The other day I was listening to the song Screaming by the Pet Shop Boys. It had featured on the soundtrack to Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Psycho. The remake taught me something, and that is that filmmaking styles can become dated, but the films, themselves, can sometimes still be timeless. This in-turn leads me to wonder: What makes a film timeless?
First, let's look at the issue with Psycho. The original film is a classic, hands down. Director Alfred Hitchcock was one of cinema's greatest directors. He was a master of staging, direction and visual style. But it's that last bit -- style -- that also destroyed the remake of Psycho. Van Sant decided to do a (for the most part) shot-by-shot version of the film, only with different actors and making it in color, instead of black & white. And I don't think that Hitchcock's style transfers well to a modern film.
I had always noticed that Alfred Hitchcock's movies had a particular style & flair to them, but hadn't thought about it too much until Van Sant remade one of them. Look again at Hitchcock's movies. They are very often filmed at unusual angles. The scenes sometimes end abruptly. He uses extended tracking shots, sometimes of nothing more than a building, or a person's face. This works in his movies, perhaps because of the time period they are from, or because of the technical people Hitch had around him, or because he was simply excellent at what he did (or all of the above). But films like that don't really work in today's world. At least, not for me. It's one reason I found M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable such an unbearable cinematic experience.
Outdated styles in filmmaking are not solely the domain of Alfred Hitchcock, of course. Observe almost any classic movie, and you'll realize that it couldn't be made in the same manner today. But that doesn't necessarily stop such films from standing the test of time, from seeming fresh and interesting to a discerning modern viewer. Why is this?
Take Night of the Hunter, for example. Released in 1955, the film wasn't terribly well-received by the audience of its day, but has since gained much respect. I recently watched it for the first time, and thought it was great. It is a highly-stylized film, to put it mildly. It is almost dream-like in its composition. It occurred to me that, while this helps the movie significantly, it also is something that probably wouldn't work as well if it were remade today, shot-by-shot. Yet, the film doesn't come across as 'dated.' Confusing? Or does it make sense?
I think what's important for a film, in order for it to become accepted for generations -- aside from the obvious necessity of being a well-made movie about a relatable subject -- is the often subconscious acceptance of the the filmgoer that it is of it's time. We watch a gritty '70s movie and, yes, somewhere we understand that it is from an era of big hair, flared pants, humongous cars and bad color palettes. And then we move on. Try making a serious movie set in modern times with those same characteristics, and it wouldn't work.
Of course, realizing that various films are representative of their different eras isn't always a guarantee that it will have aged well. The sometimes subtle, sometimes not, racism of older movies can often stop a modern viewer in his or her tracks. And I remember wincing quite a bit the last time I watched 1944's Double Indemnity, what with how many times Fred MacMurray referred to Barbara Stanwyck as "baby." Really, it was too much. But something like 1963's Charade? Man, that never gets old.