Living in Film (2008-10)

Last week, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time. Predictably, I loved it. But this milestone did get me to thinking: Why did I love it? And why was that predictable?

Film-watching, like book-reading, is one of the supreme joys of my life. Like any great love affair, it works the miracle of taking me out of myself. And yet it makes me more fully myself than I’m likely to understand. Over my (not quite) twenty-three years, I’ve spent countless hours taking in many hundreds of films. ‘Taking in’ is one of those pleasingly old-timey picture-going expressions. But in this context, it makes a lot of sense. Film after film has slipped its spool and entered my brain via four discreet head-holes: two at the sides, two out front. What all that light and sound and noise and bustle has been doing in there since is a bit of a mystery. Certainly, I have an eerily good memory for the minutiae of film. There are particular films that I can hum, almost from start to finish. Memory, lightly exercised, brings up title cards, stock footage, musical cues, and (most sinister to me) the vocal inflections of actors – many of them long since dead, yet alive in my brain as ghosts. Perhaps these ghosts have shaped me somewhat.

Then again, the process might be less romantic: that I’ve just shaped which films have gotten to me. This year, the BAFTAs have rolled by and, as usual, I’ve seen only one or two of the nominated films. Simply put, they didn’t interest me that much. This isn’t some pose designed to impress – because, Lord knows, I’m a merciless populist in my film-watching habits. It’s more than I’m an antiquarian by nature. There are only two films in the ether that I’m hoping to see: Saving Mr Banks and The Invisible Woman. Despite being newly made, both are history in motion, a kind of living cultural criticism: biopics covering Disney and Dickens both. Even when I engage with the present, it seems to take me further into the past.

I do at times feel like an archivist of my own life: a shuffling, bespectacled librarian, armed with filing cabinets stuffed with useless papers. I’m a compulsive list-maker. I’ve kept lists of every film I’ve watched since the mid-2000s, chronologically ordered by month. This is a very particular obsession. It’s not as though I’ve ever attempted this with books or plays. I suppose it’s the collector’s instinct: the idea of films as tangible commodities; artefacts to be studied and analysed. This can surface reductively: star ratings seem to have begun with film criticism, and they’re a canker that keeps on spreading. And yet, despite Dogberry’s advice to the contrary (‘comparisons are odious’), there’s much to be learned from asking yourself why you value one film over another. To that end, I marshalled these films into the orders in which I enjoyed them.

Looking over the three lists below (spanning 2008 to 2010), I discern a series of patterns that confirm where my interests lie. A few of them take me back to Citizen Kane. It’s often to do with the words: A Man for All Seasons, adapted from Robert Bolt’s most literate of stage plays, tops one list; All About Eve – written, like Kane, by screenwriting genius Herman J. Mankiewicz – tops another. In contrast, many of my favourites are determined by a stunning visual aesthetic, thus the high-ranking presence of silent films (and the all but silent M, which tops the third list). I like films that make me feel some strong emotion – many, I suppose, are modern melodramas (women’s pictures, as they were once derisively termed). Whether they make me want to weep or cheer is besides the point: some confirmation that I’m not utterly hardened is always welcome. I also like a film that shocks me – although that hardening means it takes a lot to really shock me.

Then there are the dark and sheltered and moody films. I refer, of course, to the Gothics (a tradition I’ve elsewhere toyed with calling ‘Fantasy Noir’). Citizen Kane is a Gothic in certain lights. Xanadu dissolves neatly into Dracula’s castle; the presence of Gregg Toland, master cinematographer on Peter Lorre’s Mad Love, completes the transformation. (It’s worth pointing out that Welles’ Macbeth was purposefully shot in the style of Bride of Frankenstein.) Almost inevitably, Gothic cinema trickles into the more formulaic niche of genre cinema. This came back to me early on in Kane, in the scene with his mother. Instead of thinking ‘Why, what a fine performance from Agnes Moorehead’ (and it is) my first instinct was to think ‘Why, it’s the campy mystery writer from The Bat with Vincent Price! Perhaps she’ll harp on about the cat dropping its dentures!’

Above all (and believe me, this is as close to a summation as we will ever likely get), I go for cinema that fuses art and populism. After all, there should be no distinction. Yes, Citizen Kane can be seen as art – but it’s so often quoted in The Simpsons that there’s another side to the coin. High Art and Cornball Americana go hand in hand: the Charlie Kane song (‘There is a man, / A certain man…’) was introduced to me as a song about Mr Burns (‘To friends he’s known as Monty, / But to you it’s Mr Burns!’). Along the same lines, I was impressed to hear Christopher Frayling say the following (in a jolly good edition of Desert Island Discs). It’s tricky to transcribe the bubblings of free-form conversation, but these thoughts largely correspond with my views on film:

I think there’s a cultural snobbery. Everyone erects hierarchies, particularly in this country – that we’re interested in literary rather than visual things … My view is there’s good movies and there’s bad movies, just like there’s good poetry and bad poetry … Culture is a very, very broad church, and nothing’s to be gained from erecting artificial hierarchies … I think you can do a PhD about anything: it’s a matter of approach, seriousness, vocabulary, concept … There’s nothing intrinsically trivial about any subject matter.

My hierarchies only have meaning where I’m concerned – beyond me, they’re curios only. I’m reminded also of a saying from film historian Bill Warren: ‘You can only see a film for the first time once.’ I look back on these lists and envy myself for getting to see these wonderful films for the first time. But the journey continues, and I keep being surprised at what gold turns up.

Let’s dig into the lists then! I’ll provide a bit of commentary, but also try to quell my logorrhea to let them speak for themselves.

2008

M (1931)

1. M (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931)
2. Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)
3. The Grapes of Wrath (dir. John Ford, 1940)
4. Haxan (dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
5. Sunset Blvd. (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955)
6. The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
7. Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (dir. Tim Burton, 2008)
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (dir. Don Siegel, 1956)
10. Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Arthur Penn, 1967)

M kicks off a distinctive trend of ‘on the run’ movies: narratives that follow social outcasts in their struggle to escape some life-suppressing, anti-human force. Cue sweeping landscape shots, suspenseful chase scenes and plucky heroism against the odds (and often against pre-existing moral imperatives). Although Peter Lorre is the nominal villain of M (paedophile serial killers generally are), the film’s final sequence displaces all terror onto the mob. Following suit, Bonnie and Clyde pits charismatic criminals against largely faceless lawmen; Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes facelessness to the next level. Of the two Hitchcocks, The Birds also fits the pattern, but Rear Window cleverly inverts it: the criminal is divorced from the viewer’s vantage point, which remains anchored throughout.

The Grapes of Wrath is another ‘on the run’ tale. I was then in the midst of my Steinbeck phase, going through the major novels as well as the minor fiction. I’m guessing this was tangential preparation for the interview at Cambridge – nonsensical, really, given that American literature wasn’t much on the agenda. More purely, I’ll have watched it for John Carradine, who I knew and liked from Bluebeard (less so from his under-cooked Dracula). I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Sweeney Todd. When I was writing my dissertation on the Demon Barber, I couldn’t stand more than half an hour of the desaturated, cheerless film. I suppose it came down to the simple pleasure of seeing and liking something at the cinema with everybody else; being able to enter the happy throng for a change and say ‘me too!’ (I’ve since seen Metropolis in the cinema, and that was an outstanding event.) The two other Gothics on the list – Haxan and Sunset Blvd. – are more unexpected, durable, exciting.

2009

All About Eve (1950)

1. All About Eve (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
2. North by Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
3. Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
4. The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
5. Les Yeux Sans Visage (dir. Georges Franju, 1960)
6. Scum (dir. Alan Clarke, 1979)
7. The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973)
8. Amadeus (dir. Milos Forman, 1984)
9. Les Miserables (dir. Richard Boleslawski, 1935)
10. All That Money Can Buy (dir. William Dieterle, 1940)

The films of 2009 are often tied to academic milestones. I was watching Les Yeux Sans Visage when I received the phone call telling me I’d got into Cambridge; equally, I remember watching Amadeus when I was smarting at home after my first term there. And The Wicker Man was seen on one of those joyous, sun-spoiled May afternoons when you knew you’d done all your work (less of that nowadays). Scum is a harrowing refugee from the classroom of A-level Film Studies – allegedly the kind of course that should have disqualified me from a decent university. How appropriate then that the film is an indictment of the British education system. I later discovered I was the highest achieving Film Studies pupil in the country, which should have been a vindication, but I think only confirmed the limitations of the exam system (words like ‘non-diegetic’ still bring the bile to the back of my throat).

Looking back, I’d probably raise All That Money Can Buy a little higher (its Dickensian tale of soul-selling rewards repeat viewings; was instrumental, indeed, in redeveloping Scrooge & Marley) – and certainly drop North by Northwest beneath Vertigo and The 39 Steps. I probably rated North by Northwest so highly as another of these ‘on the run’ adventures I go so dotty about – but I think now that The 39 Steps does this much better. (Les Miserables is another such tale – and one I need to rewatch, now I’m obsessed with Charles Laughton.) All About Eve is untouchable; the perfect film – and as happy a combination of art and populism as I can well imagine.

2010

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

1. A Man for All Seasons (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1966)
2. Laura (dir. Otto Preminger, 1944)
3. Saboteur (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)
4. Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1958)
5. The Queen of Spades (dir. Thorold Dickinson, 1949)
6. The Trials of Oscar Wilde (dir. Ken Hughes, 1960)
7. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
8. The Woman in the Window (dir. Fritz Lang, 1944)
9. The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)
10. Rope (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)

A Man for All Seasons is a film that I was genetically hard-wired to adore – my grandma’s all-time favourite. Seeing the stage play at York Theatre Royal in 2008 (starring my all-time hero of everything ever, the great David Leonard) was a formative experience. It’s just as well I got round to the film. It represents almost everything I can’t do in theatre (as exemplified by the godly Paul Scofield), but, perhaps for that reason, I love it very dearly. The Trials of Oscar Wilde I find a good deal better than Stephen Fry’s Wilde (which I did like a fair bit). There’s a profound charge from having an Oscar as unrelentingly butch as Peter Finch. Lionel Jeffries’ Marquess of Queensberry is about the most thoroughly hateful villain in any film I can recall – like Freddie Jones, he comes just the right side of over-the-top. And the date of the film, 1960, guarantees a reticence that makes the danger quite electrifying.

Wilde has long stirred mixed emotions in me: this also goes for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (a woman’s picture if ever there was one) and The Fly (Beauty and the Beast shot through with razor blades). Saboteur did surprisingly well for a second-tier Hitchcock (an ‘on the run’ plot again – which I believe goes for The Woman in the Window too), beating off critical favourite Rope (although a lot of minor Hitches came lower down on the 2010 list: Stage Fright, I Confess, The Wrong Man, the execrable Family Plot). However, I have a profound buried crush on Robert Cummings – one that’s only just come back to me – so that may well account for it. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil troubles me somewhat. I clearly liked it, but, at the same time, I can remember almost nothing about it. 2010 was a busy year, though, and I find much the same applying to Laura and The Queen of Spades by this point (I remember their outstanding gay aesthetes, Clifton Webb and Anton Walbrook, but precious little else). I hope this won’t happen with Citizen Kane.

A follow-up entry, covering 2011 to 2013, will no doubt follow soon. Lucky, lucky you.

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