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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?***

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It has been fascinating to watch how movies have changed or not over the years, and to see what was picked out to be the best of any given year. Though I really wish the 60's were less fascinated with historical epics.

Watching old movies and old TV shows can be quite fun! Many times they are better than what is offered today!

Watching "classic" films is fascinating, and since I'm working from a list of best picture nominees most of them are really good. As you go further back they didn't have effects to rely on so (typically) the stories had to hold up. Every once in a while though I'm left wondering what on earth people were thinking.

I absolutely agree with looking at older films with a suspension of modern belief. I do remember watching Poltergeist in the 80's and going to see Ghostbusters in the theater, so for me there's a sense of nostalgia about a lot of older films as well.

Good read!

It's interesting to me, the stuff that is entirely before I was seeing movies in the theater (the first one I really remember was E.T.) I usually have an easier time with than the stuff where I just barely know the context. I still feel bad about laughing at Poltergeist, I'm sure it was super scary at the time.

I would postulate that we do this same thing with a large number of different forms of media. For example, I stumbled across some 1960s prints of National Geographic. As stunned as I was at the sheer difference in reading level (way above a New York Times or even The New Yorker today), I found it hard to convince myself that valuable insights could be gained in the stark contrast of years and scientific advances. That's neither a fair perspective nor on point with why we handle old things.

I'd say your post is the fantastic, fully non-fiction approach to the topic.

The current perceived public reading comprehension level is a sad, sad thing. I think you have a point, it's much easier to look back at nearly any media and think "that's quaint" instead of really looking at it.

Thank you so much, I kind of wanted to write fiction this week but once I had this idea it wasn't letting go.

I am such a fan of B-movies, and the older ones always make me happy--the special effects are more choppy than they are nowadays, but they require so much more work and ingenuity.

I just recently saw 20 Million Miles to Earth with Harryhousen effects - it featured a spaceship crash and then a giant lizard creature vs. an elephant in Rome, and it was amazing. Sometimes the lack of perfection is what makes something special.

I watch silent movies sometimes for the same reason, to see the origins of today's cliches. Most of them hold up surprisingly well--the special effects in Metropolis still blow me away and are miles better than special effects from later decades (*cough1980scough*)

What you said about Roman Holiday makes me think you'd like Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans. It runs the gamut of genres. Starts out as a crime story, then it turns into a romantic comedy, and then ends up as a thriller and keeps you guessing about what's really going on up until the end.. It also features a drunk pig. Best of all, it was made in 1927 so it's in the public domain.

Metropolis is amazing, both the visuals and the story holds up. I have to carefully choose when to watch a silent or foreign film, because I watch so many movies I tend to use them as knitting time which means I'm not quite paying full attention. Not a big deal unless I also have to read.

A drunk pig? Awesome. I'm adding that to my list of movies to see right now, thank you!

I always make it a goal to see each year's Best Picture nominees and I never ever make it. I like your idea of going back farther. I might steal this! ;)

I just saw Rosemary's Baby for the first time a few months ago, and found it completely baffling that anyone thought it was scary. On the other hand, Poltergeist still freaks me out, maybe because I saw it when it was new.

Sometimes it's easier to see movies from ten years ago than what's in the theaters now. Also, back when it was just five movies it wasn't such a commitment. I have only seen one movie on this project that had no redeeming value at all (for me) so if you ever choose to watch The Accidental Tourist I'll be curious what you think.

I think Rosemary's Baby is an historical artifact now, not a horror movie. But that doesn't happen to everything because The Exorcist gave me nightmares for days, and I watched it on a sunny afternoon relatively recently.

I love watching old movies too.

There's something wonderful about taking a peek into a different time for a moment, right?

I experienced much the same problem when I watched Casablanca. But the difficulties in enjoying old media can extend to books as well.

I recently re-found a series that I enjoyed reading in the 70s: Dorothy Dunnett's mysteries, including Dolly and the Nanny Bird. The problem? I've totally forgotten any of the British slang I knew back when I was reading them fresh, and well, slang evolves over time.

So I've put off reading the rest until I pick up the British slang guide I found on Amazon, the one published in the 70s. ;)

Oh absolutely books can have issues too. You go to read a classic from years ago and realize that the base knowledge the reader is expected to have just isn't there. In your case, time specific slang, but it can be nearly anything.

That sounds really interesting. I read older books sometimes, and it's definitely a challenge to remember the age of the book and to suspend modern assumptions.

Yeah, I'll find myself getting angry at a movie or book for something like it's casual chauvinism and then have to remind myself that 60 years ago that's kind of what it was. Doesn't mean I'm not still frustrated by it, but I try to not let my "modern" sensibilities color my entire opinion of the film.

I'm kind of a crazed, fanatical movie buff, too, and I often set out to view the entire collective works of a director I like, or the complete filmography of one particular actor. Every Academy Best Picture seems like a totally laudable and reasonable goal to me! I'm with you on the resetting your perspective, but for me, that's part of the fun of it, really, in that, for all intents and purposes, I have to become a character myself, in that, I have to put myself in the mindset of someone who might have legitimately appreciated it for its day. Great piece, this, thanks for sharing your fun perspective! :)

Yay, a kindred spirit. People tend to look at me funny when I talk about my movie goal. I agree part of the fun of old movies is changing the perspective in your head, but there are times it sneaks up on me. Thanks!

Awesome goal and I loved this post, I often watch old movies through unmodern eyes and see them for how great they are. It is a specail talent that most people lack. enjoyed the post

Edited at 2014-06-12 10:21 pm (UTC)

Thank you! This has been a fun project, it's a nifty way of going back in time for a little while.

It's always fun watching older movies, and seeing what progress has been made since then - like really old "mobile" phones that look like bricks, that sort of thing. :)

Exactly, or further back to a world with (gasp) pay phones. It's interesting to realize how much has changed and how much really hasn't.

I love love love Roman Holiday! That moment where he says he didn't get any pictures...beautiful.

One of my favorite things is reading old Perry Mason mysteries - everyone smokes, everywhere, including the hospital waiting room. And women slide out of cars with a daring flash of knee...

It was so good! I watched it a bit on a whim (it was about to drop off the instant view availability) and I was completely swept away by it.

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