June 20, 2012

What did you learn in film school today, dear?

Last night on Twitter, I got into it a little bit about what constitutes a "classic film." What a boring, old argument, I know. But I was in a bit of a mood, feeling defensive, and so I snapped up the bait. I was on team "there is no old or new cinema, only CINEMAH!" Which is just about the most earnestly embarrassing naive expression of Youth with a capital Y that there could possibly be (and the kind of idealized utopianism that only proves the oft-argued opinion of older film critics that them kids just don't know what they're takin' about because they haven't lived yet).

Well, excuse me for being young. I can't argue with you there. Older people have had more time to learn things, it's true! I can't fight math (though Lord knows I've tried). But I'm 24 and Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 25, so cut me some slack here.

But I couldn't stop thinking how you could actually categorize a "classic" film. How could I prove my point that there can be classics from any era? Well, I crawled back into the corner of my mind where I keep my "What I learned in film school" folder and dug up some terminology that sort of helped me with my book-learnin'. So, here, I gift to you, gratis, some BS film stuff I spent four years and $40, 000 to learn.

1895--1910 Early cinema

I think it's crucial that there be a division within "silent film." The Great Train Robbery is not the same as Metropolis, and there are more consideration than merely having or not having sound. Even that distinction is blurred by films with post-synchronized dialogue or companion sound tracks or sound effects (eg. Wings, Sunrise).

I've made 1910 the cut-off for "Early Cinema" for one reason: D.W. Griffith. In 1910, Griffith shot the first film in Hollywood, In Old California, with his Biograph players (including future multi-era Hollywood superstars Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford). As Jesus Christ is to Christianity, American cinema history can be measured pre-and post-D.W. Griffith; and the man is just as controversial. Griffith established the basics of the cinematic visual language in American film (which dominated the Western world to the point of saturation and only became challenged critically during the New Wave movements of the late '50s/early '60s; Asian cinema is a whole 'nother story). But what of the other apostles: Alice Guy-Blanche, Oscar Micheaux, or the future studio moguls who started out as business men and merged with creatives out of economic necessity?

There are simply too many pioneers to mention; this era is like the cinema gold rush: everybody was doing everything and taking credit for it. As anecdotal evidence, I would suggest that just watching films from 1903--1909, you "feel" a difference. Narratives are less consistent, editing techniques we've come to take for granted (shot/reverse/shot, parallel editing, variation in camera position) are not always present. Post-1910, you have the rise of "the star" as a market force, which helps to define studios, normalize exhibition patterns, and shape the kinds of stories that are being told (which in turn standardizes the length of films, as well as their framing--the history of "the star" and the close-up are inextricably linked).

1910--1928 The Silent Era

Here we enter what most people think of when they think of "silent films." All the pioneers are present and accounted for (Griffith), and many figures that will later dominate The Sound Era are cutting their teeth (Hitchcock, Lang, Wellman). Good ol' Allan Dwan began shooting pictures in 1911 and didn't stop until 1961.

This is the period where narratives become more standardized, genres become more defined, and like I said earlier, it's all about MOVIE STARS. The Silent Era is most prominently divided by the First World War, a profound cultural event that impacted the stories that would be told after the conflict, as well as brought European talent to Hollywood and contributed to the diversity of American film and its transcontinental proliferation and dominance.

The 1928 end date is a bit iffy because, of course, The Jazz Singer debuted in 1927. However, it wasn't until very late in 1928 that most studios begin releasing sound pictures. This was a very hectic period for Hollywood, with studios re-shooting their in-production silents for sound, re-casting actors or training old ones in how to speak and move on camera and a bevy of other transitional chaos. It is worth noting that 1926/1927/1928 is generally considered the apex of the silent film form in America (and when you look at comparable European films in 1929/1930, I believe the late '20s were the absolute height of the form). Of course, we'll never know, will we? Only Chaplin continued making silent masterpieces, and maybe only he could have. The silent film form is still viable, still alive and energetic, but now sadly, irrevocably just another "quirk" in the arsenal of filmic grammar.

1928--1968 The Sound Era

Within what we can loosely "The Sound Era," from the beginnings of synchronized sound in studio feature films to the dissolution of the Hays Code and implementation of the MPAA ratings system in 1968, there are several distinctive sub-categories. The most significant of these, at least to the TCM audience, is what is commonly known as Classical Hollywood Cinema, aka what most people think of when they think of "classics." I would date Classical Hollywood Cinema from 1934 (enforcement of the Hays Code) to about 1959 (I agree with Robert Osborne on this one).

As you can see, this leaves some "in-between" periods; I like to think of 1928--1934 and 1959--1968 as liminal periods in American film history. When you think about it, these were periods of great upheaval and transitional change for the country at large, so why not for cinema as well? Both of these liminal periods feature great change within the studio system, the restructuring of stardom (eg. silent film stars fading, or television stars rising/crossing over to features), and experimentation of the film form. Perhaps most notably, both periods gave rise to certain rebellious behaviors. The early '30s are well-known as the "Pre-Code" era, where racy subject matter was celebrated and sex and violence reigned. The same kind of moral flexibility is evident in the '60s, a period in American cinema where the old guard collided with new sensibilities, sometimes creating awkward Frankenstein hybrids, sometimes creating unique masterpieces.

I may be a bit biased because the 1960s happen to hold a special place in my heart, but the more I see from this decade, the more I'm intrigued by this often unwieldy collision of old and new, of Jack Warner and Roger Corman, of roadshow fanfare and midnight movie madness. I would argue that any "liminal" period in film history is worth investigating, and because of its unique hybridity, often more rewarding than the stalwart classics in any era.

1968--1982 New Hollywood

Bonnie and Clyde is generally cited as the shot heard 'round the world. What shocking violence! That was 1967 and a year later, Jack Valenti et al shuffled through the Scrabble letters and came up with the (seemingly eternal, always frustrating) ratings system.

New Hollywood is basically the moment when the monkeys took over the zoo. It was the first era in American cinema where the preeminent directors were film school educated. Unlike guys like Allan Dwan, who came to Hollywood before the rest of the country even knew the name, and then worked as literally everything, from mechanic to actor to stuntman to gaffer to director, guys like Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese emerged from the film culture that was equal parts academic (NYU, UCLA) and practical ("interning" with Roger Corman, etc). Part of this change was mandated by the dissolution of the studio system, some of it stemmed from changing tastes, and a large part was due to the proliferation of the auteur theory as a viable artistic career goal. For the first time since Early Cinema, individualization trumped studio recognition; the draw was the director's singular vision, not the story, not the stars, and certainly not the studio.

Importantly, the New Hollywood directors were profoundly influenced by the international New Wave moment that gripping France, Japan, Italy, Sweden, etc. Woody Allen strove to create Bergman pictures while Bergman was still directing; Scorsese was influenced by Fellini, Lucas by Kurosawa, and because the old masters were still active, these influences were all mashed up together. The old and new entered into a continuum; the influences and the influenced became harder to disentangle. Everything became more referential. Suddenly, decades of lofty FILM HISTORY weighed heavily on creator and viewer alike.

The genre experimentation that began in the late studio era found its logical expression in the era's extreme violence and Vietnam-era disillusionment. Guys like Sam Peckinpah, who began making Westerns with genre stalwarts like Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (Ride the High Country) later exploded the very notion of classicism with films like The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. A similar mournful or elegiac tone permeated much of the films from this era; a co-mingling of post-Kennedy disenchantment and Nixonian paranoia prevailed.

This pessimism was somewhat mediated by the "invention" of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, generally credited to Jaws in 1975. Think: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The blockbuster era also ushered in an era of cross-promotion, of theme park rides, merchandising potentialities, sequels, prequels and spinoffs. In an effort to maximize profits, films were no longer "films" (that is, singular entities with a life contained in its run-time), but "properties" belonging to multi-national corporations who may mine them for revenue, in perpetuity, amen.

The death of New Hollywood came after a series of big budget flops. Everyone was trying to make another Star Wars while retaining a semblage of auteuristic control. High profile failures by previously commercial directors (Michael Cimino's Heavens Gate in 1980 and Coppola's One from the Heart in 1982) effectively decimated Hollywood's tenuous relationship with the expensive idealism of the "Movie Brats."

1982--present??? The What-The-Hell-Do-We-Call-This-Now Era

What factors define the "Modern Era" of American film? 

The rise of computer graphics, video tape, DVD, digital projection; struggles with postfeminism, queer identity, race and gender; the rise of independent cinema; the ascendency and domination of the multiplex; the "threat" to the multiplex as posed by ever-multiplying home viewing options; internet piracy; skyrocketing production costs and the importance of overseas box office; post-modern conceptions of temporality and globalism...I think the list could go on and on. And that's just Hollywood.

The year is 2012. Are we in an essentially different era of American film than people in 1986? In 1994? Even, in 2001? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I don't have an answer. I have a lot of ideas on where we could divvy up this thirty year block. Perhaps in 1998, which introduced us to the wonderful world of DVD? DVD offered greater resolution and data capacity than any previous home viewing format, so much so that it could replace film as a medium for exhibition. It extreme portability made the copying and sharing of movies infinitely easier, and, along with digital home video cameras, ushered us into to the DIY era of digital filmmaking, the exhilarating/terrifying/threatening/wonderful "anyone can make films" period of media saturation we still live in.

If we focus our attention on the margins of "film," that is, NOT the theatrical distribution and exhibition of Hollywood feature films, I believe we can most accurately pinpoint the distinctive features of the "Modern Era." It is not so much what's on the big screen, as the kinds of screen on which we're watching. Increased interactivity, the multiplication of viewing formats, and above all, the proliferation of CHOICE in our viewing habits, are are primary factors in establishing what makes our "Modern Era" different from eras past.

I don't believe it's so much the kinds of stories that have changed, but more importantly, the way we can tell the same old stories with new technologies and "see" them in new ways.

So, what's a classic again?

All this stupid definition of terms is hopefully toward a broader understanding of "classic." Classic is ephemeral, contestable, controversial, and constantly evolving. I like to think of the "classic" the same way I think of "genre:" it's a helpful terminology that allows us to group certain films together, separate others, and generally give us a way of seeing to make some organization out of chaos. It is NOT the be-all and end-all designation for certain films and it is not written in stone. There will always be liminal, marginal films that defy categorization or bridge many categories at once. Is there really a distinction between "classic" and "cult classic"? Or is such terminology only an attempt to separate what society has internalized as a high culture vs. low culture binary?

I think that by dividing film history into eras based on chronology (and setting the limits of those eras on concrete developments like technological innovations, industrial change, etc.), we can better understand what kind of films exemplify a certain era. Once we pinpoint the characteristic elements of a certain era, we can come to define which films represent classics from that era. Therefore, yes, you can have classic films from the 1930s, but also from the 1910s and the 2000s.

For some reason, we have, as a culture, adopted the "classic" terminology to refer to a fixed period in history. We are stubbornly enamored with "THE PAST." But to have a cut-off date for classic films? Absurd. And not only that, but genuinely ignorant and disrespectful of film history.

I know it's hard to cope with one national cinema, let alone many, but as a final mind-bender, consider the varying definitions of "classic" as they may apply to movies from other countries. While French New Wave and British New Wave are more likely to be given "classic" status in America (aka be shown on TCM) because of their eras (late 1950s--1960s), what about New Wave cinemas from Asian? The Korean New Wave began in the 1990s. Chinese cinema came to prominence in the West in the 1980s with the Fifth Generation filmmakers. But to what American or European critics might appear to be a "classic" example of Chinese filmmaking, might, to a scholar of Chinese cinema, be analogous to Hollywood's "Movie Brats." If you fix a rigid temporal restriction on film "classics," how does that apply to other cinematic cultures?


Like every good student of the Humanities, my conclusions are inconclusive. Sifting through the sands of film history, I can only glimpse at fragments. There is no complete picture and there should not be definitive definitions. We live in a continuum, constantly in communication with the past, the present, the future, with other media, with ourselves and our communities. I would humbly suggest that those who use "classics" for only films produced during the period of Classical Hollywood Cinema, reconsider and substitute that terminology (or, CHC for short). Because although the Golden Era of Hollywood represents the solidification--perhaps even perfection--of the American cinema style, it certainly does not hold exclusive rights to what makes a "classic."


  1. Where do we pick up our diplomas?

    Loved this.

  2. LOVED this! Thanks so much for sharing on a sometimes heated topic we all enjoy debating.

  3. This is probably the best, most concise essay on the topic of "classic American cinema" that I've read for some time.

  4. my class on new hollywood cut things off at 1975, citing Jaws as the film that put an end to the industry's openness to untested, young directors. Jaws and Star Wars also typified a new kind of blockbuster, the kind which Hollywood is still very much in the business of making today. personally, I wouldn't be averse to calling 1975-present the age of the new blockbuster.

  5. The current era is the "Post modern" era of filmmaking. It began in the late 70s early 80s, with films like "The Network". Arguably modern cinema from that point on is a mix loving tributes to other times (fueled by DVD, VHS, etc) and skepticism over the future and the technologies we are creating, a sort of fear of the implication of the digital age, with many sprinkles of satire and parody to help

    Naturally, plenty of films are none of these

  6. Albob--

    I was tempted to go with the "post modern" label, citing frequent pastiche, parody, and genre elements in films like Pulp Fiction; however, I'm not really comfortable enough with that terminology to assign it to the period. And, frankly, although the proliferation of technologies and new forms of distribution/exhibition may itself be a form of "most modern split," I still think "post modernism" as a blanket statement is too undefined a term. With the passage of time, I'm sure we'll strike upon something more appropriate.

  7. This is the greatest essay I ever read about American cinema.

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  9. This was excellent and I also love the stills/photos used. Call me naive, but my definition of a classic has nothing to do with silent/sound, black&white/color. To me, a classic is a film virtually everyone has seen. If you say, "I guess we're not in Kansas any more" and everyone you're with understands that reference, then that is a classic film. Of course there are plenty of "lost classics," perhaps films people should see but haven't, but if you say "Red pill or blue pill" and everyone gets it, that's a classic.