Timelessness – Part 1

Published on August 29th, 2011
James talks about what makes a movie timeless and the difference between a generational anthem and a dated mess.

Timeless. It’s one of those words that people use to describe some of their favourite movies, books and albums. It’s also used in those commercials with soft light trying to sell you a 2-CD set of the “most romantic songs ever written” while struggling actors hold wine glasses full of fruit punch and stare at each other, but I’m here today to talk about the first example. Timeless is a very positive thing to say about a film but it’s not just the same as ‘really good.’ Generally speaking I think for most people a timeless film has 2 distinguishing qualities:

1) It remains relevant to you for your entire life.

2) Eventually show to your kids and they’ll like too.

For the first point to be true, the movie can’t be too tied up in issues that only seem relevant to you at a certain point of your life. Rarely films that are considered timeless are wrapped up in the issues of a certain age. There are no hard rules for what makes a movie timeless but it helps if it isn’t focused strictly on things like teenage angst, starting a family, raising kids, growing old or age-sensitive things like that. For this reason a movie like The Breakfast Club can be a great film and a classic, but it’s too focused on being 17 to be timeless. It can still be an enjoyable watch your whole life, and can even remind you of that time, but it doesn’t resonate in an immediate sense when you’re 65. Timelessness isn’t just the apex of filmmaking but refers to a certain kind of film.

For the second point to be true, the movie can’t be too concerned with the time it was made in. If your favourite movie is focused on dissecting what it was like to grow up in the 1990s, your kids who grew up in the 2020s aren’t going to relate to it as well. (By the way, we really need to figure out this whole decade nickname thing. First, when can I start calling the 2020s just the ‘20s and not confuse people? Second, did we really land on ‘the noughts’ or ‘the aughts’ for last decade? I think it would be way cooler if it were The 90s 2: Electric Boogaloo.) Of course, all good art is sort of timeless in some way. Someone in the 1970s making a Vietnam movie accidentally sort of made it about Iraq too because the situations are somewhat similar and if the emotions are right in the film, they’d resonate with soldiers today. However, not everything carries over like this and even vague themes can be much more applicable to one generation than the next.

When filmmakers dwell a lot on the specific issues and styles of a time it can go one of two ways. When done poorly, the resulting movie is what we would call ‘dated.’ The movie is a product of its time in the worst way possible as it seems to be comprised of all the worst things about when it was made. When done very well, these movies become ‘generational’ movies. It is a product of its time in the best way possible, becoming something of an anthem for whichever generation. To continue with The Breakfast Club, that film falls on the generational side rather than the dated side. Don’t get me wrong, that movie is dated in the sense that you’d be able to guess it was a 1980s movie in the first few minutes from the music and wardrobe, but while it is obviously 80s, it’s not painfully 80s. Dated movies tend to take all the worst things that were trendy in filmmaking at the time and overuse them. Generational movies make people think “Whoa, this movie really gets me and my friends.” (By the way, what are recent generational movies? Some people have said Garden State but it fails in an important sense because it blows. Others point to Fight Club but some argue it really only speaks to/for white straight upper middle class males. The Matrix is actually a shockingly good candidate for an anthem for a recent generation, a rare feat for an action movie.)

It's like the Wachowskis read my diary!

The difference between being a generational movie and a timeless movie is not a qualitative one. Some generational movies are better than timeless ones but are simply too wrapped up in their time period, which isn’t a bad thing. There is certainly value in commenting on contemporary society. It could perhaps spur some kind of social change but more frequently works to bring together that generation. Timeless movies tend to deal with broader, vaguer themes than specific issues or times.

Wizard of Oz may be one of the best examples of a timeless movie. It’s been around for 70 years and people still regard it highly. Children of newer generations are continually being exposed to this and enjoying. As explained above, the cause for this is that it doesn’t focus much on what was happening when (or where) it was made. It’s not full of slang from the 1930s and the characters aren’t dealing with issues related strictly to that decade that have now disappeared. The fantastic nature of the film does a lot to keep it from going stale. If a lot of this film took place in New York City, people watching today would focus too much on how different it was back then. Setting the majority of the movie in the fictional and spectacular land of Oz prevents that. This approach gives the movie something of an intentional timelessness. There are very few points of reference as to when this took place so that becomes less important. This intentional timelessness has nothing to do with how well it’s received but is a certain kind of timeless by design. The same can be said for Star Wars. The (seemingly) futuristic (but actual distant past) setting of the movie removes it from our time and reference and allows generation and generation to feel just as close to it because they are as involved with this time and place as people seeing in the theatres in the 1970s were, which is not at all. In this sense, Waterworld is ‘timeless’ too, but in a meaningless way. No one calls it timeless because, when critiquing film, that word is saved for good movies.

It's also gluten-free and would never kill your dog!

To conclude part 1, being intentionally timeless is qualitatively neutral, just ask Kevin Costner. To be timeless, in the common sense of the word, is a great compliment because it means people really enjoyed it. In part 2, I’ll talk about how timeless movies, despite their popularity, are rarely important movies. I’m also going to mention Jersey Shore and the Tupac’s-still-alive theory, so all you hip-hop loving, conspiracy theorist guidos be sure to check that out next Monday.

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