Thursday, February 7, 2008

What is to Be Done?

Last Saturday night, I stayed up until 1:00 to watch TCM's showing of Atlantic City. This 1980 movie stars Burt Lancaster as an aging gambler who gets mixed up in one more drug deal in modern-day Atlantic City. The movie itself is quite good, being evocative of the noirs of the 1940s and 50s, such as Lancaster's The Killers, and also capturing the fading glory of Atlantic City in the days when it, like the "Borscht Belt" in the Catskills, had become passé as cheap travel enabled even working-class Americans to go to more distant holiday destinations with better weather such as Disney World in Florida; and just before developers like Donald Trump began to turn the city into a cheap day-trip destination for senior citizen gamblers.

But -- the movie was made in 1980! I can just see some of the loyal fans of TCM complaining that it is airing a more "modern" (even if perfectly appropriate) movie when they're supposed to be showing "classic" movies. And this brings up some difficult questions: what is the place of newer movies on a channel like TCM? Atlantic City is now 27 years old. Twenty-seven years before the launch of TCM, in 1994, would be the year 1967. So we must ask: when did a classic 1967 movie such as The Graduate become a classic? And what about more recent movies almost everybody considers to be classics, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Godfather? As such, and considering both the artistic merit and the retro sensibilities of a movie like Atlantic City, I believe it was a wonderful choice for TCM.

Further, a movie like Atlantic City is probably a good choice for people who might not realize they can find the old classic movies so enjoyable. After all, how would they recognize Burt Lancaster, if at all? They're probably aware of the oft-parodied scene in From Here to Eternity in which he makes out on the beach with Deborah Kerr. But they might not know what that From Here to Eternity is the original source of that scene -- and they'd probably say that Deborah Kerr rhymes with stir.

By the same token, when Shelley Winters died two years ago, I mentioned it in the "off-topic" section on a web board that has nothing to do with classic movies, where a lot of the people are in the under-30 crowd. Several of the posters remembered her as the grandmother on the TV series Roseanne; some remembered her in The Poseidon Adventure, and there might have been one or two people besides me who knew a classic like A Place in the Sun. Which raises the second question that I implied above: how do we get the people who only know Winters from Roseanne to discover her earlier work, and find that they might develop a love for the old movies? Fortunately in the case of Shelley Winters, she lived long enough to do work on popular TV series. But how will the people of today rememeber one of her co-stars like Montgomery Clift?

To be honest, I don't have a good answer to that question. I think TCM makes a good attempt at it with the annual "31 Days of Oscar" feature, which on average has more recent movies than the regular schedule -- but I know there are a lot of TCM diehards out there who start kicking and screaming every February 1 when the more recent movies start showing up. And by the same token, TCM's weekly "The Essentials" seems like a good idea too, especially since this year's co-host is going to be actress Rose McGowan, who seems to me as though she should be much more accessible to a younger viewer than an earlier co-host like film critic Molly Haskell. But even here, I've heard a lot of complaining about the selection of McGowan.

What else can be done? How do we who love the classics inculcate that love in the next generation?

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