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.
There are, unfortunately, no studies of which I am aware that examine the relationship of millennials to old movies. At best we have dated surveys about the antipathy of young people to black-and-white films. But MTV did conduct a study recently of how young people relate to contemporary films, which found that movies are deeply embedded in the social networking process. Young people begin tweeting about films in anticipation of their release and continue discussing them after the release so that the buzz is now more sustained than it has been. In effect, movies, new movies at least, create an occasion for an ongoing conversation.
What this points to is that movies may have become a kind of “MacGuffin” — an excuse for communication along with music, social updates, friends’ romantic complications and the other things young people use to stoke interaction and provide proof that they are in the loop. A film’s intrinsic value may matter less than its ability to be talked about. In any case, old movies clearly cannot serve this community-building function as they once did. More, the immediacy of social networking, a system in which one tweet supplants another every millisecond, militates against anything that is 10 minutes old, much less 10 years.
Even the ways in which movies are watched tend to de-contextualize them — to pry them from an experience and plop them into instant gratification. The film historian Charles Maland at the University of Tennessee told me that he wasn’t sure his students had contempt for old movies, but he was sure that by watching films on computers, smartphones, PlayStations and iPads, they were diminishing the films’ effect. Old movies with subtle, sustained narratives fare less well than new movies with a blunderbuss phenomenological attack. In addition, this kind of viewing undermines continuity, which is the basis of history. When Maland asks his students if they have seen a particular great old American film, he is often told, “I’ve seen parts of it.” That’s the impact of YouTube, which among young people at least, seems to be greater than the impact of Netflix, revival houses and TCM, FMC and other cable outlets that show old movies in their entirety.
All of this makes it tough not only for old movies to survive but for movie history to matter. There is a sense that if you can’t tweet about it or post a comment about it on your Facebook wall, it has no value. Once, not so long ago, old and new movies, middle-aged audiences and young audiences, happily coexisted. Movies brought us together. Now a chasm widens between the new and the old, one aesthetic and another, one generation and another. It widens until the past recedes into nothingness, leaving us with an endless stream of the very latest with no regard for what came before. Old movies are now like dinosaurs, and like dinosaurs, they are threatened with extinction.
Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” and other books, is a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC. He is writing a biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.