A friend of mine is an archeologist. She does lots of exciting work digging through history, and actual dirt, in order to discover how humans lived hundreds of years ago. Or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Which is where it gets tricky for people to understand her work, and I don’t blame them. Claire studies the Paleolithic Age, which dates back to around one million years ago. Most of our brains boggle at trying to understand that concept. One million years of human history: making tools, having babies, grinding flour, painting, writing, loving, moulding plastics, fighting wars, vaccinations, vegetarianism, the Cinématographe, the smartphone, Tinder.
See, as a silent film specialist I only have to go back 130-ish years to get the start of my period, and yet I know I lose a lot of people once I dip back any further than Modern Times (1936). We called our podcast The Sound Barrier for a reason: lots of people fail to engage properly with pre-sound cinema. Just as most of us western critics are ignorant of large swatches of Asian and African cinema. Sometimes there is too much time to take in, and too little time in which to do so.
There’s such a thing as historical anxiety. These days 10, 15, maybe more films come out every week, in cinemas and across streaming platforms. It’s basically impossible to catch up with new films, let alone with everything that came before. And while canons exist to tell us which films from the past it is most essential to familiarise ourselves with, quite rightly, researchers are beginning to question and expand those very canons. I turned to silent cinema in the first place because I loved movies, but the films I was frequently told were important and essential disappointed me. Films of value, films that many people enjoy, left me cold, or offered depictions of women that I instinctively found degrading or dismissive.
Which brings me to Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, the evocatively titled Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It came out last week in the UK, so maybe you’ve seen it already. It’s set in 1969, and tells a loose and rambling story about a washed-up star, his stunt double, a sinister group of young people who live communally at the Spahn Movie Ranch, and a young starlet called Sharon Tate.
For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t disclose any spoilers. For those who have, I suspect you can guess the parts of this film I hated, though I dreamily enjoyed most of it – it’s a pleasure for the most part to hang out in Tarantino’s reconstructed late-60s LA, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio playing two different varieties of handsome and macho screwup. The film treads a fine line: it’s so laid back as to be almost boring, but it isn’t quite. Like a more relaxed Jackie Brown. I personally found it quite sexist, despite Margot Robbie’s radiant portrayal of a very underwritten Sharon Tate.
The theme of the film, if you hadn’t guessed, is obsolescence, or as Wendy Ide writes so elegantly in her review for The Observer: “the grasping anguish and stab of bitterness that comes from knowing that the object of affection is almost certainly eyeing up a new favourite”. At one point, DiCaprio’s character, who has been agonising over his own late-career decline, flippantly tells a child actor that she will be a has-been by her early twenties.
Tate goes to watch herself in a creaky Dean Martin comedy called The Wrecking Crew, with a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles on her lap. Leo’s character, in desperation, jets off to Italy to make spaghetti westerns, and a young girl from the ranch refers to Hollywood’s “old-timey days”, which she defines as “TV, in the 1950s”. Every time Leo and Brad drive through Hollywood, the cinema marquees flash past behind them, a snapshot of cinema in 1969: Romeo & Juliet, The Night they Raided Minsky’s. There’s excitement about the arrival of Roman Polanski to the neighbourhood, the man who directed Rosemary’s Baby. Steve MacQueen lurks at a party gossiping, there’s a pretty unattractive portrayal of Bruce Lee, and the only movie premiere we see is just a glimpse, and it’s for a porno.
In other words, the-times-they-are-a-changin’ in Hollywood. The studio system is on its knees, and New Hollywood is on the rise. There’s a conflation of genre movies with TV shows. The Wild Bunches and Easy Riders are coming to town, bringing with them violence, sex, and counter-cultural politics. We knew already that the end of the 1960s was a turning point in film history, but something about the intergenerational anger in Tarantino’s movie presents it as a hard stop, rather than a transition. A bloody and painful revolution. Is that a problem?
Possibly. Did you see a recent Indiewire feature called 12 Hollywood Classics That Were Ahead of Their Time? The strap runs: “Anyone who thinks that Hollywood movies pre-1967 haven’t aged well isn’t looking closely enough.” Pre-1967! The article recommends great movies including Out of the Past (1947) and Johnny Guitar (1954), and I was pleased to see that when some critics questioned it on Twitter, Indiewire deputy film editor Kate Erbland started firmly and confidently that “trust me, this is piece with impact and service for our readership”. It’s easy to make jokes about this sort of thing, but that can stray into a behaviour known as “gatekeeping” – that juvenile attitude that suggests some people aren’t “allowed” to watch or comment on certain new works before they have seen everything that came before it. Even going to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie on a Friday night would require weeks of preparation. Don’t be a gatekeeper. Especially not if you’re a silent film nerd. I mean, where would you even begin?
It would be easy for me to say that if you know someone who thinks everything made in 1967 is the “old-timey days”, then maybe you should show them some more old movies. It’s certainly not true that everything made before that date is sexless, bloodless and reactionary. And even if it were, does that make it worthless? But perhaps the readers of Indiewire think so. And perhaps they don’t feel they have the time it would take to change their minds. Not when there is so much else to catch up with. More than five decades of cinema is really quite a lot to take in.
And then there are those fans who are besotted with the blockbuster age, for whom cinema began in 1977, with Star Wars. And those who were only born in this century, for whom even the Nineties season currently running at the BFI Southbank will offer untold surprises. Stop me before I reach for my Zimmer frame. Will anyone ever watch a silent movie again?
That’s a feeble gag, obviously, but it can feel bizarrely upsetting when one of your favourites is dismissed as prehistorical, or remade with CGI to boost its relevance. It’s that pang of obsolescence again. And it can be enough to drive a man towards his eighth whisky sour, maybe. But then this is how film history stays alive, too. Doesn’t it gladden the heart to see a date as recent as 1999 added to the list of Great Years for the Movies – along with 1927, 1939 and so on?
This piece is far too long already. Who will even have time to read it all? Or have I tricked you into sticking with it by refusing to mention the title of a single silent-era movie? Surely that was good for my SEO.
So I’ll try to sum up. Watching the new Tarantino film made me think about how we negotiate film history through all these barriers and hard stops. I was asked about gatekeeping at the recent (fabulous) Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol and I said rather glibly that “gates also open”. It’s true. The question remains as to whether it’s best to acknowledge these gates or determinedly ignore them. I’m not into shaming people for their historical gaps, so maybe we write more articles like this, rather than like this. What to watch next, rather than what to watch first.
Allusive filmmakers such as Tarantino opened my eyes to previously unexplored areas of film history when I was a teenager. When I talk to some film students now I get the impression they think Tarantino is historical enough – they don’t always know what he is riffing off and they are not motivated to find out. They’re missing out, but we should remember that it’s OK to follow idiosyncratic routes through the past rather than ticking items off other people’s lists. And that our parents, our grandparents and even maybe our great-grandparents found something to love at the pictures too.
Hold tight, have faith. Because 1895 really wasn’t that long ago. Ask my friend Claire.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page