Friday, 8 May 2015

When To Laugh at Old Movies

In the April 28 2015 edition of L. A. Weekly there was an article with the rather eye catching headline, "Stop Laughing at Old Movies, You $@%&ing Hipsters" by Amy Nicholson. The article received a number of tweets, shares on Google+, shares on Facebook, and so on. And there is little wonder that it should. Most classic film buffs have at least one story of going to a showing of  a beloved classic and hearing people in the audience snickering at the film. While laughter during a classic film comedy is certainly acceptable, I have heard horror stories of people laughing and mocking films such as Gone With the Wind, Vertigo, and other classic dramas. It is as if these people do not know when something is actually meant to be comedy or even camp.

Like my fellow classic film fans I dislike people laughing at classic films, and for that reason I am somewhat sympathetic to Amy Nicholson. That having been said, I do see one major flaw in her article--she discusses the audience's laughter at a showing of Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) in conjunction with the Los Angeles Opera. I suspect I can speak for many classic film buffs when I say that Hercules in the Haunted World is not a classic (it is not even a good movie in my humble opinion), unless one counts it as a camp classic. People have laughed at Hercules in the Haunted World my entire life, and most of the ones doing the laughing were not hipsters. No less than the esteemed Lou Limerick on Twitter noted of Hercules in the Haunted World, "In all fairness, we were laughing our heads off at this one in theaters half a century ago." While I am sure Amy Nicholson would disagree that it is acceptable to laugh at Hercules in the Haunted World, it would seem that audiences have been laughing at it ever since it was first released, at least in the English speaking world. What is more, I suspect that most classic film buffs would have no problem with audiences laughing at it today and might well laugh at it themselves.

The simple fact is that Hercules in the Haunted World is a prime example of what is known as "camp". The idea of "camp" has existed for some time, although it was arguably best defined by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay "Notes on Camp", published in The Partisan Review. According to Miss Sontag, the most important elements of camp are "...artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess." Even before Susan Sontag wrote her influential essay, the generally accepted reaction to anything camp was, well, to laugh at it. People laughed at Ed Wood's films. People laughed at the old Batman serials. And people laughed at Hercules in the Haunted World. There is little reason they shouldn't, as the film does meet nearly every element that Susan Sontag believed to be important to camp. It's artificial, frivolous, naïve, pretentious, and over the top.

To me, then, saying people should not laugh at Hercules in the Haunted World would be like saying they should not laugh at Ed Wood's movies, the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the TV show Lost in Space, or American-made Scopitone films. In fact, there is a point where a film, TV show, music video or other artistic work is so campy that laughter is the only acceptable reaction. The problem as I see it is not that people are laughing at old movies. It's that sometimes they are laughing at the wrong old movies. While it may be acceptable to laugh at Hercules in the Haunted World, it is never acceptable to laugh at, say, Casablanca.

Now I am guessing the unenlightened might ask what difference does it make whether one laughs at Hercules in the Haunted World or one laughs at Casablanca. The difference is quite simple. Hercules in the Haunted World is pure camp. It was made on a bargain basement budget with an outlandish script and dialogue, and directed in such a way that it is hard to believe Mario Bava had directed Black Sunday (1960) not long beforehand. Casablanca is almost unanimously considered a classic. It is well written, well acted, well photographed, and well directed. In fact, it is counted among the greatest films of all time by many (the top five at that). If one laughs at Casablanca, one will be considered by most others to be a total boor. Indeed, I suspect it could get one kicked out of some cinemas.

Of course, here I do have to point out that there are instances where it is not so clear as to whether a movie is campy or not. Quite simply, one man's camp might be another man's classic. A perfect example of this as far as I am concerned is Detour (1945). I have heard many people proclaim it a film noir classic. In fact, many count it as one of the greatest films noirs ever made. I am not one of these people. In fact, I consider Detour to be an atrociously bad movie, to the point that it can only be appreciated as camp. If I watched Detour in a theatre, I probably would laugh at it, and many in the audience would hate me for it.

That having been said, there are a good number of movies that are clear cut classics, to the point that it is hard to say why anyone would laugh at them. If someone laughs at one of these films (Casablanca, Vertigo, et. al.), I suspect it might be based in a lack of taste and a lack of knowledge of what constitutes camp on the part of the individuals. Quite simply, those who laugh at classic films do not know what a truly good film actually is, nor do they even know what constitutes camp. Such individuals somehow can not tell when a film is actually well done and when it is not. They somehow think that all old movies must constitute camp. Of course, this proves that Amy Nicholson is wrong about hipsters laughing at old movies. After all, any hipster worth his or her weight would know what is campy and what is not.

In the end I would suggest that anyone who wants to be a true hipster or film snob should probably educate themselves on what constitutes classic and what constitutes camp before they laugh at any movie. If he or she notices that no one outside of his or her circle is laughing at a movie in a theatre, then he or she should refrain from laughing immediately. I am not going to say it is never acceptable to laugh at an old movie that is not a comedy, but it is certainly not acceptable to laugh at films that the majority of people consider classics.


Dan Day Jr. said...

I have to admit that I think "Hercules In The Haunted World" is a great example of fantastic cinema--but then again, that's me.

S. Michael Wilson said...

I think it's a mistake to think that we should be able to dictate an audience's response to a film based on our own evaluation, let alone the artist's intentions. Perception of art is the venue of the audience, and so the viewer has ultimate say as to how a film is received. If we're going to say that it might not be okay to laugh at an old film that wasn't meant to be funny, do we draw the line at saying it isn't okay NOT to laugh at an old comedy? And can't we use the world classic to describe films that aren't considered masterpieces? In many ways, Plan 9 is classic in its own right, intentionally funny or not. Working in the realm of film theory/criticism/review might cloud our judgement occasionally when it comes to how much control we actually have - or even should have - over how people react to films. I'm not immune to this, I get upset as well when an audience reacts poorly to a film I am enjoying. "They just don't get it" is a common reaction. But that's not the audience's job. So it might be frustrating when somebody laughs at Gone with the Wind because they can't appreciate the culture or period that produced it, but I don't think that readily marks them as a "Hipster." It just means they're not getting the same thing out of the film, and whether we like it or not, that's allowed.