A cute new movie meme popped up on Facebook yesterday. The basic concept is that you’re given a specific year and then you have to list your ten favorite movies from that year. Pretty simple, right? I asked to participate twice and was given 1954 and 1957. Both of these years are from the decade before I was born, but I was still able to easily pick out 10 movies from each that I not only knew, but LIKED.
In assigning years to friends who asked for it (they ASKED for it!), I have seen a curious trend. About half of them have been unable to reach ten films in the cited year, sometimes complaining (sometimes jokingly) that there was no way they could no more … they weren’t even born yet (or they were only 2 years old).
This struck me as odd. After all, I don’t really have many memories of actually watching movies until the early 1970s (after the age of 5 or 6), but I am very well aware of and conversant in movies of the 1960s and even 1950s. (Truth be told, I’m also good on the 40s and the latter half of the 30s, but that’s because I’ve become something of a film buff.) Why was it, I wondered, that my younger friends were not similarly aware of films from the too-young-to-watch-movies years of their lives?
The answer, I’ve decided, is cable TV!
Y’see, back when I was a kid . . . DON’T ZONE ME OUT! I’ll keep the revery brief and to the point . . . Back when I was a kid, we only had a handful of channels on TV, so we pretty much had to watch what was on. And beyond prime-time fare, that pretty much meant syndicated re-runs and old movies. So despite the fact that I didn’t watch much TV until the 1970s, a great deal of what I watched was from the 60s and 50s.
Even when cable TV first came on the scene, MOST of the stations were showing similar fare . . . different re-runs, maybe, but still material from the years of my youth and prior. Sure, there was SOME new programming, and HBO was showing movies that just left theatrical exhibition . . . but that was the exception, rather than the rule.
Modern cable TV is a completely different beast. There are literally hundreds of channels, and they are mostly showing original programming. And you have On Demand access to hundreds of movies 24/7. Sure, there are channels that show classic movies and TV shows (and even old game shows) . . . but you can completely avoid them without much difficulty, and unless they already have an existing relationship with the material, most people do.
Viewers today can watch what they want to watch at any time they want to watch it. Which is GREAT in theory, except it completely eliminates the need to ever watch anything else. If you can always get what you want, you never simply take in what’s there, sample new things that you might never have even heard of (let alone sought out). In other words, you never have to broaden your experience or challenge your preferred tastes. And while that might be good for immediate gratification, that also means that you may never choose to be exposed to concepts, genres, actors, and production styles that you MIGHT love, all because you don’t already know that you’ll like them.
Think of all the classic touchstones of comedy in the 1980s and 1990s, of the nostalgia crazes of the past 15 years—The Brady Bunch, the original Batman TV series, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched . . . Star Trek, Doctor Who. They are all owe their continued popularity and cultural relevance to the syndicated TV audiences from 10 years after they went off the air.
Who now is watching re-runs from the 1990s? How about the 1980s? Sure, there are a few shows still being circulated—Seinfeld, Cheers, Frasier—but what about Friends? What about MASH? What about Hill Street Blues and LA Law and St. Elsewhere? Does anyone under the age of 25 even KNOW about them, let alone remember them fondly?
Okay, I’ve really gone off on a “grumpy old man” rant here . . . but I just want to be clear, my point is NOT that the shows from the past are somehow better. My point is that they are of value, and they ENHANCE your enjoyment of the new shows that have built on the ground they sowed. My point is that there are whole genres that young viewers might like, but they’ll never know because they don’t like them already. My point is that watching the shows that your parents watched is a way of CONNECTING to the past . . . of creating a cultural common ground, and I think we’re losing that at a rate that’s almost as quick (and alarming) as the pace of global climate change.
Maybe the NEXT movie meme should be to seek out and watch 5 movies you haven’t seen that were released during the first five years of your life … or from the five years before you were born.
Or maybe I am just turning into a grumpy old man.