Are You Watching Old Movies Wrong?

How should you react to 'dated' movies?

As someone who goes to a lot of rep screenings of old movies, there's a behavior that drives me nuts: people sniggering and laughing at elements that are 'dated.' These elements can range from phones and computers (I have heard audiences erupt in laughter at the mere sight of a green CRT monitor) to dialogue and plot points. It's infuriating, and it makes me wonder what these assholes are even doing at the movies. 

Matt Zoller Seitz nails it when writing about a recent big screen viewing of From Russia With Love:

I heard constant tittering and guffawing, all with the same message: “Can you believe people once thought this film was daring? It’s so old-fashioned.” The arch double-entendres; the bloodless violence, long takes, and longer scenes; the alpha male attitudes toward women and sex; John Barry’s jazzy, brassy, borderline-hysterical score: all these things elicited gentle mockery. They laughed at Sean Connery’s hairy chest. They laughed at some obvious stunt-double work. When Bond flirted with the secretary Moneypenny and put his face close to hers, a guy a couple of rows in front of me stage-whispered to his friend, “Sexual harassment!”


I saw From Russia With Love with my good friend Stephen Neave. He’s a huge James Bond fan. The audience pissed him off. Afterward he told me the two young men in front of us were snickering and joking so much that he wanted to smack them across the backs of their heads.

“Why pay twelve bucks to see an old movie in a theater, then sit there the whole time and act superior to it?” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. If you act that way, you’re wasting your money. You’re not getting everything out of the movie. You’re not experiencing it. Plus, this is not a black-and-white subtitled movie about sheepherders. It’s James Bond!”

Why indeed. It's such a strange thing, the concept of a movie being dated. I don't believe in that idea at all. I believe in the idea that a movie is of its time, but what else would you expect from it? True timelessness is a rare thing in cinema, and even now films I thought were timeless are being regarded by the next generation as laughable. 

The problem, Seitz says, isn't the movie. It's the audience. If you're watching an old movie you must engage with it on its own terms, in an understanding of the styles and limitations of the time. You have to understand the way movies were made 40 or 50 years ago, that naturalism wasn't always prized in film. This can take a little work, but once you approach an old movie, whether it be a noir or a musical or an early Bond picture, on its own aesthetic terms the reward is astonishing. Being open to old great movies gives you more great movies to watch!

I still don't quite understand why people feel the need to prove they recognize outdated technology or outmoded values when watching a movie with an audience. It's the lowest, shittiest form of viewing, even worse than the unfunny assholes who try to be Mystery Science Theater at the movies. At least they're making jokes - these people are just proving they don't understand anything that isn't of the moment.