I love movies. I mean it. I’m not one of those guys you’ll overhear in the theater saying “I love movies! My favorite is Avengers, but Avengers 2 is a close second.” It’s fine if your favorite movie is The Avengers, but if you actually love movies it probably isn’t. If you love movies, your face shouldn’t go blank when someone mentions Godard. If you love movies, your eyes will perk up when you read “Well, nobody’s perfect.” If you love movies, you probably don’t need this article, but if you want to love movies and just can’t take that next step in pressing play on a 1939 classic like Stagecoach, then I’m here to help!
The way to enjoy a classic film, or any movie really, is being a good audience member. Consumers seem to have this notion that because art is made independent of us, we are independent of it. In other words, people go into a movie saying “Impress me,” instead of “Let me work with you.” You are not entering a lecture, you are entering a relationship when you watch a movie. It is a relationship where the piece does do 98% of the work, but that 2% that you are responsible for is essential to having a good time and that 2% includes smiles and understanding.
You have to be enthusiastic about watching the movie. If you walk in saying “Ugh, black and white and silent, I’m gonna hate this prehistoric shit,” then you will probably hate that prehistoric shit, even if it is one of the most critically acclaimed prehistoric shits of all time. This happened to me the first time I watched F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. I was in the first and only film class I ever took which is already a bad setting. I understand the appeal of film school, but I don’t think movies were meant to be force-fed down people’s eyes by tyrannic teachers. They were meant to be enjoyed at a time you felt ready to enjoy it and I was not in the mood to enjoy Murnau’s 1927 classic. A couple years later I heard enough good stuff about it to convince me that I might’ve been wrong. I rewatched the movie with an open-mind in a setting where I wasn’t afraid of being tested on my knowledge of the film and by the time it ended, I was in tears. I understood the movie, I loved the characters, and I appreciated the level of artistry. The relationship was successful and Sunrise jumped from being something I hated to one of my favorites. And not because the movie changed, I changed.
I will admit that some movies have become demanding in their old age. No matter how short or how long, many films made before the 70s can feel over three hours long. This is not because filmmakers didn’t know proper pacing, it’s because the pace has changed. We are now constantly moving from thing to thing, from cut to cut, from character to character. Our brains are accustomed to getting information quickly and that has translated into modern cinema, but back then it was okay to slow down. If you watch Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) you may find yourself nodding off to what seem like unnecessary long shots of a troupe of actors performing or people whipping themselves in hopes that God will save them from the plague, but those long scenes were part of the spectacle. Filmgoers had never seen Death play chess against a knight, just like we had never seen a Tom Cruise hang off the side of a plane until very recently. It takes effort, but you have to trick yourself into being wowed by some of the sequences you may find boring today because you’ve seen it so many times in homages and parodies. You have to be understanding of your place in time compared to the original audience.
One extra thing that helps me get into an older movie is some research. I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivra Sa Vie (1962) for the first time recently and I was bored within the first five minutes. It’s okay to not like a classic, but I didn’t want to disregard it for the wrong reasons like I disregarded Sunrise, so I paused the movie and looked up why it was such a beloved film. Among other things, I found that people praised the use of the camera as a true character that gazes at its subjects, gets distracted, and moves along in life like the main character, Nana, does. Also, Godard primarily used the first take of every scene which injected the film with a level of authenticity that very few have today. Now I knew what about the movie was supposed to excite me and with that knowledge, a newfound sense of enthusiasm, and an understanding of my place in time I was able to enjoy the film and check another movie off of my IMDb watchlist. I was one step closer to becoming a true cinephile and with these tips I hope that you can take a step and press play as well.