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Hollywood historian Peter Bogdanovich talks about what made classic films great 

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  • Bogdanovich: advocating for classics.

Peter Bogdanovich didn't arrive in Hollywood until 1964, the end of the golden age of Hollywood cinema. It was an era that produced legendary films from Gone With the Wind to Casablanca and Citizen Kane. But the end of an era didn't stop Bogdanovich from building relationships with his favorite filmmakers, such as Orson Welles, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

Before Bogdanovich began acting and directing, he was writing about Hollywood and its history. His first book, The Cinema of Orson Welles, was published in 1961. He has since published 13 books, largely about golden age actors and directors. That expertise caught the attention of Colorado College, which has booked Bogdanovich to kick off Cornerstone Arts Week.

The 13th iteration of this celebration of forward-thinking, interdisciplinary arts teaching tackles "conceptions of Hollywood as a 'cultural factory,' as a metaphor/mythology, and as a physical space."

Bogdanovich plans to share his love for the pioneers of film. But for a man who's lived by the silver screen for more than half a century, he doesn't see many new movies.

"The cartoons are for kids, the superhero movies are for slightly older kids, and the independent movies are for people who turn their noses up at superhero movies," he says. Before the MPAA established the ratings system in late 1968, Bogdanovich says families would see even the most serious pictures together. Now, between ratings and demographic-focused design, everything is pigeonholed.

"A tragic film like [Ford's] How Green Was My Valley — anybody could go to see it. The kids would be interested, the parents would be crying. It was a different world," he says. "It wasn't niche filmmaking; it was for everybody."

Bogdanovich says the biggest problem in establishing a more wide-reaching, creator-driven movie scene anywhere is what Gore Vidal described as "The United States of amnesia."

Americans "don't have a tradition of culture — or a tradition of tradition," Bogdanovich says, arguing that marketing-designed, single-demographic blockbusters keep viewers stuck in a mind-set free of context, with neither past nor future.

"It's just pop culture," he says, "and pop means now." It's a concern that has been reinforced over the years as he's lectured as part of university film programs. He says that a discouragingly large fraction of the students he's met have been woefully ignorant of the filmmakers who helped the medium take off.

"In order to change the way things are, you'd have to educate the public more to appreciate films that aren't current," he says. He further notes that the first step is to get people into theaters to see classic films again. While TV outlets like Turner Classic Movies help make the classics available, he points out, they're not netting the younger viewers.

There's also the problem of environment: Many of the long, poetic shots from old masters like Ford lose their impact on a smaller screen.

"If there was a revival theater in every city in the country that continuously played older films, younger people would perhaps go to see them and see what a difference it makes on the big screen," he says. "We used to have a saying, 'If you haven't seen it on the big screen, you haven't seen it,' and I'm afraid that's really true."

While the ever-growing size of televisions helps display the visual impact of classic film, television can't replicate the feeling of being in an audience.

"That's the great thing about movies," he says. "You're sitting in the dark with a bunch of strangers, laughing or crying at the same thing on a screen that dwarfs you."

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