A well-meaning Netflix user offered this measured defense of an "old" movie: "One cannot review a 26 years old movie using today's standards." (The movie was Clint Eastwood's quite entertaining Eiger Sanction; guess it was written when Netflix was new.) Reviewing old art through contemporary standards? There are a few ways we can think our way through this question. In one sense, we are required to encounter old or culturally remote objects through the resistance of this timespace distance. But liking something (a painting, a movie) is never a "natural" thing either, as if innate and unalloyed, because people themselves are fundamentally always social and cultural. So yes: if you're a kid who's grown up with the media of the past 10-20 years, you might need to be initiated into the codes of a studio-era Hollywood movie or old TV or old books. (Sometimes you might not; as a child I needed little prompting to enjoy I Love Lucy or The Three Stooges.) It's fine sometimes to say: "We mustn't judge these other, new-old things by the same standards we are used to. There are other standards, and you might want to approach these things less judgmentally than you are at first inclined."
But then again one balks at this awful posture of charity. The appreciation of Welles, Ford, Renoir, Ozu, M, The Thin Man, Mae West, or Chaplin should take no qualifications - should it? We shouldn't be straitjacketed into saying, "Well it was good for its time," should we?
For its time ...
Perhaps it's best to avoid quasi-historicist special pleading where everything is judged by some standard of its time (the standard itself being always at least partly a presentist fiction). For one thing, it takes a fair bit of knowledge about another time or place even to intelligently address the issue of an object's achievement within that context. Instead, these qualifications are perhaps best as an ongoing heuristic operation. In the face of something we simply don't understand, we might posit a negative force - say to ourselves, "This is different, this pinches, ruffles, and crunches against my prior convictions. The actor does not move his body in a way consonant with filmic conventions I'm used to; the staging of these actors is artificial; the dialogue is too obvious or it takes too long for me to figure out what the damn point is; there isn't even any dialogue in this stupid art movie, why not?; and so on." We can say, "for its time" as a kind of place-holder for our own ignorance. Far be it from me to sound too much like an evangelical, but really many of us could do with a vow of intellectual humility on occasion.
To do this, of course, the spectator in question has to be open-minded, inquisitive, and curious.* This is what bothers me about the recent spate of presentist philistinism about old movies that we see on display here, here, and in parts here. It isn't, I don't think, because I worship the past at the expense of what's ahead. I even believe philistinism has its uses in politics and in rhetoric. But there's something uncritical about this criticality sometimes - bisecting two different senses of the word. Anyone can "be critical," dismiss an object, say it's not impressive, and write negative things. However, it's taxing to analyze, trace out some thoughts, and share what you've found.
(*This pokes at another issue, of course, The Spectator. The Spectator doesn't exist. There are only spectators and instances of spectatorship.)
Let's remember a dialogue exchange in Metropolitan. Tom denigrates Mansfield Park without having read it: "The context of the novel, and nearly everything that Jane Austen wrote looks ridiculous from today’s perspective."
Audrey's famous rejoinder: "Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen's perspective would look even worse?"
Because of Metropolitan's politics, this argument can be easily enlisted as a traditionalist backhand. Not wrongly, either. But things can be taken all manner of ways. I'd like to step back a pace and situate the comment as a matter of missing the forest and the trees. Myopia involving one's own comfort zone can be a crippling bias; under these circumstances people can think of objects from other times & places as intrusions. To put it another way, rebelling against classics can potentially miss the corporate-hegemony forest for cultural-vegetable trees. The operative word is potentially. Sometimes it's great to shake the canon up, to disregard it, to take aim at it in its institutionalized forms. But I don't always see this justified in every snarky, "emancipatory" dismissal of a canonical object. Sometimes it's one's own nostalgia that one is blindly advocating against a merely older and recognized nostalgia.
And I get it. I understand moods that might dissuade one from an art film, or from particular conventions in older movies. I also identify with certain Gen X/Y modes of consumption and discussion of movies. But at the same time, these are moods and modes - not permanent, not absolute, not universal. They're embodied in me, and have resulted from a lifetime of behaviors, as they are with everyone else. But isn't this a huge part of why culture is interesting? The argument isn't that everyone needs to copy my taste profile of nobrow eclecticism. The point is that all of us, if we're curious and honest people, forge more complex mental landscapes of something like "cinema" than any one picture of cinema can account for. Our criticism should try to respect that fact, and attend to it, and push us still out of all manners of complacency.