Millennials Have Killed the Concept of ‘Classic’ Cinema. We Should Thank Them

Be gone, ‘Gone with the Wind.’ My film students now school me, in genres like Japanese anime and Nollywood.

By Joseph Clark 20 Mar 2019 |

Joseph Clark is a lecturer in film studies in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. His book, News Parade: The American Newsreel and the Mediation of the Public Sphere, 1927-1946 will be published next year by the University of Minnesota Press.

If you are not tired of this game by now, you can add cinema to the litany of things millennials are supposedly ruining.

The New York Post reported last year that “millennials don’t really care about classic movies.” According to market research cited in the article, less than half of millennials have seen films like Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music, only 28 per cent have seen Casablanca and 16 per cent have watched Once Upon a Time in the West.

For old-fashioned cinephiles, this sounds terrible. But as a film historian and university lecturer who works with young people everyday, I’m here to tell you that this is actually good news. (Except for the fact that 16 per cent of young people have wasted their time watching Once Upon a Time in the West — that is an objectively terrible film!)

The idea that millennials don’t care about classic cinema misses the point in several ways.

First of all, the term “classic” as defined by these studies is under dramatic reconsideration by many, including film historians and critics. Gone with the Wind isn’t just a sweeping epic featuring lavish sets and moving dialogue — it is an artful piece of racist propaganda that sentimentalizes the Civil War and nostalgically evokes the days of slavery. While it remains a significant film, it definitely isn’t one that should attract uncomplicated affection and appreciation. The same can be said for much of so-called classic cinema.

The reason younger people haven’t seen much of the film canon isn’t because they appreciate cinema history less than previous generations. First, they don’t watch TV. The fact that films like Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music are engrained in the minds of gen-Xers and baby boomers has little to do with their quality. It’s because on Boxing Day there was nothing else that the entire family could agree on.

Now that family viewing has been altered by the proliferation of laptops, tablets and smart phones — not to mention YouTube, Netflix and other streaming services — we simply don’t have a monoculture that designates a select few films as deserving of being “classics.” Thank god for that!

Streaming platforms like Netflix, with their constant new releases and algorithmic recommendations, run the risk of burying film history under a deluge of contemporary movies. But for those who care to look past the front page, online platforms are proving to be wonderful places to discover more eclectic cinema history.

Netflix features both the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers and Pioneers of African-American Cinema. These recently released collections from U.S. distributor Kino Lorber feature restored and newly discovered works by mostly forgotten filmmakers. With treasures from the silent and early sound era, these collections are adding a much richer understanding of what “classic” cinema looks like and who made it.

Online communities are also turning young people on to film history in exciting new ways. Movies Silently is a Twitter account dedicated to the films of the 1910s and 1920s that uses gifs and pithy reviews to shed light on many lesser-known gems of the silent era. Podcasts like You Must Remember This are dedicated to “exploring the secret and forgotten histories” of Hollywood’s first century.

The Internet makes it easier to go beyond the so-called classics to discover a more diverse world of film history. But it isn’t only a matter of access. Young people have a much broader idea of what is worth remembering from film history.

In the wake of the demise of the streaming service FilmStruck — a platform for cinephiles that hosted the Criterion Collection and hundreds of independent and art house titles — film archivist and historian Katherine Groo wrote a provocative piece in the Washington Post that pointed out the limits of the platform’s old-fashioned view of “great films.”

Despite the service’s efforts to expand the canon beyond North America and Europe, Groo pointed out that the service “never offered access to anything close to film history. It sold a sliver of ‘classics’ and masterpieces that has always masqueraded as the whole.” In its place, Groo argues for a “more expansive and inclusive understanding of what film is, can be and has been.”

If my students are anything to judge by, the new generation of cinephiles are already far more open when it comes to their cinematic loves — and just as passionate. While most students in my classes haven’t seen Gone with the Wind, there is likely to be someone who has taken a deep dive into Japanese anime, Korean horror, 1950s Latin American film noir or 1990s Nollywood. I am constantly amazed (and sometimes schooled) by students who know far more than me about film cultures and genres outside the canon and my own research fields.

I read with some interest of the new Film Studies series at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre that “pairs film experts with cinema classics, aiming to expand and enrich the audience’s understanding of movies.” The evening presentations include a screening of the film and an illustrated lecture by a film critic, teacher or industry professional.

With upcoming screenings dedicated to George Cukor’s 1954 edition of A Star Is Born, and the 1957 film noir Sweet Smell of Success, I look forward to seeing what more is in store for the series. But if the programmers are looking to strike a chord with younger audiences, I would suggest film choices that also “expand and enrich” our understanding of what constitutes a “cinema classic.”

Younger people may not care for the “100 greatest films” as defined by the American Film Institute or anyone else, but that does not mean they don’t love cinema. As Girish Shambu proclaims in his manifesto “For a New Cinephilia,” featured in the latest issue of Film Quarterly, “The pleasures at the heart of the old cinephilia are predominantly aesthetic. The new cinephilia has a broader definition of pleasure: it values the aesthetic experience of cinema, but it demands more. It finds pleasure, additionally, in a deep curiosity about the world and a critical engagement with it.”

Millennials aren’t ruining cinema, but they might well be ruining the old cinephilia. And that’s fine by me.  [Tyee]

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