When I initiated my current project of experiencing film history by watching all the essential pictures, I expected it to be one of the many endeavors to fall victim to my short attention span. A few friends’ lists of films, perhaps twenty movies in total, provided a list that seemed overwhelming at the time. How often could I sacrifice an evening for a film that I might find obtuse, dated, and almost unwatchable? At the time, it seemed like a mere flight of fancy, easy to pursue because it was just a long list and an impotent plan.
How surprised I am, even now, to find that the quest has endured. In the last four months, I’ve watched around thirty films and tripled the size of my NetFlix queue, and I’ve seen my curiosity grow into something like an obsession. I’m hesitant to add too many more films to my queue (the purview of film is starting to lose its shape), and I can only watch a couple movies a week, so I find myself simply milling over the ones I’ve seen and impotently searching for “essentials” that I’ve managed to miss. Of course, there can’t be many more “essentials,” because the word loses its meaning when it's applied to such a vast range of films, so looking for more additions can be a frustrating pastime.
I’ve found that there are a number of possible approaches to the idea of “essential cinema.” My first approach to this topic was through a few friends, all very different, but all passionate about movies. I asked each of them for a list of five movies that everybody should see, and I got five completely different angles on the art and history of the medium. One list was a cluster of “influential films,” the experimental and artistic pieces that have inspired other directors to expand their visions… people like Bergman, Herzog, and Antonioni, who are essential for the uniqueness of their visions. Another list was a group of key blockbusters, including Star Wars, the Godfather, and three other films that have become inescapable references in pop culture. A third friend offered an historical list, a survey of silver screen and golden-age masterpieces that have served as Hollywood’s perennial prototypes.
I’ve discovered two inescapable names in this process. These are Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa… these two auteurs are the definitive artists of cinema history, having produced an almost endless filmography of apparent masterpieces according to their respective unique visions. Bergman’s best-known films are Persona, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries, but if you dig into his work, you find that virtually every film he produced is considered a masterpiece in some way. Kurosawa’s films have a similar power over his audiences… beyond Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, you’ll find a wealth of films that demonstrate a vast range of talent, from epic Samurai films to surreal film noir. It seems like every one of Kurosawa’s films is “perhaps his best,” or “enormously influential.”
You may notice: they’re not Steven Spielberg or James Cameron. They didn’t have a whole lot of budget for pyrotechnics, and they certainly didn’t have computer animation. In fact, going back into the history of cinema, you discover a much simpler art form. I’m not going to argue that these visionaries were better than our blockbuster purveyors, or even that they made better films. However, I’m going to point out that they had more control, back in the day. For Bergman in Persona, or for Warner Herzog in Stroszek, filmmaking was still related to theater and photography, and the camera was still a manual tool, a distant cousin of the paintbrush.
And though there have always been massive, big-budget motion pictures, going as far back as Intolerance, that silent epic, it was still an art form for individual creators for most of the twentieth century. Realizing this fact is part of the key to enjoying the older "classic" films, the ones that seem impossibly dated if you're mostly watching Guy Ritchie these days. When you get past the strange feeling that old films aren't managing to cue your emotions with obvious signals (sad music, close-ups of a single tear), you may discover a certain complex personality in the older pieces of cinema. There may be no twisted, angular plot to follow, and nobody to root for, so you have to start getting to know film like you get to a human being... strange, with emotional pieces that fit together messily, the product of a whole mass of conflicting influences and human history, wanting to speak but rarely knowing quite what it wants to say. So many old films are sullen, possibly because they're explorations of difficult psychic spaces. Some are over-masculine and callous, but undercut by gawky self-consciousness (Sergio Leone), and some use buoyancy and escapism to distract from the fact that they're wrestling with crippling uncertainty (Federico Fellini).
I've made a point to watch films in related groups, but to make sure I'm not watching all of one type of film at any particular time. Thus, I'll be poking around Poetic Realism, and mixing in a few 80's and 90's suspense and sci-fi essentials while I'm at it. The intention, in part, has been for me to avoid getting lost in one genre or period, and to get a broad purview of cinema history. It's apparent that film, as it stands today, has been shaped in some way by every major genre and movement, from the early silent films, which established all the basic camera conventions (the Soviet montage, for instance) to the Golden era of film, which brought the celebrity actor to Hollywood, to film noir, which brought us face to face with the cynical, self-preserving hero of late modernism.
Though film is a constant elaboration on its entire history, it seems that perhaps the current world of popular movies was born around the 1980's, with directors like Lucas, Cameron, and Ridley Scott. For years, film was disposed to be realist, simply by the limitations of budget and economy... with Star Wars, THX, Blade Runner, Alien(s), and The Terminator, directors were able to start creating their own worlds, and these visionaries became the godfathers of new American fiction. Since that time, set design, costuming, and post-production have matched cinematography and acting as the decisive factors in the cinema arts, and the vast majority of large-volume blockbusters, from Sin City to The Lord of the Rings to Gladiator, have drawn from this tendency, born in a molten pitch of 80's sci-fi.
It's taken some time for this project to bear any strong opinions, and though I've discovered some favorite movies, and traced some of my old favorites back to their historical influences, I haven't really formed much in the way of preferences for certain eras, styles, or movements. The one deeply personal conclusion I have arrived at is a pretty simple, broad reinforcement of something that I've actually known for a long time: I LOVE cinema, from the old silent pictures to the new Oscar winners, and from the most inane romances to the most obtuse art films.
I wish I had something better to tell you, at the end of this rambling post, but this is all I have for you. Movies are awesome. Thank you. Good night.