Halfway through the best cinematic car chase ever, in Bullitt (1968), there’s a shot of the two villains fleeing Steve McQueen pausing for a moment to click on their seatbelts. From the perspective of 43 years later, we marvel at the fact that not only are they not already wearing their belts, but also that the belts are the long-discredited lap-only ones. When did the rules change?
We learn a lot from old movies, but not always in the obvious sense. Some of the history we see is the result of months of meticulous recreation of historical artifacts, assumptions and behaviours; the Merchant Ivory films, for example, being leaders in this sort of genre.
But that history is packaged and deployed deliberately, often ironically. What I’m thinking of are the old films which take certain things for granted, but which we now notice and sometimes deplore. When they were made, they reported from within their existing culture and ere sharing its perspectives. It cannot be otherwise. Each film embodies a snapshot of its time and space, as well as all the layers of narrative, emotion, irony and so forth which have been laid onto that foundation.
The things we notice most are like intrusions from the past. From many, many examples, and leaving aside the obvious ones like steam locomotives, let me mention a handful. Everyone smoking in old films, some even smoking pipes: when did you last see a man smoking a pipe, or wearing a traditional hat such as a Homburg? The ding-dong bell sounds of police cars in pursuit? The comparatively high pitch of women’s voices? The accents? The poverty and squalor taken for granted in black and white films of the 1950s? More serious still, in Victim(1961), the shrieking, horrified reaction of the barrister’s wife Laura, on hearing that her husband has had a relationship with a younger man. These all seem to us obtrusive.
At other times, we are surprised by what is missing in a film of the 1950s or 1960s: all the cars, for example, or computers, let alone mobile phones. Neither the researcher-hero in Three days of the Condor (1975) nor the journalist-hero in All the President’s Men (1976), both played by Robert Redford, have computers to help them with their work. Any sign of North Atlantic civilisation amidst the taken-for-granted cruelties in Cool Hand Luke (1967) or In the heat of the night (1967). The shortage of intelligent professional women in the movies of the 1950s, and so on and so forth. You might call it the shock of the old.
But then in time, our own era will seem strange to succeeding generations, and not just, “Oh granny, look at what girls like you were wearing!” or, “the hair!” Later ages will find much to be surprised by, and shocked by, the sins of omission and commission that will be found in the movies we are making now.
But of course society and culture move on. What is acceptable to one generation will be unacceptable to the next, and vice versa. I remember as a schoolboy hearing a VIP tell us that one day we would each meet a girl who “will make you her career” (that VIP is still alive). When I was at university, where I had gay friends, you could still be arrested for homosexual acts while at the same time child pornography was openly on sale in Wardour Street. In another ten years, then, I’ll be watching old films on daytime TV and saying, did we really think that? Oh yes, we did. And, sunk as we are within our own paradigms, we can’t say now what those obtrusive presences or absences will be. We never could, and that’s the whole point.