Nearly everybody loves movies. We aren’t surprised that people rush to see the latest hit or rent a cult favorite from the video store. But there are some people who seek out old movies. And among those fans there’s a still smaller group studying them.
Let’s call “old movies” anything older than twenty years. This of course creates a moving target. Baby boomers like us don’t really consider The Godfather or M*A*S*H to be old movies, but many twentysomethings today will probably consider Pulp Fiction (1994) to be old — maybe because they saw it when they were in their teens. Our twenty-year cutoff is arbitrary, but in many cases that won’t matter. Everybody agrees that La Grande Illusion from 1935 is an old movie, though it still seems fresh and vital.
Now for the real question. Why would anyone be interested in watching and studying old movies?
Ask a film historian, professional or amateur, and you’ll get a variety of answers. For one thing, old films provide the same sorts of insights that we get from watching contemporary movies. Some offer intense artistic experiences or penetrating visions of human life in other times and places. Some are documents of everyday existence or of extraordinary historical events that continue to reverberate in our times. Still other old movies are resolutely strange. They resist assimilation to our current habits of thought. They force us to acknowledge that films can be radically different from what we are used to. They ask us to adjust our field of view to accommodate what was, astonishingly, taken for granted by people in earlier eras.
Another reason to study old movies is that film history encompasses more than just films. By studying how films were made and received, we discover how creators and audiences responded to their moment in history. By searching for social and cultural influences on films, we understand better the ways in which films bear the traces of the societies that made and consumed them. Film...