Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.

Classic Movies – American Graffiti

This, dear readers, is the beginning of a new frontier in my blogging career. OK, “frontier” is a little over-dramatic, but there you go. I have considered for a while doing a series of blogs every week to celebrate the best that cinema has given us, what we may call “Classic Movies”. They can be of any country, of any year and any length – although what they all share is a compelling cinematic language. They may be culturally significant or otherwise, popular or little-known. Over the series I will question what it means to be a “Classic Movie”, and what is in store for the future. It will bring me to mainstream and cult-ish directors, a range of different styles and stories. The first film in this series is American Graffiti (1973).

Ah, the 1970s. A decade of exploitation and rock music. It was also the decade in which George Lucas actually directed some good films. There’s the obvious candidate, Star Wars (1977), which pretty much ensured his future, as well as inspiring a whole generation of lightsabre-wielding enthusiasts. Then there’s the lesser-known but distinctly Orwellian THX 1138 (1971) , another sci-fi film, which was (like Star Wars) restored lavishly but impassively in 2004.

Between these two came American Graffiti, a film which is entirely different to anything Lucas has directed. Set in 1962 California, it revolves around a group of high school graduates who go cruising in their cars in the city for one last night before they go off to college. Partly based on Lucas’ own “cruising” experiences, the film is a heavily nostalgic experience, featuring classic vehicles, old-style haircuts and a soundtrack of rock and roll hits. From the opening scene, the viewer is thrown back to the decade epitomised by youth culture and social revolution. The teenagers discuss the decline of rock music, relationships and leaving town, whilst racing each other in old Chevrolets, and the film’s potent tagline is: “Where were you in ’62?”

Just look at those cars!

Misunderstood by Universal prior to its release, Lucas reluctantly accepted removing certain scenes that the executives had suggested. Contrary to the studio’s expectations, American Graffiti ultimately went on to become a major success, and holds out to this day as one of the most brilliant portrayals of youth in cinema.

The studio still had their reservations before production had even begun. A group of unknown young actors would make up the cast and Lucas himself was still in the background as a director. After getting Francis Ford Coppola on board, however, the film was greenlit. The director’s keen eye for casting  is immediately noticeable;  despite his lack of words during their interviews, all of the film’s young leads are utterly convincing. Richard Dreyfuss searches aimlessly for the dream woman he glimpsed in a white Thunderbird, whilst philosophically contemplating whether or not he should leave town. Paul Le Mat cruises around and is angered at the entrance of a tenacious young girl into his car. Ron Howard attempts to sort out his relationship issues, while Charles Martin Smith tries in vain to avoid embarrassment in front of Candy Clark. As several stories are told simultaneously, the film is never dull and its technique is intriguing. Lucas chose to film every scene at night, and more in a documentary style. Much is improvised, including several key scenes. This gives the actors free reign over their characters and makes the whole thing incredibly fresh and believable, as well as extremely funny.

(L to R) Paul Le Mat; Cindy Williams; Ron Howard

Pre-released music is used throughout and is treated almost like a sound effect in itself. The filmmakers do an extremely good job in arranging the  songs when considering they were on a low budget (which somewhat explains the strange lack of Elvis from the soundtrack). In one of the best-executed scenes in the film, Dreyfuss enters a radio station and converses with the real-life gravelly-voiced and mysterious disc jockey Wolfman Jack. After reading a script of the scene whilst on the air, Jack immediately agreed to star in the film, saying it was one of the most emotional things he had ever read.

And emotion is what really ties American Graffiti together. These four teenage friends are burdened by the petrifying prospect of maturity and adulthood, and each goes through their own personal journey. The film can be related to by practically anyone on the planet – the new experience of leaving your home town, your surroundings and your friends, perhaps permanently, is an emotional ride and often a very difficult procedure. Lucas perfectly captures the joys and sorrows of youth in a 1960s Californian setting, and the film is a living tribute to that illustrious decade of new ideas and culture.

Paul Le Mat

It has and will continue to suffer inevitable comparisons to other high-school-film offerings such as Grease, which is a terrible shame. While Grease is glossed over with cheese, American Graffiti is far more sensitive, honest and homegrown. Its cast is well-chosen, its directorial execution impressive; a true achievement.

N.B. George Lucas’ American Graffiti was added in 1995 to the National Film Registry for “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films”.

Re-release – Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

A couple of days ago I won tickets to a screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which recently has been converted into 3D, and is out on a re-release. Having not seen the film since I was a child, the opportunity to go and “rediscover” it on the big screen was attractive, although my thoughts had been darkened by the large amounts of negative press the film had got since its initial release in 1999. The Phantom Menace is often dubbed the worst Star Wars installment and fanboys use every excuse they get to slander George Lucas because of it. Nevertheless, I had to see it again to reckon my own opinion, so I went along to the screening at the Empire in Leicester Square.

My ticket to the event
It's made of cardboard! How dreadfully exciting!

As I entered into the crowded foyer, stormtroopers and a rather large Darth Maul stood proud, posing for photos. I found this slightly strange as the stormtroopers only appear in the sequel, but I ignored it as best I could.

Disconcerting bit of red hair there...

We were handed our 3D glasses and sat down. Before the film began, a Fox executive introduced the film along with Anthony “C3PO” Daniels, who seemed, even at 65, incredibly upbeat and positive about the films. Then the show commenced, and one of the most disappointing moments of my life (very) slowly began to unfold.

OK, it wasn’t that disappointing. My expectations were already quite low. But Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is bad. Really bad. Perhaps not as mind-bogglingly awful as some of the fanboys make it out to be, but in comparison to the original trilogy, it really can’t stand up. There are a number of reasons for this, which have been outlined before, but I’m going over them again anyway:

1. The Story – The original trilogy certainly matured as it went on, from Lucas’ “space-western” vision of the first film to something much darker, as Darth Vader’s grip on young Luke Skywalker tightens and tightens throughout The Empire Strikes Back. The climax of the middle film of the trilogy is one of cinema’s greatest moments, a shocking revelation of grand scale, something that would assure its popularity for years to come. Given that The Phantom Menace‘s premise revolves around a trade dispute and the ensuing politics of the Jedi Council, the first of the prequel trilogy is never as interesting as the simple thrill of A New Hope or the satisfying closure of Return of the Jedi.

2. The Characters – I didn’t think I could bring myself to mention Jar Jar Binks but it is inevitable. Nobody can talk about the prequel trilogy without mentioning the irritating, 2-metre-tall, slightly racist gungan. He is a colossal error, a commercialised annoyance that surely appeals only to children rapt by flashy explosions and overdone visual humour. The young incarnations of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are poorly done, as is the (also slightly racist) Nute Gunray. Qui-Gon Jinn is the single rare paradox to the shoddy characterisation found in this film.

3. The Acting – Lucas showed remarkable aptitude for choosing the right people in his early days, especially when he employed a number of brilliant young unknown actors (handpicked from thousands) in his film American Graffiti. This time round, however, he seemed to be so far into the (admittedly rather impressive) visual effects that he forgot about the benefits of a good cast. Jake Lloyd almost rivals Jar Jar Binks in the annoyance factor, while Natalie Portman is wooden as Queen Amidala and Ewan McGregor does a rather depressing impersonation of Alec Guinness. Again, Liam Neeson is a strange paradox.

4. The Screenplay – whether it’s Anakin’s overstated cry of “NOW THIS IS POD RACING!” or the ludicrous number of times that the word “negotiations” is repeated in the first act, The Phantom Menace is often laughable. Reportedly George Lucas wrote the script in a matter of days and given his status as a powerful producer was barely challenged in the transition to the silver screen. Sadly, it shows.

5. The Directing – Natalie Portman is a good actor. She was great in Heat and fabulous in Leon, but Lucas failed to achieve an equally impressive performance this time round. He is terribly unfocused here, and the film as a result is all over the place, especially in its muddled climax.

6. The 3D – admittedly not a part of the original film, but the 3D conversion is ultimately pointless and lacking depth (around a third of the film could be watched without glasses).

The Phantom Menace has its moments, though they are few: the pod-racing sequence is a thrill and the the lightsaber fight with Darth Maul is an explosive (though shortened) affair. You can see that George Lucas is passionate about his vision, and the original three films are certainly brilliant and pivotal to American culture, but this is a terrible mess. It may be exciting and exhilarating for young children, but for older fans, it’s ultimately soulless and very poorly done in comparison.

The biggest disappointment in cinema history?