There’s something I keep hearing people say about Superbad that gives me pause; they compliment the movie on its soundtrack, which they say keeps it from being dated. Some people say it’s part of the movie’s attempt to be timeless. In fact, I seem to come across a lot of people talking about movies being dated by their soundtracks or other elements as if that’s a bad thing. Or as if it isn’t completely inevitable.
The argument, according to these conveniently unnamed straw men, is that a movie that doesn’t date itself or anchor itself in the modern day is somehow more timeless. Unspoken in that is the idea that timelessness is a quality movies should strive to achieve. To me this isn’t just silly, it’s quixotic and impossible, for a number of reasons ranging from the technical to the artistic.
Right now I’m looking at the cover of the new 30th anniversary DVD of Saturday Night Fever. It has John Travolta in that white leisure suit and there’s a huge disco ball in the background. There’s a sticker advertising a BeeGees box set slapped on it. This is a film that couldn’t be more dated, and according to the people who argue for a ‘timeless’ quality in films, the movie just shouldn’t work. But it still works, and it works in a big way. I’d almost argue that in some ways it works even better thirty years later than it did at the time, mostly because we’re all well past whatever political or cultural reactions we might have had to disco back in the day*. But while Saturday Night Fever is so completely specific in its time and its setting, the story of Tony Manero struggling to figure out who he is and where he belongs and what he wants is universal. You could take 2001 Odyssey and the Brooklyn of the 70s and the Stallone posters out of the film and you would still have a strong story that worked… but you wouldn’t have Saturday Night Fever anymore. It’s
the emotions at the heart of a film that make it really timeless, even
when everybody is wearing skinny ties and listening to Tears For Fears – which is why The Breakfast Club, a movie very much of its time, is still a big hit with kids who were born after the movie’s cultural trappings had just become nostalgic signifiers of an era they’d never know.
Going back to Superbad, the idea that the movie isn’t going to be dated is goofy in and of itself. Anyone who has ever watched an older movie understands that film periods have their own cinematic styles and languages; the way shots were composed and edited together in the 50s are not the way they’re composed and edited together today, and I’m not just talking about Tony Scott style stuff here. The language of film is like the language we speak – you could have a conversation with someone speaking English circa 1776 and make him understand you, but it’s going to be obvious that while you’re speaking the same tongue, usage and sentence construction is very different. In thirty years people will look back at Superbad and peg it as a movie from the early 21st century in a couple of seconds (well, after the opening credits, anyway). And that’s not even going into the tiny cues of fashion, hair, slang, cars and a zillion other things that don’t leap out at you today but will be glaringly obvious two decades from now. And these indicators aren’t just in films set in the modern day – look at a sword and sandal picture today versus one from thirty years ago. Even Star Wars has dated hairstyles, and The Fellowship of the Ring, a movie that is the most arguably ‘timeless’ picture ever due to Peter Jackson’s ability to fully realize its wholly fantastical setting, is starting to show its age as the special effects in the prologue battle scene don’t completely hold up even a few short years after release.
And I’m totally OK with that. I hope that Peter Jackson doesn’t go back in a decade and punch up the effects in the way that Spielberg and Lucas have done with their films. After all, he’s not going to re-edit the movies in twenty years to make them feel more in line with whatever the style is at that time (it’s actually interesting that Lucas’ Star Wars prequels feel only vaguely like the original trilogy in terms of filmmaking; all of his updating interest seemed to be keeping the effects visually consistent between the two trilogies). I like the way that films feel of their era, and more than that I enjoy the little peeks into the past. A movie made in the 60s will reveal attitudes and assumptions completely different from the modern day; if the story and the performances and the movie itself are good, these peeks are bonuses. Of course if the film is bad, they can become the whole experience – that’s how you end up with kitsch pictures. I can only watch Shaft because it’s so of its time, not because it’s a remarkably good movie. Look for You Got Served to be a kitsch classic when 00s nostalgia hits in a big way.
I think a lot of the people who want movies to be ‘timeless’ are just not big fans of the popular culture they see around them (I grew up in the 80s, so I can completely understand that), but today’s junk is tomorrow’s jewel. I’m sort of excited for the day when Smashmouth’s All Star becomes a nostalgic window to every movie trailer from this decade instead of a sonic weapon of hate. The secret is to keep in mind that pop culture has always sucked – it’s just that it looks better when you’re at a distance from it.
When done right, film – like all the arts – is as much about the moment in which it was created as it is about whatever it’s about. Social and political subtext creeps into good horror movies while good comedies find their targets in the world around them. Film doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and a give and take between the art and the modern culture isn’t just ideal, it’s necessary to make a movie of any value. A movie that isn’t reflecting current reality is blank at heart; maybe you can make your movie ‘timeless,’ but if it’s got nothing going on in the inside, why would I even want to revisit it later anyway?
*Disco sucks. But it’s fun to dance to.