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The Futility Of Trying To Be Timeless
timeless dated 1980's ad

The minute it's captured, it's dated

Have you ever looked over old pictures of your parents or grandparents and, noting the month and year that was once commonly stamped on the bottom, calculated they were younger there than you are now?

It doesn't matter how old they really were.  To you, they always looked older.

Part of this, I imagine, is vanity. We'd like to believe that we look better for our age than our grandparents and parents ever did. 

And part of it may be true. In prior generations, people were supposed to look their ages or beyond. A man on a career path at age 25 in generations past dressed like the people a generation above him, to emulate the status he was trying to obtain. As recently as the 1970's, kids dressed up like their parents when getting their annual yearbook photographs taken.  This made them look older even to contemporary people of that era. 

Few would dress up that way today and, in fact, it could well be the reverse, with the older generations dressing in fashions more suitable for the young.   No one was chanting "50 is the new 30" back in our parents' and grandparents' days. 

I went online expecting plenty of others to have asked why prior generations looked older. Various theories were proffered. Malnutrition was one commonly cited reason. I beg to differ on that one. Food was less processed in prior eras and people ate organic or close to it by default. Someone else uploaded an old photograph from 100 years ago and commented that peoples' faces looked more worn, possible I suppose given that no one wore sunscreen back then.   Someone else said the faces of 100 years ago were quite different, which may hold some truth. People with facial traits that were less desirable would have been less likely to reproduce, and those traits should become rarer or nonexistent in later generations. 

All those reasons might have some validity.  But there is a more all encompassing reason: the pictures we're looking at are old, and we know it.  And everything old we look back at is viewed from our present filters.

The age of the media we're skimming - a picture, a movie, a book, an advertisement - automatically adds years to our perceptions of the people within. If there's some kind of rule that an additional ten kilograms adds 5 years to your appearance or the loss of 65% of your hair adds a decade, then there must be some kind of rule that ancient media makes someone contained within it look older.

Think about it. If you see the average 13-yr old boy in a daguerreotype from 1850, you're going to peg him as a couple of years older.  His 35-yr old father alongside him might look 45. 

It's hard to separate how old they really look - in terms of skin tone, body conditioning, wrinkles - vs how old they appear to look because you're looking at an image that's a century-and-a-half old. Not so long ago, I was sent an e-mail with links to several dozen old photographs that had been colorized. Regardless of when the original photographs were taken, some as far back as 1860 and others from the 1950's, the addition of color made the photographs look more contemporary, and, I suspect, the people within them, a bit younger. 

However, none of the colorized photographs looked timeless.

The colorization process can't make an 1860's or 1930's photograph look like it was taken yesterday.  Rather, it gives the pictures a late 1950's or early 1960's glossy look, which still makes it dated from today's vantage point.  This kind of dating is actually quite easy to fake. Image filters have since been employed in smartphone apps to make the pictures you snapped weeks ago appear like they were taken decades ago. I have a video app on my own phone which takes movies as if they were filmed in the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, or 1970's.

Hairstyles and fashions also instantly date a scene, sometimes right down to a specific year if the particular style was that transient. This sort of dating is also easy to fake. The set designers, the makeup artists, and production crew on a TV show like Mad Men painstakingly insure that the actors are dressed and styled to look like people actually did in the 1960's.

And yet, despite the people behind Mad Men being such sticklers for accuracy, when watching you never feel like you've been beamed back to 1964 and are viewing a contemporary drama from that time period. The high definition images are too crisp, the storytelling too layered. Even if a process existed to turn old TV show stock into colorized high definition versions, the shows actually on the air in 1964 feel very different from Mad Men. No one is going to watch Bewitched, McHale's Navy, or The Dick Van Dyke Show and mistake Mad Men as being contemporaneous.

The show/movie/book needn't be set in the time period when it was released to become dated. In 1985, the ABC television network debuted a miniseries called North and South, profiling two friends who meet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later find themselves on opposite sides of the American Civil War conflict.  The series spans 1842 to 1861, the distant past as seen from 1985.  Nothing was supposed to be contemporary about it. Nonetheless, it comes off as so dated, my wife and I couldn't finish it. The miniseries reeks of the shallow 1980's soap operaesque mien then common on shows such as Dynasty and Dallas. 

Put another way: if North and South had been produced thirty years later, using the same novel as the source material, the plot might be the same but the dialogue, the focus, the conflicts, the look, and the feel would be radically different, practically unrecognizable.

For nothing escapes the time period in which it was birthed.

If you want to get very specific, Mad Men isn't about the advertising industry of the 1960's.   It's about the world of early twenty-first century looking back at the advertising industry of the 1960's.

This is why remakes, which can boast the same plot and characters as the original, play as almost entirely different projects. Watch the original True Grit from 1969. That production cast a woman of 21 to play the role of a 14-yr old girl and the movie was told from lead actor John Wayne's perspective. This was a very 1960's sensibility irrespective of the movie being set in the 1870's. In the remake 40 years later, the producers got a real 14-yr old to play a 14-yr old and we saw events unfold through her eyes. The setting, year, characters, and overall plot of both movies are the same. The results are different enough to constitute two very different films. 

Of course, it is possible for someone of today to develop a brand new TV series set in the 1980's and written and filmed as if it were still the 1980's. But no one would want to watch it. Prior to the mid-1990's, TV shows automatically reset at the end of each episode. Each acted as a self-contained unit. Then there was a shift. Seasonal arcs became accepted, even encouraged. We saw characters change and grow over the course of several seasons.  Sylvester Stallone can make a homage to 1980's action films with his Expendables franchise, but the movies remain very much early twenty-first century over-the-top action flicks highlighting certain aspects of 1980's action movies and heroes.

The ideal would be to come up with something timeless, something successive generations can enjoy as much as present ones do, something no one can tell came out of far bygone eras. As tempting as it might be to think that there's nothing in the material that would overtly date it, the material by definition becomes dated by the generation which first embraces it. On first glance, a book and movie franchise like Harry Potter appears somewhat timeless. We can only say that because not much time has elapsed since the books and movies were completed. Forty years from now, the world will have undergone many changes, in attitudes, in the definition of acceptability, in family dynamics.  All these will all have an impact on how a writer forty years hence would draft a wizard series and how wizard series of the past will be assessed. 

Try to imagine a film director dusting off the script of a hit movie from a half century ago. The director vows to not alter the script an iota. All he'll do is cast new actors and actresses, use modern sets to place the same story in our present, and film the footage with modern digital cameras under modern lighting scenarios. Would you expect the newer movie to resonate with modern audiences like the original did?

Gus Van Sant tried to do just that with Pyscho, recreating the film shot-by-shot with the identical script almost four decades later. If modernization just meant colorization and modern hairstyles and fashions, why is that the original film grossed over 60 times its budget and the newer one grossed not even two-thirds of its budget?

Nearly all films made in 1960 were made for the audiences of 1960. Audiences years later appreciate the work for what it was and make allowances for dialogue and pacing that no longer seem current. Trying to make a 'new' 1960 film in 1998, particularly when the older version was already heralded, was a surefire way to fail.   Newer audiences only see the material through their newer eyes.   The masses don't want a rehash of the past as the past saw it. 

In 1992, the Annoyance Theater reaped great success with their The Real Live Brady Bunch show.  These were stage versions of entire Brady Bunch TV episodes delivered verbatim. Unlike the original, which could only see the 1970's from the vantage point of the 1970's, the 1992 stage version could slyly wink at their 1992 audience and have the audience get the joke. 

Once in awhile, someone creates a piece of art that goes unappreciated by the generation it was introduced to, only to be appreciated by later generations. This is quite unlike something appealing to its initial generation and subsequently appreciated by later generations as well. Vincent Van Gogh is a household name today. His Portrait Of Dr. Gachet sold for $80m a hundred years after Van Gogh died. No one in Van Gogh's own time period appreciated him; he only managed to sell two works of art during his lifetime. Johann Sebastian Bach is today considered one of the world's most famous composers, but while he was alive, he was not celebrated for his music. We call such people ahead of their time. These people needed to be born fifty to a hundred years later for there to be enough of an audience to appreciate their work. 

So, while we may be able to make some predictions about the future that aren't so way off the mark, creating something that is sure to be heralded by the future is like trying to make an appointment with a future spouse who hasn't been born yet. We are influenced by the generations which came before us and others of our current generation. We cannot, by intent, create something that is timeless when we have no way to understand the times which will come way after our own. 

Embrace instead the idea of yourself capturing this time and this place. If you're lucky, you may stand some chance of immortalizing it.

If you liked reading this, consider:
 The Wealth On The Outskirts
 Best Friends Or Adios Forever?
 The Complete Article Index