Educating yourself in film is an often perilous task. There’s always the knowledge that life is finite, and you’ll never end up seeing every corner stone of cinema history. The obvious question is: “Do I need to, and why?”
Let’s talk about this idea of finally setting aside the time to “watch the classics.” I always found the idea of watching a film out of obligation dangerous. There’s the baggage of expectation; there have been so many times in which I’ve sat down to watch an important film and been left wanting more.
There’s also the familiar dread of putting off a homework assignment until the deadline smacks you in the face. “I know I should watch ‘Birth of a Nation,’” I would say, “But do I have to do it now?”
A year ago I decided to start taking my role of film watcher seriously. This included keeping a “film log,” researching the background of every movie I watched, and trying to do more than just passively zone out. This was a quest to move beyond the shallow surface of “entertainment” and deeply study the medium.
This proved to be a humbling experience, as I was forced to deeply consider my choices and ask questions such as:
- What has this movie given me as a viewer?
- How can I spot the filmmaker’s decisions and intentions?
- And the most important question: Where did all this stuff come from? In essence, what is the origin of movies as we know them?
The decision to study the classics has to be organic. I would liken it to an architect who decides to study the foundation of his favorite building.
Piles of film books began to appear around my house. Biographies of filmmakers, critical texts, and a few “how to” books about film study. I didn’t take any of them at face value, but instead used whatever information I gained on an as-needed basis. Then I started to make a patchwork list of what to watch next. (When I say “list,” I mean a large, extensive, and very flexible Netflix queue.)
Here’s a concrete example of my process: I read about the important of Francois Truffaut “The 400 Blows.” Every pocket film book will tell the same tale: “The 400 Blows” is one of the seminal films of the French New Wave (low budget, non-narrative, highly personal). Depending on the book, you might get a little more about why the movie was essentially an autobiographical work for Truffaut. The central character in the film was his emotional stand in, dropping out of school and beginning a life of crime.
I woke up early one morning, brewed some coffee, and fired up the player. The “film class dread” was gone within minutes. This wasn’t just a history lesson, but a deeply universal story about how a society alienates its young. I saw an influence that cast a shadow over every “misfit teenager” movie that I had ever seen. I also recognized that “The 400 Blows” was a much richer exploration of the material. This was no impossible love interest, or sickening pop music video.
Another example: The next stop on the list was John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence.” I consulted my film guides, and they kindly informed me this was an example of “early American Independent Cinema.” “Indie Film” has become both a buzz word and its own industry within my life time. That is because the dream of most young filmmakers is to get noticed at Sundance.
What does an “indie film” look like when it’s not made to impress (i.e., before Sundance)? A movie that exists just to tell a simple story about flawed human beings? I would point you in the direction of “A Woman Under the Influence.” The movie focuses on a functionally crazy woman (played by Gena Rowlands) who attempts to raise her family. I think a more contemporary audience would diagnose her behavior as “bipolar.”
There’s no concession to well framed shots, or tidy scene resolutions.There were some scenes that were so intense they were almost unwatchable, aided by the same “life as it happens” method that Cassavetes always had.
“A Woman Under the Influence” pointed to the fact that you can shoot an entire film on location. You don’t need to populate your screenplay with set pieces, or worry about answering every question the audience has. I can only imagine that was how the original audience for the film received it.
A few other examples: “Black Christmas” is considered to be one of the prototypical “slasher” films. The techniques it uses to scare you still work, and are yet oddly familiar to any horror fan (after many years of being imitated).
“The Dirty Dozen” set up the formula for the cinematic convention of male bonding under intense duress. We wouldn’t have everything from the “Lethal Weapon” movies to “Reservoir Dogs” without it. The formula still works, and I was amazed about how much I cared about the rapists and murderers completing their mission. (All of my favorites died at the end, by the way.)
I would say that this was less of a learning process, and more of a reinvention of myself. By studying the roots of film, I was able to rediscover why film excites me so much to begin with. This has everything to do with the directness and intimacy of what we call “watching a movie.” The real reason we do this is to find a story, a performance, or a subject matter that resonates with us deeply.
The filmmakers behind the classics I sought out understood this. Their fine example has been left behind for the rest of us to follow.
That said, I still haven’t seen “Birth of a Nation.”
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