Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: When is a movie “old?”

Just this past week someone posted a comment expressing a preference for not going too far back in time when it came to watching movies. That’s fine. It’s a personal choice—and one that most people make. What I’m curious about, though, is how people define the term “old movie.” I’ve asked around and received no clear-cut answer, nor can I come up with anything concrete when I think back on attitudes I’ve encountered over the years.

Co-critic Justin Souther doesn’t seem to have a current personal definition, but remembers that when he was a kid he assumed that if a movie he saw on TV was in black and white, it was old. That works for him, because he’s 26. Those of us who keep getting mailings that start with “Dear Senior Citizen” probably grew up where all movies on TV were black and white, because our TVs were black and white.

At the same time, I haven’t noticed that the age of a film seems to have much bearing on whether or not he likes a movie—and I know it plays no factor in whether or not he’ll watch something. That said, I sometimes get the feeling that he gleans some sort of insight into me or the way my mind works and tastes were developed when watching certain vintage films. (One day I’ll get up the nerve to ask him what he meant by a comment he made after watching F.W. Murnau’s 1927 film, Sunrise.)

On the other hand, I’ve known people with very definite cut-off points. One person I knew operated under the belief that cinema of any note started with Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. Anything earlier than that was out of bounds—the language and acting styles were off-putting to him. (How he squared that with liking certain films of Shakespeare’s plays—where the language and acting styles were hardly modern—I never knew.) Nothing I could say would persuade him to go further back. Well, that’s not quite true. I did get him to watch Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk (1951). If nothing else, I thought he’d appreciate the fact that the film was very daring since its story was a thinly-veiled attack on McCarthyism—at a time when an outspoken stance against the McCarthy witch-hunts was very dangerous, and could easily destroy a career. He immediately afterward went back to his post-1966 view. I presume he’s still there.

Then again, I have a friend who is very keen on movies from 1964 and forward, which ought to make him virtually interchangeable with the last person I referenced—except that he also loves silent movies. That’s a fairly significant difference. Apparently, the complete stylization—and possibly the very antiquity—of that era offers an appeal to him that pre-1964 talkies don’t generally have. I’ve noticed, however, that if he gets the chance to see an elderly talkie on the big screen, that changes things altogether. I well remember a phone call where he was raving about having seen Ernst Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo (1930) in a theater. There have been other similar instances.

A lot of this comes down to the idea that “old” is a dirty word, and I’m not sure why that is. Oh, I get it on some levels. I have trouble thinking that any movie I saw on its original release is old, but that’s pretty much just a desire to deny the obvious truth that if the movie’s old, I must be, too. In most ways I don’t get it. I’ve rarely heard anyone complain that a Shakespeare play was old or that a Mozart symphony was “so 18th century,” and those certainly predate even the most bewhiskered movie. My guess is that this probably has much to do with the perception of movies as an inferior art form because of its popular entertainment nature—despite the fact that so too was Shakespeare at one time.

Being from that specific part of the Baby Boomer generation that got caught up in the nostalgia wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea that a movie was old was not only unthreatening to me for as long as I can remember, but was actually a plus. This, however, is clearly a socialization thing—though that may be the overall explanation for why some folks are hesitant to watch old movies at all. It simply wasn’t part of their formative socialization—that is it was never considered cool to watch the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West or Busby Berkeley, to name the most obvious of the nostalgia wave icons.

Personally, I like to view any movie I haven’t seen as new—in the sense that it’s new to me. I was just as excited to see 7th Heaven (1927) and Liliom (1930) last year as I was to see any new release, because I’d never seen them before. But that’s deceptive in itself, because like anyone else I am more likely to respond to certain periods in filmmaking than others and the 1927 to 1935 era is one of those. Would I have been so anxious to see them had they come from the 1950s? Almost certainly not, but I would have tried to keep an open mind in the matter. As a rule, I don’t care much for 1950s movies, but I know there are exceptions to that. Similarly, I know there are some perfectly dreadful movies from the 1927-1935 period. Try sitting through almost any Greta Garbo talkie prior to Grand Hotel in 1932 and you’ll know what I mean.

The problem with breaking down movie preferences based strictly on when the movies were made is that no era is without its highs and its lows. A bad experience with a movie or two from 1931 can give you a false impression. However, if your experience from that same year amounted to seeing Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored, Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Chaplin’s City Lights and the Four Marx Brothers in Monkey Business, your feelings are apt to be different. Or maybe not, because so much is simply a matter of personal taste. These films may just not resonate with you.

I could make a case for why these movies are good or important or both. That’s fairly easy to do. I can point out that the coming of sound represented an exciting time in terms of what was being done if for no other reason than the fact that the studios were in a state of turmoil. That’s something that almost always benefits art when art is in the hands of corporations, because people get hired and things get made that would have never been the case if the status quo hadn’t been shaken up. (You can see the same thing happen in the 1968 through 1975 era when the studio system collapsed and the ratings system came into being.) As studio head Herman Glogauer (Gregory Ratoff) complains in Once in a Lifetime (1932), “What did they have to go and make pictures talk for? Things were going along fine. You couldn’t stop making money. Even if you turned out a good picture, you made money.” That’s the corporate mindset in a nutshell.

What I cannot do—and wouldn’t attempt to do—is make someone like these movies, beyond expressing my own enthusiasm for them. That’s doomed to grotesque and horrible failure, because ultimately it’s just the viewer and the movie. It works for you or it doesn’t. That’s pretty much the bottom line, but what I hate to see is the casual dismissal of a movie out of hand for no reason other than the fact that it’s old, especially if that dismissal is grounded in an unfamiliarity with the era or a very narrow sampling of it.

I’ve seen older films dismissed because of their pacing—in other words because they’re slow. That kind of depends on what you’ve seen. Most of the Warner Bros. musicals from, say, 1933 through 1935 are anything but slow. Anyone who thinks all movies past a certain age are slow has never seen Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) or Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942). And anyone who thinks all modern movies (loosely defined) move at a lightning pace has never sat through Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) or Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). More often than not, pace is personal to a filmmaker or is inherent in the material and has very little to do with a copyright date.

From my perspective, anyone with a serious interest in movies ought to take the whole of cinema into account—to approach it as a voyage through the different periods. Anything else strikes me as deliberately limiting an experience that could and should be much richer. Cerrtainly film on the whole is too big and too rich to be confined to a single era. And, no, I’m not pointing a finger specifically at those who are resistant to movies from earlier periods when I say that. Far from it. I am equally vexed by nostalgists of the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” school—a notion that’s as constricting as any other, and possibly more so, since it denies the possibility of growth.

The question of what constitutes an old movie, I realize, remains unanswered. That’s probably because there is no such thing as an objective answer. Assigning a date is an arbitrary affair. I tend to think that “modern” film starts with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), which came as such a refreshing change from the overstuffed and stifling Hollywood product of the 1950s. But at the same time, it’s not as Lester’s film came from nothing.

A Hard Day’s Night—as does much that followed—owes much to the emergence of the French New Wave movies of the earlier 1960s and the realization that a love for movies wasn’t limited to big-budget “classy” movies. I might then be tempted to rework that idea and call Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) the birth of “modern” film. The problem with that—as with any such theorizing—is that it’s too simple. When I finally saw Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932) a couple years ago, I was struck by how very modern—even avant garde—the film still was in stylistic terms. So it’s both 77 years old and modern—if such a thing is possible. I think it is.

So let me throw the question out to the readers—when is a movie old?

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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44 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: When is a movie “old?”

  1. Andrew Leal

    Here in El Paso, the recently restored Plaza Theater is hosting a film festival (they had the first last August). Last year was a mixture of old and comparatively recent, but this year it’s “Classic Movies” (which doesn’t always correspond to age but generally does). While the roster so far includes the likes of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS, THE LADY EVE, and HELP!, it also features…. THE TERMINATOR. Well, I realized it is over 20 years old by now, but still…

    Also, I absolutely adore THE PALM BEACH STORY (“I’m the Wienie King! Invented the Terxas Wienie. Lay off ’em, you’ll live longer.”)

  2. Kevin F.

    My provisional definition–based on my age and what I tend to watch–lets me think of anything since the rescinding of the the “Hays Code” (or, put another way, anything from post-BONNIE & CLYDE or BLOW-UP permissiveness) as constituting “new” cinema, while anything from before as “old.”

    The other way I’d venture at it from that angle is to perhaps go a bit older than A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and recognize either THE 400 BLOWS or BREATHLESS (somewhat arbitrarily) as the essential start of “new” New Wave cinemas, and as such the oldest “new” movies.

    I do sympathize with your point about any new film as being new to you, but I don’t think I’ll ever be at a place in my life where a clunky, proper 1950s melodrama seems fresh & new. Just don’t see it happening.

    What kills me is that my students would often regard something from the 1980s or 1990s as “old.” THAT is a crime.

  3. Dread P. Roberts

    One of my wife’s all time favorite movies is “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), but if I were to bring home any other movie from that time period, then she would, more than likely, be turned off and uninterested. I too, have at times watched a movie that seemed, in one way or another, to be significantly newer (or older) than other films from that time period. Which is why it’s a little hard for me to come up with any definite definition of my own personal opinion on what makes a movie ‘old’. Even “Star Wars” (1977) seems to look (to me, anyway) a whole lot ‘newer’ than other sci-fi films from that time frame.

  4. Sam

    Hmm…”old movies.” It’s hard to define, because it’s a relative term–what is “old” to a young person, as Kevin F. pointed out, would not be “old” to someone further along in adulthood. One can try to refer to Justice Potter Stewart’s comment on obscenity–“I know it when I see it”–to help come up with a definition, but that feels like a cop-out.

    That said, despite Ken Hanke’s viewpoint that any movie he hasn’t seen before, no matter when it came out, is “new”, I think that we might all agree that, if a movie came out before you were born, it may qualify as “old”.

    Justin Souther’s point about B&W;doesn’t really seem right either–the Wizard of Oz (the parts in Oz) and Gone with the Wind (both 1939) were in color, while Schindler’s List (1993) was purposely made in B&W;.

    I agree with Dread P. Roberts about Star Wars (can’t believe it’s been 32 years since it first came out, though), although the hairstyles and makeup seem a bit dated now. Another movie that came out in 1977 which definitely seems dated now is Saturday Night Fever. However, as I said, this “old movie” thing is relative–The Godfather (1972), for example, doesn’t seem “old” to me, nor does The Sting (1973).

    I agree with Kevin F. on the late 60’s marking a turning point with both the rescinding of the Hays Code and the establishment of the MPAA film ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, X/NC-17). I definitely think that any movie made within the Hollywood Studio System qualifies as “old’.

    We can also look at certain other characteristics of more recent movies versus older movies. For example, more recent movies tend to have a lot of popular music in their soundtracks that weren’t specifically written for the movie itself. Another example is the end credits–they go on and on these days, as opposed to the “old movie” end credits where you just had the major actors, the director, the producer, and a few other important individuals, if that. I’m not sure when all the unions involved in movie production started wanting their members’ names on the end credits, but it was definitely in place by the mid-70’s.

    So to sum up, any movie made before the late 60’s qualifies as “old” to me. Those made in the 70’s are a gray area, dependent on the movie itself, and any movies made in the 80’s onward are not currently “old movies” to me.

  5. kurt

    Like others, I have always defined old as anything released before I was born Over time, however, I have amended that to include any film in which most of the actors have died. I also now define as old any movie that has been remade, even though the remakes are frequently inferior to the original (Why would anyone think “The Lady Vanishes” needed to be remade?). There is, of course, no correlation between age and merit. Every period, even the Fifties, has produced wonderful films.

  6. Dread P. Roberts

    I also now define as old any movie that has been remade

    While I see your point, and I think it is a decent argument to make, I’m not so sure if I necessarily agree with this. More and more it seems like the studios remake movies just for the sake of trying to make an easy buck off of either childhood nostalgia, or simply trying to grab a newer, younger audience with an already proven formula. Put simply, it’s easy and safe. A recent example to prove my point would be the latest release of “Friday the 13th“. Now I know that this is supposedly a ‘reboot’ rather than an actual remake, but still, the original was made in 1980, that is not old. If that is not a suitable example (because of the ‘reboot’ status) then how about the recent discussions about the remake of Videodrome (originally released it 1983). I’m sure there are others, but they escape me at the time.

  7. Dread P. Roberts

    Here’s some more remakes of movies that I wouldn’t consider old: The Bad News Bears (1976-2005), Dawn of the Dead (1978-2004), Escape from New York (1981-in prod.), The Fog (1980-2005), Hairspray (1988-2007), etc…

    It should also be noted that remakes are oftentimes done of foreign films (especially horror movies) that are not old at all. For example: Bangkok Dangerous (1999-2007), Dark Water (2002-2005), Funny Games (1997-2008), The Grudge (2003-2004), The Ring (1998-2002), etc…

    This doesn’t even count all of the movie remakes with a changed name (i.e. I Am Legend), but I think discussing remakes is a pretty big topic all of it’s own.

  8. Ken Hanke

    While the roster so far includes the likes of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS, THE LADY EVE, and HELP!, it also features…. THE TERMINATOR. Well, I realized it is over 20 years old by now, but still…

    Well, that gets into the realm of what one considers a classic. From a personal standpoint, The Terminator could be 120 and it still wouldn’t be a classic to me, but that’s another matter altogether. (On a wholly separate issue, I’d prefer Breakfast at Tiffany’s if they could somehow digitally remove Mickey Rooney.) Still, since I recently put forth the idea of combining Bride of Frankenstein with Gods and Monsters and Nosferatu (the 1922 one) with Shadow of the Vampire, I’m in no positition to say much.

    Also, I absolutely adore THE PALM BEACH STORY (“I’m the Wienie King! Invented the Terxas Wienie. Lay off ‘em, you’ll live longer.”)

    I ran a 16mm copy of that for a high school class somewhere around 1976 and I was later told that one of the students took to dressing a talking like the Wienie King for some considerable time thereafter. Should I feel guilty?

  9. Ken Hanke

    The other way I’d venture at it from that angle is to perhaps go a bit older than A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and recognize either THE 400 BLOWS or BREATHLESS (somewhat arbitrarily) as the essential start of “new” New Wave cinemas, and as such the oldest “new” movies.

    Rather similar to my own view, though stylistically The 400 Blows seems a little tepid next to Breathless. I suppose one could also throw in Lester’s The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film. I suspect my tendency to think of A Hard Day’s Night as the first is that I was there at the time and felt even as a 10-year-old such a breaking free from the whole “well-made” 1950s and early 60s movies I’d been dragged to with my parents. It would be several years before I saw any of the French New Wave movies — apart from Phillipe De Broca’s That Man From Rio, which showed up in a dubbed version on a Saturday matinee for some reason. I do think that a case can be made that Hard Day’s Night was more commercially influential — possibly more influential in general.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be at a place in my life where a clunky, proper 1950s melodrama seems fresh & new. Just don’t see it happening.

    Alright, you get me there. Short of suffering brain trauma, I’m in agreement with that statement.

    What kills me is that my students would often regard something from the 1980s or 1990s as “old.” THAT is a crime.

    No, that’s just narrow — part of the curious notion that nothing that happened prior to your own conscious life could be of the slightest significance.

  10. Ken Hanke

    One of my wife’s all time favorite movies is ”The Wizard of Oz” (1939), but if I were to bring home any other movie from that time period, then she would, more than likely, be turned off and uninterested. I too, have at times watched a movie that seemed, in one way or another, to be significantly newer (or older) than other films from that time period.

    The Wizard of Oz — which does not seem particularly newer than its copyright date to me — is in a strange realm of being so much a part of nearly everyone’s childhood that it gets a free pass in terms of age. I can’t say I think it deserves one, but I’m not going to even try to convince anyone of that.

    Even ”Star Wars” (1977) seems to look (to me, anyway) a whole lot ‘newer’ than other sci-fi films from that time frame

    That may be because it already looked — deliberately so — rather quaint in 1977, which may afford it a timeless quality. I am not the person to ask, since personally I’ll take Zardoz any day over it.

  11. Ken Hanke

    That said, despite Ken Hanke’s viewpoint that any movie he hasn’t seen before, no matter when it came out, is “new”, I think that we might all agree that, if a movie came out before you were born, it may qualify as “old”.

    On a wholly subjective level and in the sense that we don’t like to think of ourselves as old, yes, that’s probably true. However, that makes everyone have a very flexible definition. Theoretically, that would make everything pre-1954 old to me, but it would make, say, everything pre-1928 old to my mother. And she almost certainly thinks of a lot of post-1928 movies as old.

    Justin Souther’s point about B&W;doesn’t really seem right either–the Wizard of Oz (the parts in Oz) and Gone with the Wind (both 1939) were in color, while Schindler’s List (1993) was purposely made in B&W;.

    There are older films than those that are in color — the first three-strip Technicolor (the same process as that used for the two cited) was Becky Sharp in 1935. But in any case, it should be noted that Justin’s comment referred solely to what he thought when he was a child. The impressions from childhood are probably pretty dicey for everyone. Likely the first older things I saw were Three Stooges and Little Rascals shorts, and I doubt I had much, if any, concept of time then. I suspect it never occurred to me that they weren’t new at four or five.

    Another movie that came out in 1977 which definitely seems dated now is Saturday Night Fever.

    Inevitable with something like that, because it’s very specifically about its time. Of course, it’s also not a very good movie and never was, but is “dated” interchangeable with old? I’m not saying, because I haven’t thought that through. I do know that it would be impossible not to call Hard Day’s Night dated, but it always seems fresh and vital to me.

    We can also look at certain other characteristics of more recent movies versus older movies. For example, more recent movies tend to have a lot of popular music in their soundtracks that weren’t specifically written for the movie itself.

    That actually dates back a good way, though in a slightly different form. Old Paramount movies are filled with popular tunes from other Paramount movies. (There’s also the curious case of WB licensing the use of Paramount’s “Isn’t It Romantic?” for the soundtrack of Private Detective 62.) This was mostly an economy measure, though, and rarely did it involve using a commercial recording. Much of it worked on the basis of “we own it, so get the good out of it.” (“Isn’t It Romantic?” is perhaps the longest-lived such song in Paramount’s catalogue, since it surfaced at least as recently as School Ties in 1992.) Exempting deliberate jokes like the use of Maurice Chevalier’s recording of “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” in Monkey Business, the first specific use of a recording may be Bing Crosby’s “To See You” in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, yet the recording in the film isn’t the same as the one from the Road to Bali soundtrack. The heavy pop/rock soundtrack is relatively new, however.

    Another example is the end credits–they go on and on these days, as opposed to the “old movie” end credits where you just had the major actors, the director, the producer, and a few other important individuals, if that. I’m not sure when all the unions involved in movie production started wanting their members’ names on the end credits, but it was definitely in place by the mid-70’s.

    I first consciously noticed how long credits had gotten when doing the filmography for my Ken Russell book. The credits were relatively short through 1977 and Valentino. The credits on Altered States were at least three times as long as any of the others.

    movies made in the 80’s onward are not currently “old movies” to me.

    But do you foresee a time when you will feel that they are?

  12. Dread P. Roberts

    in a strange realm of being so much a part of nearly everyone’s childhood that it gets a free pass in terms of age.

    I think you’ve touched on something that is part of the key to how we each individually view a movies age. It’s not about what movies were made before our time, so much as it is about what movies we watched (and enjoyed, or somehow related to) before our own adulthood/coming of age. Sure there is a certain ‘look’ that can be seen as being part of the equation, but I think that the ‘look’ (or style) is oftentimes really just more of a reference point to that particular movies period. Someone who really enjoys, and possibly grew up watching, the look and style of the films of the ’50’s, might not view them as old. In fact, they might even think of later films (from the ’60’s, perhaps) as old, before considering a film like Wizard of Oz. I’m not saying that this is my own personal perspective (because it isn’t), I just wanted to point out other possible scenarios to consider.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Over time, however, I have amended that to include any film in which most of the actors have died.

    Oddly enough, Justin brought that idea up as one we’d overlooked. And I can see a certain validity to it.

    I also now define as old any movie that has been remade

    Dread Roberts has already addressed the drawback of this approach. I’ll simply add that the whole remake perception has much to do with how media savvy we’ve become. I doubt that when WB remade the 1931 Maltese Falcon in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady there was much perception of it as a remake. The same is true of them remaking Five Star Final (1931) as Two Against the World (1936). Of course, back then they had the great advantage of no TV sales and no home video, so there was a great degree of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t about it. There are even reviews of Mark of the Vampire (1935) praising its freshness and originality — despite the fact that it’s a fairly straightforward remake of London After Midnight (1927).

    Why would anyone think “The Lady Vanishes” needed to be remade?

    In part for the simple reasons that the old one is in black and white and is old. For some people, that’s justification enough. And then there’s Flight Plan, which merely steals shamelessly from The Lady Vanishes.

    There is, of course, no correlation between age and merit. Every period, even the Fifties, has produced wonderful films.

    Exactly!

  14. Ken Hanke

    I think you’ve touched on something that is part of the key to how we each individually view a movies age. It’s not about what movies were made before our time, so much as it is about what movies we watched (and enjoyed, or somehow related to) before our own adulthood/coming of age.

    Oh, I’m sure that’s true in some way at least, though I suspect it can even be dragged into that “coming of age” era. I know that a lot of my personal resistance to Star Wars stems from the fact that I was 22 when it came out. If it was part of my childhood, I’m sure I’d feel differently about it.

    Sure there is a certain ‘look’ that can be seen as being part of the equation, but I think that the ‘look’ (or style) is oftentimes really just more of a reference point to that particular movies period.

    You are getting very close to something I’ve just started considering as concerns my own fondness for the early sound through 1935 era. Though I’m a card-carrying auteurist, I’m starting to consider the distinct possibility the specific feel of the films made by the likes of Lubitsch, Mamoulian, Whale, Sternberg, etc. in that era has a greater deal to do with the studios and the prevalent taste of the era than we generally accept. I’m still working this around in my mind, so I’m hardly prepared to discuss it in any depth yet.

    Someone who really enjoys, and possibly grew up watching, the look and style of the films of the ‘50’s, might not view them as old. In fact, they might even think of later films (from the ‘60’s, perhaps) as old, before considering a film like Wizard of Oz. I’m not saying that this is my own personal perspective (because it isn’t), I just wanted to point out other possible scenarios to consider.

    I’ve no doubt that there’s something to this. I know, for example, that films from the 50s and 80s (which could go toe-to-toe with the 50s for my least favorite decade) often seem far “older” to me than films from 1932. Certainly — and this isn’t straight across the board by any means — they seem less relevant to me.

  15. Jon Barnard

    Like many of those commenting I tend to think of the mid sixties as being about the dividing line. However, unlike most of those commenting, “old” doesn’t mean uninteresting or unenjoyable.

    I was born in 1962 and grew up in New York City in a neighborhood with revival theaters. Old films were the films that I saw in those revival houses: Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Maltese Falcon, Murder She Said, Breathless, Double Indemnity, Ashes and Diamonds… They seemed old, for sure, but often good.

    It’s too bad the video industry has killed the revival house. Seeing old films on big screens is so much better. Cities seem less civilized without those theaters, which were always cheap. I’ve often fantasized that someone might turn Pastabilities in West Asheville into one. But of course if the business model no longer works in big cities, how could it work here?

    Meanwhile, my daughters seem to think of any film made before 1990 as old.

  16. Jim Donato

    Re: resistance to Star Wars. You hit that nail on the head. I was 14 when it came out and as a graphic designer in training, I loved the industrial design of the Death Star best of all. But I was too old to play with the toys. I DID buy art direction books like The Art Of Star Wars. I liked Empire a lot but hated Jedi. The new one in ’99 was so awful you couldn’t pay me to watch the other two! Not so for my friend in Chicago, who was 10 when it came out. That Star Wars viper bit him and HARD. He was making excuses for those awful prequel movies for years until something snapped and now he realized they stink to high heaven. The age at which you first encounter this stuff is paramount.

  17. Vince Lugo

    I personally prefer more modern, contemprary films (Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” is my all time favorite), but I don’t have anything against older films. In fact, one of the best films I saw while in college was “A Face In The Crowd”, mainly due to Andy Griffith’s performance (which is about as far from Sheriff Taylor as you can get). I also once took an entire class on the films of Billy Wilder and had a great time (“One Two Three” and “Ace In The Hole” being the two best I saw there). I think the reason a lot of people, especially young people, don’t like older films is because to get the full impact, you have to think about what was going on in the world when they were made and many don’t want to make the effort to fully appreciate the context of something. I find it interesting that a couple of years ago, Turner Classic Movies showed something by Hayao Miyazaki and in the same year showed “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, so the definition of the word classic is changing to include more than just “old” movies. Here’s hoping that TCM expands their guidelines further to include other worthy films like “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “The Shawshank Redemption”.

  18. Jim Donato

    Griffith was riveting in “A Face In The Crowd!” That is one of my two favorite 50s films – Kazan and the HUAC nonwithstanding! That is social and political commentary which probably won’t become dated as long as humans have a brain stem to fall back on, instead of strengthening their cerebellum!

  19. Ken Hanke

    I’ve often fantasized that someone might turn Pastabilities in West Asheville into one. But of course if the business model no longer works in big cities, how could it work here?

    Well, it does still work in some cases — look at the Castro in SF, for example. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s going to require someone who’s willing to pour money into it for a considerable time until it builds an audience. The possibility increases if someone could approach it as a non-profit, which would allow for better deals with the studios as concerns rentals.

  20. Ken Hanke

    The age at which you first encounter this stuff is paramount.

    Oh, certainly — at least if what you’re referring to is rigid allegiance to something without later re-evaluation in terms of quality.

  21. Ken Hanke

    I also once took an entire class on the films of Billy Wilder and had a great time (“One Two Three” and “Ace In The Hole” being the two best I saw there). I think the reason a lot of people, especially young people, don’t like older films is because to get the full impact, you have to think about what was going on in the world when they were made and many don’t want to make the effort to fully appreciate the context of something.

    That’s probably especially true of a movie like One Two Three, large chunks of which would be incomprehensible to anyone without some sense of the context. Would the scene where the picture of Kruschev falls out of its frame to reveal a picture of Stalin underneath be funny to an unschooled modern audience of young people? Probably not. Some of the topical references are even more time specific, like Horst Bucholz making fun of the U.S. space program (that may have even been dated by the time the film was released).

    Here’s hoping that TCM expands their guidelines further to include other worthy films like “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “The Shawshank Redemption”.

    A couple points to consider. First of all, TCM tends to show movies it has the rights to. That’s an economic consideration, which is why you’ll find, say, Mildred Pierce playing about 10 times a month, which is about 11 times too many for me. They do, however, bring in a certain amount of titles from other sources — mostly it seems from Columbia (Sony) and Universal. Still, their definition of classic is already pretty flexible, as witness them running those Elvis movies, Beach Party pictures and all those live-action Disney comedies. I’ve nothing against them running Fried Green Tomatoes or The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s a little like calling a classical music request line and asking for the Beethoven 5th Symphony, i.e., “You mean you don’t have it in your own collection?” In that respect, I’d far rather see them run things that are less readily available.

  22. Jon Barnard

    Ken,

    When I made my list of some films that I had seen in revival houses (Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Maltese Falcon, Murder She Said, Breathless, Double Indemnity, Ashes and Diamonds…), it was very much off the top of my head. All of them I saw in revival houses in my teens or earlier, and, with the exception of Rebecca and Murder She Said (the latter of which I rented after your blog on mystery films) I haven’t seen any of them since.

    My conclusion on seeing Rebecca again: It is an example of a film that doesn’t do nearly as well for younger audiences in video. Its melodrama and gothic atmospherics give it a larger than life quality, which may seem simply silly on a small screen.

    Anyway, on a lark, and out of curiosity to see what contemporary adult viewers think of films I enjoyed in my callow youth, I just checked my list against reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the films had only a dozen or two reviews, but to my astonishment you were among the reviewers of all but one: Ashes and Diamonds.

    So I have two questions for you: (1)How much time do you have for doing anything but watching movies and writing about movies. (2) What do you have against Polish films? Is it an Eastern Eurpean thing? (I’m assuming you’re of Ukranian ancestry.)

    I remember that I once wrote you an email about how the personal advertisment that Woody Allen parodies in Annie Hall was supposed to be from the New York Review of Books, not the Times Literary Supplement. The film has always been near and dear to my heart, in part because Allen spends a lot of time in the film standing in line or watching films in the very revival theaters where I had seen the films on my list. When I wrote you the email to point out your error in a review, I started it by saying: “I know you’re going to think ‘Get a life’ but….” You responded, “No, it’s not ‘get a life’ at all.” I thought you were just being kind, but now after seeing all your reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I realize that you really meant it. You truly are an out-and-out obsessed film buff….and we your readers are all the better for it. Thanks, Ken.

  23. Ken Hanke

    My conclusion on seeing Rebecca again: It is an example of a film that doesn’t do nearly as well for younger audiences in video. Its melodrama and gothic atmospherics give it a larger than life quality, which may seem simply silly on a small screen.

    It’s also not exactly a movie you’d call “action packed.” In fact, it’s actually a little pokey in some ways, though the payoff is certainly worth it. And you’re quite right that it would stand a much greater chance of working in a dark theater where your attention is really focused on the big — or even biggish — screen. I have, however, never seen the film that didn’t benefit from the big screen. I remember being astonished by how much less it mattered that the Browning Dracula is a little on the stolid side when seen that way.

    So I have two questions for you: (1)How much time do you have for doing anything but watching movies and writing about movies.

    These days not so much, it seems. I mean I do have other interests — music, gardening, cooking, literature, Brit sports cars — but they do take a back seat these days especially. A lot of my heavy classic period viewing is probably attributable to being an only child who was never interested in or much good at sports. (OK, I was good at badminton.) The movies helped to fill that in. It also was my good fortune to be in junior and senior high school at a time when a number of elements just happened to come together. There was a dying UHF station, Channel 38, out of St. Petersburgh that barely kept going on a steady diet of old movies. They mostly had old British movies, an RKO package, a Columbia package and the odd Republic feature. On a good week, I could catch 15-20 “new” old movies. As it was sputtering out, a new station, channel 44, cropped up with a large package of WB titles (which were shown without commercials for the first few weeks). This was like a crash course in that studio’s output. Channel 9 out of Orlando then started running movies way into the night — mostly MGM and Paramount. And my father discovered the university film showings. Plus, there was PBS’ or NET’s (as it might have still been) “Film Odyssey” where I saw my first Eisenstein, Renoir, and Cocteau movies. By the time I was out of high school I had been through hundreds and hundreds of movies — which I kept revisiting and adding to. It never seemed especially odd to me, I guess because I had friends and even girlfriends who’d watch this stuff with me, so it wasn’t especially a solitary existence. I never found anything I really liked better — except maybe my occasional flutters at trying to make movies — so I just kept at it.

    (2) What do you have against Polish films? Is it an Eastern Eurpean thing? (I’m assuming you’re of Ukranian ancestry.)

    I don’t know that I have anything against them, except that I’ve seen very few (I’ve never seen Ashes and Diamonds, for instance). In fact, the only things coming to mind are Knife in the Water and Polanski’s short films. I will say I intensely dislike almost all East European poster art. I am, by the way, a mix of Scots-Irish, English and German. Hanke is supposedly a German name, though I have a feeling it was perhaps corrupted from something else that was, shall we say, less Aryan. (That feeling is grounded mostly in the fact that my father’s family was always quick to tell people they weren’t Jewish — when no one had even suggested they were.)

    I remember that I once wrote you an email about how the personal advertisment that Woody Allen parodies in Annie Hall was supposed to be from the New York Review of Books, not the Times Literary Supplement.

    Yes, I remember the e-mail, which I actually appreciated. I really should have checked my memory before writing that bit. I’ve a pretty good memory for dialogue — for years I’ve offered to recite the entire 1934 Black Cat, but no one seems inclined to want me to — but things do get twisted sometimes.

    You truly are an out-and-out obsessed film buff….and we your readers are all the better for it.

    Well, thank you for that. I do, however, like to think that my obsession is tempered with some degree of life experience apart from movies, and that I am able to keep some kind of perspective and that it’s no crime if someone doesn’t share my specific enthusiasms. (OK, so part of the reason I broke up with a girl once had to do with the fact that she hated the Marx Brothers and the Beatles. This was just doomed to failure.) I might not want to hang out with someone who doesn’t like Ken Russell, Sternberg, Whale, Mamoulian and Lubitsch, but I’m not going to villify them for it.

  24. Rufus

    An aspect of old and new that comes to my mind is whether a movie is dated or timeless (and I don’t think “dated” is necessarily a bad thing).
    An example of a timeless movie might be PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (2005), or DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935). I think either of these films could have been made in the 30’s or in the new millennium, and would resonate with audiences from both.
    On the other hand, I can’t imagine a movie like THE GRADUATE being made in any other time or place.
    From the discussion, it seems that old and new are almost as subjective as good and bad.

  25. Ken Hanke

    An example of a timeless movie might be PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (2005), or DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935). I think either of these films could have been made in the 30’s or in the new millennium, and would resonate with audiences from both.

    Well, if you made the latter in the 21st century, you’d find the original cast hard to deal with — and that’s after you dig them up. Seriously, though, the point is well taken.

    On the other hand, I can’t imagine a movie like THE GRADUATE being made in any other time or place.

    Another good example. Much like my remark on A Hard Day’s Night — it almost couldn’t have been made at any other time.

  26. Louis

    Another movie that came out in 1977 which definitely seems dated now is Saturday Night Fever.

    Inevitable with something like that, because it’s very specifically about its time. Of course, it’s also not a very good movie and never was, but is “dated” interchangeable with old?

    –Not a very good movie and never was…? Ouch! A tad dismissive if I may be so bold.

    It’s a zeitgeist movie — those involved in its making have acknowledged over the years that it was, in fact, dated by the time it appeared in theaters in 1977. That’s far from the point, as you suggest.

    It introduced a distinctly unique American subculture and one of the American cinema’s most towering male movie stars of the last 30-plus years and was a raging success. None of that makes it a great, or even a good film, except that it is a very good film–the BeeGees notwithstanding–that uses its idiosyncratic
    ‘lightening in a bottle’ energy to sweep the viewer up in the travails of some then-stagflated American males that, by rights, no one watching should give the slightest damn about.

    One that cinephiles and casual movie fans, alike, watched then and watch to this day, irrespective of generation or one’s personal definition of ‘old’ cinema. Casual movie fans in their 20’s know this movie–odd?

    It was a good movie then and evidently that view hasn’t changed in, this, an altogether different era–at least movie-reviewing contemparies on Rotten Tomatoes think so, where it has a 94% approval rating (30/32).

    Interesting article to kickoff stimulating discussion.

  27. Al Cottingham

    What is an “old” movie? One I can remember seeing as a kid, and that is ancient. -:) Seriously, if it is black & white it is old enough. If it is technicolor 1950s it is approaching being old enough.

    Say Ken, I’d love to see a comedy festival sometime. The Fine Arts would be a good venue, too. A re-vamped dirty movie theatre is the perfect place to laugh at these types of movies. The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello…all older movie stars. Then add a few newer ones. One of my all time favorites: Caddy Shack. Then the new Curly Howard: Larry the Cable Guy. “Get ‘R Done!”

    What say you?

  28. The problem, as I see it, is that people do not understand yet that film is art.
    When most people visit the Louvre Museum they are not so much thinking of “old and new” paintings or art, but of styles like contemporary, post expressionism, pop,, or maybe portraits like the Mona Lisa or the Flemish portraiture. Maybe they like regional art, like Egyptian Art, Islamic Art etc. Most of us enjoy a large cross-section of these genres, and every person is different on their preferences and reasons for enjoying a particular style. Film is too new for there to be ANY old film in existence. We just need to wait a few hundred or thousand years to realize that all the film created to date is art, and timeless ones like Rashomon, or The Bicycle Thief could still be resonating with the hearts and minds of future generations (if anyone is around in that time to view them).

  29. Ken Hanke

    Not a very good movie and never was…? Ouch! A tad dismissive if I may be so bold.

    Well, you may be so bold, but I’ll stand by that opinion.

    It introduced a distinctly unique American subculture and one of the American cinema’s most towering male movie stars of the last 30-plus years and was a raging success.

    Well, actually, I’d say it popularized a subculture, but I find it hard to personally view Travolta as “one of the American cinema’s most towering male movie stars of the last 30-plus years.” Travolta’s flops — including the sequel to this — have been more numerous than his hits. There are nine years of decidedly non-hit movies in a row between Urban Cowboy and Look Who’s Talking. Nothing particularly against Travolta, but his name on a movie is not exactly an assurance of big box office.

    It was a good movie then and evidently that view hasn’t changed in, this, an altogether different era–at least movie-reviewing contemparies on Rotten Tomatoes think so, where it has a 94% approval rating (30/32).

    Not that amassing approval ratings actually proves anything, but it’s worth noting that most of those reviews are simply “quick critics ratings,” including mine. Many of them consist of nothing more than clicking on a tomato that affords the movie in essence a positive or negative response (with the option of adding 175 characters of quote). Even some of those –“Today, it’s like a kind of ’70s jukebox that hasn’t quite aged that well,” “A small, solid film, made with craft if not resonance” — aren’t exactly raves. Granted, Emanuel Levy says almost exactly the same thing you do — “John Badham’s film (his best to date), a zeitgeist picture that captures the disco subculture of the 1970s like no other work, features a star-making performance from John Travolta who dominates every frame” — but that doesn’t mean I’m duty-bound to agree with it.

  30. Ken Hanke

    Then add a few newer ones. One of my all time favorites: Caddy Shack. Then the new Curly Howard: Larry the Cable Guy. “Get ‘R Done!”

    Well…er, Al, considering the fact that almost no one goes to see Mr. Cable Guy’s movies when they’re new, I hardly envision anyone beating a path to see a retrospective of them. Possibly as a double feature with Pink Flamingos.

  31. Ken Hanke

    When most people visit the Louvre Museum they are not so much thinking of “old and new” paintings or art, but of styles like contemporary, post expressionism, pop,, or maybe portraits like the Mona Lisa or the Flemish portraiture.

    Now, if people could — or would (because they certainly could) — a similar mindset to movies that would be a glorious occurence. Unfortunately, there’s too much tendency to take go with what is sometimes called the “glittering generalization,” which is appealing for easy pigeon-holing. If you go by most of these as truths, you end up with a variety of easily disprovable “facts,” e.g., “Silent movies are very fluid,” “All early talkies are static,” “1939 is the best year the movies ever had,” etc. OK, that last is subjective (personally, I’ll be glad to make a case for 1932 as an alternate for that, to me, overpraised year), but the other two are demonstrably wrong. Late era silents — post German influence (a somewhat broad statement in itself) — are fluid. The standard Hollywood silent isn’t. Even your average early talkie is more fluid than those. Anyone who thinks that early talkies are immediately static affairs has never seen Applause, Bulldog Drummond, The Love Parade, Thunderbolt, In Old Arizona, The Royal Family of Broadway, The Hole in the Wall, The Greene Murder Case, Laughter, The Bat Whispers, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, Monkey Business, City Streets, etc. Some of these are indeed awkward. Applause, for example, often tries to do more than it can (there’s a good chance that the technicians — being forced to do things they claimed were impossible — deliberately sabotaged some shots) and suffers for it. It is, however, not static. The Love Parade is more old-fashioned because it insists on incorporating the theatrical convention of the time of a subordinate “comic” couple into the proceedings than for any cinematic shortcoming.

    Most of us enjoy a large cross-section of these genres, and every person is different on their preferences and reasons for enjoying a particular style.

    Exactly. I had an ongoing argument with the late Richard Valley concerning my fondness for the early sound era. He insisted that I liked these movies because, in his words, “they’re old as hell.” I argued that, no, that it’s because the style of the era intrinsically appeals to me. Were age the determining factor, I’d be all a-dither about Biograph one-reelers from 20 years earlier (even older than hell, I guess) and I’m not.

    Film is too new for there to be ANY old film in existence.

    That’s really very true. It’s a young art form — and a unique one because it has elements specific to itself, yet it has the ability to fuse any art form you care to name into its fabric.

  32. Dread P. Roberts

    Film is too new for there to be ANY old film in existence.

    I really do think that it is fair to state that silent movies are a slight exception to this reasoning. Only because there is such a direct separating point with the advent of sound in cinema. Now, any silent movie(s) that came out after sound could be used, is simply a matter of artistic choice, and therefore does not apply to my reasoning. But, other than that, I do agree with this.

  33. Dread P. Roberts

    Now, I do NOT think that silent movies are “old as hell”; just that they are distinctly old ‘enough‘ to garner the title of old.

  34. Ken Hanke

    Now, any silent movie(s) that came out after sound could be used, is simply a matter of artistic choice, and therefore does not apply to my reasoning.

    Well, really apart from Chaplin with City Lights and Modern Times, the only film that qualifies that I can think of the stunt of Silent Movie. I guess the dialogueless The Thief (1952) could apply. And short films are often still silent — Polanski once claimed that short films should simply not have dialogue and I don’t think any of his do.

    There’s certainly a co-exist era — 1927-1929 — but I’m not sure that was always an artistic decision.

    Now, I do NOT think that silent movies are “old as hell”; just that they are distinctly old ’enough‘ to garner the title of old.

    Well, based on Richard’s logic, you’re suggesting they’re even older than hell. Even so, I realize you aren’t using old as a bad thing.

    Years and years ago someone tagged a movie (it might have been White Zombie) as a “museum piece.” Rather than get ruffled, film historian William K. Everson noted that museums where things of quality were often kept.

  35. Dread P. Roberts

    Even so, I realize you aren’t using old as a bad thing.

    I’m glad that this is clearly understood.

    By the way, I just watched “The Fall” last night, and I recommend it. It’s bound to not be everyones ‘cup-of-tea’, but it’s so visually lush and well executed that I think you will really like it.

  36. Ken Hanke

    By the way, I just watched ”The Fall” last night, and I recommend it. It’s bound to not be everyones ‘cup-of-tea’, but it’s so visually lush and well executed that I think you will really like it.

    It’s been on my list to see for some time — even before it was batted around as a possibility for discussion in a “movie club” manner. I’m going to try to get around to screening it next week.

  37. Louis

    There are nine years of decidedly non-hit movies in a row between Urban Cowboy and Look Who’s Talking. Nothing particularly against Travolta, but his name on a movie is not exactly an assurance of big box office.

    I was speaking to the intensity and breadth of his movie-star status–at its peak–rather than its longevity. The same could be said, say, for example, of Burt Reynolds. A once bright-burning movie star that, I suspect, now we can all agree his movie-stardom “stock” has not stood the test of what is really a short passage of time in the big scheme of history’s arc. We can still agree that Reynolds was a massive movie star, though, right?

    Granted, Emanuel Levy says almost exactly the same thing you do—“John Badham’s film (his best to date), a zeitgeist picture that captures the disco subculture of the 1970s like no other work, features a star-making performance from John Travolta who dominates every frame”—but that doesn’t mean I’m duty-bound to agree with it.

    Duty-bound?–most certainly not. And I’m not so naive as to think I could or should devote myself to pursuading you otherwise. The only thing that should make one “duty-bound” is a bowl of bran flakes every morning for breakfast.

    As for me, taking great pride in my striving for some modicum of credibility in adult discourse, I’ve nothing to say for myself, here, other than I take no noticeable measure of glee or satisfaction in finding myself in the company of the likes of Emanuel Levy reagarding SNF.

    Don’t hold it against me?

  38. Ken Hanke

    I was speaking to the intensity and breadth of his movie-star status–at its peak–rather than its longevity.

    Well, since you cited the period of time (“of the last 30-plus years”), I assumed it had something to do with longevity. There was certainly a period — maybe a couple of them — where his star status was intense, though I’m not sure what you mean by breadth.

    We can still agree that Reynolds was a massive movie star, though, right?

    I’d go further and say that at his best Reynolds was (is?) a better actor and in a broader range of roles and movies. At the same time, Travolta has never done a film for Uwe Boll, though he does have Battlefield Earth to answer for. Oddly, though, they both have been labeled washed-up and they’ve both had come-back pictures.

    Duty-bound?–most certainly not. And I’m not so naive as to think I could or should devote myself to pursuading you otherwise.

    Well, it’s not as if I’m not open to persuasion — though on this particular title, probably not.

    Don’t hold it against me?

    No earthly reason why I should or would. I’ve found myself in accord with some pretty strange sources on occasion. I suspect we all do.

  39. Jon Barnard

    “Well, really apart from Chaplin with City Lights and Modern Times, the only film that qualifies that I can think of the stunt of Silent Movie. I guess the dialogueless The Thief (1952) could apply”

    If you want to go a little farther in that direction, you could also include the almost dialogueless Viva L’amour by Tsai Ming-liang.

  40. Ken Hanke

    If you want to go a little farther in that direction, you could also include the almost dialogueless Viva L’amour by Tsai Ming-liang.

    Since I’ve never seen it, I’d have to take that on faith, but your description suggests that it qualifies. One of the big things that talkies allowed filmmakers to use almost invariably goes unnoticed: silence. Until filmmakers actually controlled what was heard — something that couldn’t be guaranteed with a live orchestra, organ or piano — it wasn’t possible to effectively use silence. It’s a little ironic to consider that as a benefit of talking pictures.

  41. ChristineRN

    Oh My Gosh! Ken Hanke wrote an article because my comments were so dumb! I think that makes me almost famous in Asheville! (Which brings to mind another film I’d go see at a rec theater…) But seriously, I think I’ve discovered the discord in our movie picks… I LOVE movies – but not as much as you. For me they are an occasional one night stand; for you, a life long passionate love. Had I the motivation or time to watch 3-5 movies a day every day I’d probably get to those fabulous 1920’s classics…but I just don’t. But thank god you do! Your encyclopedic knowledge is truly impressive! Though from where I stand in our discussion, you are a pedagogue, not a peer. You are a golden god! …I am mere mortal…

  42. Ken Hanke

    Oh My Gosh! Ken Hanke wrote an article because my comments were so dumb!

    Uh, exactly in what way does this say your comments were “so dumb?” —

    “Just this past week someone posted a comment expressing a preference for not going too far back in time when it came to watching movies. That’s fine. It’s a personal choice — and one that most people make. What I’m curious about, though, is how people define the term ‘old movie.'”

    I certainly had no intention of insulting you with that and I’m sorry if I did.

  43. ChristineRN

    Perhaps my use of the word “dumb” was to harsh, it was meant only to be silly. No offense taken! On the contrary, I’m honored!! When I posted in response to the “could Asheville support a rec theater” article and stated my preference for more “modern” films with a faster pace it seems to have sparked a question, which seems to have sparked this article… the point of my previous post is just to say that I acknowledge that my opinion is more informed by a lack of film knowledge/history (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course)than by a film perspective as informed as yours. So, certainly no offense was taken or meant. Though I am a little disappointed you didn’t comment on my Almost Famous reference…

  44. Ken Hanke

    When I posted in response to the “could Asheville support a rec theater” article and stated my preference for more “modern” films with a faster pace it seems to have sparked a question, which seems to have sparked this article…

    Which indeed it did — in part out of a desire to see what the idea of old means to other people. And I’ve certainly found the responses interesting and enlightening. If anything, I was grateful for the original comment — not in the least because it’s not that easy coming up with a topic every week! (This week, for instance, wasn’t even an idea until about 2 a.m. Friday morning.)

    So, certainly no offense was taken or meant.

    None taken here either. I just felt bad that I had given any.

    Though I am a little disappointed you didn’t comment on my Almost Famous reference…

    Well, I got it, but I can’t see myself as Billy Crudup.

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