I’m sitting here with Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Hawk (1940) playing off to the side. It’s a movie I’ve seen enough times over the years—starting at about the age of 15—that I can “watch” it without watching it too closely or getting distracted into watching the whole thing before I realize it. On my desk are two films—Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) and William Friedkin’s The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968)—that I have to watch and review by mid-day Monday at the latest. I have this column to attend to, and reviews to write for The Way Back and Blue Valentine. And this is a light weekend comparatively speaking. I’m not complaining, mind you, but I also have a growing stack (literally and otherwise) of movies I want to watch, but when?
This isn’t a new problem. I grumbled about it about a year and a half ago. I had hoped it would be better by now. Instead, I think it’s actually worse. When I walked out of my “day job” last March, I had some vague notion that I’d have more of that strange commodity called “free time.” I even entertained ideas of a book project and some other things. Well, the best laid plans of mice and Ken proved elusive. I ought to have realized that would be the case—and that wasn’t even reckoning on the advent of the Asheville Film Society or the Thursday Horror Picture Show. Nor was this factoring in the simple realization that my stamina is—well, not what it used to be. And all the while the not only has my “to be watched” stack grown, but so have the titles on my DVD recorder’s hard-drive.
I’ve been waiting four months for TCM to show Rouben Mamoulian’s second film, City Streets (1931), and I recorded it. For that matter, I dutifully trimmed off Robert Osborne’s intro and outro, along with the Universal logo (they might have bought it, but damned if they had anything to do with making it), but I haven’t found the time to watch it. Oh, I’ve seen it before, but only in really bad VHS dupes. I’ve seen enough to know that this print, on the other hand, is first-rate. I can’t justify watching it based on the idea of a future screening for the AFS, because it’s not commercially available—and I don’t see that changing, since Universal only tends to look at old movies as parts of box sets and there’s nothing left to package this with.
The same is true with all those Will Rogers movies I snagged a while back. I managed to see A Connecticut Yankee (1931), but that leaves another five or six on the hard drive. Happily, I do have the potential screening excuse to offer some rationale for tackling those three Josef von Sternberg silent films—Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928)—from Criterion that I broke down and bought when Amazon put them on sale. I’ve seen a so-so VHS of Underworld and a good VHS of The Last Command, but the latter was ages ago. I’ve never seen Docks of New York.
Realistically, I’m not going to be able to program more than one of these in the near future, even though I’d like to expand on the number of silents we screen. We’ve got a Chaplin silent lined up for February, and I really want to check out Frank Borzage’s highly-regarded Lucky Star (1929), which has been sitting here for—oh, about a year. (Hell, I was even involved in the making of that massive Murnau/Borzage/Fox set—I’m briefly in the documentary—but Lucky Star wasn’t in the early versions of the titles that were sent to me in preparation.) It, too, comes under the heading of “haven’t gotten around to” and I don’t know if it really has the appeal its admirers say. On the other hand, I know that Borzage’s 7th Heaven is very much a masterpiece and a great introducton to Borzage.
There’s also no doubt in my mind that Underworld has the most immediate audience appeal of the Sternberg films in that it truly is the first real gangster picture—and the one that provided the template for most of the ones to come in that big wave of gangster movies in the early sound era. (Too bad no one seems inclined to put out Sternberg’‘s first talkie, the 1929 gangster film Thunderbolt.) Nearly every convention of the gangster film can be found in Underworld, making it the most historically significant of the three movies. Whether it’s the most significant in terms of Sternberg may well be another matter. (I’ve seen enough to know that it has a lot of Sternberg elements, but it wasn’t till The Last Command that his camera became mobile.) As you can see, I’m making a case to convince myself of the necessity of watching all three.
This is only a bit of it actually. I haven’t even brought up the numerous suggested titles from AFS members for movies I haven’t seen or haven’t seen in so long that it hardly matters. And what about those titles that Marc McCloud from Orbit keeps telling me I need to check out—both for my personal edification and as potential screening material. He gave me a copy of Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching (2007). Guess what? Yeah, it’s in the stack.
Now, the thing is I know people on message boards who rattle off 10 to 15 movies they’ve watched in a week. And I have no reason to doubt their claims (their taste is very often a separate issue altogether). My question is not whether they’ve actually seen these things—or even why they wanted to—buy where they find the time to watch it all. Last time I brought this sort of thing up, I was also concerned myself with the problem of other people being overwhelmed by viewing backlogs. Well, I’ve given up on that. For one thing, I’ve learned it’s impossible to solved. But more, I’m currently just wanting to know how other folks manage to see all these movies that just keep piling up for me. Solutions? Suggestions?
In the meantime, I need to go watch a Kurosawa movie.