' ' Cinema Romantico: Old Movies & Yelling at Clouds

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Old Movies & Yelling at Clouds

"What was that you said about old movies?"
Cinephiles are sensitive these days, and rightly so. The loss of FilmStruck still smarts. Disney, having just acquired 20th Century Fox in its aim of becoming America’s version of a state-owned movie distribution company, have made it difficult for repertory movie houses to get their hands on those older movies. Why just a couple weeks ago I awoke to discover that Turner Classic Movies was no longer part of my cable package. Not enough people watching, apparently; too many pesky mid-Atlantic accents, or something. And so, last week when Esquire’s Jack Holmes interviewed best-selling author Shea Serrano about his new book titled, ahem, “Movies (And Other Things)”, a certain exchange stuck out and caused Twitter to suffer its Daily Meltdown. It went like this:

Holmes: I’m not really an Old Movie Guy, and you chose to focus only on movies from the ‘80s—and really the ‘90s—on. Are you like me in that you don’t see a ton of appeal in movies older than that?

Serrano: I'm with you on that. I watch old movies and I'm like, "No, thanks." They're not fun. It's clear they were still trying to figure out how to do things. Some of them, of course, were undeniable, like a Jaws or Star Wars or Indiana Jones. You watch those and you go, "Oh, I see in this the bones of what eventually became whatever action franchise.” Or Alien. [But mostly], they’re just not that fun to watch.

When I was working on the “Heist” chapter, I was reading best lists of heist movies. One that kept appearing on the list was this movie called Rififi. It's in black and white. Everybody talks about how great it was. They do this really cool trick in there where there's a long stretch of just straight-up silence while they try to break into wherever. I get it. That part was cool, and I imagine, at the time, it was really fun. But you watch it today, and it's just not that great.

Perhaps because Holmes is not, as he says, an “Old Movie Guy”, which makes Old Movies sound like something hazy and imprecise, like not knowing “the Old Vienna before the war” (Whoops! Sorry! Old Movie reference! Apologies! Don’t click away! We continue!), he failed to ask the follow-up question I might have submitted. Like, when Serrano says “(I)t’s clear they were still trying to figure out how to do things”, what “things” does he mean? No, because Holmes is already on board with not liking Old Movies, he follows up instead by asking “Do you think people just get accustomed to a certain [technical] level of moviemaking?”

As an answer, Serrano trots out a familiar analogy about basketball – you know, if you put LeBron James in an 80s Celtics/Lakers game then yada yada. LeBron in a game from another era, alas, refers merely to a physical difference. And while it is true that New Movies have a different level of technical moviemaking, moviemaking is also a craft. Does Serrano think the blocking of actors is better in movies today? Does he think movies of today have better editing and, consequently, better pacing? Does he think the acting is better?

Now the Constitution does not stipulate that Serrano is mandated to like Old Movies, as one helpful Twitter user noted. And we must note, as Serrano did himself, that he is not, despite how the Tweet was framed, a film critic and doesn’t consider himself one. He is not a film historian either, as an interview on the podcast The Gist with Mike Pesca makes clear, where Serrano explains the structure of his book, chapters that can be read any order, is, and I quote him exactly, “A sneaky trick that absolves you of having to cover the history of everything.” No, Serrano is what the kidz call a Pop Culture Critic, who I once referred to right here, on this very blog, in taking a Serrano piece at The Ringer and building my own piece off it, “the Interwebs master at quasi-alternate fiction and delightfully oblique variations on listicles.” And in his book he is writing, as Pesca puts it, the “reflections of his own personal relationships with movies”, a la Nick Hornby’s “Songbook”, or like a hipster version of Charles Taylor’s recent “Opening Wednesday at a Theater Or Drive-In Near You.”

[Here I pause to note that, no, I have not read nor bought the book. Serrano, however, advised Pesca that if the climactic scene between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in “Armageddon” did not make you teary-eyed then you should not buy the book. So...I guess I’m not buying it.]

I’m not against Serrano getting a deal for that kind of book. Movies are popular entertainment too and if you want to write about them purely through that lens, go for it. But. It’s not even so much that Serrano, in his interview with Pesca, in referencing the Martin Scorsese/Marvel brou ha ha, invokes people in “black turtlenecks” and “horn-rimmed” glasses as not getting to be gatekeepers, which skews awful close to gatekeeping from the other side of the fence, but that Serrano also discusses a chapter in his book about 2019’s “Booksmart.” He cites an “evolution” of “Election’s” Tracy Flick to the characters of the “Booksmart”, a movie, he says, that “will live for a long time.” And in this observation he is essentially explaining the relationship of Old Movies to New Movies, the connective tissue of Past to Present to Future. He sees it! And for a smart guy like Serrano, who has such an open mind in so many other areas, it’s disappointing to see him, someone with a best-selling NYT platform, to essentially dismiss decades and decades of cinema with a wave of his hand.

Yelling At Clouds is considered the province of Old Men, like Goose Gossage, the baseball Hall of Famer, who has deemed modern baseball “unwatchable” and said people who played “Rotisserie baseball...thought they figured the fucking game out”, which sounds sort of like a Reverse Shea Serrano, doesn’t it, that classic cinema is unwatchable, that they hadn’t figured the fucking movies out. What a twist, huh? Turns out, young men can yell at clouds too.

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