The Resilience of Genre, by Tyler Smith
In a recent series of tweets, political commentator Matt Walsh stated that older movies – released in the 30s, 40s, and 50s – are less sophisticated than modern films. He suggested that, while many of these older films are still enjoyable, they nonetheless contain corny dialogue and hammy acting, and that performers from the classic era can’t hold a candle to modern actors like Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis.
While it is certainly strange – maybe even a bit refreshing – to hear a fellow conservative praise modern movies (as opposed to the near-constant refrain that movies were better “in the old days”), I was nonetheless frustrated. I considered Walsh’s view to be far too black and white. And it became clear in the examples that he gave that he was speaking largely from a place of ignorance, making generalizations based on only a handful of the most mainstream of classic films, such as The Wizard of Oz. So not only was his opinion overly-simplistic, but also woefully limited.
Sadly, Walsh’s view also appears to be fairly common. As a teacher of film history and aesthetics, I can personally attest to the recency bias of modern audiences. Their knowledge of older films appears to be limited largely to clips and parodies, rather than the films themselves. And those that do have a slightly more in-depth knowledge of the classic era are still focused primarily on genre films, which have a tendency to be heightened in style and broad in tone.
That’s when I realized that I couldn’t necessarily blame Walsh for his views on classic films, though I do find them to be more than a little narrow. As I composed a list of older films that contradicted Walsh’s assertion about the exaggerated nature of classic cinema, I soon realized that many of them were films that I saw only after several years of being a committed cinephile. Movies like The Best Years of Our Lives, Bicycle Thieves, and Late Spring. These are subtle dramas that explore very human struggles, both internal and external. Their dialogue is naturalistic and their performances are nuanced.
These being great films, however, doesn’t mean that they are in the public consciousness. They are movies that one arrives at only after a concerted effort to branch out in one’s film appreciation, unlike the detective movies of Humphrey Bogart, the sweeping westerns of John Wayne, and the screwball comedies of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, which have pervaded modern culture in a way that is hard to actually measure. Often, people can do an impression of many classic actors without ever having seen their films. Character actors like Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre have recognizable cadences, even if those imitating them can’t actually put a name to the voice.
Of course, all of these actors also performed in smaller, character-based dramas. While we may remember Bogart as Sam Spade, he was capable of more complex work in films like In a Lonely Place. While John Wayne’s machismo is on full display in movies like The Searchers, he was able to subvert his own image in The Quiet Man. And Hepburn and Grant, whose indelible on-screen personas could be hard to shake, were nonetheless able to tap into nuance and subtlety in films like Summertime and Notorious (itself a genre picture, but one still rooted in relationships and emotional complexity).
But, as great as these films are, they seldom contain the type of quotable dialogue and striking imagery that is more common – even expected – in genre film. One of the things that defines genre filmmaking is iconography, so it stands to reason that these films would be more inherently iconic than more naturalistic fare.
Genre films tend to boil story, character, and theme down to their basic essence, and infuse them with heavy doses of style, often creating works of art that are meant to be as striking as possible, first on a visceral level, and then on an intellectual one. As such, to the extent that classic films are discussed at all by modern audiences, it only makes sense that they would talk about those films that were intended to be unnaturally memorable, with their essential pronouncements and iconic imagery.
How on earth could a subtle kitchen sink drama – so steeped in the cultural mores and traditions of its era – hope to be as timeless as movies that take place in another time already. Even dramas made as recently as the 1990s seem irrelevant to us precisely because they were so very relevant to their own time. The fantasy and science fiction films of the same era, however, continue to be watched and discussed, because they’re dealing in concepts more universal and thus evergreen.
And so, when Matt Walsh casually dismisses older films as corny and hammy, he’s unknowingly discussing the continued cultural resilience of genre pictures. They are big and broad and thus more relatable than their smaller character-driven contemporaries. It is only when one decides to take film more seriously that one discovers that there have always been films of enormous intellectual and emotional complexity, which deal with the day-to-day lives of normal people in seemingly-mundane situations.
Similarly, the casual moviegoer can be forgiven for thinking that the primary cinematic export of Japan is Godzilla movies and martial arts pictures. These are high concept stories meant to excite the audience. But it would be downright foolhardy – dare I say ignorant – to maintain that assumption without digging deeper into the country’s rich history of cinematic achievements.
That is the real error of Walsh’s statements. It’s one thing to engage with the cinema of the past based only on its broadest and most accessible offerings. But it’s quite another to dismissively assume that those offerings were its sole output. Scratching the surface is fine, provided that one understands that there is much more underneath.