In “Cinema Penitentiary”, I tried to recreate the experience of going to the movies between the years 1958-80. My reactions to and opinions about the movies of those years ranged from the views of a seven year old boy to a 29 year-old adult. I did not look at them in retrospect, but as I saw them at the times of their release. Today I begin the Cinema Penitentiary diaries, which will not be about going to the movies in real time. Instead I shall write about a century of movies from my current perspective, that of a retired film critic who has removed himself from the stream of North American popular culture. Several things motivate me to devote a certain portion of each day to this writing. First, I am trying to attract readers to my book, Cinema Penitentiary. In the absence of a viable publishing industry, today’s writer must attempt to distinguish himself in the disreputable business of self-publishing. Secondly, I have the personal need to define and express my autumnal thoughts on an art form that is only a little over a century old yet is already on its death bed.
Let me begin with an idea that has been perplexing me of late. It seems that the time at which we begin watching movies becomes a reference point in any aesthetics we consequently develop toward the medium. For example, the first movie we see by a director is apt to be, if not our favorite one, the one through which we assess his former and subsequent work. I saw Howard Hawk’s “Rio Bravo” when I was eight years old, and will always consider it his best picture, although it is entirely possible that his earlier “Red River,” which I did not catch up with until much later, is better. People older than myself, who saw “Red River” when it was released, may well consider “Rio Bravo” the inferior movie. By the same token, I consider John Ford the best director of them all, yet his movies were before my time, so I love the movies of Sam Peckinpah more than Ford’s, because I grew up with them. And although I must agree that “The Wild Bunch ” is the superior film, it does not engage me as deeply or on such a personal level as “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,”, despite the flaws others find in the latter film.
The post war European directors present a particular problem, as I did not come to them until late in their careers, and therefore will never appreciate how great the impact of the work done in their prime had on the international audience. I cannot help but prefer Bergman’s “Persona” to his “Wild Strawberries, Fellini’s “Amarcord” to his “La Strada,” and Godard’s “Weekend” to his “Breathless.” Despite how much I enjoy and admire their work that came before my time, I will never understand why older critics considered “Juliet of the Spirits” a degenerate and self-indulgent work when placed against “The Nights of Cabiria.”
Something altogether different happens when a classic director is discovered in adulthood. When, in 2009, I discovered William Wellman, all of his pictures appeared one of a piece to me. Although I had seen many of them before, including Public Enemy and A Star is Born, his directing had not made a unique impression on me, so I came to each of the pictures with no bias for or against any of them. As a result, I was overwhelmed by the proliferation of startling directorial decisions in his work as a whole, and for a time over-rated him as Hollywood’s finest director.
And so each of us comes to this century of motion pictures through the entry way of a particular piece of time, and they experience the history of the medium through their particular reference points. I have cited just a few of mine, and am curious to hear of yours. Please share in the comments section below.
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