Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 16, 2014
Turner Classic Movies just recently celebrated 20 years in business and I owe it a debt of gratitude for all the movies it’s given me. Not just the big ones, like The Maltese Falcon or Singin’ in the Rain, which I’d seen many times long before TCM came around, but the small ones, the unknown ones, the shorts, the outtakes, the newsreels, the documentaries, all of them. I’d never seen so much that I hadn’t seen before until TCM came along. It’s now been 20 years and they still surprise me with shorts and B-movies that I’ve never even heard of. But in the 20 years since its inception, a few thousand more movies have been made and the definition of a classic movie has begun to move out of a specific era and into a more generalized time frame. Tonight, for instance, the 8:00 (EST) movie is The Remains of the Day, from 1993. When TCM first began, tonight’s feature was but a few months old, from the tail end of the previous year. Now, it’s a classic. Or is it?
Let’s think about cars for a second. Why? Because a classic car isn’t defined by how old it is but from what era it hails. In 1982, when I was driving a 1977 Toyota Corolla, the 1957 Thunderbird was a classic car. Twenty years later, in 1997, the 1977 Corolla was not. The Thunderbird still was. Cars we bought and drove from 1994 are not, twenty years later, classic cars either. That Thunderbird, though, is more classic than ever. There are cars from the seventies that are revered among car enthusiasts, like the 1971 Charger, but the true classic cars hail from the fifties. Old vintage cars come from the forties on back. Muscle cars from the sixties and seventies. Square cars from the eighties, bubble cars from the nineties, and so on. You get the idea.
So is The Remains of the Day a classic just because twenty years have passed? Maybe. How about Amadeus, from 1984? Chinatown, from 1974? It seems that a movie does not have to be from the 1950′s or before to be a classic. Chinatown immediately feels like a classic movie even though it hails from years after the studio system ended. I suspect The Remains of the Day will feel like a classic movie, too, at some point. Right now, it still feels like a new movie instead. Still, I hope that TCM continues to move forward and show movies from only one or two decades past as time marches on because, while they may be familiar to all of us here today, it is surprising and saddening how little people follow film from just a decade before the present day.
That said, the movies from the studio era of Hollywood do feel distinct, different. They feel different, not just because they were made a certain amount of years ago, in a different time, but because they were made in such a different way. Almost forty years removed from Jaws, in 1975, it still doesn’t feel that different from movies today. If, however, you back a little over forty years before Jaws, to It Happened One Night, from 1934, it feels very different from anything around the time of Jaws’ release. I suspect in forty more years, when we’re eighty years removed from Jaws, it still won’t feel as different as It Happened One Night felt in 1975.
It’s why I continue to watch as many movies from the first half of the 20th century as I can because I fear that the further we remove ourselves from them, the more we lose. I find something so invigorating and refreshing in their different styles of writing, acting, editing, photography, even their music. It signals something gone forever and precious, something that needs to be cared for and loved and remembered. It’s these movies that I think TCM will always push, first and foremost, as the priority. There’s still so much to discover from this era, and learn, to let it ever become just another era.
On the other hand, TCM does an extraordinary job of connecting the past to the present. Take that showing tonight of The Remains of the Day. It’s followed by a couple of movies from 1935 and 1936, If You Could Only Cook and My Man Godfrey, respectively, that explore the themes of upstairs/downstairs class structures in a much more lighthearted way from another time, though actually taking place at about the same point in history as the story in The Remains of the Day.
At some point, redefining the classics will be a necessity. I can’t imagine that 500 years into the history of cinema, we will still be considering only movies of the studio era to be classics. I imagine by then that some of those new movies I’ve mentioned, like Jaws and The Remains of the Day, will look absolutely ancient and alien all at once. And that will make them invaluable, quite frankly. Movies, like other art forms, capture the moment in which they’re made. That alone is one of the great gifts of art.
I won’t be around in 500 years, unless my plan to conquer space/time using a only horn of brandy and a tin foil hat works (don’t ask), so I won’t know how things proceed, but I do know, on faith, that TCM will continue to do what they’ve done for 20 years: celebrate the movies, in any and every form, blending the old with the new, and educating and entertaining a new generation of movie fans desperate for a place that treats them with the same respect that it treats the cinema. That’s TCM. Happy 20th Anniversary.
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