Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City” once said that Chanel is timeless – a work of art that can be appreciated throughout the ages. Timeless like the “Mona Lisa” (1519), “Romeo and Juliet” (1595), and the Taj Mahal (1648) proved to be. Timeless like the Beatles (1960s) are proving to be.
Timeless art creates immortality. Shakespeare. Leonardo. Beethoven. Dead for centuries yet more familiar to us than some family members.
Films, some argue, are the ultimate art form. The melding of so much into one package. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the question arises: can a film ever truly be timeless?
The sights, the sounds, (and most recently) the smells. HD. 3D. Films seem to have it all, but do they have too much? Do they provide us with so much spoon-fed experiences, rather than allowing our own interpretations, that it is impossible for a film to stand the test of time? Are films destined to be appreciated for how good they are despite being made back then (which is just a polite way of calling something cheesy)? Do all of our technological advances timestamp films the way Michelangelo’s “David” could never understand?
“… Most films date,” says Christopher Vourlias in Harper’s Magazine, July 2011. “The proper storage temperature may preserve the celluloid, but the dream can turn embarrassing.”
That became evident to me when I happened upon Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film, “The Outsiders.” I didn’t intend on revisiting one of my childhood films, but could not resist the temptation after stumbling upon it, and a number of old VHS tapes, one day.
So, I popped the movie in the VCR, chuckled that I had to rewind the tape, got agitated at the incessant tracking issues, and huffed at the poor audio quality. I’ll never claim VHS to be timeless like vinyl. But as far as “The Outsiders,” with a cast of Lowe, Dillon, Cruise, Swayze, Lane, Estevez and Macchio, prospects looked good.
But by the time Macchio’s superimposed face filled the screen beside C. Thomas Howell, to speak from beyond (sort of), my pre-viewing hopes were lost. I was embarrassed for myself and my whole generation. I was under the impression this movie was timeless, and now I couldn’t bear to sit through it without shifting uncomfortably. I discovered there’s a fine line between timeless and nostalgic.
“When is a movie great?” Vourlias asks. “If you ask … ordinary viewers, they often name pictures enjoyed at a certain age … even though they realize those films were a touch foolish.”
I decided to put that theory to the test. I watched movies I cherished as a kid (“Big” and “Field of Dreams”) as well as movies cherished by experts (“Chariots of Fire”). Of the latter, with all due respect to the 1981 Best Picture winner, not only did I find “Chariots” dreadfully boring (has the 21st century given me ADD?) but I found the relationships between every character to be weak. While I was more entertained with “Big” and “Field of Dreams,” I didn’t love them for their cinematic contribution. I loved them the way I love old photographs, for providing me a chance to remember when, to laugh at funny hairstyles and awkward outfits.
It was looking more and more like the 1980s lacked a film that could one day be deemed timeless. So I ventured farther down the road, to an older era, a decade I had no actual attachment to, to see if I could find what I was looking for.
Among the relics I discovered was “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring James Dean. Filmed in 1955, surely “Rebel” allowed me enough distance between my reality and a history I know only through second-hand sources, so that I could be a more objective viewer, right?
I do admit the shirts and ties guys wore to public school seemed to me less cheesy and more hip–retro, I dare say.
But without fashion as fodder I could focus more on the film itself, and, to be frank, the movie was bad. It wasn’t “Earth Girls Are Easy” B-movie bad. But, well, I could not believe what I, the audience, was expected to accept as normal (this coming from a movie-goer who’s seen men land on asteroids to save Earth as well as a talking duck named Howard).
All in one 24-hour period (around the first day of school), there’s a drunken night ending at the police station, a silly “just slicing” knife fight that ends far too amicably, a “chicky run” resulting in the death of a teenager, the teenager’s friends getting over his death rather well, but not as well as his girlfriend, who, minutes later, falls in love with James Dean. All this is followed by gunshots, more gunshots, and more death. My goodness! What will the second day of school bring?
Either “Rebel” was so utterly unrealistic or the previous generations are lying when they say times were simpler back then.
Let’s say I accept, for a moment, the argument that back then films were more Hollywood, more outlandish (of course accepting this argument defeats the idea of timeless). If I accept that stories were cheesier, do I have to accept that the acting was too?
Sal Mineo (who played Dean’s trouble acquaintance, Plato) was nominated for an Academy Award for his role. Yet his performance is nowhere near good. It’s laughable, really, for a role that’s not supposed to be funny.
What I took away from “Rebel,” and Mineo’s nomination, was that our standards for greatness were awfully low back then. And if our standards have evolved over time, doesn’t that affect an art form’s ability to be timeless?
Think of it – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is hundreds of years old, yet we don’t marvel at it because it’s amazing what Michelangelo did back then. It’s amazing. Period. Nah. Exclamation point!
If we are willing to let our standards be lenient towards films of the past, we’ll never have timeless movies. The 1950s (and thereabouts) wasn’t all cheesy. Complicated, edgy books like “Lord of The Flies,” “Catcher in the Rye,” and “1984” were written during this period. Timeless? Some, yes. Some, perhaps not. But all more so than a film like “Rebel.”
While there are some relatively well-made films from back then (Hitchcock comes to mind), so many seem juvenile. Yes, that’s it. Juvenile. How did the public stomach it? Is it because films were so new back then (particularly talkies)? Is it because it’s all the audience knew?
Perhaps the films we know can’t yet be timeless because movies have such a short history. Roughly 100 years, that’s it. The first works of art are thousand of years old, found on cave walls. No one argues their historic merit, but as art goes, my baby nephew could likely do better. Does this mean that, cinematically speaking, we’re still in caveman times? In the future will our movies be seen as stick-figures on walls? Will our filmmakers be seen as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals?
Possibly. But I argue that it’s not a short history that’s hurting film, but a fast future. Specifically, I mean technology. The more bells and whistles we use to tell a story, the more noise there’ll be, drowning out the art. Films will suffer from video-game syndrome. I love the original Super Mario Brothers, most likely due to nostalgic purposes. But these kids today, they can’t even understand how we played such a game. But … these kids today … they’re partly responsible for making things timeless.
Nick Tosches, in this past November’s issue of Vanity Fair, discusses technology’s ill-effects on movies. “Most movies these days are short-lived,” he writes in an article about “The Rum Diary,” a film he dares to call timeless. “[Movies are] soon outdated and forgotten, relying on special effects that become superseded, or on numerous cell phone calls from handheld devices that become just as quickly outmoded.”
Is the solution a Thoreau-like return to simplicity?
“Star Wars” was groundbreaking … back then. Someday “Avatar” will follow suit (remember how innovative “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was?). The more intense the technology, the faster it all ages. Like last year’s iPhone.
Hollywood’s found a way to make films appear as though they’re timeless – the remake. “Footloose” 2011 has sexier dance moves, “Karate Kid” the new and improved boasted more ethnic diversity. And “Star Wars” version-who-knows-by-now has even cooler sounds effects. How many times can a story be touched up? You can slice and dice Joan Rivers all you want, but in the end she’s still old, and aging.
Are there any timeless films? Movies that can be loved for more than nostalgic purposes? Films that will inspire us for hundreds of years without needing the back then qualifier to justify it’s worth?
And of those films we think of as timeless, I ask this: are they considered great because they truly are, or because we’re told they are? I’m speaking of the canonized works, the untouchables, the inarguable greats. Shakespeare. The Beatles. You question the worth of these and you apparently profess your ignorance. “Citizen Kane” and “Godfather” (I and II) come to mind as untouchable films. They are canonized, but are they timeless?
I ask you to review these cherished movies – those you personally cherish and those cherished by the masses. Watch these films as objective observers. Dissect the storytelling, the cinematography, the acting. Don’t adjust your standards based on when these films were made. Don’t give the past a pass just because. Be true to the art. If you find it unfair to study a film under such scrutiny, remember this. Beethoven’s 5th was written in 1808. The Taj Mahal was built in 1648. “Romeo and Juliet” was written in 1595. We still marvel at these works of art. They still influence our lives. If filmmaking wants to stake a claim as an artform, it’s got to compete with the big boys. So, I put forth the question to you, what films can compete? What films are timeless?
R.C.Varenas is a writer and a filmmaker based in NYC and Boston. He is co-founder of Pilotgroove Pictures and founder of Reel Ink Spot. He can be reached at rcv@ReelInkSpot.com