01 January 2009

Screen Savour in '09


It feels strange to say what you'll be reading in 2009 at this site, considering I've only been fully operational since the beginning of August. But the end of the calendar must be heeded. It's as good a place as any to begin new work and finish old work, but I wanted to publish a list of what you can expect in the new year:

¶ Completed filmographies of Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin, and more filmographies to come, including Buster Keaton;
¶ Continuation of my journey through the National Film Registry;
¶ Examination of more films from the 1960s and 1970s;
¶ A focus on animation, including feature-length films from Walt Disney in chronological order and selected shorts from the Warner Bros. cartoon library;
¶ More foreign cinema, including films from Italy, Japan, and France;
¶ Twelve more installments of Sound Savour, my monthly album review feature;
¶ I've also been toying around with the HTML to create static pages for the site that will allow the archives to be better organized and more easily searched, although the debut of that feature will only occur once my review count increases.

However, the greatest focus this coming year (as if the above aren't enough) is that I'd finally like to live up to the description of this blog: assessing classical and contemporary cinema.

My general aesthetic lies in the past. I try to stay balanced and take in as much contemporary art as older art, but more often than not, I find myself gravitating toward art that is forty, fifty, sixty years old. There are multiple reasons for this, and they might not be exactly what you might expect.

First, old movies are cheap and bountiful – the university library and Turner Classic Movies provide a steady flow of cinema that is accessible and free (or packaged with my cable bill). Second, there are many, many older films I have never seen, and a firm understanding of any art requires a knowledge of its past, its origins, and its crowning achievements. Third, despite the fact that I live in a metro area of 100,000-and-more, my two movie theaters are insistent on acquiring the crappiest films out there while avoiding the better releases, leaving me to wait until DVD, and often in that delay between theatrical release and DVD, my desire to see it changes. (The poor distribution of good films in my area is the reason I cannot create a films-of-the-year list for 2008. I simply haven't seen very many releases this year, and right now, a favorites of '08 list would be four films in length.)

Fourth, and more importantly, it's not necessarily that I think older films are better than contemporary films, it's merely that the odds are on my side. If I go to the library and look in the detective/thriller section, I am more likely to pull a random movie off the shelf that I might enjoy than I am to point randomly at a movie theater listing in the local newspaper and accidentally land my finger on a movie of equal value. A decade ago I was paying to sit through every theatrical release so I could write reviews that weren't getting published and compiling top-ten lists that weren't being read. Somehow, between then and a few years ago, I decided life is too short for bad movies.

When I launched Screen Savour, it was never my intention to try and review as many contemporary releases as I could. I had in mind a site where I could forego the unnecessary films and devote myself to the films I love. Roughly two-thirds of the reviews currently on this site are films I would recommend. No doubt there is an illusion that I give every other movie a five or four-and-a-half-star rating. It doesn't mean I love every movie I watch; in fact, this site is a grotesquely inflated concept of how I feel about films in general. It is the inverse that is probably true, with only one-third films being good enough to warrant recommendation and two-thirds requiring nothing. Even though bad reviews are more fun to write, I'd rather watch and write about good or great movies on the chance that it allows to express what I love about movies or (fingers crossed) it prompts you to watch or re-watch something in a new light.

Now, people often say "they don't make 'em like they used to," but I don't want to give the impression that I'm part of that crowd. I do think there are great films – masterpieces, they should be called – that are being made today, and I think it's a little shortsighted to think art isn't art unless it survives three-quarters of a century. Older films benefit from time and analysis, yes, and some artists appear more talented after years of prevalence. (It is also easier to discuss someone's body of art after he or she is dead because there is a certain perspective that only be attained after you know they won't be producing any more.) Speaking purely in ratios, the great film to mediocre film ratio of 2008 is probably in the ballpark with 1968, 1958, and 1948. It's only the case that with older films the wheat has separated from the chaff, and the truly dismal films (excepting cult followings) tend not to resurface.

This doesn't mean contemporary films are without problems, the chief of them being – in my humble opinion – that the spectacle has supplanted the smartness. One of the great ironies of art is that limits on freedom can produce superior craftsmanship. As a former journalist and current academic and artist, I'm about as staunch a First Amendment supporter as you'll come by, but even I can see that the Production Code made many films smarter because they had to figure out a way to get around a barrier. The same goes for politics (High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as allegories meant to be vague enough to evade censorship but sharp enough to be sensed by audiences) and with low-budgets. Cat People is a greatly superior horror film than most contemporary fare because the director and screenwriter had to devise a way to make the absence of something scarier than the presence of something. (Not an easy task, I'm sure you'll agree). Not everyone sees the cinema through this lens, so to speak, and that's perfectly reasonable, but it's part of the reason I find myself appreciating older films.

There have been dozens of wonderful films released since the beginning of the new century, some of which I value much more than releases from the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s. Throughout this year on Screen Savour I'll be discussing my favorites since 2000. This is the last year of this decade, and come December, we'll be seeing a large amount of "best of the decade" lists (more than usual, I'd wager, because this is the first full decade to be completely submerged in the Internet). I'll be dragging my selections out through the year, going through them in chronological order and not limiting myself to any number like 25 or 50. If it's the final count of my favorite films from the 2000s is 43, so be it; if the final count is 72, so be it. This will allow the films of '07 and '08 to percolate a little while longer in my mind (these best-of-the-decade polls seem biased toward films that came out earlier in the decade because they've matured on the brain) and let me re-watch them and others. This list will no doubt spill over as I discuss the '09 films I catch in the theater or catch on DVD.

I look forward to discussing this decade and other cinematic treasures with you.

7 comments:

FilmDr 01 January, 2009  

T.S.

That's an impressive list of goals. I admire your larger commitment to the high road of classic films, and I look forward to reading your new year's work. Buster Keaton sounds like fun. Of more recent films, I recommend Benjamin Button. It strives for something like classic status, and at any rate, I found the film unusually thought-provoking for a recent release.

NoirishCity.... 01 January, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,
What a very interesting "commentary" about your reasons for watching and enjoying the films that you review.
T.S.,You remind me of an "onion" you keep revealing "layer(s)" about your interest in films!
What I am looking forward to learning and reading more about...
The completed filmographies of Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin, and more filmographies including Buster Keaton.
Your continuation of your journey through the National Film Registry.
More foreign cinema, including films from Italy, Japan, and France...and most definitely, your assessment of classical and contemporary cinema.

dcd ;-)

Raquelle 02 January, 2009  

Even though I write exclusicely about classic films, I love contemporary ones too. So I see where you are coming from. And I have the same issue as you do, losing interest between film release and dvd release. Maybe that's why DVDs are coming out so much sooner these days?

I really like your blog and am looking forward to 2009.

MovieMan0283 03 January, 2009  

Can't wait...especially for the Disney features. Though I hope your contingency plan is in place as this may be a shockingly more difficult goal than you would assume...given the risible tendency of the Mouse Factory to play now-you-see-it-now-you-don't with their most venerated classics (many are not even available on Netflix). If you have trouble accessing any of these films, I suggest raiding the homes of friends with kids and making off with their movie collection. Unsavory perhaps, but blogging ain't no tea party...

Not sure if you saw it yet, but I have linked up to your Obama endorsement (with a nod in the direction of your Hitchcock series too) on my year-end round-up review of favorite posts. There were a lot to choose from here and I ended up going in the slightly idiosyncratic direction, but I really did enjoy that piece.

You can read the whole entry (lots of other great links too) here:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2008/12/dancing-image-in-2008.html

Happy new year...

Sam Juliano,  04 January, 2009  

This is an auspicious and exciting line-up. I particularly look forward to the Buster keaton reviews (as your Chaplin stuff was incomparable)and I am always interested in the Disney features.

I agree with the good doctor that BENJAMIN BUTTON is largely successful. If you decide to do a year-end list, I know it will be top-rank.

Have the best year of all in 2009!

T.S. 08 January, 2009  

Thanks for the comments, all. I've never discounted the fact that you people are about the best bunch of readers a writer can ask for. :) I look forward to reading all of your work throughout this year as well, and giving it the spotlight it so richly deserves in the Sunday Matinee round-up. Hopefully I'll have some thoughts on Benjamin Button soon.

Daniel Getahun 08 January, 2009  

T.S., I really enjoyed your thoughts about cinema and the place certain movies acquire in history - and why. I have to say that I'm inundated with new releases and I haven't seen many of the older classics that you've review. So I'm admittedly unable to appreciate some of what I'm currently seeing because of what I haven't seen, but at the same time I don't want to miss out on all the new movies. It's in a impossible balance for anyone, let alone someone who considers film and blogging a hobby.

Anyway, I look forward to your contemporary reviews and the animated series as well. Even my taste in old Disney animation is "contemporary" - Robin Hood from the 70's!

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