Film culture loves to define great movies as “timeless,” because they can inspire and speak to us today. Hidden within that declaration is a belief that movies from the past that “lose their edge” or feel dated are no longer worth our attention or curiosity. For the 1970s, the canon of timeless filmmakers includes Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, the previously mentioned Altman, and whoever else Peter Biskind found “cool” enough to include in his wearisome Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. The works of these filmmakers were canonized for numerous reasons, but a big part of it seems to be their shaping of contemporary Hollywood aesthetic practices (special effects, rock soundtracks, expressive visual palettes matched by virtuoso camera work), which became industry standard. In comparison,Smile, and films like The King of Marvin Gardens or Some Call It Loving or Emperor of the North, are less attuned to contemporary aesthetics, much less contemporary themes. They speak to a generation whose time has come and gone; following their logic is less the work of the cinephile than the historian. In comparison, The Godfather’s examination of family or Star Wars’s “Hero’s Journey” have an advantage because their basic story structure dates back to Greek tragedy. Yet anyone finding profundity in their themes could have picked up a dozen other films or books or a painting for the same ideas. Network predicted modern day media, but why is that a value of art? The film’s laborious monologues are as interesting as watching a taped sports game after you’ve checked the final score. I’m not saying this as a “this versus that” sort of canon busting—there are a dozen great reasons to watch The Godfather—but I think it is important we ask ourselves why we value a work of art. Are we simply watching to confirm our current aesthetic tastes?
Smile challenges us to think in a way films like The Godfather cannot—we have to think as historical spectators instead of through our contemporary biases. The historical spectator is not a new concept to those familiar with academia; one of the most cited examples is Tom Gunning’s canonical essay, “The Cinema of Attractions,” which transformed the way we looked at cinema from 1895-1907. Gunning told us to stop reinforcing the myth that the audience ran from their seats at The Arrival of the Train (that myth already a parody by 1902), but instead saw cinema as just another toy among the carnivals, morgues, and vaudeville shows, their emphasis against narrative simply a sign of the times than a backwards way of thinking. One can look at these films and see the awkward acknowledgements of the camera by the actors, the static camera movements, and the lack of editing. But also contained are radical ways of directing movement, the unique non-narrative constructions, and a serious commitment to astonishment (in the magician sense) as a value of the cinema. In a later piece, Gunning writes, “Placed within a historical context and tradition, the first spectators’ experience reveals not a childlike belief, but an undisguised awareness (and delight in) film’s illusionistic capabilities.” Instead of simply looking at these films and seeing cinema waiting for Griffith to “invent” narrative, Gunning’s research not only reveals a new side to this early cinema, but a completely different image of the spectator itself. As I would like to discuss this month, we must get away from this idea that a dated cinema is one that is now meaningless. Dated films are vital to our understanding of the past.
—”The Joys of Dated Cinema, One: Thinking as Historical Spectators" (Peter Labuza for To Be Cont’d, 2014).