I’m 42 years old. I’m staring middle age in the paunch. I refuse to have a crisis, in part because it’s a trope, but after having a crisis in my mid-30s over the whole gender shenanigans I’m hesitant to create any more angst for myself. It’s like reflecting on the 9 years I lived in Syracuse. I counted up the snowfall for all those years and determined it was 1,100 inches. That is more snow than I care to experience in this and my next lifetime (note to the reincarnation powers: please don’t stick me in a desert next time around just because I wrote that). So snow and angst have been crossed off my bucket list, great.
Getting older brings with it some other unfortunate awkwardness, however. I make cultural references that people under 30 don’t understand. And for me these pop culture mini-Litmus tests are even more out of date than my age would suggest they’d be, because my father was 41 years old when I was born, so he harkened back to the freaking swing era. I can make a Hoagie Carmichael mention and not even have the 50-year-olds in the room know what I’m talking about.
There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in those bygone eras from the middle of the 20th Century, for sure. And it’s a high bar to think that in our Internet age college students would spend any time paying attention to anything produced in the previous millennium, but on the other hand, we’ve never before seen such effort made to restore old film, make out of print books available again, or set up tributes to once-forgotten authors. So with the wealth of content available to us today, it’s good practice to see older stories, for the first time, or on repeat. These are some of our cultural predecessors, inspiration for the generation of writers and directors once removed from our contemporary literature and film professionals. It’s also good to retain our collective history–I see young adults all the time at the HIV nonprofit that I run, who have never before heard the evidence supporting safer sex practices. These individuals didn’t live through the advent of AIDS, didn’t lose close friends, didn’t wonder who would come down sick next, didn’t watch their government ignore them while so many people, nearly 600,000, succumbed to the virus. And there is a whole body of written and cinematic literature out there that works through that pain, and offers insight into our problems today, including and beyond AIDS.
With the rewards of such reflection in mind, I offer a list of suggestions for anyone under 35. These are movies they should see:
- Longtime Companion (1989)—One of the early movies about the AIDS epidemic, it’s not just a tearjerker. It’s an exploration of how different generations of gay men defined chosen family vis a vis surviving the crisis. Younger viewers may recognize Mary-Louise Parker from Weeds, and Campbell Scott from Royal Pains, along with several of the other actors. There are plenty of well delivered narratives about the early days of AIDS, but this film is especially accessible and it was a bellwether in its day for getting the conversation about HIV into the popular culture consciousness.
- On the Waterfront (1954)—Yes, it’s the film in which a young Marlon Brando says, “I coulda been a contender.” But watch the film and see why that isn’t just a fun line to imitate, it’s the crux of his whole character. If we think violence and politicking around unions and workers is anything new, this movie will help us see otherwise. If we think cinematographers need full digital color to blow audiences away with the visuals, this movie will school us properly. Taking eight Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture, first-time viewers will not only be sucked into the story and the characters, they’ll see glimmers of this film when they watch most any mafia film that came after it.
- Xanadu (1980)—This is not an important film by any means. It doesn’t have a strong message for society. It’s trite and not well acted. But come on, it’s got more rollerskating than the rest of the movies in the 80s put together. Plus, Olivia Newton-John, and Gene Kelly’s final movie performance. It is quintessential 1980s in tone and fashion, and the songs get stuck in your head. And oh, it’s a cultural reference point for people who like cult movies.
- Sophie’s Choice (1982)—Here’s another old film that has recognizable actors, including Meryl Streep, Peter MacNichol (Numb3rs) and Kevin Kline. Even if you know the spoiler in the film, it’s worth watching the transformation of the narrative from strange eyewitnessing of a dysfunctional relationship into gut-wrenching horror. And of course every Streep performance is a masterpiece.
- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)—This movie is harrowing. I suppose it could be surprising for younger viewers who think that black and white movies are sappy, silly, overacted things that we can’t relate to anymore. But with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the main roles as elderly sisters plagued by regret, alcoholism, and mental illness, this movie is far, far from mid-century comedies. There’s a lot to think about with today’s focus on celebrity and some people’s need for attention, and other themes pervade the film—the tragedy of our expectations for female beauty, the juggernaut that is Hollywood, the lack of attention from protective institutions toward abuse victims. It’s disturbingly presented, and reveals a lot about what has and hasn’t changed with regard to how we show violence and derangement in film today.
Once again, this is far from a complete list. I haven’t even mentioned Kubrick in this post, but that just means that I’ll have another article in the future with some of Stanley’s work that people should still watch today. Admittedly, I love almost every one of his movies…