PLEASE NOTE: The author of “Bygone Age of Film” is Frank Teevin.
Earlier this afternoon I watched the 1962 film The 300 Spartans in my ancient history class. This was but a few short days after screening the 1932 film Freaks in my film class. It has been some time since I sat down to watch a film that was created before I was born, and these two arrived on Earth quite a few years before I did. While I enjoyed both features I couldn’t help but notice how different the pacing is in older films compared to contemporary pictures. The set up and character development seems to stretch out over the first half to two thirds of the film with long, indulgent scenes that would be out of place in a film made in today’s era.
The first time I really noticed this phenomenon was with the film Carnival of Souls, coincidentally also released in 1962. The film was a mere 82 minutes and felt like three hours. They practically beat you over the head with the premise of the film. What I am certain was once a shocking twist ending where the main character has in fact been dead the entire film is now a much lampooned trope. I had come to that conclusion about ten minutes into the film and was forced to sit through another 70 while they hammered the point home again and again and again.
I wondered then, did audiences of the day simply have longer attention spans. Were they dense and unable to deduce things the way we can today? Or were they simply not exposed to that kind of story telling enough to make such an “easy” leap? I don’t honestly believe that people were any less intelligent than they are today. Many would argue the opposite. It is possible that a combination of my other two points may, in part, explain the difference between the ways movies are made now compared to the way it was done forty or more years ago. Modern man simply doesn’t have the patience his recent ancestors did. We have come to expect things to be quicker and more exciting than even our parents before us.
Looking back at Freaks I really enjoyed the tale that was told. However, while watching the film there were moments when I could hardly keep my eyes open. For example the characters of Phroso and Venus were entirely unnecessary. They added nothing to the narrative except to give the audience “normal” characters to relate to. This tactic is unfortunately still practiced today. In the recent film adaptation of the comic book Hellboy the screen writers created a new character, John Myers, an average human man as a surrogate for the audience since the core cast of the comic series were mutants, monsters, and demons. Many in Hollywood seem to be under the impression that the viewer requires such cheap tricks to enjoy film. Fortunately that feeling is waning and Agent Myers was written out of the sequel to the joy of its fans.
The art of storytelling through has changed tremendously since the so called golden age of cinema. In many ways it has improved. Generally speaking, the acting is more believable, the special effects are certainly more realistic, and the methods of viewing them are far more varied and accessible than they’ve ever been. But is there more substance? Is there less? It would be easy to argue both sides. The only thing I can say for sure is the way the story is presented is very different than it was decades ago. Love it or hate it, change is required if the medium is to continue to flourish.
Photographs from: The 300 Spartans (top), Freaks (middle), and Carnival of Souls (top).