If I wake up tomorrow and all new storytelling has suddenly ended–no more television shows, no new films, albums, novels, video games–I’ll get by… and so will you. I’m not saying I could go without storytelling entirely, mind you. Hell, I’d put it right there with water, food, shelter and sanitation on the short list of things I need to survive. No, what I’m saying is that there’s been enough recorded storytelling over the course of human history and it’s so accessible that if I really had to go without The New, I think I could manage just fine with The Old.
Consider for a second how much story is out there. More of it gets created every year than any of us could get through in a lifetime. Now imagine how much story has accumulated over the course of the last ten years, or your lifetime, or all of human history. And yet, rather than look backwards for story–last month, last year, last decade, last century–most of us tend to focus on the flavor of the week, the new, the fresh, the unseen. The Old is something our society turns its nose up at; it’s something to be tucked away on a dusty shelf somewhere and forgotten.
But great stories don’t have expiration dates.
Are timely stories important? Sure. We want to see stories that are set in the world we currently live, that speak to our times, our culture, our experiences. There is a shared language in newer works between an artist and his or her audience that over time starts to change and break down, to become foreign and alien to those who discover it five or ten or fifty years down the road. Newer works also spotlight the apprehensions and anxieties of our current times; they provide a barometer for the climate of a culture as it stands today, whereas older stories speak to different preoccupations that may not beg our attention as immediately or as powerfully.
And yet… there is something about The Old that is often more rewarding than The New. Experiencing an old story in the modern day is like discovering ancient lost treasure. Because it stands apart from modern pop culture, it often feels like a special secret or a hidden friend with a refreshingly alternative perspective from the homogenized narrative of current trends. Its style, its message, and its language are unique and often startling to modern sensibilities. Think of Mel Brooks’ 1974 film, Blazing Saddles, a comedy about race relations that is so politically incorrect it feels dangerous in the modern day, and yet so topical it feels like it could have been made with the Michael Brown shooting in mind.
Ultimately, the Old is our best way to experience history directly. A story–whether it was conceived one year ago or one thousand years ago–is an artifact of a different time, a blueprint for how we got here, and a testament to how much changes and how much stays the same. Because we can look at it outside of the pop culture landscape, we can better judge it personally, individually and honestly, unsullied by others’ biases and a larger consensus opinion that might influence our opinions towards it. And because it’s not as immediate, because we’re able to look at it slightly detached, slightly more objectively, we can often appreciate its intricacies better; we can savor the seams of its patchwork rather than get blinded by the enormity and potency of its image.
Let me give you an example: as the television show Lost was coming out, I didn’t know how I felt about it. I was caught up in the fervor that so many others were experiencing, following its serpentine plot twists and cliffhanger reveals week-to-week and attuned to what critics, peers, and faceless strangers on the Internet were positing. It was only after I had some distance from the show and the majority opinion had died down and faded from my memories that I was able to come to any sort of honest conclusion about it. By contrast, I didn’t have the same problem with a show like Twin Peaks, which I discovered twenty years after it left the air. I was able to engage with that show on both a far more personal, intimate level and somewhat contradictorily, also remain detached and far more objective to its strengths and weaknesses.
However, I was reluctant to start watching Twin Peaks in the first place–more reluctant than I had been to watch Lost as it came out, or True Detective or Breaking Bad–and the reasoning involved the same issues most of us have towards older works: The Old often feels like more of a risk than the contemporary alternative, and it can be difficult to move past our biases, even when we’re aware of them. See if this litany of fears sounds familiar: It’s going to be slow. It’s going to be boring. It will be cheesy and predictable. It will be difficult to understand. It doesn’t hold up. It doesn’t speak to my generation, my world.
Every time I sit down to watch a black-and-white film or television from the 40s to the early 60s, I’m afraid that it’s going to be a goofy, predictable, saccharine, bland, traditional values kind of product reminding me to brush my teeth before I go to bed. I know better, but that doesn’t change the fact that a tiny shiver of dread runs up my spine anyway.
Here’s the thing I have to remind myself: there were plenty of talented, subversive directors during the censorship code era of Hollywood who crafted psychologically complex, thrilling, hilarious and seriously fun films that would entertain a modern audience as much as the audience it was created for. Obviously the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder are a great place to start, but they are not the only names one should seek out for a dependably excellent filmography from that era.
J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film, Cape Fear, for instance, is actually scarier and more psychologically twisted than most modern-day thrillers because when you bring your baggage of bias against The Old, you’re expecting them to pull their punches. So when it gets violent and twisted and sexually charged, it hits so much harder and digs so much deeper than your modern-day slasher flick; it’s the cinematic whiplash equivalent of listening to your kindly old grandmother confessing to being a serial killer.
Otto Preminger’s 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, makes for far less graphic and grisly viewing, but it’s even more twisted in a way. Conditioned to expect courtroom dramas to function as moral parables in which evil is foiled by the great lady Justice, an audience of any era would be confounded by Anatomy‘s decisively amoral compass. Whether the suspect is guilty or not is completely immaterial to the purpose of the film; it’s all about the dueling performances of the lawyer and D.A. and the ability to find legal loopholes in one’s favor. We root for the protagonist because he’s played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart, regardless of the fact that the guy he’s defending really ought to go to jail… probably? Brilliantly, we never see the crime in question, so we have no idea of what really happened. All we can do is find ourselves in the jury’s predicament, swayed by charisma and character rather than objective truth and moral superiority.
As for comedies, it may sound counterintuitive, but there is often something far more outrageous and hilarious about the raunchiness of a Marilyn Monroe sex comedy like Howard Hawks’ 1952 film, Monkey Business, than the modern day Cameron Diaz equivalent. Successful humor and horror both depend on shocking and surprising an audience, and in the modern-day storytelling world where violence and, to a lesser extent, sex are able to be presented in a manner that leaves little to the imagination, it’s easy to become desensitized and conditioned to expecting graphic material. Revisiting older media and bringing your biases with you is helpful in recalibrating our perspectives on the necessity of that more graphic material to stimulate us.
What often prevents us from doing this, as well as engaging The Old for any reason, is a reluctance in challenging ourselves. On the surface at least, contemporary works are more approachable. The characters talk like we do. They reference things we’re familiar with. The style of writing in a novel is typically cleaner and more conversational in nature. The pacing of a film is faster and tends not to linger too long on anything. The sound of that latest rock or hip hop album is something fresh and different, something unexpected and surprising. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but we can at least be lured in by the comfort of the new, of the modern, of the up-to-the-minute before being subjugated by a challenging work that forces us to engage in the material and work for comprehension more than we had expected.
But an older work gazed at from afar carries with it the innuendo of struggle and effort, of homework. In many cases, it’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to push back against your expectations of language and form, pacing and execution. Storytelling rules have changed over the course of human history and what we take for granted as the structure that must be adhered to in modern storytelling is not necessarily the structure that existed prior. One can argue either way that the storytelling structure has evolved or devolved, with plenty of good examples on both sides. But whether it’s progressed and improved or deteriorated and weakened is not as important as the fact that it has simply changed.
As one example, most modern-day stories tend to have more open-ended conclusions. The End is being phased out in favor of either never-ending serialized narratives that pick up where the last one left off or more naturalistic ambiguous endings that leave lingering questions as to whether the protagonist has truly overcome his or her struggle. Older stories, by contrast, tend to end in very final, very definitive fashion, i.e. either death or marriage. There’s nothing ambiguous about the gut-punch endings of The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, or Of Mice and Men… or any of Shakespeare’s works. And there’s nothing in the DNA of films like Citizen Kane, Casablanca or Sunset Boulevard that lends itself to further serialized adventures with those characters in that world.
Similarly, older works do tend to operate at a more leisurely pace than modern works. It can seem a daunting prospect picking up Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or sitting down to watch David Lean’s almost four-hour-long Lawrence of Arabia. Even shorter works with less literary ambitions, like say Terrence Young’s film adaptation, From Russia with Love, involves plenty of shots of Sean Connery wandering around gypsy camps, the streets of Istanbul, and embarking and disembarking various forms of public transit that would probably end up on the digital cutting room floor for the latest blockbuster Bond adventure.
But is there something also lost in the more direct, fast-paced narrative of today’s novels and films? Has our attention deficit ballooned to such proportions that we miss out on the simple pleasures of inhabiting the storytelling worlds created by filmmakers and novelists and immersing ourselves in their depth and eccentricities? It’s hard to imagine the new Star Wars film, now being shepherded by Disney’s conveyor-belted movie-making factory, will bother to spend the first half hour of its running time following two bickering robots around a desert landscape. Is that progress, an evolution of storytelling technique, or is it a loss for audiences who would prefer a genial stroll rather than a roller coaster ride?
The point is that we can’t stop things from changing, nor should we try. Art may please us more now than ever before or it might please us less than at some other point in our lives. For every disgruntled critic who insists films/novels/music/art were better ten or twenty or fifty years ago, there is someone else who is rolling their eyes at the prospect of reading a novel by HG Wells, Ernest Hemingway or JD Salinger, or watching a film before CGI… or color… or sound. Narrow-mindedness on either front is just depriving oneself of choice, of variety, of difference. It’s not about picking a side or choosing one over the other. The Old and The New can coexist.
But it’s important to remember that there’s a lot more of The Old than there is of The New. And it’s still out there. It’s available to you right now, unlike, say, that next Avengers movie (or the two planned after that!). It’s easy to focus on what’s coming and miss what’s come before, but we are at a point in our society where doing that almost requires you to close your eyes. Anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card has access to more media than at any other time in human history. We can rent, buy, borrow, and stream all kinds of media–books, movies, radio, and music, to name a few. We can discover older works that are “new to us” and track down a copy from someone on the other side of the world and get it delivered to our home in a few days. The greatest movie, novel and album you’ve never watched/read/heard is out there somewhere.
It’s time to start digging.