F is for Film; F is for Fraud

[14 February 2006]

By Dante A. Ciampaglia

I have this quirk, something I picked up during my tenure as a film critic at a daily newspaper. I saw so many movies over the course of time that, in order to keep track of what I saw when and what I thought of it, I began entering that information into a spreadsheet on my computer.

This probably isn’t that uncommon. I’m sure a lot of people who review movies for a living — or even just people who simply see a ton of movies — keep track of them one way or another. For me, it helps immensely come end-of-the-year-recap time (usually when I’m making my Top 10 list). In all honesty, if a movie leaves enough of a positive impression to make me think it’s one of the year’s best, I won’t need to be reminded of it. But it’s a nice to have a comprehensive back-up list of what I’ve seen in a particular year, all the same.

As I look back on the lists I’ve compiled for close to 10 years, I’ve noticed the number of old movies that I’ve attended is startling. Certainly it is a reflection of my growth as a film lover and cineaste, as well as a result of my experiences as a film student. But there’s something else happening here, evidenced by a continual increasing attendance of movies made prior to 1980.

In 2002, I saw 10 movies originally released between 1940 and 1980, with another three that were released between 1984 and 1985. Similarly, I saw 10 movies in 2003 that were released between 1933 and 1974, 11 if you count the director’s cut of Alien as technically being a film released in 1979, with another four that were released between 1984 and 1988. The number of older movies attended jumps to 12 in 2004 (those movies were released between 1942 and 1976), with another two movies seen that were originally released in 1982 and 1987. And last year, I saw 21 movies released between 1922 and 1978, with another two that were released in 1985 and 1987.

Lest you think these numbers are unimpressive, consider that I live in Pittsburgh. The Steel City isn’t exactly a hotbed of classic cinema. And from 2002 to 2005, I saw a total of 343 individual movies (not double-counting any movie I saw twice). The 53 movies I saw in that same time period that were originally released between 1922 and 1978 account for 15 percent of my total movie going. That’s a large number considering, again, that I live in a city that has only a couple of independent theaters and only one or two that ever play older movies (usually once a week, if at all).

What’s most interesting to me about those numbers is not only the steady increase, but why in 2005 specifically, they were so high. After all, in his recent comments on the year in film, critic Roger Ebert said the following: “(many movies were) wonderful, a few were great, a handful were inspiring, and there were scenes so risky you feared the tightrope might break.” So why, if things were so stellar on the new silver screen, did I see more old movies than current ones?

The answer lies in what passes as quality cinema today. As an example, Ebert lists Crash, a film so manipulative and overreaching that it was a commercial break away from being a Lifetime Original, as his top film of the year. Movies today, like Crash, feel inauthentic, partly due to their expansive approach to nuanced issues and partly due to the lack of emotional honesty that comes from that broadness. But mostly, it’s because of the increasing creative dearth in Hollywood.

Why does every movie ever made need an upgrade or redux? Hitchcock got his Mr. and Mrs. Smith right the first time. Mike Nichols made The Graduate right the first time. Most directors who had a movie of theirs remade, or that are in the process of having one remade, almost always did it right the first time. There is a reason the film is the subject of a remake, after all.

Some will argue that remaking a movie is like staging a revival of a play, or putting on a new production of one of Shakespeare’s works. That might be a viable argument if the mediums weren’t so different. With plays, you could see the same show five times and get five different performances. It’s live, and anything can happen. Movies are filmed, etched in celluloid forever. Performances can’t change, the music can’t be off-cue, an actor or actress can’t be replaced. What is there is what you have. And because of that, there’s an individuality to movies that’s missing in the theater.

But that’s all changing as Hollywood mines its past for “new” material, gutting those films and “re-imagining” them for new audiences. They’re increasingly moving towards the realm of the stage, thoroughly defeating the purpose of “film” as an art and form of popular entertainment. That’s a big reason I’m drawn to old movies more and more — that and because I’ve growing increasingly impatient with the impatience of today’s movies.

Going to some small theater, watching a one-off screening of some Cassavetes film with a handful of people is, to me, like going to the Louvre and standing in line to see the Mona Lisa. No one will ever create another work like Da Vinci’s devilish dame, and no one will ever be the kind of filmmaker Big John was, even if they try. And the chance of getting back to France to see the Mona Lisa isn’t going to happen again soon — just like the chance to see the director’s cut of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie on the big-screen doesn’t happen every day.

I guess it comes down to me looking for a little authenticity in an increasingly plastic and mass-produced culture. And those old movies are the epitome of authentic cinema; what it is and what it should be. Movies aren’t plays to be reinterpreted every couple of generations. They’re marks left on the landscape of popular culture that prove that an artist existed at this time and place and this is what they accomplished. Movies are as individual as a Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol or Dali. At least, they’re supposed to be. Someone who repaints the works of great artists isn’t called creative and isn’t seen as adding anything to culture. Rather, they’re labeled frauds.

If I want to see a Renoir, I’ll go to France. If I’m not going to Bessie’s Country Home and Crafts at the suburban strip mall, I’ll find some cheap imitation of the same painting. And if I want to see Diabolique, I’ll track it down. I want the original, not some cheap knock-off. Movies made when they represented something individual represent the authenticity of cinema. That’s lost today in the remake-driven forgery that’s currently passing as Hollywood. And if you liked Crash for its frank depiction of racism, its originality and its courage, my apologies. Let me make it up to you by taking you to a screening of In the Heat of the Night.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/ciampaglia060215/