Tivo Made Me Love Barbara Stanwyck

Ty Burr, film critic for the Boston Globe, has a lengthy essay about the changing perceptions of what makes a film a classic. He contrasts the deciennial poll of Sight and Sound, which when last conducted in 2002 didn’t contain any movies made in the last 30 years, with an informal poll of young movie students. The informal poll results start with Pulp Fiction and end with The Matrix.

Still, if there’s one thing a kid in 2003 knows about, it’s navigating a universe of images: Our children have grown up in a world more purely mediated than most of us can even begin to grasp. It’s not just the video store but 500 channels coming through the wall and DVDs with additional footage, alternate endings, and director’s commentary and a million Web sites and pirate video and audio streaming down the wires from Kazaa and 37 instant messages pinging madly on your teenager’s cellphone. Says Tom Tykwer: “This is the first generation to be surrounded by moving images literally from birth. Of course I grew up with TV, but when I was a kid [in Wuppertal, Germany] we had two channels. Now there are so many films you can consume and channels to choose from, and TV treats them differently. Casablanca comes on at 9:30 a.m., because it’s for older people. You’re at school, so you’re not meant to see it; it’s not being made important by the media. What’s being made important is The Matrix.”

How do you ride this endless fractal wave of media? There are a number of coping strategies, and most of them involve disassociation: maintaining shallow-range focus, withholding emotional involvement, indulging in brief self-conscious passions, fluidly shifting tonal gears, using irony as both a shield and a weapon, juggling multiple frames of reference. A professor might call this quintessentially postmodern behavior. You call it channel-surfing.

For anyone younger than 30 - in other words, for those Americans who became culturally conscious only after the launch of MTV in 1981 - this is the natural state of affairs. And for more aware members of the population - the kind of kids who 30 years ago would have been grooving on Bogart and Antonioni - an overriding mistrust of the image is also business as usual. Why should it be trusted when the entertainment economy decrees that every frame of film and snippet of sound come with a price tag? Who wouldn’t resist being sold to on a 247 basis?

My recent experiments with Tivo have given me a new appreciation for Turner Classic Movies. I setup a season pass to catch all of the Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis movies I could find. I’m that person who actually did rent a ton of Davis’ movies from the video store. But do those movies actually have a major influence on me, would I put them into my own personal top 10?

I think I may be watching those classic movies because I like the sense of estrangement they create for me, living 60 or 70 years after they were made. Some of them do resonate and stick in my mind. I laughed like crazy when I finally sat through Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant. I still like Casablanca even though it has become a cliche. I have no idea where that puts me in Burr’s cinematic scale of appreciation, but the article was an interesting read.