When I first took up movies — appreciably after the advent of the printing press, but well before the typewriter had been replaced by the computer — certain things seemed pretty much etched in stone (though stone tablets were even then out of fashion). The gods of film were firmly in the pantheon. Names such as D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Erich von Stroheim, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and John Ford were spoken with reverence.
Newer luminaries such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, etc., were held in only slightly less awe. The really new boys on the filmmaking block — Richard Lester, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, Ken Russell, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, John Boorman — then merely bore watching. You simply couldn’t tell what they might do.
No self-respecting list of “all-time greatest movies” would think of not including Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Stroheim’s Greed, Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1925), Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) or Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939). There might be some minor dissent. It was permissible to prefer The Gold Rush (1925) to City Lights where Chaplin was concerned, and you could swap Grand Illusion (1937) for Rules of the Game without fear of being completely ostracized. The other filmmakers offered a little more leeway, as long as they were somehow represented. (Those just wanting to be contentious could always pick John Ford’s 1937 Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie.)
But times change and fashions change. It’s hard for me to grasp this, but movies from the 1960s and ‘70s are older now than many of the “unassailable” classics were back then. I remember during the 2005 Asheville Film Festival, at the screening of Tommy, being shocked to realize that it had indeed been 30 years since I’d first seen the film. It was old then as Citizen Kane had been when Pauline Kael foisted her infamous Citizen Kane Book on the world of movie scholarship. (I’m happy to note that both Kane and Tommy have outlasted her attempt to diminish Welles’ contribution to cinema.)
Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a “greatest” list (and I don’t mean those absurd AFI lists) with Potemkin anywhere near the top. Eisenstein has fallen out of favor (easier to understand if you’ve ever tried plowing through his books on film theory) and he’s rarely talked about at all, even if filmmakers never tire of “quoting” the Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin in their own films. Chaplin’s greatness has given way to a preference for Buster Keaton, though that seems to be shifting back in Chaplin’s favor. Sternberg and Rouben Mamoulian (whose work only came to be generally appreciated in the late 1960s) were both incorporated into Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnficent The Dreamers (2004). But then Bertolucci himself is old-school and The Dreamers addresses the film scene of 1968.
In many ways, I think this continuous reassessment is healthy. Works of art shouldn’t be given a free pass just because they’re old, or because someone somewhere once wrote about how great they were. What worries me is whether or not many of these films and filmmakers are being re-evaluated, or if they’ve simply been shunted to the side to make way for the flavor of the week. All too often, that seems to be the case.
This was brought home forcefully about a year ago when I was asked to contribute essays on several filmmakers to a book called 501 Movie Directors. I drew Pedro Almodovar, Tod Browning, Neil Jordan, Leo McCarey, Rouben Mamoulian, Ken Russell, Preston Sturges and Josef von Sternberg, based on the idea that I had a degree of expertise on the work of these filmmakers. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’ve seen instances where an editor of this kind of general reference work has gone to great lengths to find writers who reflected his own views without regard to any actual familiarity with the filmmakers at hand. (Try Richard Roud’s Biographical Dictionary of Directors sometime.)
What bothered me — what still bothers me — is the disproportionate amount of attention paid to certain filmmakers, especially in light of others getting pretty short shrift. I’ll freely admit that I’ve never been able to understand the lionization of Douglas Sirk, whose 1950s soap operas like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959) not only strike me as completely interchangeable with any number of other Ross Hunter-produced 1950s films, but as completely inferior to earlier versions of the same material directed by John M. Stahl. (Oddly enough, Stahl — who in the 1930s was the only big name director Universal Pictures could boast aside from James Whale — isn’t included in the book at all.) Nonetheless, the Sirk cult has been going since the mid-1970s, so I expected a fairly big play on him. But affording him roughly twice the space given to von Sternberg, McCarey, Mamoulian, Sturges and a host of others I could name seems dubious to me. Are we saying that Sirk is more important than Josef von Sternberg these days? That’s a pretty wild claim.
Wilder still is affording twice the space alotted to von Sternberg and company to Mario Bava. I’m not that surprised, since Bava is currently very much the flavor of the week in certain cineaste circles. For those not familiar with Bava, he has a few moody horror films to his credit, notably Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963), with a good deal of junk like Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Baron Blood (1972).
He’s a handy man with colored gels and a striking composition. He was able to make movies look good on very little money. But his narrative sense is … well, lacking. It’s lacking to the degree that his movies often make very little sense, and frequently don’t so much end as just stop. This is interpreted by his supporters as “dream logic.” This particular approach to his movies is especially popular with writers who like movies onto which jargon-riddled critiques that defy comprehension can be grafted. After all, if a film is sufficiently incomprehensible, you can slap any interpretation you like on it and who’s to say you’re wrong? (Well, Bava might have, since he said on several occasions that his movies had no deeper meaning.)
Bava’s films are not without interest (well, some are) or a certain degree of influence. Whether that influence goes beyond feeding the works of other Italian horror directors like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, who share the master’s inability to construct a coherent, dramatically compelling story, is open to serious debate. The real question is whether Mario Bava is a great filmmaker deserving of more attention than Josef von Sternberg, not to mention all the others I named above and a couple hundred more. Is he on a par with Ernst Lubitsch, Luis Bunuel, Sergei Eisenstein and James Whale? To judge by the approach of the book in question, the answer must be yes. Personally, I think it’s banana oil.
I have nothing against the idea of reassessing films and filmmakers. I think it should be done all the time, in fact. It keeps the films alive, and let’s face it, even your own take on a movie is apt to change over the years. I certainly don’t watch James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and get the same things out of it that I did when I was 10 years old. If I did, I wouldn’t still be watching it, and it certainly wouldn’t be in my top 10 favorite movies. I don’t watch von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) and see the same movie I did when I was 17, because I’m not the same. For that matter, I first saw Rene Clair’s Le Million (1930) at about the age of 35. I found it nearly unwatchable. I tried it again last year and thought it was marvelous. Things change, and they should.
What worries me is the apparent rush to revisionism for its own sake, and the sense of overpraising things just because they’re obscure. Worse, though, is the inescapable feeling that much that is of value — more value — is getting lost along the way. And I’m not necessarily referring to antiquities.
There’s a prime example of this in the same book in the complete omission of Richard Lester from its pages. Now, the book doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive rundown of all filmmakers — merely a catalogue of 501 directors — so it can be argued that this is not unreasonable. But I’m sorry, in this case I think it is unreasonable. Lester is the man responsible for both A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) — the movies that brought the Beatles to the screen. In addition, he gave us The Knack … and How to Get It (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way of the Forum (1966), How I Won the War (1967), Petulia (1968), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).
Looking at the 1960s titles alone it should be obvious that Lester defined 1960s filmmaking — at least English language filmmaking. In the liner notes for the recent DVD release of Help! no less an authority than Martin Scorsese remarks, “He was one of the key figures of the era, just as crucial as Resnais or Antonioni, inventing new narrative techniques and re-defining the vocabulary of cinema as went along.” Further, Scorsese notes, “His pictures felt up to the minute, in the same way that Truffaut’s and Godard’s did.”
These are pretty heady comments, and, I think, fully justified. What I can’t justify is how a guide to filmmakers can overlook Lester and his work, work that is clearly ripe for the kind of reassessment that is being squandered on more marginal filmmakers. There’s something wrong here.