June 8th, 2014


LJI:11 Recency Bias

I watch a lot of movies.  I enjoy sitting down and letting my mind play in someone else’s world for a while.  To try and educate myself more about the history of film I created a personal goal several years ago – to see every movie that had been nominated for the Academy Award for best picture since the year I was born.  I’ve nearly got that completed so I’m working my way further back.   My Netflix queue is a mix of recent films I didn’t get to in the theater, classic films, documentaries, foreign films, and random lists of ‘the Best 20 < inset genre here > movies’.  I’ve discovered there’s a skill to watching movies made more than a decade ago, beyond just willing suspension of disbelief.  You have to remember when the movie was made, and suppress modern assumptions if possible.

So, I am able to watch Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and know that no one had ever played a gangster quite like that before, though a lot of people have imitated him since.  I can watch The Sand Pebbles and be astonished that a nearly three-hour war movie can keep my attention, while wondering what the Asian actors involved with the production thought of the stereotypes they were being asked to play.  I enjoy Alfie for the performances and the clever way they broke the 4th wall, while still being saddened by the playboy attitude of the 60’s.  I try to decipher Persona while realizing that literally no one had ever used those lighting effects and camera angles before, even if I recognize them immediately.  But sometimes, the trick of watching a movie through unmodern eyes is too difficult to sustain.

A great example of this is Poltergeist.  I watched it for the first time a little over a year ago on Halloween.  The story was fascinating and legitimately scary.  Then, the big moment -- the ghosts all come out to drag the family back to another dimension, and I laughed.  The apparitions looked like they belonged in Ghostbusters (a film that came out two years later).  I understand that for the time these were top of the line special effects but my reaction to them is never going to be what a viewer in 1982 experienced.

Or how about another horror film that was just recently remade, Rosemary’s Baby?  Through my modern eyes the movie is – not good.  It’s paced glacially, the neighbors are obviously up to no good from the very beginning, and that Rosemary takes so long to figure any of this out is maddening.  This is a movie that it’s impossible to see without some foreknowledge, given that Rosemary’s baby has become synonymous with a devil-child.  I can appreciate the committed performances and the murky atmosphere, but I can’t make my brain see it as anything but derivative, even if in fact this movie did it first.

Sometimes a modern assumption works in a movie’s favor instead.  I watched Roman Holiday last weekend.  I was charmed by the story, the performances, and the scenery.  When I realized that Joe and Ann were falling in love I groaned a little.  I figured he was going to become the court reporter or some such so they could be together forever.  But instead the movie stayed true to its characters, they had a fabulous moment where they acknowledged what their day meant and then went their separate ways.  A movie that dares to let the lead couple fall in love and then walk away because they’re grown-ups who have responsibilities instead of twisting the story into something that doesn’t make sense just to get them together?  I cheered.

Watching older movies is fun, even if it does require a little extra effort.  Sometimes my impression of a movie is irrevocably tied to the fact that I’m seeing it decades after it was made, but I try to watch with non-modern eyes whenever I can.  Next up in the queue is Anatomy of a Murder; James Stewart in a courtroom from 1959.  I can’t wait.

***Welcome to my take on recency bias, i decided to skip any spoiler warnings since the movies are all more than 30 years old.  The rest of the contestants are putting up their entries here, how many of them can you read?***