Last night, I watched The Way To The Stars, a solid 1945 British film about the lives and loves of RAF flyers and newly-arrived Americans at a World War II bomber base in England. Starring Michael Redgrave and John Mills and thoughtfully scripted by Terence Rattigan, Stars is as representative of its time and place as any other WW II-era film. It's an old movie, as comfortable as a well-worn bathrobe and pair of slippers.
But what is an "old movie"? It's a more complicated question than it seems on the surface. 1977 -- the year I graduated from college -- is about halfway between now and 1945. Stars was an old movie in 1977; Annie Hall, the Best Picture of 1977, is clearly not an old movie today. Seventies' clothes and haircuts aside, Annie Hall retains its contemporary luster, as witty and keenly observed as it was 31 years ago. What made the former and old movie in 1977 while the latter remains modern?
One obvious difference is that movies are rarely filmed in black-and-white anymore and haven't been in some time. Nonetheless, Gone With The Wind (1939)and Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) were both filmed in glorious technicolor, and both are and have been for some time now old movies. There is certainly an ineffable sensibility to the black-and-white era that infuses even the color films, and that is no doubt part of the story. But it's not all of it.
Technique doesn't doesn't tell the tale either. Yes, the leisurely pace of Stars is a far cry from the furious cutting that passes for movie making these days (a technique that masks stupidity and weak scripts). But look at the opening scene from The Godfather, a movie no one would call old even though it was made 36 years ago in 1972. The camera closes up on the figure of Amerigo Bonasera and pulls back ever so slowly until the soft-focus silhouette of the Godfather is in the foreground. It's a daring shot that few directors today would have the courage (or insight) to attempt. And yet we are as far removed from The Godfather as it is from The Petrified Forest, a 1936 gangster classic which is an old movie now and was in 1972.
Being an old movie doesn't mean that the film is irrelevant. The Petrified Forest holds up today and is arguably better than a good contemporary crime flick like American Gangster. I believe that it will be watched and remembered long after Gangster is forgotten. But Forest is an old movie, although it might be more accurate to call it a new movie in the sense that it was released six years after the first talkie.
Returning to The Way To The Stars, a key clue to its oldness is the scene where Stanley Holloway leads a band of carousing flyers in singing "MacNamara's Band." These flyers are young men singing a popular song that is all but forgotten now and that has no contemporary relevance whatsoever. We may take the film's word for it that the soldiers of World War II would have sung this song, but we don't connect to the possibility that they did.
On the other hand, we do connect with the soundtrack to any random Vietnam war movie: A film from 1968 may be dated, but the music remains relevant while "MacNamara's Band" was relegated to "Captain Kangaroo" by the Sixties. That's because the staying power of rock-and-roll established a chasm between the popular culture that predated it and what comes after. My 14-year nephew is a Led Zeppelin fan. There's nothing remarkable about this -- he has plenty of company at school. But when I was 14 in 1969, believe me: I was not listening to the popular music of the Thirties, nor was anyone I knew (unless it was in secret).
The post-rock cinema -- regardless of its music -- above all has a sensibility informed by rock-and-roll (and rap, but I can't write intelligently about that). You can see it and sense it in its characters, sexuality, rhythms, dialogue. This is as absent (for the most part) from The Petrified Forest as it is present in American Gangster. (The exception in Forest is Bette Davis' smoldering sexuality, which transcends any era and bounds with ease across the broadest cultural abyss.) Above all, though, is the desire of virtually every character in every movie to be cool. This is plain in Juno, but it's just as present in Michael Clayton: After all, no one could seriously think that a character played by George Clooney listens to any other kind of music.