Monday, February 6, 2017

How Movies Become Obscure


Here at The Cinemologists, we do our best to put the spotlight on obscure movies. We talk about which ones are worth watching, why they’ve been overlooked, and how to find them these days.
In going about this enterprise, I always find myself asking the question...
“What makes a movie obscure?”
Then, numerous images of box office flops (Raise the Titanic), underappreciated cult films (Danger: Diabolik), and badly misrepresented gems (Starcrash) dance before me like a line of unconventionally attractive chorus girls. My mind’s eye also displays, in equal or greater number, the films I don’t need to talk about: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Shining, Ben Hur, Jaws, Casablanca...
But then something unsettling happens: I flash back to college (horrifying, I know). In this uncomfortable state of remembrance, I recall my fellow students (all 90s kids like me) sitting there in the dark watching the assigned movies our professors put on during class time. And, among foreign film staples and indie Americana, we would occasionally watch some of the popular classics I just mentioned.
No, not Raise the Titanic; I meant the other list!
Here’s where things get weird.
I watched Jaws with a room full of film majors, and get this: almost none of them had seen it before. Yeah, there were a couple Spielberg junkies in the room, but, aside from that, the only people who had previously experienced Jaws were me and that one senior who inexplicably had a VHS copy of Bloodsport in his dorm room.

And (here’s where things get Outer Limits weird) the reaction was completely muted, unenthused, and unilaterally “meh.” Classic Spielberg indeed! The movie couldn’t even get a rise out of a room of college-aged film buffs. In fact, I’d venture to say that the class’s appraisal of Rocky IV was significantly warmer than that of “the shark movie.”

Yes, we studied Rocky IV in a film class. Life can be beautiful!
At the time, I shrugged the class reaction off. I supposed that Jaws was a summer blockbuster movie at its core. Maybe I was being nostalgic about the whole thing, and the film just couldn't hold its own in an age of Marvel movies.
Then we watched Chinatown; a classic admittedly, but one I could believe few of the students had seen. In fact, I was the only one in the class who had seen it before, which got me interested in how the other students would react to it. Surely they would recognize its genius directing, great performances, and positively darling screenplay, but what fresh take would they have on the deeper themes and cultural relevance found in the movie. After all, California was going through a terrible drought at the time, and corporate greed was a bigger topic than ever.
Here’s where things get Six Million Dollar Man-Bionic Woman-crossover-episode-with-sasquatch-in-it-for-some-reason weird. The only people in the class who bothered to talk at any length about Chinatown panned it. Their shared reason? Because they don’t like it when evil triumphs in movies, and they found the movie’s dark tone distasteful. Also a few people said Faye Dunaway’s performance was bad.
Nobody talked about the screenplay, and only a few folks mentioned the directing because, well, it was a film class after all.
I can’t say for certain if this experience is typical of how people my age think about those movies, but I can tell you that I watched Chinatown later in a different class with a different group of students, and they made many of the same comments. Obviously I'm not trying to belittle the opinions of others, but I do find it odd that two almost universally beloved classics fell flat with a room full of young people (specifically young people who loved film enough to make it their major).
This got me thinking…
How close are these movies (critical darlings, award magnets, crowd pleasers of the past) to obscurity? It’s like the man said about freedom: It’s never more than one generation away from extinction.
As for me, I developed my love of movies through many means: the local Blockbuster Video, public television (we didn’t have cable growing up), my parents’ recommendations from their youth (they grew up in the 50s and 60s) to name a few.
Without Blockbuster I never would have been intrigued by those Godzilla VHS covers as a small child. Without TV, I never would have caught all those Ray Harryhausen and George Pal flicks that helped to define my tastes in movies. If my parents grew up in a later decade, who knows what kind of movies I'd be into now?
Well, Blockbuster’s gone.
Aside from the one in the Oak Lawn Shopping Center, that is.
I know very few children today who watch TV, and by that I mean actual programmed shows. It’s an antiquated idea to most, and, although Netflix does offer a wonderful selection of cult movies and older classics, that service actually narrows people’s browsing options by simply recommending the kinds of movies and shows customers already watch, meaning more of the same and less forced variety.
And as for movies passed down from the previous generation, time keeps marching on.
So, what of it? Is a Cinemologists review of Jaws really going to happen sometime in the future?
If it does, you can bet money Sarah would be the shark on the title card.
Well, not at the moment, but, in a few years, anything's possible.
Sorry if this essay reads a bit doom-and-gloomy. I don't want to be discouraging (heaven knows there's enough discouraging stuff going on in the world today), but actually I think there's a good takeaway from all of this. It comes in the form of an opportunity.
See, film preservation isn’t just something archivists do to save old reels from being destroyed. Film preservation also exists in the mind.
If you want people to see/remember/love a movie, then first you must recommend it, screen it, and generally rave about it from the rooftops.
This need isn't new of course. Revival screenings, television broadcasts, and critical reappraisals are the very reason certain movies are considered classics today (Vertigo, It's a Wonderful Life, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory being three examples that immediately come to mind). In fact, if you're interested, here's a great episode of Harlan Ellison's Watching from 1995 that describes the obscurity of older media in eloquent and gloriously crotchety detail.
But what is new is the level of choice we have today. The advent of more choice in media is great (it actually makes it much easier to access obscure films), but, as I previously talked about, the "Recommended for You" element of streaming can stifle curiosity and bury real treasure under mountains of trash.
That's why it's more important than ever for film lovers to stand on the fringes and say “Hey, check this out! I think you’ll like it.”
If we want people to remember the classics and cult flicks of yesteryear, it's up to you guys to keep things going, and it's something I hope we'll be doing here for many years to come!
"Trust us. We're non-professionals who sporadically ramble on about movies on the Internet!"

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