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When You Laugh at Old Movies, the Joke Is On You

When You Laugh at Old Movies, the Joke Is On You

If you watch old movies in public, where “old” can mean any time before 1980, you’ve heard them, out there in the dark. They snigger at the rear projection in “Vertigo” and guffaw at the special effects in “Beauty and the Beast” — the Cocteau version, although it’ll probably be the Disney cartoon’s turn soon. Every week, it seems there’s a new object of ridicule, from classic James Bond movies to the Maysles brothers’ “Grey Gardens.” And L.A. Weekly’s Amy Nicholson has had enough.

In an essay entitled, with admirable directness, “Stop Laughing at Old Movies, You $@&%ing Hipsters,” Nicholson rails against the audience who chuckled and tittered their way through a special event involving a projection of Mario Bava’s “Hercules in the Haunted World,” a 23-piece orchestra, and nine opera singers performing the movie’s dialogue. That idea might itself seem faintly risible, although Nicholson promises it “makes more sense than it sounds,” but what moved the audience to laughter wasn’t the unusual staging. It was, she says, Bava’s low-budget theatricality, the foam boulders that his Hercules hurls at his enemies. “The guy behind me munching Sour Patch Kids and wearing an ironic Hawaiian shirt kept up the chuckles for 91 minutes, long after I began to beseech Zeus to throw a non-styrofoam boulder at him,” she writes. “His stubborn laughter was an advertisement for his own superiority, like it’s heroic to refuse to be ‘suckered’ by a fake rock that’s obviously fake. But there’s nothing triumphant about being too cool to dream.”

Matt Zoller Seitz voiced a similar sentiment at Press Play in 2012, with his ire directed at the audience for a screening of “From Russia With Love,” and went on to quote a post-screening lecture from a college film professor directed at a class who’d just snickered through a screening of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“It’s sad to think that there was once a time when Hollywood released dozens of movies like this each year, and millions of people went to see them, and enjoyed themselves, and laughed, and sang along, and got wrapped up in the story, and that if the same kind of movies were released right now, people would laugh at them and call them unsophisticated. That so many of you could sit there and snicker at ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ for being unsophisticated depresses me beyond words. This movie is not unsophisticated. You are.”

Laughter can mean many things: It can be a sign of enjoyment (laughing with) or superiority (laughing at). It can express an audience’s discomfort or serve as a defensive weapon: If viewers chortle at, say, Mickey Rooney’s grotesque caricature of a Japanese man in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” it’s because they’re appalled, not tickled. But that’s not the same as the kind of persistent, performative laughter Nicholson and Seitz describe — or, as Nicholson points out, its inverse, where audiences sit stone-faced through a classic comedy. That’s not a momentary reaction: It’s a decision, a way of announcing to anyone within earshot — which usually tends to be anyone in the theater — that they’re better than this goofy nonsense. I’ve seen plenty of serious movies that made me want to laugh — many of them end up winning Academy Awards — but if I’m watching with others, I keep my mouth shut. (I’ll admit that the occasional involuntary snort may overpower my nervous system, but I’m only human.)

The ironic thing about this behavior is it demonstrates exactly the opposite of what it’s mean to. Laughing at the silly effects or the stylized dialogue in an old movie doesn’t prove that you’re better than it. It demonstrates that you lack the imaginative capacity to project yourself backwards in time, to appreciate the rhythms and storytelling styles of an era that is not your own. After showing “Double Indemnity” to an intro film class, I once had a student ask me, “Did they really think people talked like that?” The answer, of course, is no — and more’s the pity — but audiences know how to enjoy spending a couple of hours in a world where people did. To quote the band Pere Ubu, “Did you ever wonder why your Elvis fans were so much nicer people than the people who laugh at them?”

Modern audiences make this adjustment all the time: They lap up the “Fast and the Furious” movies, where characters talk in trailer-ready sound bites and buckets of Corona follow Vin Diesel like lovesick pups, and think nothing of it. But they don’t notice it, any more than a fish thinks about the existence of water. It’s just the way the world is. Old movies, like Shakespeare plays or Jane Austen novels, offer a chance to step our of our world, whether for fun or edification or, one hopes, both, but you have to make an effort.

There’s no way to quantify this, but audiences seem less willing than ever to make that effort, and more contemptuous of movies that ask it of them. In part, as Nicholson suggests, it’s that “CGI has conquered our imagination”: We no longer tolerate anything less than photorealism, even though the stop-motion movements of Willis O’Brien’s King Kong or Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons still offer a kind of eerie presence that modern effects can’t touch. (There’s a reason the “Fast & Furious” movies and the new “Star Wars” trilogy are bringing back physical stunts: Practical effects are the new vinyl LPs.) What seems cutting-edge now can date faster than you’d ever imagine — go back and watch “The Matrix” some time. When you watch a movie whose effects don’t look “real,” you make a compact with it: I’ll enter this world, and you make it worth my while.

That goes, too, for movies that make less obvious demands: Stick with this unusual structure, this slower-than-average pace, imagine yourself as a character of another race or gender, who comes from another country or another social class. It’s one of the greatest gifts the movies have to offer, but you have to take it.

Audiences are free to reject that deal. If you’re going to take the time and spend the money to see an old movie on the big screen, you’re cheating yourself if you don’t give it a try — whatever, it’s your loss, although why you’d want to advertise your shortcomings is beyond me. But when you start to perform that disconnection, you’re cheating the people around you, and that, my friend, is not cool. You don’t have to love it, but let the people around you with bigger hearts and more open minds have the experience you’re too shallow to enjoy. 

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