion were through video stores, and that's how I gained a better breath of the cinema.  I would go through our local video store, wandering through the shelves, and while my parents would insist upon us renting at least one movie "for the whole family" I'd also rent movies like Tribute and Same Time, Next Year as I knew they had an Oscar history.  Slowly I started to learn some of the nuances that particular actors, genres, and eras contained, and how there were movies and actor that I liked and didn't from each of these subsets of cinema.  Additionally, I would pore through our channel guide, reading through first the AMC movies that were playing, happily recording anything that looked of value or interest, and then eventually Turner Classic Movies once that became an option toward the end of high school.

For me, I'm startled by the nods of concurrence I have with VanDerWerff in this article, particularly when it comes to the subject of Netflix.  Until very recently, Netflix has been almost exclusively a resource for the cinema (for me).  I get my three discs every week, some of which occasionally sit on my TV stand longer than others, but they are a wide-range of movies.  I'm disappointed that the catalog isn't remotely what it used to be (and I get more discs that are scratched each year than I used to), but it's still the best vestibule on the internet for instant gratification of titles that are coming toward me.  I have nearly 1000 movies in my queue (I have two queues, separating out my discs so that I get more OVP titles, but still don't miss non-Oscar titles), and have an interest in seeing all of the pictures on the list.  And yet, I still get bemused looks from coworkers and friends when they see the DVD's, an archaic link to the past like still using CD's or writing checks.  Most people get their movies from Netflix, but over streaming.

Except, of course, that most people simply don't get their movies.  It's always a depressing ask of someone, but asking someone not their favorite movie (which they will proclaim "too hard" to pronounce, to which I actively, but internally, roll my eyes), but instead simply what the last movie they saw, and it will inevitably be either a major headliner from the past year or two, or it will be one of several films they've seen multiple times (like Bridesmaids or a Bourne picture).  Most patrons of Netflix, in my anecdotal experience, are simply using it as a rerun factory-something that they can see buckets of television, recent and current (it's rarely something that's older than about fifteen years, so even classic television gets subtracted in this equation).  There's nothing wrong with that-television has its own list of classics and attributes, after all, and some of the shows on it are either fun or wonderfully-crafted-but as a source of the cinema, a rare, boundless video store as Netflix started out, it's sad that this lovely little oasis seems to have slipped away.

I started this article talking about the loneliness of being a cinephile these days, and as VanDerWerff pointed out, it's harder to introduce new people to the cinema.  I want to add on a bitter note onto this article, based on my opinion, and that's that people are less concerned with any history that is not their own, which is also lending itself to this depletion of ardent film fans.  While it's easy to find films like Casablanca and Citizen Kane and Raging Bull, people simply don't seek them out and they do it ardently because they don't want to do so.  Now, obviously, there are exceptions (I have a blog in the hopes that these people exist and continue to want to reach out to the more obscure corners of the movies, and I suspect if you got this far in this article you're one of those people), but I've found that most people I interact with on a day-to-day basis are more interested in whatever is popular in the halls of social media than anything that might be remotely obscure.  Endless thoughts about The Bachelor and Game of Thrones and RuPaul's Drag Race will dominate most pop cultural conversations, and while there's nothing wrong with wanting to discuss these, it's a shame that people aren't willing to expound past their own comfort zones and try, say, an old movie or a television show from before they were born.  I know that I sound like Clint Eastwood on a porch (a reference, perhaps at this point, not universally known either), but it's the truth-being a fan of the cinema is an increasingly lonely road, one that thankfully you can find corners of the internet to celebrate, but one that you have to forge largely by yourself.  So in that regard, and to conclude, I join the chorus of film fans who have an ardent and absolute love of Turner Classic Movies.  It's a place where you are, much like those video stores of yore, frequently finding lost treasures alongside the movies you've loved for years.  If you're someone that has always had a passing interest in cinema, or perhaps want to expound on your cultural knowledge, there's no greater way to go than simply turn on your TV, flip to this channel, and invest a couple of hours in the next film they put in front of you.  I promise you'll be happy you did.  And I'll be happy to discuss it with you.

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