A few years ago I had a conversation with a close friend of mine about the experience of watching older films on TV with my parents.
I’d be sitting there, deeply involved with something by John Ford or Sam Peckinpah or King Vidor, and my father would make a comment about the color of the military uniforms being incorrect, or the fact that it looked like it was clearing up outside. These remarks were made in such a way that a response was called for. I would murmur something like “Mmm hmm” or “Uh huh”—dutiful, minimal, as noncommittal as possible without being dismissive, and breathless, in order to suggest that believe it or not I was deeply involved with the movie so could you please find it in your heart to save any and all comments or asides or exclamations for the commercial break. There were always more comments, interpolations, prompting more “Uh huhs” and abrupt shifts in posture from me as I silently screamed: Please Shut UP!
My friend knew exactly what I was talking about. He’d had the same experience when he was a kid in the 1940s and 1950s, with a much smaller TV in a much smaller space with a much bigger family. “They’d start talking about the weather or what we were having for dinner and meanwhile it was life and death up there on the screen.”
When I was growing up, older movies were ubiquitous, on television, on college campuses, and in repertory houses. The Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s was as much a part of the everyday life of my generation, albeit in a different way, as it was a part of my parents’ and my grandmother’s life. Everyone took it for granted.
Forty years later, many younger people don’t watch TV anymore. If they see a movie made before, say, a decade ago, they’ve usually sampled it on YouTube, where it’s been either illegally uploaded or unceremoniously dumped by the current legal owner because it’s been wrung dry as a revenue source. Streaming services include older films, but they are sandwiched into an endless supply of quickly manufactured “content,” and they turn up in “swim lanes” as algorhythmically determined recommendations based on the storyline or the star or the genre of the last thing you watched.
Meanwhile, the world of film criticism has been hollowed out by the simultaneous collapse of print media and rise of reactive pronouncements on Facebook, Twitter, homemade forums and websites, where anything over two hundred words is a “tome” and thoughtful and informed consideration is a rarity. For anyone who loves and knows cinema, the common way of speaking about older films now seems hopelessly debased. The current vogue for “deleting” or “editing out” movies and songs and books of the past seems as misguided and doomed to failure as previous efforts. But no matter how quickly it withers away, the fact that it has been taken seriously on college campuses, at cultural institutions and in the boardrooms of media and publishing companies is chilling in and of itself. I’m reminded of a statement once made by the French director Philippe Garrel—in the arts, he said, there is no such thing as progress. New and old are collapsed, Hildegarde von Bingen is a contemporary of D’Angelo, every work is in conversation with every other work, and all are precious emanations from bygone moments, of which they carry the DNA. To quote another French filmmaker, Eric Rohmer once said that he learned more about the nineteenth century from reading Balzac than he did from a library’s worth of biographies and historical surveys. I would add that one also learns more from reading Balzac or Melville than from reading contemporary melodramatic potboilers.
So it is with cinema. The greater the artist, the fuller and deeper and wider the level of response to the moment of a film’s creation, which means the more distinguishable the imprint of that moment. And, I believe, the more comprehensible to those who didn’t live through it. If you were around in early 1970s America, it can be interesting to revisit a truly awful movie like Love Story because amidst all the cynical calculations, it offhandedly catches glimpses of certain common behaviors and sights and sounds and attitudes. If you were not alive during that time, you will see nothing but a bewildering array of commercially dictated choices unmoored from the circumstances in which they were made. If instead you choose to watch Five Easy Pieces, it will be a different experience. That film was made by people who took the time and effort to articulate and transmit the particular sadness and rootlessness of the late 1960s and beyond, and the damage that was inflicted along the way between parents and children and men and women. The depth of the emotional response in turn deepens the response to the sights and sounds and textures of the contrasting worlds in which those emotions are enacted and visa versa. If the film seems harsh in comparison with the majority of what is being made today, that’s because it aims much higher than the lowest common denominator of universal likability. The creators of Five Easy Pieces looked closely and without judgment at the lives of characters who are extremely harsh with themselves, and at their particular timebound forms of self-recrimination. If you get interested, you might find your way to northern European variants in Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore.
For those who are not invested in the art form as such, there are a million ways to look past the nuances of a great film—or, for that matter, to look beyond the necessity of even considering nuances in general. For instance, this now celebrated Tweet from the guy who made Punisher: War Zone: “Old movies rarely hold up, plus they’re racist and sexist AF.” But nuances are what separate Love Story from Five Easy Pieces and Love Finds Andy Hardy from Notorious, and the conventionally determined from the individually created within the same film. Individual creation was as abundant in Hollywood cinema as it was in Europe in the 1960s, often hidden in plain sight from the twin scourges of commerce and infantilizing censorship. And the evidence of such creation, whether or not the viewer has the language to describe or even name it, makes the relationship between filmmaker and viewer a human exchange, and art far more than a time capsule.
The cinema became central to me at a very young age. I was six years old when I started leafing through pictorial histories of Hollywood, about ten when I began poring through the TV listings to see what movies were playing that week, eleven when I saw Casablanca for the first time in an enormous packed house on a trip to London, twelve when I saw Cabaret and started to understand that there was such a thing as a director behind the camera, fifteen when I understood that films were comprised of multiple images edited to achieve continuity, and so on. I never stopped.
I have never believed that I had a richer experience of movies than the people around me because I was smarter. Early on, I understood that cinema was my vocation—I had no choice in the matter—and that obviously meant that I paid closer attention to it. But I remember how stunned my mother was by Robert Altman’s films, and by the Godfather films and Mean Streets. And once, not long before he died, my father mentioned that he’d recently seen a movie on TV that had left an impression on him because it was “different.”
I wondered what he could possibly be talking about, and I was truly shocked when he told me that it was Bergman’s Persona, a film that will always be different.
At film festivals, whether I was presenting a film by someone else or one that I’d made myself, I came to see that there were no stupid questions. There were, however, arrogant ones, and those I took exception to. They were grounded in the patronizing idea that it was incumbent on the filmmaker to prove that the duration of their movie had amounted to a worthwhile expenditure of the audience’s supposedly valuable time, or that the filmmaker had failed to hit every required point of the political program that he or she was supposedly obliged to illustrate or advance. I recall a Q&A after a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in the late 1990s. A man stood up and proclaimed that while he enjoyed the film, he wasn’t sure that it taught us anything new about the American Indian. Jim said that if the man wanted to learn more about Native life, he could do as he had done in preparation for the film. There were many books the man could read. He could visit the Museum of the American Indian. He could consult the websites for all the different tribal councils. He could go visit the reservations. Jarmusch added: “Teaching people about Native American life isn’t my job. I’m a filmmaker. That’s a different job.”
Jarmusch didn’t use the word “job” literally, as in a trade acquired through intensive training followed by a lifelong climb up the ladder, or back-breaking unskilled work that pays as little as the employer can get away with. Rather, he meant it as a less lofty version of my word, “vocation.” “Calling” is equally just. If such terminology has spiritual overtones, that’s no accident. The great English director Michael Powell was fond of saying that the cinema was his religion, and he meant it. I’ve known many filmmakers who have made similar statements.
There are obvious overlaps between spirituality and art. Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, poet and writer—made the point often. So did his friend Daniel Berrigan. “We are right in venturing that poetry is not necessary; prose is necessary,” he wrote. “Which is to say, prose is an instrument of efficiency. It belongs to the ‘things which are seen.’ Poetry, on the other hand, is unnecessary in the sense that God is unnecessary. Poetry is useless in the sense that God is useless. Which is to say, God and poetry are not part of the kingdom of necessity.” I think that all poetry, and by extension all art—art that is practiced with care and without cynicism or calculation, that is—is essentially devotional. It is possible under all kinds of conditions, even the conditions of old Hollywood, which is why Bob Dylan referred to Hollywood cinema as “visionary art.” There are filmmakers like Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne whose work is intimately entwined with the life of the spirit. However, not one of them ever betrayed their art by using it as a vehicle for the articulation of doctrinal beliefs, and that includes Bresson when he adapted Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, Rossellini when he made Flowers of St. Francis and Europa ’51, or Hitchcock when he dissolved from Henry Fonda praying before an image of Jesus to the man whose crimes he’s been wrongly accused of committing in The Wrong Man. To do so would have constituted a betrayal of their calling, a calling they share with less evidently spiritual artists like William Wyler, Chantal Akerman, Josef von Sternberg, and John Cassavetes. One might say that an artist’s engagement with the spirit is as close to contemplative practice as teeth are to lips, with the crucial difference that incoming and outgoing energy passes through the medium of canvas and paints, pen and paper, hand and instrument, camera and editing apparatus, resulting in the creation of a new object of contemplation that is then given back to ongoing life.
For me, the cinema really started with Bogart. Perhaps it was because he reminded me of my father. They both had the same sadness, the same stiffness, the same hurt, the same secret. Bogart had been through the First World War (that was how he damaged his upper lip) and my father had been through the Second, so perhaps it was the shared experience of war. I can’t say, but Bogart’s presence seemed to shadow and echo my father’s. And that, in turn, showed me the particular way in which the cinema and the world could reverberate off of one another.
When I was young, I was drawn to passages in films where the plot would give way to pure happening: one event would follow another with seeming inevitability, and everything would become uncanny in the way that ongoing reality does when we tune into it. In The Big Sleep, there is a scene where Bogart as Philip Marlowe sits in his car outside a house he’s staked out. Suddenly, from inside, a flash of light, a gunshot, footsteps running. Bogart goes, kicks in the window and climbs in. The score comes to a halt, everything goes quiet, and he simply looks around the room and puts it all together one element at a time: the dead body on the floor, the drugged girl on the chair idly giggling, the Asian bust that houses a hidden camera whose film is missing. It’s a scene that never fails to bewitch me. Why? Because it creates a spell of time in which the elemental unfolds and is apprehended detail by detail by the patient, observant Marlowe. There are many such moments in Chinatown, another L.A. detective story. For instance, Jack Nicholson tailing Faye Dunaway’s husband to a mysterious daytime encounter with a Mexican boy on horseback by a dry riverbed. Nicholson watches them conferring through his binoculars, and the trembling POV is underscored by the sound of a buzzing insect.
Both scenes advance the story and simultaneously advance something else as well, much more difficult to name: our common awareness of the presence of the world as it unfurls in time. Every art form has its limit points and its unique expressive capacities. The possibility of embodying this awareness belongs to the cinema. It is not something that just happens when you point a camera at something or someone and start filming. It is an act of interpretation and artistic calculation, made possible by the narrative (in the case of an avant garde film, the schema; in the case of a documentary, the operating principle), allowing the filmmaker to depart from mere exposition or character development and the world that contains the action to make itself fully felt, thus enlarging the sense of the drama and the characters. There are many more examples that come to mind, from Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson quietly sorting mushrooms in the aforementioned Persona to the pickpockets’ bonanza on the train in Bresson’s Pickpocket, from the elaborate preparation for the duel in the gymnasium in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick’s entrance into the abandoned house in Elia Kazan’s Wild River to the Topanga hippies sitting down at a long table for their pizza dinner in an unwitting last supper arrangement just as their picture is ominously snapped in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
Conversely, such instants of unfolding presence-in-time can also hew closely to the actor, at moments where the work of a performance gives way to pure being in time. Such a miracle occurs during one of the most famous moments in film history. Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henried walk into Rick’s American Bar and sit down at a table. She hears the familiar voice of Dooley Wilson singing and playing the piano. She asks him to play “As Time Goes By.” He refuses at first, but she sweetly insists. Bogart hears the song, storms out from his office onto the floor, says, “Sam, I thought I told you never to pl…,” sees Ingrid Bergman, and in the following close-up his face appears to crumble in hurt, like a collapsing mountain. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the film. I’m always stirred, as I am by the bitter end of Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton’s marriage in the final moments of Dodsworth, where one sees his change of heart settling over him as he listens to her justifying her every betrayal, then bounding up from his chair to announce that he won’t be sailing back to America with her. The spectacle of a human being liberating himself from a mutually imprisoning marriage, rendered in increasingly intense duelling close-ups that climax with Huston’s bold declaration that “love has to stop somewhere short of suicide,” is transmitted in the escalating rhythm of the cuts, which does not push the action forward but moves with the intensifying fury of the emotional exchange. I might also point to another act of liberation, Ingrid Bergman’s trek up to the roof of the world at the top of Stromboli in Rossellini’s film of that name, where she lays down under a canopy of stars and exclaims, “What beauty…what mystery,” opening herself suddenly to life. It’s the words, but it’s the timing of her utterance of them in relation to what she sees and feels from above that counts.
I do not want to give the impression that I believe movies are all about their standout moments. Every one of the moments I’ve mentioned is made possible by the greater whole out of which they’ve grown and to which they remain attached. I’m reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s characterization of Buddhist practice as one of “small moments.” Small moments of insight that open to seeing more of one’s own being within the world’s being. And in a film, small moments of crystallization or expansion or contraction, or all of the above simultaneously, of everything we’ve seen and heard up to that point. When I was young, it was common for people to dismiss the plots that made these moments possible. But the story is to the flowers that blossom from it as the ground of common life is to the Zen master’s instants of awareness, short in duration but unendingly luminous.
If you don’t know the films I’ve mentioned, you owe it to yourself to acquaint yourself with them, and to keep watching no matter how distant you may feel at first contact, no matter what the reason. They were all revelatory for me, and in most cases they continue to be. And, there are many, many more where they came from. Ultimately, it’s unsurprising to me that so many people have felt comfortable blithely demeaning the history of cinema and branding its appreciation “esoteric” or “elitist.” Art will always be fragile, precisely because it is, as Berrigan wrote of poetry, “unnecessary.” It can never be pinned down or defined, no matter how much platitudinizing we hear about it as a “tool of understanding,” a “mirror that we hold up to ourselves,” and so on. And its fragility is actually its greatest strength, because it is always finding protection from those who love it.
The debased manner in which we consider, discuss, and value art in common life is just one manifestation of the debased manner in which we commonly consider, discuss, and value pretty much everything. Newspapers, magazines, websites, podcasts, talk shows, and news shows all tell the same story: past and future each extend about five days in either direction from the bare-knuckled present; we must always know exactly what is going to happen and if we don’t it’s cause for nervousness; everything hinges on our individual and immediate happiness and fulfillment, and we are all at heart children who crave “comfort” in our food, our “lifestyle,” our relationships, and, of course, our movies; we are all tricked by our own need for constant gratification and praise into believing that we are more caring, more compassionate, and more generous than we actually are; everything presented to us must be instantly comprehensible and accessible, serious and maybe even dark around the edges but fun and affirmative at heart, and “challenging” without being legitimately so.
Any one of the above films cuts right through such blather…when we properly attend to it, that is. Which we should. Films—films that are made, frame by frame, rather than mass-manufactured—are human responses to this life. And as such, even when we pay to sit down and watch them, they are offerings. We should stop expecting them to justify their existences, and accept the gift. ◆
This piece appears in our Summer 2021 issue of Parabola, “Young and Old.” Please consider subscribing to our magazine or purchasing the issue here.