This week’s question comes from reader David Frantz:
The word “dated” is often used as a negative, but I find some works of entertainment to be more enjoyable because of how dated they are. There’s a certain time-capsule effect to them that makes me enjoy them for how much they convey the time they were made. The A.V. Club did a Crosstalk a few years ago about the phenomenon of datedness in pop culture, but I wanted to know: What works do you enjoy more because of their datedness?
I’ve always enjoyed a good, swishy, early ’60s production, be it the Bye Bye Birdie movie or The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. There’s something about the color saturation that I find soothing, and I die for the hairstyles and swing coats. Years ago, I stumbled across 1963’s A New Kind Of Love, a Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward vehicle that matches up the real-life couple under a delightfully dated premise: Newman plays a womanizing American reporter living in Paris and assigned to interview a high-priced call girl for a series of articles. Woodward, a copycat fashion designer, is somehow mistaken for said call girl but rolls with it, first out of revenge and then because she actually likes Newman’s Steve Sherman. The whole thing plays out in ridiculously farcical fashion, with most of the movie’s entendres being transposed into visual versions of Sherman’s sports-based sex analogies, full of lots of puns about fumbling and home runs. It’s 100 percent dated, especially in relation to gender roles, but Newman and Woodward pull the whole thing off in a way that’s so charming that I can’t help but enjoy it all the same. Who knows? Maybe I can look past all that questionable he said-she said because I choose to believe Woodward and Newman didn’t live that way. That being said, maybe Woodward was the picture of Donna Reed-style domesticity at home—what do I know? Either way, I’m still down with A New Kind Of Love.
I may have based my entire personality on too many childhood viewings of 1937’s Stage Door. Based on a Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman play, the cinematic version featured Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn battling it out as roommates in a boarding house for aspiring actresses. (You can tell Rogers and an almost-unrecognizable Lucille Ball are supposed to be the edgy ones because they’re wearing pants.) The movie is from a chapter that doesn’t exist anymore, an age when even unemployed women dressed for dinner. In the era of rapid-fire, wisecracking comedies, this is one of my favorites. Apparently the young actresses—including Eve Arden, Gail Patrick, and a teenaged Ann Miller—were all so witty that the screenwriters just let them hang out for a few weeks and transcribed all of their improvised quips and put-downs. Perhaps the best line went to Arden: To the statement, “Certainly you must have heard of Hamlet,” she shrugged, “Well, I meet so many people.” The organic feel behind this beautiful black-and-white creation would be impossible to pull off in any other age.
I especially delight in movies from the 1980s that wave their decade’s flag high. I’m talking about a lot of the teen-based John Hughes classics many people my age came to know and love through censored viewings on cable television. They informed my ideal of high school, and I was obviously a little stunned to find I wouldn’t spend those four years wearing loafers with no socks while casually smoking in the hallways, drumming my way into my neighbor’s heart, or eating Cap’n Crunch and Pixy Stix on white bread for lunch. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also come to realize that I’ll never have what I admire most about the movies from that time, which is the garish decorating schemes. An all-time favorite is Jules’ (Demi Moore, because, duh, it’s the ’80s) apartment from St. Elmo’s Fire. Every square inch of that place screams mid-’80s, like the bubble-gum pink paint and the impressive, larger-than-life headshot of Billy Idol complete with neon-light accents that adorn her walls. Again, I would never do anything like this (even the modern-day equivalent) in my own apartment, but I get a certain pleasure from viewing this kind of excess in decor. Most likely it’s because I never had to live through it. I bear none of the scars of ’80s over-indulgence and instead find this dedication to chasing loud and visually jarring trends as something a little otherworldly, and thus magical.
One of the reasons that I find old Match Game reruns so fascinating is because they sketch the boundaries of what was acceptable to say in 1970s mass media. It’s the power of the blank: The questions on the show were designed to step right up to the edge of propriety, and then, with a simple “blank,” let the viewer’s imagination fill in the rest. So by closely observing what the writers did and didn’t say, you can perceive the cultural standards of the time. And thus a silly game show proves to be a marvelous lens into our recent history. This is why I love “dated” pop culture, because it allows me to feel a kinship with people from another era. It can be a grave folly to detach a work from its cultural moment, because when you do, you lose that insight—you deprive yourself of a shared experience that transcends time.
I love mid-20th century visions of what the 21st century (and beyond!) would look like, an affinity that has intensified during Hollywood’s Panem-driven zeal for cinematic dystopias. It’s more than having the advantage of knowing what the world of tomorrow actually looks like—there’s an optimism to these gee-whiz push-button fantasies that I find endlessly endearing. That’s especially true of any future visions cast by Walt Disney, like the 1966 TV special in which the pop-cultural mogul lays out plans for the “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow,” a.k.a. Epcot. This utopian pipe dream wound up being just another Disney theme park, so it’s easy to watch the presentation with skeptical eyes. (It’s even easier to get hung up on Uncle Walt’s paternal tone.) Despite the hokey film-strip narration and the quaint impracticalities of the plan, Disney the master communicator and pitchman shines through. Monorails and concentric urban planning turned out to be relics of their era, not the shape of things to come, but I still admire the way Disney sells them: An ailing dreamer (he’d die a few months after filming) hoping for a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.
I’m enraptured with old movie trailers, especially from the ’30s and ’40s, which I can trace back to the line of Walt Disney World’s Great Movie Ride. The ride’s line meanders through displays of costumes and props from classic movies, then shuffles ride-goers into a large room and plops them in front of a movie screen playing a loop of old trailers. While the imagineers at Disney have been reimagining the line with interactive gizmos and games, the simple construction of showing trailers is my favorite by far. I love these trailers precisely because they are so much products of their times: from silent movie-era’s text-heavy exposition to hyperbolic promises of the greatest cinematic achievements to date, these trailers revel in exactly the era they were made in.
The ’60s were actually a terrible time to be a woman, something that Mad Men has demonstrated in abundance on its most recent season (and every season before that). But the movies of the era make the sexual revolution seem downright groovy, especially in Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Even with the obligatory moralistic overtones—dig that preachy voice-over at the end—and a transphobic twist that would never fly today, Meyer’s unique appreciation of strong-willed women makes the Carrie Nations’ descent into drug-fueled orgiastic decadence seem like a swinging psychedelic good time. The slang is dated, the drugs are dated (they don’t even make ’ludes any more), the fashion is dated, the social attitudes are dated, and I love everything about it. So hang cool, teddy bear, because this is my happening and it freaks me out!
Not every book written for and about young people can have the timeless quality of Tom Sawyer. Growing up in the Midwest, there was nothing I liked more than discovering the old children’s books of my parents, which is how I found Enid Blyton’s St. Clare’s series. Recounting the events at a boarding school of the same name, Blyton’s six books are a time capsule of delightfully past-their-prime references and grown-up evocations of girls that sound like they were frozen in carbonite during an early education program in the Depression. It’s a big-hearted and breezy series, released in the early ’40s, and revisiting one of them a couple of years ago, I found it all the better for its datedness. It has an especially sharp take on class issues, which almost pass through a looking glass of being dated until they come out the other end, ripe for a weird inversion of one-percenter critiques. Can you dare imagine the cheekiness of a young lady sassing her elders? Poppycock!
I adore the 1940 version of The Thief Of Bagdad. Alexander Korda and his legion of directors created a mind-bogglingly imaginative remake of the 1924 silent film. The sets are massive, bustling, and awash in glorious Technicolor. And its most famous sights—the flying horse, the genie—are technical marvels achieved with a pioneering use of chroma key. But while the movie’s achievements are undeniable, its primitive effects just look so goofy 75 years later. The flying horse doesn’t so much fly as gallop up an invisible ramp, and everything involving the genie is hilarious, from the sight of his still-image gliding through the skies to his giant prop foot and ear that Abu climbs around. It’s hard to tell whether the visuals looked hokey even in 1940 (a contemporary New York Times review credits them for being “accomplished with remarkable illusion” but was more enamored with the film’s still-gorgeous colors), but Thief Of Bagdad is so confident and wondrous an adventure that it shrugs off any such concerns. Today, the charming datedness of those primordial techniques just adds a few good-hearted chuckles to its enduring splendor.
A confession: Every week, I look at the AVQ&A question, and ask myself, “Is this the week I write about Southland Tales?” And despite the fact that it was released less than a decade ago, you’re all in luck, because I can think of no movie more brazenly, beautifully dated than director Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic follow-up to his DVD sleeper hit Donnie Darko. An insane amalgamation of everything dark and ugly about post-9/11 America and the second Bush presidency, as filtered through Kelly’s fierce visual imagination and biblical obsessions, Southland Tales’ ham-fisted political satire is utterly hysterical, in the classical definition of the word. Produced in a moment when the political left—represented here by shrill, attention-seeking idiots, losers, and psychotics, mostly played by former SNL stars—was increasingly convinced that the man in the White House was intent on waging a holy war on people of other faiths, the film presents a smiling, deeply nervous Dwayne Johnson as a blank slate, then surrounds him with a cast of religious zealots, opportunistic fearmongers, sinister clean energy scientists, brand-obsessed porn stars, telepathic Iraq vets, and Bai Ling. Eschewing subtlety completely in favor of World War III, a lip-syncing Justin Timberlake, and graphically copulating SUVs, the movie seems to be Kelly’s way of screaming through the trauma of 9/11 and all the ways America changed and mutated in its wake. And like most screams, Southland Tales is largely incoherent, a wounded beast of a film. But the same pain and madness that date the movie so strongly also anchor it in a pivotal moment, capturing the hectic madness of that era for me in a way no other film can.
I don’t know that I would’ve answered this question in this way if you’d asked me a few weeks earlier, but I recently introduced my 9-year-old daughter to the Back To The Future trilogy, and in doing so, I was shaken a bit by the incredibly loud laugh that Back To The Future Part II got out of her when Marty McFly got his first glimpse of Hill Valley circa 2015. Like Erik, I’ve always been entertained by how pop culture has pictured our future, and there are certainly a lot of other films that I could cite instead that made outrageous predictions about what the future might be like, but it’s particularly fun to have grown old enough to see just how right or wrong one of the seminal films of my youth ended up being in predicting that which is now my present. Mind you, I still think it’s outrageous that we’ve made it this far and still haven’t gotten any goddamned flying cars, but, hey, at least we got a hoverboard.
One of my favorite gags from the early years of Weekend Update concerns the Golden Record, an album NASA sent with the Voyager probes, providing possible alien contacts with an overview of music from around the world. SNL reported that we had gotten our first response from an alien intelligence: “Send more Chuck Berry.” Rock ’n’ roll evolved tremendously since Berry (alongside contemporaries like Little Richard and Ike Turner) invented it, but there’s something literally and figuratively universal about Berry’s simple song structures, clever lyrics, and guitar that never competed with the vocals. Modern music barely has room for Berry’s tinny, bare-bones production (even the consciously retro White Stripes sound lush by comparison), not to mention straightforward songs about driving cars and chasing girls—usually with an unexpected twist, like the singer’s battle with a jammed seat belt in “No Particular Place To Go,” or the identity of the girl he’s trying to call in “Memphis, Tennessee.” Naturally, I appreciate the far more complex forms of rock ’n’ roll that came after, but there’s something magical about that moment when someone combined rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and old-fashioned showmanship for the first time.
This isn’t a longtime favorite, but rather something I caught a few weeks ago: I saw the current revival of The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway, with Elisabeth Moss as a baby boomer making her way through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, often choosing a career over more traditional concerns (so a nice fit for Moss as she wraps up her run on Mad Men). I didn’t know much about the play except that it was written by the late Wendy Wasserstein and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989. As it turns out, the show is pretty dated in the sense that it ends with the ’80s, leaving off when baby boomers like Heidi were still in their 30s and 40s (Heidi is on the older side of the generation), and clearly isn’t intended as a period pace; as written, it’s bringing Heidi up to date with where the audience first watching the play would have been at the time. Even as the show’s themes persist today, it has the unmistakeable feeling of a work that used to be current, and isn’t anymore (you get why it probably felt like a hip Pulitzer choice in ’89). Yet the play not following the boomer narrative into the ’90s and beyond actually made it feel, paradoxically, more fresh and novel to me than I think it would have otherwise. I’m pretty allergic to boomer nostalgia, and while The Heidi Chronicles now, intentionally or not, garners a certain amount of knowing chuckles from a boomer-heavy audience, it leaves its characters before they can whinge on too prominently about back when rock music was the best and ’60s protests saved the world. It’s a boomer self-portrait around the halfway mark, made more bittersweet knowing that Wasserstein died at a relatively young 55. It’s not a natural choice for a big Broadway revival, but I’m glad that it came back.
This is pretty specific, but I love old movie kissing. In the absence of sex on screen, the best way for characters to show affection was by kissing in a way that made them look like they were attached at the tongue and they are trying to disengage. There’s so much passion shown mostly through wiggling and jiggling. These people are so consumed by each other that their only way of showing that is by moving their faces around as if their mouths are on a pivot. Sex scenes now tend to be praised for their naturalism or even their explicitness. But these scenes of pure physical love are neither, and that’s what makes them so great.
Science fiction movies tend to date fast, because visions of the future are almost inexorably tied our concept of the present. As Will already noted, Back To The Future Part II’s garish vision of tomorrow (which is now, basically, today) ages well largely because of what it gets wrong and what it gets right (more of the former, naturally), but I find the real fun comes in going all the way back to depictions of space travel in pre-moon-landing cinema. Sure, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey manages the neat trick of somehow seeming more realistic than actual reality, but loopy curiosities like 1955’s Conquest Of Space are more fun to watch now than when they were originally released; the painful comic relief and entrenched sexism can be distracting, but there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in the bad physics, misplaced assumptions about our solar system, and occasional rambling monologues about the importance of God. All of that (sexism included) is somehow weirdly inspiring, showing a species (us) on the verge of some great discovery but still struggling to see clearly through the miasma of our various failings and insecurities. It’s not great art, but as a cultural snapshot, it’s hard to beat.
Almost everyone knows a few of O. Henry’s short stories: “The Gift Of The Magi” and “The Ransom Of Red Chief” are well-traveled classics. But most of his output is more obscure. Still, I recommend it to anyone looking for a portrait of turn-of-the-century American city life, especially for young professional women. His “shopgirl stories” are absolute dandies, packed with details of dress, slang, home life, work life, and general attitude. As with his best-known works, they tend to be meticulously crafted and have twist endings, so they’re fun reads. But for me, the enjoyment comes more from expressions like “ The physiopathic ward for yours!” (meaning “You belong in a nuthouse!”) and all the little revelations about what it was like to be a working girl in 1905, living in a $6-a-week room in New York City and saving pennies for a nickel matinee on the weekends. These stories are quaint, but they’re also sharper and more revealing than the era’s old photographs.
As it turns out, so much of my pop-culture life involves loving dated things that it’s hard to know where to start. For now, even though I’m not sure when my enjoyment of obscure pulp novels moved from laughing at the covers to scouring used bookstores for gems, it’s more than paid for itself. They are, of course, a quagmire of outdated social attitudes to race, gender, religion, and interstate highways; it’s often exactly as awkward as it sounds, but that lack of self-awareness is part of what makes them interesting reads. Few of them are classics—thank goodness—but many offer an illuminating glimpse into the dime-store mindset of those trying to capture the spirit of a very weird age. The good ones are brisk, minimal prose with just enough cheese to be charming; the bad ones are as wooden and contrived as you could imagine, and somehow that’s even better. My most recent, Day Keene’s Framed In Guilt (one of the best titles I’ve found yet), is about a truly awful man who’s suffering amnesia (or is he?) after being framed for a murder he didn’t commit (or did he?). It’s everything I want from a pulp—and a lot of things that should stay right where they are.