Given the myriad of channels through which it is now delivered, the very dame “film” has become a misnomer, verging on the archaic. But for a century, it has been the prime means of mass communication around the globe, surviving through each successive development of sound, radio, TV, videotape, DVD, YouTude, streaming, etc. In a world where someone known outside their home town can get called a “star”, remain the unquestioned peak of the star pyramid are film stars, recognisable around the world. Their work has formed a tapestry of my awareness of life, as it may have done for our culture—at least, until recently.
I fell in love with film early. Growing up in the pre-TV 1950’s in a small town where the only entertainment was the cinema, I took advantage of indulgent grandparents with whom I lived to toddle the 100 metres with another 6d (2.5p) puece in my hot little hand to watch what was showing. As the Playhouse’s programme changed three times a week, that meant most of my pocket money wound up there.
It was magic—a window on the world my grandparents never saw and hooked me on the immersive experience of being transported from the dark into the sounds and sights and emotional colour of living in the film. I have come to appreciate theatre, concerts and other live performance. But nothing moves me like a well crafted film.
It was only later in life, once I was well past the stage of missing half the film by paying too much attention to the date beside me, that I came to not only critique, as well as be entertained by a given film, but slowly realised what a wonderfully memorable videotrack (as opposed to soundtrack) of my life, and that of society in general, they had become.
This came to me during my 15 years in Silicon Valley when David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard fame) chose to spend some of his zillions restoring the Stanford Cinema to its pre-war glory and show a series of pristine black-and-white prints from the UCLA Film Archive, complete with cartoons, popcorn and usherettes in pill-box hats.
As well as revealing to me forgotten geniuses of the silent era like Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang, you started to see the living history of the pre-war era laid out in socially observant series like The Thin Man, witty observations on American life that moved into colour with authentic later representations like Chinatown.
All this threw many of the films I had seen as a primary school kid in shorts into new perspective. While I had my boyish thrills at British pluck in The Dam Busters, Cruel Sea or Ice Cold in Alex, I had not connected with more mannered British fare like Blythe Spirit or Genevieve. What I did connect with—but fully only much later—were American films that made eloquent (for the time) social comment, films like Giant, The Wild Ones, The Misfits, Look Who’s Coming to Dnner, In the Heat of the Night or On the Waterfront. It was only later that British cinema dared to come out with equivalents like Look Back in Anger; Georgie Girl; A Taste of Honey, To Sir With Love or Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. All products of the “Kitchen Sink” school of writers determined to show life as it is.
There is so much to take in, so much insight into what drove or restricted people’s lives in any of those. Unfortunately, they were few and far between as Hollywood got side-tracked into “sword and sandal” epics or John Wayne westerns to try to compete with TV. Britain’s equivalent was endless Carry On films and bubble-gum like Summer Holiday. Had Bond not come along, Elstree/Pinewod would have shut up shop in the mid-1960’s.
Thankfully, the wave of rebellious innovation from that decade reached film makers. Lush and powerful dramas reset the standards high: Romeo and Juliet; Lawrence of Arabia; A Man for All Seasons; Women in Love; Doctor Zhivago brought history to life and posed modern questions. 2001; A Space Odyssey exploded the imagination in preparation for the moon landing; A Clockwork Orange frightened the bejasus out of you as a different take on the future.
There followed a couple of decades of film innovation interspersing blatantly commercial releases. Star Wars was popular, but comic book, while Alien seemed so chillingly plausible. The American agony of Vietnam was not assuaged by gung-ho releases like Green Berets, but the relentlessly surreal Apocalypse Now immersed you in the craziness, equalled (but not bettered) by the later Platoon. American politics came into film’s crosshairs in All the President’s Men and the wonderful Being There. The serious stuff was balanced by a series of wonderfully crafted period pieces so good, they could almost have been documentaries of these times, including Tess, A Room with a View and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But, while the Americans came to grips with contemporary social issues in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fried Green Tomatoes, Working Girl and Wall Street, the British stuck to historical clashes like Rob Roy or lightweight contemporary observations like Four Weddings or Notting Hill.
From the 1990s onward, the increasing number of media on which films could appear and the difficulty of securing income from them forced a wider volume of production, with a concomitant reduction in general quality. Pure entertainment series, such as Indiana Jones, James Bond, John Maclean (Die Hard), Lara Croft, Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, etc., as well as Marvel Comics derivative brought in the money and art house releases gained scant distribution. Honourable exceptions are films of the Coen brothers. From Miller’s Crossing to Three Billboards, they are shrewd, very human and funny to boot.
The introduction of CGI opened up a world of possibility that earlier special effects could only dream of. These were put to excellent use in Titanic and the utterly stunning, unutterably beautiful Avatar. But mostly they have been used to enhance thin shoot-’em-up stories from Pearl Harbor through Independence Day to White House Down. It’s entertainment, but it’s not art.
Maybe that’s me being crabby because I’m old. Maybe I’m too much of a purist, steeped in the old school. But films documenting real life now seem rarities and fantasy is all the rage. I hope there will be more films blending directors craft with brilliant actors using eloquent scripts that make shrewd comment on society that we can all learn from, even as we are being entertained. But the last decade has not thrown up a film able to hold a candle to kitchen sink films cited above. But I live in hope.
And my own favourites? It’s a toss-up between Local Hero and Cinema Paradiso: both shrewdly observed, full of humanity and humour—and not a frame of CGI in sight!