There are stacks of DVDs on my desk—several of them in fact. A few of them contain holdovers yet to be returned to the shelves from research needs, but the bulk of these stacks are movies I’ve purchased or been given that I intend to watch. The problem is finding—or making—the time to actually sit down and do that. I suspect that I am far from alone in this matter.
Now, some of these are movies I’ve seen—often so long ago that it hardly matters—and want to see again, but others are movies I’ve simply been meaning to catch up with for one reason or another. There’s one three movie set—called the “Toho Pack”—that covers just about all possible bases. It contains three movies from Ishiro Honda—The Mysterians (1957), Varan the Unbelievable (1958), Matango or The Attack the Mushroom People (1963). I saw The Mysterians somewhere around a hundred years ago (that’s Daylight Savings Time). Matango I bumped into more recently, but not in a while. Varan I have never seen in my life. And I have never seen these movies in their original Japanese versions or even in their proper aspect ratio (Tohoscope—Toho’s equivalent of Cinemascope or Panavision).
I’m sure that a great many people would question the desire to see these movies in any capacity. After all, these are Japanese sci-fi pictures—in some cases of the man-in-rubber-suit rampaging through debatable model sets—and not exactly well thought of in most circles. Granted, these titles are from the earlier—that is, less silly—period of such movies, but they’re still not exactly high on the list of “serious” movies. Yet, much like the original Godzilla (1954), they raise some fascinating questions about the post-atomc bomb mindset of the country in ways that more “important” films don’t. And what we know of these films is usually based on badly-dubbed and recut Americanized versions from Saturday matinees either in theaters, or on television. Those versions are hardly representative of the films that Honda made, though enough of the underlying concerns remain even in those bastardized forms to give some hint.
None of the thematic significance of these movies is going to alter the generally quaint special effects of Eiji Tsubaraya, but seeing them as Honda intended at least makes it clear that these were not intended strictly as kiddie fodder. Honda seems to have taken the movies with admirable seriousness, and that conviction shows through in the better ones. It’s worth remembering—while you sit there and crack wise about what insurance rates must be like in Tokyo—that Honda was a close friend of the most revered of all Japanese filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa. In fact, Honda directed large chunks of Kurosawa’s last film, Dreams (1990), when the ailing Kurosawa needed a hand getting the work done.
I would love to sit down with these three films and give them their proper due. And who can resist the claims on the DVD case of The Mysterians—“The greatest science fiction picture ever conceived by the mind of man” (as opposed to the mind of what, do you suppose?) and “To invade the earth…Abduct its women…level its cities”? (Eat your hearts out, Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich.) The problem I face is when I’m going to actually get around to watching such grand spectacle. When and how do I make the time to find out if Varan truly is “unbelievable”—and for that matter discern how they mean that extravagant claim? When and how indeed.
These titles just happen to be on the tip of my brain because I brought them back from the Monster Bash and they’re currently at the top of one of the stacks. They are not alone. Not too long after Danny Boyle’s Sunshine came out in 2007, I picked up several of his film that had escaped me on their original releases or simply felt the need to reasses. Of those, the only film I’ve actually seen is A Life Less Ordinary (1997). The fact that it became the first of Boyle’s films I actively disliked has nothing to do with not having explored the others.
Back in 2005 I broke down and acquired what is called a Region-Free DVD player—a unit that allows you to watch DVDs regardless of what country they were made for. I’d been debating the move for ages and was pushed into it in order to be able to play a copy of the Ken Russell TV film Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes on the Life of Richard Strauss (1970)—a film that cannot legally be shown publicly due to an injuction on the soundtrack by the outraged Strauss family.
The purchase was also to make it possible to see other films that have yet to be made available in the U.S. I’ve gotten some good out of this, to be sure, but there’s a lovely box set of Edgar Wallace “Krimis” of which I’ve watched exactly one film. For the uninitiated, these films are German adaptations of crime thrillers by the British writer Edgar Wallace—all of which (very unpersuasively) are supposedly taking place in England. Are they great movies? Generally speaking, no, but they’re interesting in terms of certain developments in horror cinema. They also tend to be a good deal of fun—and after years of mostly seeing them only in badly dubbed versions, it’s a pleasure to see good, clean copies in the German originals with subtitles. Or it would be if I’d get around to watching them.
I was introduced to the work of Japanese animator Satoshi Kon when Paprika played here in 2007 and was blown away by the film, which I saw four or five times. Naturally, this interested me in seeing his other works. A friend of mine sent me Perfect Blue (1998), Milennium Actress (2001) and Tokyo Godfathers (2003). They’re still sitting in a a stack on the back corner of my desk.
The list hardly ends with these few titles. Moulin Rouge! (2001) prompted me to want to give Baz Luhrmann’s previous film, Romeo + Juliet (1996), which I hadn’t cared for, another chance. I bought the DVD. I think it’s still in the shrink wrap. Julie Taymor’s Frida (2002) had initially disappointed me, but then I saw Across the Universe (2007) and caught up with Titus (1999)—both because I had to see them for review purposes—and I opted to give it another look. One day I’ll take it out of the shrink-wrap and do that—hopefully before her new film The Tempest comes out. That’s also what I’ll do with David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster (1996).
Of course, a large part of my problem stems from having so many movies that I have to see over the course of a week. It’s not that I don’t watch movies in my off time, but after I’ve seen and written about three to six or seven pictures in the course of a week, I tend to default to old favorites—unless I can come up with a good excuse (usually involving finding someone else who wants to see them) to pop in one of these unseen titles. Other things intrude, however.
A good example occurred last week when I finally had to see Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) for purposes of review. I still don’t know exactly how I feel about the film, but I’m not only fascinated by it to the degree that I want to see it again, I want to look at the films I’m pretty sure it had a significant influence on. The more I think about it, the more I feel, for example, that such diverse works as Roman Polanski’s What? (1972) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) owe some pretty hefty debts to Resnais’ film. So now I want to make time to see them as well as Marienbad—and yet I face a weekend of Bruno, I Love You, Beth Cooper, Food Inc, Day for Night (the 1973 Francois Truffaut picture, which I’ve somehow never seen) and one other film the title of which eludes me. This means that Marienbad and its offshoots is likely to join the pile.
There are times when I find that my co-critic Justin Souther exasperates me in the slowness with which he somewtimes seems to me to be filling the gaps in his his cinematic knowledge. It’s a frustration exacerbated by the fact that so much that’s readily available to him would have been impossible—or at least very difficult—for me to see when I was his age. He and I watched Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971) last week in honor of KR’s 82nd birthday—all 137 minutes of The Boy Friend. When I was his age, I had to go to the Library of Congress and run the cut 109 minute version of this film one reel at a time on a Steenbeck editing table wearing very uncomfortable USAF surplus headphones just to see it at all.
But while I roll my eyes at his pace, I generally say nothing, because I understand that in part he’s suffering from being overwhelmed by the mere quantity of selections. How exactly do you decide whether it’s time to tackle Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) or Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933) or Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977) or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) or Bergman’s Persona (1966)? Chances are that you’ll be virtually paralyzed by the array and trying to fit any or all of them into working life, real life and just wanting to spend a couple hours with some tried and true old friend of a movie.
In many ways, I think that’s just a variation on my own scenario. I’ve been over-saturated with the sheer volume of things I want to catch up with or revisit and reassess. A couple weeks ago, I sent a package of movies to an old friend—mostly, these were duplicate copies of things, movies I’d burned to DVD prior to getting commercially produced discs of the same titles. By the end of assembling this package, I think I’d enclosed about 50 movies. I’m quite certain that she’s overwhelmed by the idea of actually watching them all. I realize I would be.
As I indicated at the beginning of this column, I’m sure I’m not the only one in this position, though I imagine the specifics are different. However, if anyone has any suggestions to offer about how to actually get all these things—and the movies that keep coming out—watched, I’d very much appreciate hearing them. As it stands now, I figure I’ll get caught up about two years after I’m dead.