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Perspective: Millennials seem to have little use for old movies

For young people, the focus seems to be on what can be talked about now — new movies serve an immediate social function. Old films are being forgotten.

July 14, 2012|By Neal Gabler
  • Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in "The Amazing Spider-Man."
Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in "The Amazing Spider-Man." (Jaimie Trueblood/Columbia…)

A lot of folks have wondered whether it is too soon, just 10 years after the release of the original film and five years after the third installment, to relaunch Spider-Man. When questioned, a producer of the new picture snapped that anyone who asked that is "too old." He may have been dismissively arrogant, especially to geriatrics over 30, but he may also have been right.

Obviously, remakes are nothing new, even if the time between the original and the next version has shrunk dramatically. As Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures, which distributed the new"Spider-Man," said, "Five years is a lifetime in the movie business," by which she really meant it is a lifetime for the young audiences to which the movie business makes its primary appeal.

But the new "Spider-Man" betrays something else — something important about the young audience's relationship to film. Young people, so-called millennials, don't seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did. They think of them as fashion, and like fashion, movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention. Living in a world of the here-and-now, obsessed with whatever is current, kids seem no more interested in seeing their parents' movies than they are in wearing their parents' clothes. Indeed, novelty may be the new narcissism. It obliterates the past in the fascination with the present.

One has to acknowledge that part of this cinematic ageism is the natural cycle of culture. Every generation not only has its own movies, it has its own aesthetics, and the contemporary aesthetic might be labeled "bigger, faster, louder" because our blockbuster movies are all about sensory overload — quickening the audience's pulse. It is the same force that drives video games. Still, the difference between the attitude of boomers and that of the millennials is that boomer audiences didn't necessarily believe their aesthetics were an advance over those that had preceded them.

Indeed, the most ardent movie enthusiasts of the past generation were reverential of old movies. Andrew Sarris, who died last month and who was among the nation's most influential film critics in the '70s and '80s, made his reputation not just by importing the auteur theory from France that celebrated the authorial role of the director but by disinterring many of those old directors from film history. For Sarris and his acolytes, love of movie history was indispensable to a love of the movies generally. One loved both old and new.

One might have thought that as film became an acceptable academic subject and film courses burgeoned in universities and high schools, old movies would be protected from obsolescence. And, to be sure, there is still a legion of young movie fanatics who appreciate and even love the films of Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, Capra, Welles, Truffaut and others.

But among many rank-and-file millennials, the attitude doesn't seem to be so generous. They find old movies hopelessly passé — technically primitive, politically incorrect, narratively dull, slowly paced. In short, old-fashioned. Even Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man is a Model T next to Andrew Garfield's rocket ship of a movie. And Model Ts get thrown on the junk heap.

What makes it even worse is that unlike classic literature, around which a whole apparatus has been built so that J.K. Rowlingcan't supplant Shakespeare, movies are relative newcomers and the classics are vulnerable to changing taste. As taste goes, millennials seem to have a hard time relating to movies that are only a few years old. A friend of mine who teaches in the New York University Cinema Studies graduate program told me he was appalled at how little interest his students — future critics and film scholars, no less — had in old movies. For them, "classics" are movies made in the last five years, and Scorsese is like Washington or Lincoln: ancient.

Another friend who teaches at a prestigious university told me that while a good number of his self-selected class of undergraduates studying film history did respond to many of the old films he showed, for example Hitchcock movies, they expressed only cold admiration for many other classic films, including "Citizen Kane,"which they found antiquated. And yet another friend, this one a high school teacher in California heading a film class, said his students were bored by "The Godfather." He won't be teaching the course again because there wasn't sufficient interest.

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