A Brief Defense of ‘Wasting’ Your Time Watching Old Movies

James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 months ago I decided, on a whim, to print out the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of Top 100 films. The original intention was simple: cross out those I’d already seen and get about watching, more or less in linear order from top to bottom, all those I hadn’t. So I went after it, checking off picture by picture, each of them stretching the spectrum from black-and-white silent masterpieces to relatively recent blood-and-guts horrors. Every few movies I’d write up a short commentary, declaring in so many words what I thought about the specific film and whether or not I’d recommend it to anyone else.

I finished the list a month ago and just recently released my short review of film number 100, the George M. Cohan biopic “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” earlier this week. But the deed remains. I just finished devoting a noticeable chunk of my time these last 10 or so months to watching a lot of old movies and writing about many of them. While I have no regrets about the writing itself, I still have to wonder what the hell was the point of it all. What was the lesson to be learned? Not necessarily about myself but about the actual movies I’d been watching.

Film is a medium that has, for all intents and purposes, recently caught fire — sparked as recently as the turn of the century. Painting, sculpture, writing, even photography have all had more time to develop than the toddler that is cinema, which didn’t even utter its first words until 1927. For comparison, Homer’s “Iliad” was published almost 3,000 years ago. It’s no contest. Film is miles away from the respectability of our race’s other mediums. And this is coming from a film major.

But there’s a reason child studies is a thing. So much goes on around babies as they grow: they are small and entirely helpless creations, so ignorantly baffled by their surroundings that their environment shapes them unknowingly while they babble and drool away. In a roundabout manner, that’s my defense of watching and appreciating classic films. I mean, isn’t it fascinating that your grandparents were alive as the medium’s most defining works were made? Meanwhile, not a single nursing home on the planet can produce Cervantes’ contemporary. Even the James Joyce crowd is starting to thin out.

Basically, and quite obviously, it’s like this: old movies, like old books, point us directly to the foundations of the art. But what I took away from AFI’s Top 100 was something other than just empty and hollow gratitude. Putting out that final piece on James Cagney’s patriotic turn in the George M. Cohan biopic imbued me, at the end, with a definite sense of excitement. I’m genuinely thrilled. Again, just think about it. The “Paradise Lost” of cinema was directed only 70 years ago. (For the record, I believe it’s “Citizen Kane.”)

Between “The Birth of a Nation” and “Fargo” (the oldest and youngest films on the list) you can visibly see the exponential explosion of the medium, with a thoroughly racist D.W. Griffith silent feature on the one hand and a gruesome, completely-in-color crime drama on the other. But the best part of this evolution is all the potential it screams. If film can progress to such a point in just 100 years, what does its future hold?

I’m just glad I made the trip to our recent cinematic past, and am sticking around for the ride: if AFI’s glorified list of old movies is any indication, I have to think it’s going to be enjoyable. Maybe not quite smooth or straightforward, but it’ll be a hell of a ride nonetheless. So get yourself to a film center or movie theater or Netflix or whatever, and try checking out some of the classics. I ran the gauntlet and had a great time: I believe it’ll be the same for most of you as well.

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