Sunday, December 1, 2019

Watching films: "Already getting lost, forever, in the calm night..."

Movies are ephemeral, too.

The Library of Congress claims 75% of the films from the silent era are gone forever.

According to Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, half of all American films made before 1950 and more than 90% of movies made before 1929 are also gone.

A fire at Universal Studios in 2008 destroyed 40,000 to 50,000 archived digital video and film copies.

VHS tapes begin to have significant data loss after about 25 years. Manufacturers of Blu-ray discs say they might last for 150 years. A long time, certainly, but not nearly forever.

Will Earthlings in the year 2500 be able to watch performances by Ingrid Bergman, Bruce Lee and Tom Hanks? Movies directed by Scorsese and Spike Lee? Star Wars? Marvel films? In those aforementioned cases, the best guess might be "probably," because they're among the most famous of our cinema stars and creations. But it's possible that, while some of those famous works might still exist, 99% of everything else will be gone within a few centuries. Perhaps it's even likely that will be the case. Perhaps it's likely that they won't even realize what is lost.

Indeed, everything's ephemeral. Even the couple of million years that Mount Rushmore will endure are just a blink of an eye compared to the age of the universe. But here in 2019, we have the unprecedented luxury of being able to enjoy history's great works — art, architecture, literature, music and, yes, film. Movies go back about 130 years, and there are historical films of paramount importance from its first three decades, such as 1903's The Great Train Robbery. But it's arguably only been about 100 years since "cinema as art" existed. (There's plenty of debate and subjectivity over what qualifies as an influential artistic film; in my view, 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1925's Battleship Potemkin were among the early important ones.)

It's important for us to experience works of art, to witness the vast expanse of what can spring from the human mind and heart. That's why plays and novels from centuries ago are still in print. It's why we have myriad museums showcasing everything from Van Gogh to Vivian Maier to video games; and symphony orchestras that perform works by long-dead composers. It's why the secret removal and protection of artwork from the Louvre in Paris during World War II mattered. Our great art has immense value to human civilization.

All of this is my longwinded way of saying that I've started making a more concerted effort to watch (and rewatch) more of the world's great films. I was a movie viewer on a mission in November, and it was immensely rewarding, as I found time for:

  • Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953)
  • Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  • Good Morning (Yasujirō Ozu, 1959)
  • Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)
  • Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
  • The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973)
  • Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

These are all Great Films™. About family and relationships. Life and death. First loves and fleeting love. Loneliness. Time and memory. Philosophy and religion. Youth and old age. And farting.

Others have penned brilliant reviews, essays and insights about these films, so I won't attempt to do that here. You can seek out their words, but it's all the better if you so do after seeing the films. I give them all the highest recommendation. And yes, as you might have guessed, none of them is in English. All of them are subtitled, in case you don't speak Japanese, Swedish, Italian, French, Spanish or Russian. Please don't let those subtitles be an obstacle. You'll get the hang of it after a few minutes — promise. The reward is well worth the effort by the viewer.

If you're looking for a way to dip your toe into films with subtitles, I would happily suggest Good Morning. That's the one with the farting. It's a 94-minute rare comedy from Ozu. Part of the plot involves two young brothers who go on "strike" until their family buys a television, but that's just one of the storylines of this sweet, accessible film. If you watch it and don't like it, I'll mail you a vintage postcard. How's that for a Papergreat guarantee? If flatulence jokes aren't your thing, though, the other starter film I'd recommend is the 93-minute Il Posto, a bittersweet tale of a young man's entry into the corporate workplace.

Some of the other films I watched in November require a bit more attention and patience, especially Stalker and Last Year at Marienbad. All of these films have superb writing, acting, directing and cinematography. They are works of art that will stay with you. And I hope they remain within our civilization for many more years.

* * *

I also watched a pair of notable documentaries in November: Orson Welles' F for Fake (1973) and Grey Gardens (1975), which had a quartet of directors led by Albert and David Maysles. Both are worthwhile and also problematic. F for Fake is unlike anything I've seen; it's been termed a docudrama, a film essay and a free-form documentary. Because there's really no way to label it. It's an Orson Welles creation, right down to its excesses and overindulgences. I would say the less you know about it going in, the better; but it does help to have some basic familiarity with Howard Hughes and Clifford Irving, as audiences in the 1970s would have.

Grey Gardens is considered an essential entry in the history of documentaries. But it's also hard not to cringe at the exploitative nature of the directors' constant push of the camera into the collapsed lives of high society recluses Big Edie and Little Edie in East Hampton, New York. If you watch the Criterion Blu-ray edition, be sure to stay through the credits to hear the recording of a surprising phone conversation.

I'm hoping to sit down for some more Great Films this month. Some will be first watches and others will be rewatches. And I know I'll be revisting some of these November movies, too. Because art in any form requires an investment of time and consideration by the viewer to bloom to its full potential.

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The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)