The Importance of Watching ‘Old’ Movies

Art is timeless. Whether you’re looking at one of the frenetic drawings of the great neo-expressionist, Basquiat, being mesmerized by Mona Lisa’s eyes, listening to the compositions of Chopin, or watching Marlon Brando brilliantly mumble his way through a monologue—art doesn’t get ‘old.’ Sure, some things (in film and television particularly) don’t hold up as well when looking at them through our modern lens. Some of the jokes on Friends are cringeworthy today, a lot of the foley work in Hitchcock’s earlier films are definitely basic, and a couple of the action sequences in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom aren’t edited as cleanly as you’d expect from a blockbuster today—not to mention some of its racist humour towards Indians and questionable support for The British Raj should both be criticized, irrespective of release date.

Still, cinema might be the closest thing we have to time travel, and being able to watch these ‘old’ films gives us an understanding of the time in which they were made. It contextualizes not only the significance of said time period, but also the shifts of the global film industry, its trends, and even the interests, politics, and psychologies of the public at the time. Not to mention it gives us the opportunity to see how the technologies as well as filmmaking, writing, and acting techniques we’ve grown accustomed to today have been inspired by the pioneers of decades past.

Tokyo Story by the great Yasujiro Ozu doesn’t just tell the story of a couple going to visit their grown children in Tokyo. It’s a story about the Westernization of Japan post-World War II, leading to the fall of some of the traditional Japanese familial structures. It’s a story about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and the loneliness that inevitably comes with age. It’s a film that, though didn’t get much traction globally due to it being “too Japanese,” is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, and showcases filmmaking techniques that are now iconic to Ozu’s style—a style that is intrinsically Japanese.

The Big City by Satyajit Ray isn’t simply about a woman taking a job as a saleswoman to support her husband, it’s a story about women’s roles in 1960 Kolkata. Ray uses the modernization of Kolkata as a vessel to tell a story about family, gender roles, and progress. He does so with his now immediately identifiable hand as a filmmaker, focusing on character moments with purposeful framing of actors, and gentle melodies that ebb and flow from scene to scene. There is no other filmmaker, old or new, that tells the stories of Bengalis as intimately as Ray; so to not watch his films would be giving up on an opportunity to experience a vibrant part of Indian history.

The BIg City
Madhabi Mukherjee in The Big City. Credit: The Criterion Channel

Movies, much like most art, have always been tied with politics throughout history. Whether it be totalitarian governments making propaganda films to alter the minds of the public, or generations of Iranian women using the medium to fight for their voices to be heard after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. As such, to watch an ‘old’ film is to in some way study history. It depends on what you’re watching, of course, as I’m not sure how much political relevance The Nutty Professor has, but it’s still a look into some of the jarring comedic sensibilities of the late 90s. Martin Scorsese in a video with Turner Classic puts it best:

“The common image, or idea, of who we are, who we’ve been, and who we’re becoming; and the miracle of cinema is that it gives us that common image, that common idea, in time and motion, shot by shot.”

It baffles me, then, that I’ll be having a conversation with a fellow filmmaker, screenwriter, or actor—either a veteran of the craft or someone looking to get started in the industry—and they’ll look at me askance as I inevitably begin gushing about my favourite works of Ozu, or the performance of Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond, or my love for how Ingmar Bergman used contrast to tell his stories. Because not only had they not watched those films, but some had never even heard of those names. It’s one thing for my friend—who works as an engineer by day and the little time he does have to watch movies it’s within the Marvel or Star Wars universes—to not be familiar with the works of Ozu; but if you’re someone who has an active interest in working as a film director or writer, then I’d say it is imperative for you to become familiar with those names, and many, many more. Otherwise it’s disrespectful to both yourself and the craft. I should emphasize that it’s not the lack of knowledge that gets me—it’s not like I came out of the womb gurgling about the films of Ousmane Sembène—it’s the lack of interest in studying the history of one’s craft and this arrogant disdain for the works of the past; believing that simply getting inspired by the blockbuster that came out last week is enough.

For as much as I disagree with many of the practices of the great Stella Adler, I’ll admit I now understand why she made a young Marlon Brando spend months going to museums and reading books before ever stepping foot on a stage; because great acting comes from an understanding of self, art, and the world around you. I know that a lot of aspiring filmmakers have dreams that are less of the A24 kind and more of the Spielberg variety, but even Spielberg—for as much as I fault him for the commodification of modern cinema—has knowledge of those that came before him, and has said to have taken inspiration from the father of the French New Wave himself, Francois Truffaut.

I’ve been told that this stance of mine may come off as a tad elitist. I’d argue that it’s the opposite, as cinema has historically, politically, been anything but. I have too much love for this medium, for art, to not push myself (and others) to consume the stories of the trailblazers of the past; many of whom had to fight for their stories to be heard. Because it’s in consuming these stories that I am able to have not only a deeper understanding of the medium, but an appreciation for the cultures and histories of countries throughout the globe. An appreciation for filmmakers globally whose ancestors have been telling compelling narratives for generations, and from whom I hope they can build upon and take inspiration from—instead of having the space be monopolized by Hollywood and Western corporations.

Shaz Mohsin

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