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I recently got rid of a lot of videotapes, weeding out the ones that I either didn’t watch or didn’t much care for. The reason for this was an increasing lack of space. Once the shelves were full, they suddenly overflowed until books, tapes and discs began to overtake the room. It was becoming hard to find somewhere to sit, or indeed to open the door when I returned home. This eventually began to really frustrate me. The tapes were sitting there, untouched, gathering dust and taking up space.

Now I am positive that this is something that all movie lovers have to struggle with: an obsessive desire to collect. Have you ever felt somewhat dazed and out of breath when in a DVD or bookshop? Ever wandered around like a somnambulist, piling up objects in your arms until you somehow find yourself outside the shop in the rain holding two bags of stuff with a really empty wallet? I know I have.

Getting rid of the tapes really put this obsession with collecting in perspective. I felt like a weight had lifted once I handed them into the charity shop. And as time went by I realised even more that I didn’t need those tapes, that they were not essential to my life. Since then I have not been buying very much. Instead I take note of what I already own and what I have yet to watch. Why buy another box set when I have several still to get through?

Why do film lovers in particular have this desire? Partly I think it’s because we feel we have to ‘own’ the film. By having a copy of it, the film belongs to us, is not fade from memory, and is available to be watched 24/7. Except we do not watch 24/7. The likelihood is that DVDs will be watched once and never again. When I was younger I would watch and re-watch and I do my best to revisit my favourites now, but that drive to push on, to keep watching and see more takes over. Certainly some people can get very depressed dwelling on how to fit all these hours of moving pictures into a lifetime. We ultimately devise an instinct as to the types of films we will enjoy over films we feel we do not have time for.

We also collect in other ways. The watching of another film is an extra notch on a kind of mental collection stored in our heads. Asked a movie question we can flick through that collection in an instant, no videos required. A movie collection of course branches out beyond the films themselves, but quickly spirals out to books, merchandise, posters, autographs and even ticket stubs. If you’re a more serious collector you may have 16mm or even 35mm prints of films stored in a temperature-controlled cellar.

It is also about a lack of time, and ultimately time management. If a job takes up your day and you only have time to watch in the evening, how do you manage this? Do you watch a film a night? What about other responsibilities? Of course at the end of the day you may be exhausted and not have the energy to watch for 120 minutes. I sometimes watch films like books, a section at a time before I get through the film. And onto the next one. But then what about reading? Do you find yourself only reading on the way to work? And then when do you find time to write?

My advice would be: work through the titles you already own before ordering yet another box set.

Video Fever

Okay, well, I say this and I promise I was doing so well myself, but I have to admit that I had a serious relapse this weekend. I found myself wandering about London with carrier bags full of videotapes. That’s right, not DVDs, but VHS tapes.

I found myself in a London film shop where they were getting rid of old out-of-print video stock. These were seriously rare titles that in their day would have sold for £20 each. There were many great titles in there but it was the silents I was most interested in. I had not seen them released elsewhere and I thought this may be my only chance to see them for quite some time. I knew in particular that the 10-video set of early Russian cinema was particularly valuable. So I got out my wallet and walked out with a small archive. Now I’ve just got to blow the dust off my old VCR and try and get it hooked up again.

For those interested in which films I felt were that essential, they were the following:

1. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 1: Beginnings

2. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 2: Folklore and Legend

3. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 3: Starewicz’s Fantasies

4. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 4: Provincial Variations

5. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 5: Chardynin’s Pushkin

6. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 6: Class Distinctions

7. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 9: High Society

8. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 19: The End of an Era

[for more info on the Early Russian Cinema series, click here]

9. Chess Fever (USSR, 1925), dir: Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shipovsky

10. The Whispering Chorus (USA, 1918), dir: Cecil B. DeMille

11. The Chess Player (France, 1926), dir: Raymond Bernand

12. Windsor McCay: Animation Legend (USA, 1911-1921), dir: Windsor McCay

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Originally published at A Year in the Dark

Citizen Kane holds the weight of cinema on its shoulders. Often cited as ‘The Greatest Film of All-Time’, the film maintains an unusual place in film history. This post attempts to outline one particular way in which the film gained its unique reputation.

The accolade in fact refers to the Sight & Sound poll taken every ten years. Kane took the top spot in 1962 and has not budged in over 40 years. In 1952 it was De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that came out on top and at that point Kane did not even feature.

Although critics were enthusiastic about the film on its release in 1941, Kane was not a particular success with audiences. It had become partly-notorious for an attempt to suppress its release by William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon who took offence at the parallels between Kane’s life and his own. The film did however gain several major Oscar nominations alongside other key titles of the year such as How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes and The Maltese Falcon, claiming one win for Best Screenplay.

So something clearly changed between 1941 and 1962 for Kane to be selected as the pinnacle of all cinema. This shift can perhaps be pinpointed to post-war France where all the American films that had been prevented entry during the war suddenly flooded its screens. So its audiences were experiencing Hollywood cinema of the early 1940s in a condensed period of time, an experience that clearly had an effect on many of its young viewers. When the French magazines Cahiers du cinéma celebrated popular Hollywood cinema throughout the 1950s it was perceived as a strange affectation by other contemporary European film magazines such as Britain’s Sight & Sound.

However, when these very critics, such as Truffaut and Godard went on to spearhead the nouvelle vague in 1960, their films became praised as milestones in contemporary cinema. This therefore posed problems for Sight & Sound critics who were enamoured by the films of the nouvelle vague yet against the popular Hollywood cinema that the New Wave filmmakers celebrated.

‘The French Line’, a 1960 Sight & Sound article, took a look at the ten-best lists published by Cahiers du cinéma. They were pleased to find revered titles as Ivan the Terrible (1944), Les Quatres-Cents Coup (1959) and Wild Strawberries (1957), but were very surprised (and dismayed) to find titles such as Rio Bravo (1959), Run of the Arrow (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and Vertigo (1958). The author wrote, ‘One’s first reaction might be to conclude that these men must be very foolish’ [1] but based on the evidence of their films found it was hard for the writer to accept Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard as fools.

Classical Hollywood cinema was therefore being reassessed in the 1960s and indeed many of our contemporary perceptions of cinema were cemented at that time. It was also a period during which the reputations of Hollywood figures were being reconstructed. For example Humphrey Bogart became a romantic cult hero for young movie fans – as reflected in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s adoration of Bogart in A Bout de Souffle – and retrospectives of Buster Keaton’s films elevated him out of the shadows as a master of cinema. Similarly Orson Welles became seen as a crucial cinematic icon.

One of the defining characteristics of Orson Welles’s cinema is a struggle for control. Indeed a great number of Welles’ films were taken out of his hands and re-edited (or chopped up), including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958). Then there were all those projects that never made it, either unfinished or doomed from the start, such as It’s All True (circa 1943), Don Quixote (circa 1955) and The Other Side of the Wind (circa 1972). [2]

In Welles’ persistence to make films in the face of resistance from studios and financiers he became an inspirational hero for filmmakers and cinephiles, his cinema ingrained with a message of never giving up for cinema’s cause.

Critics and cinephiles believed Welles to have been greatly misunderstood and mistreated by a Hollywood who could not see the brilliance in his work that was so clear to them. Welles’ tragic fall from grace and his role as an underdog against the system only heightened adoration for him. He became seen as a neglected ‘genius’ whose opportunity to flourish had been crushed by a system so clearly against originality.  And it was Citizen Kane that defined this tragedy, becoming the iconic film that represented much more than the film itself.

The Sight & Sound poll reflects this shift and in 1962 we find the point at which Citizen Kane cemented an extraordinary reputation.

 

Notes

[1] Richard Roud, ‘The French Line’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1960 p.167.

[2] For more information on this see the illuminating documentary The Lost Films of Orson Welles (Germany/France/Sweden, dir: Vassili Silovic, 1995) which includes many clips from both unfinished films and curiosities.

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