I suppose it happens less often these days, but I imagine it still does happen that most people with a serious interest in movies have—or have had—some title or other they’ve read about or heard about that they’ve never been able to see. This used to be common back in the pre-video days. Now, it sometimes seems that nearly everything your little viewing heart could desire is but a trip to the video store, a browse on Amazon, or even a mouse or remote control click away. That’s not really true, of course, but it’s certainly more the case now that it ever was. I sometimes wonder if this is necessarily a good thing.
Now, some of my hesitance to completely embrace the easy access afforded to so many extant motion pictures can perhaps be attributed to a certain nostalgia factor. I don’t deny it. It may even be said to stem—to some degree—from Old Folks’ Syndrome. You know—“Ah, you kids don’t know how good you have it. Back in my day, we had to walk 20 miles through the snow—uphill both ways—to see a movie and we paid for the ticket with the 50 cents we earned from mowing lawns.” (All right, so you don’t mow lawns when it’s snowing, it doesn’t snow much in Florida, and uphill doesn’t mean a lot there.) That sort of thing. I don’t deny that there’s something of both at least clinging to the edges of that hesitancy. But it’s not all of it.
Only this afternoon, I got a call from a young friend who has decided to explore to oeuvre of Ken Russell (a wise decision in my book). It began with, “Yesterday, I didn’t have any Ken Russell movies. Now, I have seven and I don’t know where to start.” This meant he’d received the “Ken Russell at the BBC” box set and Savage Messiah (1972) was faced with Elgar (1962), The Debussy Film (1965), Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1967), and Song of Summer (1968). He appeared to have decided to go with them chronologically, which makes sense even if Elgar wouldn’t be my first suggestion for a starting point. (Nothing against Elgar, but it’s a lot more constrained than the other films in the set.) But since he’d already seen The Music Lovers (1970), Savage Messiah, and Tommy (1975)—and maybe a few others—I figured he didn’t need to be turned on to Russell, so the fireworks in the set could wait.
It was that “I don’t know where to start” that caught my interest—and played into what I’d already started writing about this week. It’s the fact that easy availability means—among other things—easy sensory overload. It also, I’m bound to say, leads to a certain complacency that you can “always” get a copy, which is something of a false assumption. Just ask those folks who shelled out $100-plus for the out-of-print DVD of Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance (1988). I’m as guilty of this attitude as anyone—even well before home video. Back in the days of bootleg 16mm prints of movies, the best bootlegger I ever had always had reduction prints (16mm copies made from 35mm originals) of Duck Soup (1933) and Swing Time (1936) and some others I’ve forgotten available on his mailing list. As a result, I never bought them. They were something I’d get around to someday—until someday was eclipsed by rising silver prices that sent the cost of 16mm prints into the stratosphere.
But more than that what seems to missing—or maybe just what I’m missing—is the sense of excitement that’s, I guess, inevitably lost with easy access. Back in the olden days, the burgeoning cineaste’s big events were the arrival of the TV Guide and the entertainment section of the Friday newspaper. How eagerly we pored over these important publications. The prospect that something you’d long wanted to see turning up was tantalizing. Maybe that’s why I can clearly remember what my first Greta Garbo (Grand Hotel ) and Jean Harlow (Red Dust ) movies were. Now you have your pick of any number of their films whenever you like.
The Friday papers with their listings of midnight movies and special screenings at art houses and universities were another—even more exciting—prospect, and since these were usually that very night or the next, these required you to be ready to drop everything and go on very little notice. It was never hard to find someone who wanted to go. That and the fact that the Asheville Film Society is showing Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah on Tuesday, May 17, at 8 p.m. conspired to make me think of this topic in the first place.
Back in the summer of 1975, I had my first dose of Ken Russell when Tommy came out—and it had quite an impact, as many readers know and as is attested to by the fact that I managed to see it 16 times during its original release. That’s the kind of impact that leads the dedicated cineaste to become obsessed with the idea of seeing as much of a filmmaker’s other work as possible, and that’s what I set out to do—once I found out what that other work was. As strange as it may seem now, this wasn’t the sort of information that was at your fingertips. I knew about The Devils (1971) and The Boy Friend (1971)—in fact, I’d seen TV trailers for the latter—and I’d read a particularly virulent John Simon review for Mahler (1974). Otherwise? Well, I pieced together a kind of filmography from a Stephen Farber article in the “Emerging Cinema” issue of Film Comment and then found a better one in a little Monarch Film Studies paperback I had to order that was simply called Ken Russell.
Armed with this, I was able to realize that I needed to see Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers, The Devils, The Boy Friend, Savage Messiah and Mahler to catch up. Esoterica like French Dressing (1964) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967) were only mentioned in passing, and the idea that it was likely I was going to see any of the TV films was extremely far-fetched. By the following summer, I’d managed to track down Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Devils, and The Boy Friend—and for that matter I caught Billion Dollar Brain on late-night TV and saw Lisztomania when it came out. Savage Messiah and Mahler proved another matter altogether.
One morning in the summer of 1977, a friend called to tell me that Mahler was showing somewhere at the University of Florida in Gainesville that afternoon. So what if that was about 150 miles away? The real cineaste doesn’t balk at such trifles and three of us were soon on our way to see the elusive Mahler. It didn’t even bother us unduly that we only knew the time and the general location (a rather large university). After all, it seemed probable that almost anyone on the campus could tell us where this momentous event was taking place, right? Wrong. About a dozen students after we found the school, one girl told us where she thought it might be playing. Fortunately, she was right and we took our seats with a good five minutes to spare. One down.
Savage Messiah was far trickier. Valentino came and went in the fall of ‘77. Even the unexpected PBS showing of one of the TV films, Isadora (1966), happened my way. But Savage Messiah? No sign of it. Years passed as years are wont to do, and then one day in September of 1979 I went to see something—Let It Be (1970), I think—at the old Tampa Theatre in (of all places) Tampa. While there I scanned their posted list for coming movies—and, boy, did they plan ahead because there it was, slated for Aug. 31 of 1980. I didn’t need to make a note of it, since there was no way I was going to forget it. All I had to do was wait—almost another year. Was I there on the appointed day? What an absurd question. After a little over five years of searching, I saw the last remaining major piece of Russell’s theatrical filmography as it stood at the time. And, yes, it was worth the wait.
That’s not actually the longest gap between knowing of the existence of a movie and seeing it. That honor almost certainly goes to Frank Borzage’s Liliom (1930), which I first knew of when I saw a still from it in an old book on movies in the high school library. I was fascinated—enough that I sought out the source play to read it. It was 35 years later that I actually saw it. As I noted in an unused bit of footage for John Cork’s documentary Murnau, Borzage and Fox (2008), it was probably worth waiting 34 years to see, but not quite 35. But there’s a significant difference here, since I didn’t spend 35 years actively searching for it. In fact, I probably hadn’t even thought about it during most of those years.
It was the five-year search for Savage Messiah that started me musing on this topic and wondering what holds similar records for others. It’s also what prompted the line of thought that perhaps something has been lost with the extraordinary availability of so much these days. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. But I can say that there was a happy outcome to my friend’s exploration of the Ken Russell box set. I got an e-mail late last night that was respectful enough about Elgar, but then went into much greater detail about his next choice, concluding with, “I loved The Debussy Film.” That’s what I like to hear—and what I’m hoping to hear on the 17th after Savage Messiah from folks who didn’t have to search for it for half a decade.