Bill Mesce at Sound on Sight* asks the right question:
Despite films being more widespread and more available than ever, modern audiences have even less film literacy than ever.
To illustrate the point, Mesce turns to a film class he taught and his experience with one student:
“‘How come you only show us clips from movies none of us ever heard of?’
She was 30, a single mom who’d admirably gone back to school for a business degree to better things for her and her family. She’d taken my film appreciation class as an elective, a break from the grind of her business classes, expecting it would be – her word – ‘fun.’
But, due to the aforementioned “movies none of us ever heard of,” she was not having the anticipated fun.
I explained, “Because most movies were made before you were born.”
Simple and obvious, it still didn’t satisfy her, and the unasked next question in her eyes I guessed to be, “But why do we have to see them?”
Most of my class – not all, but most – I knew felt similarly. They didn’t say it but I could tell: rolled eyes, glazed eyes, eyes glued to smart phones they mistakenly thought I couldn’t see hidden in their laps under their desks instead of on the projection screen. The occasional snoozer, head down on his/her desk.”
Mesce’s explanation should ring true to moviegoers of a certain age: Those of us who grew up with classic movies on broadcast television; the Saturday afternoon cinema that ran on independent stations in the upper reaches of the UHF band and the low-rent horror movies that aired late on Saturday nights or early on Sunday mornings when all the respectable folk were supposed to be asleep.
“Where I lived in northeastern New Jersey, we were part of the New York metropolitan viewing area, then and now the biggest, most densely-populated TV market in the country, big enough to support six channels: the flagship stations for the three broadcast networks (WCBS Channel 2, WNBC Channel 4, WABC Channel 7), three independent stations (WPIX Channel 5 which would later become part of Fox; WOR Channel 9 which would later become part of UPN, and then MyTV after UPN folded; WPIX Channel 11, which would later be part of The WB which evolved into The CW); and one “educational station,” WNET Channel 13 (later part of PBS). Every Sunday morning, Channel 11 had a Bowery Boys flick … Those Saturday night slots were where I was introduced to the Frankenstein monster and vampires, werewolves, alien invaders (I’ve hardly met a male of my generation who doesn’t remember the original Invaders from Mars  – an indelible concoction of silliness, low-budget embarrassment, visceral childhood paranoias, and brilliant visuals).”
Mesce is describing the film topography of my youth. As a kid in Connecticut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Channel 30, the NBC station in Hartford, aired a classic (or not-so-classic) every weekday at 4 p.m. It ate up the two hours between the last soap and the 6 p.m. news. And for me, it was an education in classic Hollywood.
On Saturday mornings, WWLP-TV, Channel 22 in Springfield, Mass., just over the border, aired “Little Rascals” and “Three Stooges” shorts. If I’m remembering it correctly, WGGB-TV Channel 40, also in Springfield, aired old “Sherlock Holmes” movies with Basil Rathbone in the title role. And it was on one of these stations that I first saw “Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” the 1948 classic that combined America’s favorite comedy team with the Universal Studios stable of monsters.
This film-viewing habit was abetted by mother, who grew up in the South End of Hartford in the 1940s and 1950s and actually sat in those Saturday matinee audiences. Mom’s a confirmed movie buff. And it’s from her that I credit my education in classic America cinema.
When I was a little older, CPTV-TV Channel 24 in Hartford, aired a show called “Matinee at the Bijou,” which I’ve written about in this space before. It basically mimicked an entire afternoon at the movies, from cartoons and newsreels to serials and leading features.
I could go on. Cassandra Peterson’s buxom vamp, Elvira, ruled in the early 1980s. There was a resurgence of the 3D craze in the early 1980s and I remember peering through red-and-blue glasses to watch a badly 3-D rendered version of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
In short, those classic films were everywhere if you knew where to look for them. These days, they’ve been exiled, mostly, to Turner Classic Movies, which does Yeoman’s work in preserving our filmed heritage. But when was the last time you saw “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” anywhere outside of a DVD or a revival house.? It’s not happening. As a result, a part of our shared literacy is being lost.
I don’t want to sound like a fogey here. I’m as relentlessly modernist as the next guy. But I can’t help but feel like Mesce is onto something here. Knowing these films, their lines, their themes and plots, is a integral part of being culturally literate.
Read the full story here.
(*Correction, 8/9/11: I originally attributed authorship of this article to Roger Ebert. My mistake. It was re-Tweeted by Ebert. I apologize to Mr. Mesce for the utterly inexcusable error).