Seeing a great film from the past is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, a great film revitalizes the love of cinema, reinvigorates the creative process in the viewer, takes them places they’ve never been, excites the imagination. It can be an unintentional window into the past: a scene where Bogart gets a shave and meticulously looks over his reflection–smoothing his eyebrows, even admiring himself–reveals a self-consciousness that one would NEVER associate with pre-modernist cinema. We tend to think of men from the first half of the 20th as butch through and through: scoffing at self-care. We forget that going out without a hat would be considered remarkable in large cities, and without a shave or with one’s tie loose as just plain gauche.This isn’t some WASP-y ‘everything was better back then’ whitewashing either–most people, no matter their race or socioeconomic standing held themselves to a higher standard than today.
The other side of older films is that everyone’s dead.
When watching recent films, I can’t help but play armchair casting director: ‘Oo, Woody Harrelson would be great as Jody in Preacher.’ ‘Oo, X actor would be great as the Raven King in Jonathan Strange.’ ‘Oo, she’d be great as Y.’It’s something I can’t stop myself from doing, even though I’ve yet to receive a single call from Hollywood begging me for my opinion. Imagine that.
With an older film, the possibilities are over. There’s nothing more for the actors to do, because they’re done. They’ve usually done some great things, created performances or films that stand the test of time and are still taught or discussed today: indeed, this film has been an inspiration to countless directors of today, everyone from Spielberg to Joss Whedon.(Notable exceptions to this would be the Tales from the Crypt episode in which Bogie was CG’d in–which sounds like a trainwreck unless you’ve seen the episode, which was actually well-done and quite tasteful!)
Which leads me to my next point: in a truly great film like this, there’s little else going on in my head BUT the film. Sierra Madre is a brilliant, classic piece of American cinema, and it was made in an era when films were few and far between–in short, when films were meant to be watched, rather than act as a tax write-off or get a studio out of the red. I am not saying no films then were crapped out by studios or made only to make money, but the reason Sierra Madre has continued to stand the test of time is because it’s just a GREAT GODDAMN MOVIE. Films made nowadays are made with the assumption that the viewer is only half-watching–their mind is partly occupied with the film, and partly occupied with everything else going on in their lives. Sex, feelings of social, physical, economic or sexual inadequacy, subtexts, institutional prejudices, product placement: all are things modern audiences AND filmmakers distract themselves with when making a film.
Postmodernism and the search for subtext can kill a film–not that films don’t need subtextual analysis, after all, the search for truth in art is a basic human need, and will never go away. But when the guts of something are all a person considers, it can be easy to forget the original something’s form, forget its beauty and grace, forget why we fell in love with it in the first place.