Once again, those filmic gurus at The House Next Door got me to thinking (damn their eyes, I do so try to avoid thinking) about film viewership among cinephiles by linking to this post by Kevin Lee on a rather embarrassing article written by Mick LaSalle. I'm not familiar with LaSalle myself and after reading Kevin's post I feel thankful for my lack of familiarity. But all the talk about canons and holes in viewership among cinephiles got me to thinking about holes in viewership for myself, albeit from a different perspective.
Although I have several films in the history of cinema to go before I've seen them all (oh probably around 487,593) I have seen most of the BIG ones; that is, the ones you're expected to have seen as a card carrying cinephile. I've seen all the films on the various Sight and Sound Polls over the years save a couple here and there, all the Best Pictures save one (Chicago - and I still can't bring myself to put it in the queue) and most of the nominees, the AFI top 100, at least two thirds of the Top Foreign list done this year on Ed Copeland's site (It's here I have my biggest gaps in viewing) and the completest assortment of classic Hollywood and Foreign films. I feel confident I can hold my own in a conversation on film with any acknowledged expert but still feel intimidated by many writers and bloggers out there. I have an unfounded suspicion (perhaps we all do) that they have seen much more than me. Whether this is true or not I do know there are certain bloggers who have seen very different sets of films than I have seen and I visit their blogs for ideas on what to see or just to vicariously experience the film in question through their words.
But as I get older I have noticed unique cinephiliac problems arising with age: Namely, I don't remember half the films I saw between the ages of 10 and 25. Oh I remember seeing them alright, or I should say I remember that I have seen them, but I don't remember much else. This problem is compounded by the fact that movies I did see in my youth that I thought were excellent were seen again in my late thirties and found to be lacking. Other films I thought were overrated bores upon first viewing at 19 were seen again later in life and found to be wonderful.
So I have many gaps to fill but at the same time keep telling myself, "I really have to see that again. I remember not liking it but everyone thinks it's great and I don't remember much about it now." Do I see the foreign classic I've yet to see (Earrings of Madame De) or revisit the foreign classic I did see (Last Year at Marienbad) but frankly can't really remember now? For the record I was nineteen when I saw Marienbad and that is now more than... uh... um... well, it was a long time ago.
There is no set answer and more often than not I will end up revisiting a film over seeking out an unseen one. I'm not sure why. I do know that life experience greatly affects how one looks at a movie, book or painting and that explains my changing opinions on films with twenty year gaps in between viewings. I also now understand that what I thought was complete "life experience" at 20 or 25 was not. And I think I understand now that in my fifties and sixties and seventies I will look back upon my opinions now with some bemusement and perhaps even a little embarrassment mixed in for good measure.
And will I need to revisit films I have seen recently? Will they too become distant, foggy memories? If my experience so far is any indication, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Which makes me feel better, believe it or not. It means viewing film, experiencing art or reading great literature is not a "once and done" proposition. It is an ongoing cycle that must be renewed regularly. To see a great film but once and never return to it is to turn one's back on the artistic experience. The experience of art is in part the re-experience of art. When I was in college studying theatre we had one line drilled into our heads again and again: Art is an act of communication. The artist, be (s)he filmmaker, painter, writer, architect, musician, choreographer, etc. is communicating an idea to the recipient of the art. That idea, in the best art, is not set in stone and dogmatically applied but malleable and open to interpretation. That is when the recipient begins their part of the communication process. Through interpretation; and through life experience, re-interpretation; the recipient is now in communication with the artist. It may be the reason I return to a film seen but forgotten over a film not yet seen: I want to continue the dialogue. And to have dialogue with someone removed from you by decades or even centuries is one of life's most enriching experiences.
And it can be comforting as well as helpful to solidifying, or at least understanding, a viewpoint. Many people (most?) have had occasion to converse with the same person on the same topic again and again. It is often preferable to striking up a conversation with a new person on an unfamiliar topic. When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was a teenager. I had read all about it in film books for years before finally getting the opportunity to see it. When I saw it, I watched with a deadly earnestness, studying, analyzing. I watched it again several times on cable and videotape, and each time with the same analytical eye of the cinephile. After several conversations with the film I felt I had experienced it. I was wrong.
In 1990, the Uptown Cinema in Washington, D.C., one of the few remaining movie palaces of the CinemaScope era, showed 2001: A Space Odyssey. I went and saw it with my roommate. We'd each seen it several times but this was the first time for both of us on the big screen with an audience. It was then I realized the conversation was just beginning. Obviously the visuals had a completely different impact than they had on the small screen but that wasn't the biggest difference. What I had missed in my solemn seriousness as an analytical cinephile was Kubrick's humor. There are, I discovered, several parts of the movie that are (gasp) funny. The "Dawn of Man" has a few, the space station a few more and finally, the showdown between Dave and HAL was a revelation. Kubrick understood the humor of someone who is arrogant losing the upper hand. HAL has no time for Dave when Dave is stuck outside. He is dismissive, even, in his monotone serenity, cocky. He ends the conversation. Then Dave figures out how to get in. Now HAL won't shut up. "We need to talk, Dave." "I think you need to take a stress pill." He even does the desperate boyfriend routine about how, sure, he knows he made some mistakes but it will be different this time, really. Members of the audience were chuckling, not laughing heartily, but chuckling at the absurdity of it all (HAL has murdered the entire crew and he's trying to convince Dave that he's learned his lesson, like he forgot to take out the trash). And I chuckled too, for the first time. Then as Dave enters HAL's memory banks and dismantles him there is silence as the humor is turned around and now we feel sympathy with HAL's pleading. When HAL starts singing (singing!) he suddenly feels like a small child who lost his way. And I had missed almost all of this in my previous viewings. In my deadly earnestness I had forgotten to experience the movie, to communicate with it.
Questions of the future are always enticing because there is no way to know the answer without going there. Films that are praised upon release are rarely outright panned in retrospect but what happens more often is that films that received lukewarm receptions grow in stature as time moves ahead. Or perhaps a praised film takes on the mantle of masterpiece as the decades go by. Will cinephiles in 2100 find our conversations about No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood amusing because Zodiac will have cemented a reputation as one of the greatest films of all time, leaving them to wonder how we all missed it so badly even though we all thought it was excellent? Will some other film that none of us has discussed become a giant in film history? Will a movie that was panned gain a reputation for being ahead of its time? I don't know. I do know that the only way to understand any of it is to keep having the conversation. For me that includes rekindling conversations long forgotten (Last Year at Marienbad) and striking up new ones (Earrings of Madame De). And I look forward to many more years of great dialogue with great directors, great movies and great art. Art is an act of communication. Let the conversation begin.