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Stop Worrying About What Old Movies Couldn’t Be Made Today

Tom Nichols’ lament about ‘Pulp Fiction’ in the age of Cancel Culture is a reminder that films are made for their moment — and that reappraising them as times change is healthy, not censorious

As someone who sees a lot of movies, both old and new, a complaint I can’t stand is “Boy, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The idea that films were unquestionably better during some bygone halcyon period — a period, coincidentally, when the complainer happened to be paying more attention to movies — tells me nothing except that you’re clearly not keeping up. It’s a sign you’ve become set in your ways, unable to remain open to an art form that continues to evolve in exciting ways. It’s an indication that nostalgia has clouded your judgment.

This annoying argument is made in lots of ways, but the most obnoxious variation is the one you see circulating on Twitter every once in a while. And the latest example happened Sunday night, when writer and academic Tom Nichols decided to rewatch a 1990s classic:

At first blush, there are perhaps different ways to interpret what Nichols means, but he made his point clearer when he started mixing it up with commenters, taking aim at “a censorious, fragile, silly culture” that, apparently, would never allow Pulp Fiction to exist today. In other words, Nichols is contributing to the “what about…?” back-and-forth that started when Neil Young pulled his music off Spotify because of Joe Rogan’s anti-vaxx stance, which prompted people to reexamine Rogan’s past use of an ugly racial epithet — which prompted other people to find examples of liberal-hero Howard Stern using the same word. In our current climate, Nichols wonders, how would the culture respond to Pulp Fiction, which uses that word fairly frequently.

Pulp Fiction is hardly the only film or provocative work of art that gets the “No way this movie could be made today” rhetorical exercise. Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ proudly profane Western spoof, is often the subject of such tweets. And in both cases, the tweeter wants us to know how far we’ve fallen as a society: Our culture has gotten so PC that this masterpiece would be derided today — look how dumb we’ve become!”  

At least the “They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to” crowd can be content in their rose-colored view of the movies from their youth. But the “You couldn’t make this movie today” contingent actually thinks they’ve blown our minds with their dazzling insight. That both groups come across as hopelessly smug is obvious, but the latter is more irksome because of how expertly they think they’ve hoisted us on our own petard. Oh, do you object to Joe Rogan using racial epithets? Well, look at this movie you love! Choke on your own hypocrisy!

What these arguments fail to grasp is any sense of historical context — they pluck something from the past and plop it into the present, assuming the world remained freeze-dried during that time period. Also, it’s worth pointing out that there has been plenty of debate about how filmmaker Quentin Tarantino incorporates racially insensitive language in his movies. For years, Spike Lee was a vocal critic of Tarantino’s technique, and Samuel L. Jackson, a frequent Tarantino actor (who’s also worked with Lee), has talked about his own feelings regarding such language. The notion that Nichols has dropped some sort of mind bomb by watching Pulp Fiction in 2022 only shows he’s late to the party. For one thing, you don’t need to go back to Tarantino’s 1994 Oscar-winner to be outraged: That word appears a ton in more recent films of his, like Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Both those movies won Oscars, both of those movies received their share of pushback. 

But the smugness goes deeper than that, with the Brave Tweeter often positioning himself as the lonely genius who understands something about the supposedly “controversial” piece of art that you and I, with our little brains, cannot fathom. Never mind that, with Blazing Saddles, Brooks was being subversive in his depiction of the Old West, using the setting as a metaphor for modern-day racism and inequality — the Brave Tweeter assumes we can’t piece that together. You know how Cancel Culture is!  

Thankfully, astute critics like Walter Chaw are around to explain why Blazing Saddles is far more than its naughty words, although that kind of passionate, thoughtful commentary isn’t the only way to torpedo these shallow arguments. The most obvious, and most frequently utilized, rejoinder is to simply point out that, yes, the film couldn’t be made today because most of its cast have died — a dopey joke, to be sure, but one that speaks to the fact that time is constantly moving forward, changing how we see the world and creating a new reality to grapple with. And it’s a surprisingly durable bit, full of funny iterations, all of them speaking to Roger Ebert’s old line, “Movies do not change, but their viewers do.”

Which isn’t to say that certain movies wouldn’t probably be rethought for modern audiences. Mickey Rooney’s offensive portrayal of an Asian character in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Yes, that wouldn’t have happened today — except when you consider that, even in recent years, Hollywood has had to contend with criticism of Asian roles being whitewashed. In fact, a film that’s going to be part of the Oscar conversation, Licorice Pizza, has been attacked for how a white supporting character speaks in a cartoonishly exaggerated Japanese accent to two different Japanese wives we meet over the course of the movie. (And that’s not even to mention some people’s discomfort with the film’s love story.) If Licorice Pizza had come out in 1994 or 1961, we might see it now and think, “Oh, you couldn’t make this movie today!” Except Paul Thomas Anderson did.

I don’t mean to defend Anderson’s creative choice, which was meant to illustrate the casual racism of his film’s early-1970s setting but nonetheless comes across as incredibly cringey. Nonetheless, what the “You couldn’t make this movie today” crowd always forgets is that, actually, there’s a ton of potentially discomforting work still being produced. Many were angered at Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Musician Sia was taken to task for her patronizing portrayal of autism in her terrible film Music. Italians hated the idea of Chris Pratt voicing Super Mario. (Some Italians also weren’t thrilled with those accents in House of Gucci.) And those are the controversies we’re aware of right now — in 10 years’ time, we may look back at some of today’s movies and be shocked by their attitudes. (This is a television example, but I loved 30 Rock during its run — I’m stunned how differently the show feels now, not that long after it left the air.)

But with all the examples I just cited, none of them have been banned. None of them cease to exist. They’re part of the culture, being debated and examined like any piece of work is. As for something like Pulp Fiction, the idea isn’t to use our modern, hopefully more enlightened viewpoint to bash older work — or to bemoan so-called Cancel Culture as proof that we’re so whipped into a woke fury that we can no longer appreciate great, edgy films. Rather, it might be helpful to watch Pulp Fiction, wince a little at some of the dialogue and then ponder how we’ve become more cognizant of hurtful language and attitudes — and perhaps reflect on the fact that that’s a good thing that we’re thinking about it more than we used to. 

While working on this piece, I was talking with my colleague Miles Klee, who replied to Nichols’ original “Won’t anyone think of the children?” tweet. “It’s worth noting that virtually no one has even tried to retroactively cancel or censor the films that may violate taboos of the current climate — and every one of them seems to remain a beloved, widely available classic,” he argues. To that end, it’s worth mentioning that Turner Classic Movies and others continue to show “problematic” films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but have recently helped give viewers context for what they’re watching, analyzing these movies’ potentially offensive content. In that way, these movies can exist today, even if they wouldn’t be made the same way.

Like me, Miles sees a connection between the “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” and “You couldn’t make this movie today” contingents. “The [‘You couldn’t make this movie today’] catchphrase spins a moral panic out of what’s really just nostalgia: You like the stuff that came out 20 to 40 years ago and have invented this narrative that the woke police are going to somehow take it away from you,” he says. With both camps, the imperative is to protect the movies from the past, using them as a cudgel to strike down what’s “bad” about the modern era. In both cases, you’re meant to feel secure knowing that the old stuff you love is superior to what’s out there now: You know better than the kids today.  

Of course, this pearl-clutching about Cancel Culture denies the existence of voices and creative freedoms that didn’t exist back during the good ol’ days. Great, daring work, such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Titane, push against the patriarchal attitudes that are still around but were even more ensconced way back when. When someone laments that some amazing film couldn’t be made today, they never consider the alternative perspective, which is that a lot of films produced now wouldn’t have been allowed a platform not that long ago. Sometimes, this hand-wringing over what old classics wouldn’t be made today sounds a lot like a resistance to the new visions and perspectives finally being brought to movies.

On the one hand, the observation that certain films wouldn’t be made today is understandable. The shifting nature of Hollywood makes that inevitable. For instance, there’s a whole slew of films from the 2000s that were produced by studios’ indie divisions — masterpieces like You Can Count on Me or There Will Be Blood — that probably would have had a harder time in our current environment, where corporations are mostly interested in franchises. “As far as stifling the ‘next’ Pulp Fiction or Blazing Saddles,” Miles says, “the greater threat to innovation or boundary-pushing in any medium is a company like Disney monopolizing the industry so they can churn out formulaic franchise dreck.” 

Without a doubt, certain movies — whether because of greater cultural sensitivity or changing economic realities — probably wouldn’t be made today. But that’s not really the argument that writers like Nichols are making. They want to put on a big show of shaking their heads at the rest of us for our timidity and stupidity — for our failure to grasp the genius of a button-pushing work of art. What they fail to recognize is that all great films are great for their moment, destined to be reconsidered as time marches on. 

That’s the way all of life works — if we’re lucky, we’re always reevaluating ourselves, putting aside blind spots and growing as people. Doing the same thing with our art isn’t a weakness — and it doesn’t mean necessarily ditching everything that came before because it doesn’t live up to modern standards. The people I know who love movies as much as I do are always reappraising and revisiting their favorites, new and old, thinking about how those movies speak to the world, realizing their shortcomings while appreciating their merits. A movie is made for its time, but then that time fades away, and it’s up to us to keep the film alive by debating and discussing it, flaws and all. Those who worry about Cancel Culture think that progressive are shutting down discourse — I’d argue folks like Nichols are actually the ones who aren’t interested in conversation.