The discourse around film history — veered away from nuance and toward snap judgments or stopped altogether — is bad, but there are signs of hope.
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Quick: How many films can you find on Netflix from before 1980? Gems can be uncovered there — shout-out to Youssef Chahine’s 1958 Egyptian classic, “Cairo Station” — but the burden is on those cinephiles already interested enough to seek them out.
Lovers of film history aren’t born, they’re made. Discussions with other film fans, nights out at your university rep cinema, and serendipitous discoveries on Turner Classic Movies, certainly help. Many of us owe our parents for exposing us to classic film at an early age. Still, we’ve reached a point where movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, as well as concurrent world cinema titles, are more accessible than ever, but risk falling further into obscurity.
There was a time when you couldn’t see even towering classics, such as “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” other than at the odd repertory showing. Now, those films are just a click away. But will a cinephilic culture continue to surround them? And if it does, does it matter if that culture continues to shrink as long as it’s enthusiastic?
Jonathan Rosenbaum titled an anthology of his essays “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia,” referring to his dismal assessment of contemporary filmmaking. But in the realm of film history appreciation, the reverse seems to be true: more pre-1960 films are being saved and restored than ever before. It remains an open question how many people will continue to watch them over time.
Here are the steps that must take place to create a robust future for classic film appreciation.
Courtesy Everett Collection
Easy Access Is Essential
Cinephiles get so excited about the ability to access a range of classic movies that they often forget who gets alienated in the process. Of course, the Criterion Channel is loaded with extraordinary restorations curated by a talented team. But if you were to drop the average layperson looking to learn more about film history into its offerings — let alone the classic film titles available on Amazon Prime or Kanopy — they might get lost in the sheer amount of choices available.
That’s why the approach of MUBI, in offering up a “film of the day,” has been so uniquely powerful. Of course, the site has a huge library too, but if you’re not sure what to watch the “film of the day” guarantees you won’t spend all your time scrolling, you’ll spend it watching — and discovering. Le Cinema Club, which makes one film available for viewing for free every Friday, is also an incredible resource.
This kind of programming basically replicates the model of linear TV. And that puts Turner Classic Movies in a unique position: Just switch to TCM and you don’t have to make any choices at all. They’ve been made for you by a team of experts, led by SVP of Programming Charlie Tabesh. If you’re a neophyte when it comes to film history, you’ll almost undoubtedly find something for you here.
“It’s like someone has stepped into the kitchen and made an amazing dinner for you, and you don’t even have to ask for it — it’s there ready for you to enjoy,” said TCM general manager Pola Changnon. “There’s a serendipity to sitting down and being like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t even know I wanted this movie and I want this movie.’”
Expand the Canon to Unsung Artists of the Past
Much of the traditional classic film canon doesn’t show the voices, experiences, and perspectives of women and people of color. You’d be justified in thinking classic film doesn’t speak to you because it wasn’t ever trying to speak to you. That’s a fair perspective, but it’s also an incomplete one. Women and artists of color were always there, just not often given the opportunities to live up to their potential in Hollywood.
But take a closer look at Black actors working in the 30s and 40s, such as Rex Ingram, Theresa Harris, Clarence Muse, and, of course, the first Black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel. Yes, they were frequently given very little to do in the movies in which they were cast — often as servants or in some other subservient capacity. But the ways they found to express themselves and subvert those roles is inspiring and worthy of a closer look.
For some, the idea of expanding the canon to be more inclusive just means declaring a new release by a director who’s a woman or a person of color “a new classic,” as if the only way to diversify the canon is looking forward. That only reinforces the whitewashing that decades-worth of cultural gatekeepers have put in place.
But there have been positive developments to build on in the time ahead: Kino Lorber has established itself as the absolute leader in diverse, film-historical Blu-Ray releases, such as its 2015 Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set, and the later Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers set. Turner Classic Movies recently made Paul Robeson its star of the month, celebrating his remarkable achievements as a Black male lead in unique and uncompromising movies, such as “Body and Soul” (1925) and “The Emperor Jones” (1933).
Courtesy Everett Collection
Criticize the systems that led to these actors being able to work so little — and recognize what aspects of those systems remain today — but don’t act like those actors weren’t there. It’s on us to remember them.
It’s OK: We Can Deemphasize the Canon When Necessary
When HBO Max pulled “Gone With the Wind” from the newly launched service in the summer of 2020, it didn’t mean that the movie had been “canceled”: The streamer soon added it back to the service, this time with a richly contextual introduction that grapples with the the film’s racism, while celebrating the craft of its filmmaking.
“Gone With the Wind” can cede a good bit of the cultural real estate that it has hoarded for the past 82 years. And the thing is, that’s going to happen whether canonmakers try to kick it out or not.
“When film studies coalesced as an academic discipline in the 1970s, it had about 70 years of film history to contend with,” said Jeffrey Sconce, professor of screen cultures at Northwestern University. “In the American context, that meant around half of a ‘film history’ class could explore the ‘classics’ of the studio era. Now we’re at 120 or so years and the ‘classical’ era is an even more remote sliver of total film history. If you’re doing a survey in world cinema, classical Hollywood might rate only a single screening.” Sconce teaches a class focused entirely on Hollywood’s studio system to distinguish that it’s just a small slice of global film history.
But as the history of film expands, there will be a flattening of values. “Some films, like ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Casablanca,’ continue to live on because of previous critical momentum,” Sconce said. “But as more people become less conversant in the language of classical Hollywood, the qualities that make these films ‘exceptional’ will most likely become increasingly obscure. For example, compare ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and ‘Plan Nine from Outer Space.’ Older cinephiles can certainly argue why the first is a ‘classic’ and the second is ‘trash,’ but I suspect future audiences will see less separation between the two.”
Racist and Sexist Films Must Be Called Out
And locking away problematic movies shuts those conversations down. “When you think about it, the two biggest box office films of the first half of the 20th century were both racist movies, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ and ‘Gone with the Wind,’” Film Forum’s director of repertory programming Bruce Goldstein said. “There’s a reason for that, because that was [white] America’s mindset. And I think we have to know that.”
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Films have power and they can absolutely shift public opinion, at times even creating and reinforcing stereotypes. “The Birth of a Nation” is widely regarded as having caused the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Yet these movies were so popular because America was a deeply racist nation. They reflected the national attitude of white people. And that needs to be addressed head-on, not covered up. “You don’t ever profit by shutting doors to difficult conversations,” Changnon said. When there’s a film with racist or sexist material under consideration, Changnon added, “I’m like, yes, we can put that on TCM and we’ll talk about it in a way that acknowledges some of the challenges or limitations of movies that came from a different time. And some of this stuff is still happening in our world. Let’s talk about that, too.”
Algorithm Is the Enemy of Context
Algorithms aren’t the digital boogeymen some make them out to be, but their choices can’t compare to hand-picked titles by an actual human. It’s curation that enables some of the more difficult conversations to happen, and most importantly, recognizes nuance. “‘The Searchers,’ for example, is difficult to teach because it’s an anti-racist film that is nevertheless suffused with racism,” Sconce said. “But those contradictions are what make it worth examining. I think any film can still be screened if you do the necessary historical work to contextualize it.”
The Criterion Channel has done a particularly good job of grouping movies by theme as well as by director or studio or era. And TCM is consciously trying to create links between past and present with selections that connect thematically. “Algorithms are important, I totally believe that,” Changnon said. “I’m served up things over time in streamers that are correct, but they might not always be as driven by the curious human brain. And the human brain is a pretty incredible thing, especially around movies, because you can leap from decade to decade, but the themes might be the same. Which might not be obvious to an algorithm.”
Employing curators costs money, the return on which may not be readily apparent to the corporate behemoths that own certain streamers. But curation is valuable quality control that instills brand loyalty in customers — just look at the passionate audiences for TCM and Criterion — as well as retention.
Studios Must Make Libraries Accessible — Or Else
On this front, so far so good. The studios that have large libraries of historic films have become increasingly committed to making these libraries available. They see it as their heritage. But that was not always the case.
Goldstein, who began programming repertory films at Film Forum in the late 1980s, recalled the challenges he faced early on. “We had very little access to the Hollywood archives,” he said. Film studies as a discipline was still very new, the idea of film restoration only in its infancy, and many of the legacy studios were more interested in selling off their assets than preserving them (think of MGM’s pivot toward being a resort brand). But Goldstein credits Martin Scorsese and the Film Foundation for making the studios realize the artistic and financial value of their holdings. “There is value to having these prints,” he said. “And, there’s also clip rights, stock footage potential, plus they love when we play these prints. They love it now. And I couldn’t get the studios on the phone 35 years ago.”