Most of movie history is now at our disposal. Charles Nevin spends a year catching up on it—and reaches some unexpected conclusions
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013
How often, these days, do you go to the cinema? Are you still in thrall to the sense of shared occasion and the thrill of the giant screen in the warm, exciting dark? Or have you become a touch disillusioned with the incessant stream of demographic-chasing, trend-following, reality-enhanced films featuring super-heroes, supernaturally spooky heroes, former components of computer games, or fine actors now never knowingly unaccompanied by that leading zeitgeist accessory and audience insurance, the gun?
Merely asking the question probably marks me out as being too old to relish the fast, the loud and the new. Even so, it’s still surprising how well the movies have held up, particularly in the more developed countries, in the face of the greater choice and easier access offered by smaller, personal, portable screens. The trends, though, are not encouraging for the silver-screen picture house, especially among the young: teenagers in America went to the cinema 20% less often in 2012 than in 2009.
Its future, then, may be in the past, serving a niche market for the nostalgic and the ironic. In the meantime, as one who deserted some time ago to the lazier pleasures of the television, I have been employing digital-age armoury to watch old films at home—the old films I’d heard much about but never seen, indulgently interspersed with the ones I wanted to see again, much as you would old friends.
For an elderly adopter, the technology had to be at the less challenging end: DVD rental by post, still a considerable advance on those old shopbound selections majoring mostly in Jackie Chan or teenagers behaving madly, often with chainsaws. I should stress, too, that the test conditions were quite challenging: shared television viewing (in the opening minutes, at least) with two young adult children firmly prejudiced against anything monochrome, a partner not so in thrall to the allure of the past, and a firm ban by all of them on westerns.
Provisos entered, I began my home classics selection with Marcel Carné’s masterwork, "Les Enfants du Paradis". I remember being told in 1987 that I had to see this 1945 story of a 19th-century Parisian coquette and her lovers and admirers, including a rich man, an actor, a mime artist and a thief. Now I have. It’s far too long (three hours, ten minutes) and Arletty, who plays the coquette, is far too old; as in many old films, dentistry is an issue for prosaic modern sensitivities. But Carné has achieved something very rare in the movies, a moment of enthralling magic that turns the heart upside down. It comes in one of his remarkable crowd scenes, starring nearly 2,000 extras—drawn in wartime France from both resisters and collaborators—when Baptiste, the mime artist played by Jean-Louis Barrault, provides a mesmerising sample out in the street of what he offers inside the theatre. I can think of only one other scene to match it, Laurel & Hardy in "Flying Deuces" (1939) turning to the camera and dancing in music-hall style to "Shine on Harvest Moon", and that may be a specialised choice.
Encouraged but a little more wary, I moved on to Vittorio De Sica’s "Bicycle Thieves" (1945), which invariably features in the lists of greatest films. Ignorance, plus a dim memory of a smiling, urbane De Sica in the lightweight 1950s television series "The Four Just Men", left me unprepared for his almost unbearably bleak and unforgiving morality tale of the poor man driven to steal a bicycle because someone has stolen his. It was far too neo-realistic for me, and certainly for my co-watchers, without any leavening of the humour that audiences now seem to need whether it’s appropriate or not (I recently heard one finding something to laugh at in the last scene of "Othello").
Neo-realism has long since given way to a sentimental seam of Italian films, including "Cinema Paradiso" (1988), "Il Postino" (1994) and "Life is Beautiful" (1997), warming home entertainment all, which has made their predecessors look even more stern. I tried "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (1970), De Sica’s acclaimed 1970 portrayal of a rich Jewish family in 1930s Ferrara. This confident, serious, painstaking portrait of the coming of doom feels far too slow for our instant age. "The Leopard" (1963), Visconti’s equally leisured sweep of pre-Unification Sicilian aristocracy and attitudes, avoids this fate, thanks mostly to Burt Lancaster’s prince of the title, displaying that winning Hollywood mix of physical watchability and minimal acting.
"The Leopard" was the best example of a film begging to be seen in all its sumptuous splendour on the big screen. And I was becoming aware, again rather late, of the gulf that can yawn between the mood and mores of the time of making and the time of watching. In the Sixties, I quite enjoyed the multi-directorial, multi-main-character jeu d’esprit that was "Casino Royale" (1967), the Bond movie that got away from Broccoli and Saltzman; now, it’s so—period word alert—zany that it’s unwatchable. For these reasons, the Fellinis on my rental list remain nervously unactivated.
I wish I’d seen "Jules et Jim" (1962), François Truffaut’s high-water mark of the new wave, at least 40 years sooner, too, as it is now completely impossible to take seriously, affectation overwhelming effect, Jeanne Moreau tetchily unendearing as the love interest of the precious pair, and a ridiculously damp squib of an ending. Only now do I note, in my monoglot way, that "new wave" was a translation from the splendidly ambiguous "nouvelle vague".
With these strictures and reservations in mind, I come to what may be my most controversial recommendation, certainly for me: never again watch the films you cherished in your youth, for youth lends a wonder and tolerance that age erodes and disdains. The point applies equally to the British "Carry On" series of farces and Bergman’s medieval meditation "The Seventh Seal" (1957), wherein Bengt Ekerot’s Death has lost his sting, even when playing chess with Max von Sydow’s knight, and the final hilltop dance of death by the knight and his followers, stretched out, arms linked, is one of the clearest examples of where my abidingly etched memory is far too strong to make a return viewing anything other than an anti-climax.
Likewise, Bob Hope, and even more tragically, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Frank Capra just about survives, if only for the enchanting warmth of his love of America (but avoid his Oscar-winning "Lost Horizon", 1937, ruined for today by the primitive production values of the 1930s). Likewise Preston Sturges, whose comedies are mired in time. Only the strongest Ealing comedy, "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949), escapes the overly self-conscious eccentricity of the series. And don’t risk Powell and Pressburger, whose odd combination of quaint and kinky—see the man pouring glue in girls’ hair in the otherwise numinous "A Canterbury Tale" (1944)—grows ever more unsettling. Old favourites I am now resolved never to disturb again include "Some Like It Hot" (1959), "Night of the Hunter" (1955), "Elmer Gantry" (1960), "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), "This Sporting Life" (1963), "The Day of the Locust" (1975), "The Entertainer" (1960) and even "Raising Arizona" (1987). Further rule: on the whole, ignore anything with both Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in it ("A Room with a View", 1985, "Tea with Mussolini", 1999, et al), as it may contain far too much affectingly awkward Englishness for comfortable digestion. And Danny Kaye, although you might admire the discomfort of appearing with him so movingly conveyed by Cecil Parker and Basil Rathbone in "The Court Jester" (1956).
This has, though, gone too negative. Some movies, mysteriously, never fail, despite or perhaps because of being slighter than the classics: "Guys and Dolls" (1955), even allowing for Marlon Brando’s miscasting; "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" (1961), still wonderfully golightly; "The Third Man" (1949), for Orson Welles’s Harry Lime, so brilliantly revealed in the Vienna sewer shadows (and in contrast to "Citizen Kane", 1941, where what was once daring now seems a mess); "North by Northwest" (1959), unusually durable for a Hitchcock, because of Cary Grant’s unerring touch; and, of course, "Casablanca" (1942), for its matchless writing, as in Rick’s laconic, bruised remembrance of his affair with Ilse in Paris: "I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue."
There have been some marvellous late discoveries, like Welles’s obsessively pursued and epic re-arrangement of Shakespeare, "Chimes at Midnight" (1965), with his Falstaff to the fore, which somehow survives a terrible soundtrack and his strange, strangled delivery, and has the most vivid battle scene I have ever seen. Almodovar’s "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988) is a perfect match of Spanish gravity with Spanish giddiness. "Withnail and I" should be as dated as 1987, and is, but holds because of Richard E. Grant’s charm and the piquant, poignant appeal of youthful outrageousness and its short lease.
Perhaps it’s asking too much of such a time-enslaved medium to change or enhance our lives in the way it once did. To condemn on such a random sample is clearly unfair: cineastes will know what treasures I have ignorantly spurned (answers on a postcard, please, or if you insist, an e-mail to email@example.com). It has been a useful, cleansing exercise, and I am now ready to move on to the present. But cautiously: a recent return to an actual cinema, to see "The Hobbit" (2012), demonstrated that I am still not yet ready for elves.
Charles Nevin is is the author of "The Book of Jacks"
Illustration Andrew Archer