‘King Kong,’ ‘Star Wars’ And The Bogus Notion Of ‘Dated’ Special Effects

03.09.17 8 months ago 8 Comments

RKO / 20th Century Fox

Sometimes you find yourself having variations on the same frustrating conversation over the years. I first saw the original King Kong on television one weekend when I was in junior high after years of reading about it in books. It more than lived up to its reputation. I was already a fan of the big ape having seen the 1976 remake many times as a kid, but watching the original version felt akin to hearing Elvis Presley’s Sun Studios recordings after only knowing him as that guy from the Aloha From Hawaii special. (Which was more or less my experience with Elvis, but that’s another story.) It was raw and wonderful, filled with strange, gigantic beasts that didn’t feel quite real and were all the scarier for it. They seemed liked creatures from beyond reality and not subject to its laws. Like the best fantasy movies, watching it felt like stepping into a dream.

I came back to school on Monday enthused and talked to a friend who’d also watched it. “Yeah,” she replied, “but the effects were so dated.” Dream over.

I didn’t fully understand what my friend meant then and I’m not sure I understand it now when I find myself having similar conversations, most recently about the original Star Wars. On one level, I get it. Older films use older techniques. The special effects of 1933 and 1977 don’t look like the effects of 2017. On the other hand: So what? Does that have to be a movie-disrupting distraction?

I think there are several factors that lead viewers to think this way. I also think people would enjoy movies more, and enjoy more movies, if they’d learn to ignore them.

The first is a bias toward the new. In countless ways — even beyond special effects — the era in which we live influences the entertainment we consume, be it via fashion, music choices, styles of cinematography, editing techniques, the fonts used for credits, or any number of other factors. We get so used to the way things are done now that entertainment from just a few years ago can already look like it belongs to an earlier time. I recently rewatched chunks of Party Down and the flip phones alone make it look like the product of a different era. It’s less than a decade old.

This is unavoidable. It’s also just fine. There are people who use the term “dated” to dismiss anything created before the last Olympics. The key here: Don’t be one of those people. Art is the only form of time travel we’ve yet invented and to not recognize this is to deny yourself one of its greatest pleasures. Yes, Alicia Silverstone’s wardrobe in Clueless cements it squarely in 1995. No, the acting styles of the studio era aren’t as naturalistic as the sort of performances we’re used to seeing today. These are part of the pleasures of older films. The wave them off as dated is to reveal you have unadventurous taste.*

[* The more thought I’ve given it, the only context in which the word “dated” makes sense to me is when applied to antiquated attitudes toward race, gender, sexual orientation and so forth. To watch an older movie and to suddenly be confronted with, say, a blackface routine or Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man and so on is, to say the least, jarring.]

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