Is the sight of Bela Lugosi taking his hat off funny?
You may think not, but it brought the house down when the National Film Theatre showed The Black Cat (1934) a while back. And I was struck yet again by the obsessive need modern audiences seem to feel to mock old movies.
Even at the NFT, where one might have expected something like respect for cinema history, the same chorus of men and women squawking like parrots forms the unofficial soundtrack to anything more than ten minutes old.
The interesting question is why they do it, since clearly – and let’s be in no doubt about this whatsoever – they do not genuinely find it funny.
It is pseudo-laughter, the kind we rustle up when someone we don’t wish to offend tells us a joke, and it is done for the same reason: on the assumption that it is the done thing.
Somewhere along the line even sensitive audiences have bought the myth that the correct attitude towards old cinema is one of condescension. Its purpose is to send a signal, to say to one’s fellow audience members: I am sophisticated, I am modern, I may or may not love this stuff, but it’s beneath me, and I am unable to forget that at any time.
Just about anything in an old film is potentially good for a raucous screech, even Bela Lugosi taking his hat off. But the top 5 sure-fire laugh-getters are the following:
1. People behaving considerately, romantically or politely to each other.
2. Old-fashioned clothes, cultural references or figures of speech.
3. Moderate or restrained violence, and anything that is designed to be frightening or eerie.
4. Clear enunciation and the assumption of a shared culture.
5. People not having sex with each other.
In other words: the fact that people once were allowed the luxury of finding George Zucco frightening, spoke clearly, were nice to each other, and didn't dress exactly the way we do. The poor saps!
And by laughing at this we are saying: aren’t they silly? Weren’t people ridiculous back then? How incomplete they are! How much better to be around now.
This is not merely daffy, it’s also a bit sad, and something like whistling in the dark in its desperation to deny that the world these films so unsparingly capture was a better one than ours in just about every conceivable way. I must confess that I find the sheer complacency of it all quite baffling. Presumably these people have windows; perhaps they simply don’t look out of them very often.
And isn't it a strange kind of historical chauvinism that permits the notion that a film like The Black Cat is 'old' and 'dated' - as if two thousand and seven were a lower number than one thousand nine hundred and thirty-four?
The Black Cat has the virtues of youth: innocence, eagerness to please, naivety in the best sense. It is the dim excesses of modern cinema, its cynicism and mean-spiritedness and complete ephemerality, that are hopelessly dated. In 1934 the modern world was young, the movies were young, and the unthreatening simplicity of a film like The Black Cat stands for the lost youth of an old, tired industry. No wonder our only recourse is to feign amusement.
As a film buff, this all leaves me out in the cold somewhat. Obviously, I stopped going to ordinary cinemas many years ago, partly because the films are rubbish, partly because cinemas now look like shopping malls and smell of plastic, and partly because it's best to avoid situations that involve being stuck in a dark room with a random sampling of twenty-first century humans. (Don’t get me wrong: I like humans, just not in the dark.)
I can only go to the NFT to see comedies; anything else is just too painful. Incidentally, I did write to the NFT to see what the official position was on this phenomenon and whether a sensitive announcement should be made before old films to remind audiences that they will seem dated, but they are works of art deserving of the utmost respect, and that they are really no funnier than old paintings, music or books. Otherwise, we may as well stop showing them, because they are not going to stop getting older. And you'll never guess what happened next. They didn't bother replying.
So how about this? If you are one of those people so happy with the modern world that the very fact that the past existed at all is enough to reduce you to tears of mirth, why not go and visit Stonehenge?
It’s really, really old, it no longer serves any function other than an ornamental one, and the people who built it a) put their hearts and souls into it, and b) didn’t have mobile telephones.
You’ll be in stitches.