Every few months, my friends come over to my flat for a film night. As we have grown older, this is as much a chance to catch up as it is to watch a movie, but that doesn't mean that we don't take our film choice seriously. Even though we will invariably end up talking and joking through it, an impassioned debate is usually held over what film we should watch together. Inevitably, an action film from the 1980s typically finds itself being sucked into the Blu Ray player and that's fine - few movies are more conducive to jokes and laughter than Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing up a jungle. Yet I do recall one film night when I tried to suggest something slightly different and the reaction (or rather, not the reaction itself but the vehemence of the reaction) I received rather surprised me.
My suggestion was to watch Abel Gance's 1927 silent film, Napoleon. On reflection, this wasn't the best choice. Even I, as a fan of the film, probably would have regretted my decision three hours into this five hour epic, as the clock ticked closer to midnight and the beer and pizza started to churn ever more uncomfortably in my stomach. Yet, as I eagerly pulled Napoleon off the shelf, I was still buzzing from a recent screening of the film I had seen at the Royal Festival Hall. Understandably, I wanted to share with my friends this stunning feat of film making.
Everyone reacted as if I had just suggested watching a nine hour documentary on Brexit. There were cries of derision and a fair few colourful words flung in my direction. But why such a strong reaction? After all, I hadn't actually suggested watching a nine hour Brexit odyssey. My friends didn't even know that the film was five hours long. All they did know was that it was old and in black and white (or tinted, if you want to get technical).
As I have said, with hindsight, Napoleon was not the best choice for a film night with a group of friends brought up on Schwarzenegger. Yet I realised that any suggestion of a black and white film would have met with a similar response. And not just with my friends either. I have found that there is generally a resistance to watching older films among generations that either did not grow up with them or have not been generally introduced to them. Old films are usually seen as, at best, dry and boring, at worst, insufferable and pretentious. If you add foreign onto that, then people will run away even quicker. There is seemingly no fate more horrifying than having to sit through a black and white French film from the 1940s.
I once fell into this category. I had seen a couple of classic foreign films at University and had liked them, but I didn't actively go out of my way to watch more after I had graduated. It was only when I started buying films on Blu Ray that I had a revelation. Part of this was due to the restoration of the films themselves. No longer did I have to watch badly cropped, flickering, low resolution versions of old films that looked like they had been dubbed from a VHS tape and sounded like someone was microwaving popcorn in the background as the actors spoke their lines. Now I was treated to glorious 2K and 4K restorations that made the films look as if they had been shot yesterday. Their power and potential had been given a new lease of life.
Equally significant, however, was the choice of films available. With the advent of Blu Ray came the tidal wave of boutique film labels remastering, restoring and releasing both classics and undiscovered gems. Run by film experts and fans, these labels have diligently trawled through the vaults of film collections all over the world in order to give movies that perhaps didn't get their due upon release a chance to be appreciated by a new audience. Or maybe they released films that were only known to cinephiles and had yet to be made easily available, let alone seen, by a wide audience. These Blu Ray labels (such as Arrow, Masters of Cinema, the BFI, Indicator, Second Sight and Criterion) really opened my eyes to the bigger world of cinema that lay beyond my modern, Hollywood focused, horizon.
Why was I blown away by these films? Well, for a start, it was because almost none of them were dry. Or boring. Or pretentious. Yes, even the silent ones made in the 1920s. Almost each and every film I was introduced to seemed to have one concern and one concern only; to tell a great story. I realised that this had always been, for a great many filmmakers, the primary goal of cinema. Not to bore or to preach or to crush the audience under the weight of their intellectual superiority. In the same way that modern comic book films do today, in the same way that Schwarzenegger films did in the 80s, these films sought to thrill, to stun, to move, to frighten, to amuse and, above all, to entertain. In this sense, there really is no difference between a film made in 1927 or 2017.
Of course, times change, as do audiences. As mentioned, one criticism always levelled at older films is that they are boring. That absolutely isn't the case. But they can be slower paced. Modern audiences are so used to fast cutting and inciting incidents happening within the first ten minutes, that anything that takes a little longer to get going is seen as anathema to entertainment. They never allow these films to prove that a slower start, where characters, relationships and plot are gently and carefully introduced, typically end up having a more powerful and emotional conclusion because time has been setting everything up. Not all old films are like this. I'd bet money on saying that, say, The Wages of Fear, Psycho, Wings or White Heat are just as fast paced and thrilling as any movie released in cinemas today.
Which brings me back to my friends. For years, I have been gently and playfully teased about my taste in film. As time has gone on, I have become less interested in the latest comic book movies, preferring instead to dive into my film collection and see what undiscovered gems might be waiting for me. If I do watch a comic book film and say that I don't really like it (and perhaps mention another, older film that might have done something better) I get teased for it. There is no other way to say it - I'm seen as a bit of film snob, I guess. If you do a quick Google of snob this definition pops up: a person who has extremely high standards who is not satisfied by the things that ordinary people like. I guess that could sum me up to some extent. I do have high standards. I want to be told a good story when I go to the cinema. I want to be surprised, shocked, amused, saddened, frightened. Above all, I want to be entertained. Modern Hollywood cinema aims to do all this and more, just as the films made 60, 70 or 80 years ago did. The only difference is, in my mind, is that a certain generation of films usually do things a lot better.
I haven't given up on modern Hollywood. I still love going to the cinema. The latest trailer for the new Joker film has got me very excited and I will always feel a thrill whenever Superman or Batman appears on screen. I will always give modern films a chance because I know that no filmmaker sets out to make a dull, boring movie. They are always going to be doing their best to entertain the audience. Yet my friends don't seem to realise that the reverse is also true, that those filmmakers of black and white, foreign films had exactly the same goal. I am seen as a bit of a film snob as I tend to be be disappointed by a lot of modern blockbusters. But I still give them a chance. Perhaps if my friends and others reversed their snobbery to old films, then they might have a revelation too.
Maybe then it'll be them suggesting that we watch Napoleon on our next film night. If so, I'll tell them that they are being idiots. It's a film night with beer and pizza for God's sake! That means only one thing.