Old Versus Contemporary Films: Where Credit is Due

Old versus new films. Well, maybe not this old. (Photo taken at ‎⁨Lumière Museum⁩ in Lyon, France. May, 2016.)
Old versus new films. Well, maybe not this old. (Photo taken at ‎⁨Lumière Museum⁩ in Lyon, France. May, 2016.)

I’m not a student of old films, or contemporary films for that matter. But I’ve seen enough of both to notice profound differences between them.

Just to be clear, when I say “old films” I’m talking about movies that were generally made before I was born.

Oh, shut up! Yes, there were films made before I was born. And, yes, many of them were even talkies.  I’m old, but not that old.

I was born toward the end of 1952. I’m talking mostly about films made in the 1940s, 1930s, and even earlier. Marx Brothers movies, Casablanca, and Citizen Kane come quickly to mind, but those are just some of the more memorable ones for me.

The Biggest Difference

When you ask people about the biggest difference between films made now and those made back then, you often hear, “colour versus black and white.” I disagree.

(I exclude silent films here because, yeah, silent versus sound may have been the biggest difference between the earliest of films and modern films. Including them would totally negate my point. And then there would I be?)

Films didn’t use colour much until the 1950s, but there were colour processes as early as late in the first decade of the 1900s. And a few of today’s filmmakers occasionally elect to use black and white for artistic reasons. So, no, colour versus black and white is not the biggest difference.

Others suggest it’s the special effects. Special effects are much, much, much more dazzling today than they used to be. No doubt about it. Nevertheless, that’s still not the biggest difference as far as I’m concerned.

Give up?

The typical flow of films.

Here’s the typical flow of an old film: (For any sticklers out there, yes, there were exceptions.) The film ran some credits. These usually included only the principal actors, the director and, possibly, the screenwriter and producer. Next, the story unfolded. Then, two words appeared on the screen: “The End.” After that, the screen went blank.

Presumably, the theatre lights came up and the audience left at that point. However, I’m only guessing about that because, as I said, for the most part, these films had their theatre runs before I was born. I’ve seen them only on video or streaming at home. And I never invite an audience into my home because then I’d feel the need to tidy up a little.

In contrast, here’s the flow of a modern movie: A bit of the story might or might not unfold first. The opening credits are displayed. There are typically more opening credits than there were on old films, but not all that many more. Then, the remaining story unfolds (or the whole story if the film displays the opening credits at the start). Afterward, the words “the end” may or may not appear; usually not. Finally, many minutes of fine-print credits scroll rapidly on the screen before it goes blank.

Did you spot the principal difference?

Credit where credit is due?

What do average, everyday audience members get out of those closing credits? Do the people at the end of the list really get such a big ego boost from knowing that their names appeared on the screen sometime after most of the audience left the theatre, went out for dinner, and finished their first course*?

I’m certainly not getting anything out of it. Even if I did stick around for the closing credits, I’m never going to say, “Gee, I have to see that film that just came out. It used the same second key grip as that other movie I loved.” Sorry, but I don’t make that deep an analysis when choosing which movies to watch.

Do they really have to mention so many people? If someone from the corner deli delivered a sandwich to the assistant director’s part-time intern, the deli delivery person gets a credit. It’s ridiculous.

And, by the way, what’s a “best boy?” Have you ever seen that in the credits? What the hell is that? To my ears, “best boy” sounds like a cute, caring euphemism for someone who, in the politically incorrect old days, we insensitively called retarded. If my job was best boy, I’d beg them to leave my name off the credits.

Lawyers gotta eat too, ya know.

The only benefit I see in rolling so many names at the end of the film is that it gets people to walk down some stairs while the lights are still dim. That’s got to create a lot of work for liability lawyers. They have to eat too, you know.

I’ve had people tell me that the credits are there so filmmakers can pay less to technical and administrative professionals and non-star performers. Some of their remuneration comes, apparently, in the form seeing their name in lights. I don’t know about them, but I’d rather have the cash.

How much value does a second assistant grip get from bringing her friends to a screening and making them stay through the credits so she can point to the screen and say, “Look! There I a … Damn. My name is off the screen already. Want to buy another ticket and watch it again? Maybe we’ll catch it next time.”

There’s got to be a better way. Here’s my suggestion.

Obviously, it wasn’t true for old films, but every contemporary film has a promotional web site associated with it. Why not publish the credits there and leave most of them off the film? That way, people who want to read the credits can do so online. And those of us who leave shortly after the start of the credits can do so without risking our neck. And none of us will miss the entertaining bits that some filmmakers put after the credits to reward those who stay behind. (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes to mind.)

Other Industries

I’m glad this narcissism hasn’t spread to other industries. Imagine if we had to put up with such self-indulgence in everything we did.

When you went to a restaurant, along with the bill you’d get 23 closely-typed pages listing the names of your servers, the restaurant manager, the restaurant’s interior designer, the maî·tre d’, the chef, the cooks, the busboys (or, to be non-sexist, should that be “buschildren?”), the farmers who grew or raised the food, the butcher who slaughtered the cattle, the truckers who moved the produce from place to place, the plumber who unplugged the toilet … it would never end.

And when you buy a car? Forget about having room to put anything into the trunk until you remove the hundreds of pages of credits the carmaker stowed there.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good film and I appreciate the hard work of the people who made it, just like I enjoy a good restaurant meal and I appreciate the hard work of the people who made and served it. Nevertheless, I don’t need their names unless they want me to contact them so they can thank me for paying to see their film. (Although, if I enjoyed the film, no thanks are necessary. I got the value I sought.)

* Yes, before you ask, I am old enough to remember when a pandemic didn’t close down movie theatres.

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