Some historians like to take a “generational” approach to discussing social history. People who grow up together will see the world shaped in the same ways; they will take certain things for granted (because they already were around when they were born) and others will take some getting used to. One of the best uses of a generational approach I know of is Detlev Peukert’s analysis of German generations in his study, The Weimar Republic.
One of the neat things about looking at centenary history is that the numbers line up so well with what we know about today. I was born in 1970: I have memories of childhood in the 70s, tweens and teens in the 80s, and young adulthood in the 90s. If I had been born 100 years earlier, all those same decades would apply, we’d just be talking about the 1890s, rather than the 1990s.
Let’s take an example. When I was born, “the sixties” was already a done deal, but it was still pretty recent. I learned about it from my parents, teachers, and as I grew up, from the older “mentors” I found in my social sub-culture. I still considered hippies and Vietnam, Kennedy and Johnson to be pretty recent things (I admit, I’ve always had a bent for history, so maybe some people from my generation would disagree). When I talk to young people today, though, I realize that it’s a dark misty past, occupied by grandparents and other “old people,” if at all. If I’d been born in 1870, “the sixties” would be the decade of the American Civil War. To my generation, that war would be part of the context in which we grew up, but we’d have known people who experienced it firsthand. Assuming we’re Americans, the wounds would still have been open at the time, and the question of how to negotiate a country without slavery would be something people struggled with all our lives. For people born in 1890 or later, we’d get that “dark past” already. Sure, they would know that their grandparents had fought or lost loved ones, but that was a long time ago, right? Slavery would be pretty much unthinkable, although Jim Crow would be so entrenched it might seem eternal – the only way things could be in the South.
To bring this back to a film history perspective, let’s think about how the generations might experience films. For people born before 1870, film might seem like an oddity or an irrelevancy, except maybe for a few who saw it as a wonder and were fascinated, but still unsure how it all worked. For “my” generation (the 1870’ers), it would be something that hit as we grew to adulthood. I might have seen my first film in my late twenties, or a bit into my thirties, and it would be part of my sense of coming-of-age, or the progress that my generation had seen and participated in. For the pen-millennials (to coin a phrase), movies were always there, and the way they were made in 1897 was pathetically boring. Only the newest films seem like “real” movies, and they take film grammar and technique for granted.
Obviously, I’m suggesting a kind of parallel with technological advances of recent years, and just as obviously, the comparison only goes so far. A lot of people, of any age, never went to the movies, or only rarely. Your knowledge of film didn’t have much effect on your ability to get ahead in school, get a job, or keep in touch with your friends, among other things. Still, it’s interesting to think of people who long ago passed away of old age as being like us, or younger than us, and how they saw a world that was changing faster than they had ever expected.