Right off the bat I am going to put it out there that this post includes spoilers from various Television shows and movies such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Manhattan Project, Homeland, etc. etc. So instead of putting SPOILER ALERT in front of every single one, consider this the “Proceed with Caution”.
I also want to add that in no way shape or form am I condemning or commenting on violence in movies and TV. I don’t believe in censorship, and this article isn’t about that subject anyway that’s for someone else to discuss in another post because I have no problems with it.
Back in the early ‘90s when I first moved to Los Angeles to attend college, I worked at a popular Laserdisc store in Studio City, DAVE’S VIDEO: THE LASER PLACE which for movie collectors was somewhat of an L.A. landmark (they closed their doors in 2001). During that time I was over-the-moon by the fact that I was living in Los Angeles and surrounded by so much movie culture, a feeling that has never gone away and never will. While working there I purchased a special edition of Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 feature The Circus. On that disc (which I still have) among the supplementary material is footage (or it may have been a short, the disc is packed so I can’t verify off hand) of Chaplin walking down Sunset Boulevard around the vicinity of Fairfax avenue intersection. During that time I was a poor college student without a car so relied completely on the L.A. transit system (which at the time was pretty awful), and that intersection was one of my main transfer points to get into West Los Angeles, so I knew that corner well as well as the fact that a Blockbuster that I frequented all the time was there. I was amazed by this footage given that it looked like a small town surrounded by fields with no sign of the future L.A. traffic, but still it was easy to pick out exactly where it was. I was thankful that this footage existed to show not only life in the 20s, but just how much things had changed.
Not quite Sunset, but Wilshire & La Brea circa 1920s
Another example of looking back comes from a moment during my tenure at a Warner Bros. based feature and TV development company around 2000 when the TV Producer and the VP of Development were watching the 1977 film Audrey Rose starring Anthony Hopkins. The VP commented as to how dated it looked thanks to the hair styles and clothing to which the Producer replied that 20 years from then people would be watching our movies and shows and say the exact same thing.
Audrey Rose (1977)
We living in the 20th and 21st centuries and beyond enjoy a huge benefit in that out entire culture, way of life, attitudes, dialect, slang, fashion changes and technological advances are all documented through the Movies, Television and now through New Media.
The Manhattan Project (1986)
So by now you’re probably asking “where are you going with this” and “why”? Last night I happened to re-watch the 1986 movie The Manhattan Project starring John Lithgow via Netflix Instant Streaming. I had seen part of the movie in my youth after it first aired on pay TV, but last night was the first complete viewing of it and it inspired me to go into a bit of an observational mode about the changes in our culture over the last 30 years in my review on the website Letterboxd (which can be accessed HERE). In that movie a teenager gets upset when he discovers that a nuclear weapons lab has moved into his neighborhood, and to expose them and prove a point – as well as win a science fair – he breaks into the place, steals plutonium and builds an atomic bomb that could wipe out most of the Eastern United States and Canada if detonated. Like most teens going through their rebellious stage, the kid is cocky and arrogant and doesn’t really think about what’s he’s doing, and when confronted by authority figures he continues on this path. In the end after the bomb is perilously defused, all his friends come to the facility and the kid walks away scott free having shown the adults the error of their ways because after all, he’s just a kid (a refrain which comes up several times in the movie).
The Manhattan Project (1986)
If you look back at 80s movies like The Manhattan Project, you’ll see a similar theme of middle-class kids taking on the establishment after being brushed off as “just a kid”, they become a threat or a problem or end up saving the day usually making the adults look like fools. For instance, Elliott and his friends all ride off (literally) into the sunset with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial on their BMX bikes while the government agents bumble around trying to stop them, Matthew Broderick almost starts World War III by messing around on his computer in WarGames and in Iron Eagle a teenager learns how to fly a fighter jet and goes into enemy territory to save his Dad who has been shot down (The Rescue has a similar plot).
Sure the world wasn’t in the best shape in the 80s and 90s as we were always under the threat of Nuclear Attack by the Soviet Union. However as a North American child living a pretty comfortable life, I have to say life in those decades didn’t feel all that dangerous or complicated. I always had this idealistic and naïve thought process that there was no way that Nuclear War would start because why would the U.S.A or Russia destroy their entire population just to get back at the other guy? Also I had Yakov Smirnoff telling me that people in the Soviet Union were just like us during breaks between Saturday Morning Cartoons and through guest appearances on Night Court. It all felt like grand posturing, a standoff to end all standoffs, and the fact that we did not have the 24 hour news cycle allowed us to go about our lives not constantly fretting about such things. When movies decided to cover such topics, it was all still fantasy. World War III was thwarted in WarGames and The Day After never had a reason to occur.
The Day After (1983)
That was then, but this is now.
Looking at these movies in 2013, one can’t help but have a completely different outlook on things. We are now in a period where such things as The Patriot Act exist, where we have to take off our shoes and belts and be subjected to a full body scan as well as probing just to get on a plane and in September 2001, the bad things that I always believed could never happen actually happened. The argument from the 80s that “he’s just a kid” no longer applies thanks to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and even the safe haven of a movie theater where for years we have been able to observe these horrors fantasized was violated last year when 24-year old James Holmes went into a screening of The Dark Knight Rises armed to the teeth and started blasting. The incident caused Warner Bros. to take out a sequence in Gangster Squad that had mobsters shooting through a movie screen at a crowd out of respect for the tragedy. However, a few weeks after this massacre I happened to watch Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America that had the lead characters shooting up a movie theater because they were annoyed by rude patrons. The scene should have been satirical, but thanks to the events weeks before it just brought back the nightmare images and was uncomfortable because this felt as though it could happen and it actually did.
God Bless America (2012)
In this context watching these movies from the 80s, it is nice to remember that there was a time when the horrors that we now expect to wake up to every morning on CNN were just threats and not real. Watching The Manhattan Project I couldn’t help but wonder if that kid did that today, he’d pretty much be locked up in a dark room and not see the light of day again until he was 80 – if he was lucky. When the government comes after him at the New York hotel, there are only a handful of agents who aren’t armed, and John Lithgow even goes so far as to apologizing for bursting in their hotel room like that even though the kid knowingly has an atomic bomb in the trunk of his car. Unlike at the end of the movie where the kid is able to walk away without anything resembling punishment simply because his friends all banded together in a show of support, now that kid would be branded a terrorist and treated as public enemy #1. Let’s face it, that movie couldn’t be made at all today, it just wouldn’t fly. In E.T. it is hard to imagine in 2013 the government agents not opening fire on the kids on their BMX bikes making off with the alien. Again, National Security has been violated, and the Patriot Act says suspect everyone and treat them as enemy combatants – and even Elliott and his friends would not be immune to this. (It should be noted that at one point, Spielberg had issued a director’s cut of E.T. on DVD and for a limited theatrical run that had the Government agents waving CGI walkie talkies replacing guns because it looked too threatening, but wisely restored it back to the original version for the recent Blu-ray Disc release).
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The changes in the world have also altered the way we look at current cinema. The opening sequence of Jack Reacher that has a sniper opening fire on innocent pedestrians is way more uncomfortable to watch now than it would have been even 10 years ago. It also had the unfortunate luck to open shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting which caused the studio to cancel the premiere. I just recently finished watching season 1 of the excellent Showtime series Homeland on Blu-ray Disc which features a sequence concerning a bomb at a public park, complete with images of an innocent bystander lying on the ground with his leg half blown off. I just happened to see this episode in the wake of a bomb going off at the Boston Marathon where innocent bystanders had the same thing happen to them…for real. Needless to say it was unnerving. I also find myself critiquing technology in movies since in even the past 2 years advancements have been coming so fast and furious that what might be high tech in one movie is suddenly out-of-date in the next. I still question anytime I see anyone using a flip phone or even an old-school non-touch screen Blackberry instead of an iPhone. I also had to laugh last week when an American Airlines flight was forced to make an emergency landing because a woman would not stop singing “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard. In a movie from the past that might be cute and comical and the plane would probably still fly on without interruption. In real life present day, it turned into an emergency landing and the woman was arrested and carted off in handcuffs while passengers stealthily recorded the moment using their smartphones – capturing the movie moment in real time.
Woman arrested for singing that caused emergency American Airlines landing
This leads me to my original idea and the title of this article as to why old movies are more important now than they have ever been. Older movies allow us to look at our past, see where we’ve come and remind us that there were times when nasty scenarios were just that, scenarios. Sure the 30s 40s had the depression and World War II, then later there was civil rights, prejudice, racism and Vietnam that all altered films and film topics, but we made it through those times as we will these. The world seems way more cynical than it used to be, and that’s why watching those movies from the 80s are so delightful now ever if there is no way they could happen now.
Love during war time - Casablanca (1942)
Older Movies are also a great way of showing the new generation that there was a time when we couldn’t text or had to seek out payphones and dig up a nickel because nobody had a cell in their pocket, or a time when a romantic comedy character could run up to the gate with no security interference or having to buy a ticket just to get through. They also allow to show a time when, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, what is now a bustling urban metropolis may have been a slow-moving small town surrounded by orange groves.
Jim Carrey takes the romantic mad rush to the Airport to stop his love from leaving one step further by hijacking a portable staircase to stop a plane in Liar, Liar (1997).
So for me, older movies couldn’t have a more important place in our culture than now because movies offer us not just a chance to escape into a story, but hope and a remembrance of the past, what we were thinking, what we were going through and what we did about it. They allow for a younger generation to perhaps step into those shoes and maybe even have a respect for a way of life that will never been forgotten thanks to the magic of cinema.