I’m 44, which isn’t that old, but I’ve started to worry lately about what that means, relative to my love of cinema. I manage to watch a movie a day on average, which I know is much more than most people have time for. Of course, the new stuff is always more prominent than the old, although regular readers will be aware I try to be discriminating on where I invest my time. But I’m not really worried about new movies. The problem is that I really try to hold the major planks of cinematic history in my mind: I like to carry Citizen Kane and The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and L’Avventura around with me, because what was it all for otherwise? But it’s awfully difficult. Even your favourite films fade in the memory and need to be revisited every so often; indeed, much of the reward comes from building on previous viewings, as greater familiarity and your own (one hopes) increasing maturity allows you to venture deeper.
When Was Psycho?
And then there’s little point just knowing Citizen Kane, if you don’t know the rest of Orson Welles. Welles is actually fairly easy – there are only a dozen or so films to absorb and periodically revisit (for purposes of this article, I’m leaving aside the related problem of books and articles and related scholarship, although it would be impossible to engage adequately with Welles’ work without making some headway into that). But Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, made over fifty films, and so did John Ford. At a movie a day, you’d spend over a month on Luis Bunuel, and on Roberto Rossellini, and on Ingmar Bergman. You see where I’m going with this: even if you watch everything just once – which is only adequate for list-making, not absorbing – you’ll run out of time before you’ve even covered the central core of greats.
This came home to me recently when I started thinking I hadn’t seen too many Hitchcock movies recently. On consulting my lists, I realized I hadn’t seen any Hitchcocks this year, and only two last year. I hadn’t seen Psycho for four years, and to find out when I last saw (say) Notorious or Rebecca, I’d have to go rummaging through an old stack of paper (printouts of documents saved on floppy disks and no longer searchable…like many other people, in the early days of computers I didn’t realize the impermanence of what we were dealing with, just as they didn’t in the early days of film). Anyway, I watched Psycho again, and of course it was gorgeous, infinitely more rewarding than any shiny new flick I might have fallen into watching.
My List Of Directors
This was a breakthrough in my thinking. A couple of days later, I searched my archives for Stanley Kubrick, and on realizing I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey since 2003, I watched that again (although in fact it’s been even longer for Dr. Strangelove and Paths Of Glory, let alone the lesser-known works). Again, this viewing experience profited immensely from a sense of actually being a rational choice, set against my higher ambitions. So now I’ve drafted a list of around 35 directors (the exact composition will no doubt keep shifting for a while) from whom I intend to watch at least one film each a year. It’s not really adding much, since in any given year I probably would have got to at least 25 of them anyway, at least once (last year, without really registering any disproportionate attention in his direction, I watched ten Godard films). But it’ll make sure at least that those core filmic relationships retain some minimum vascular activity.
Of course, this is only the smallest of steps forward. As I pointed out, one Hitchcock film a year, even without repetitions, won’t get through me through his body of work, assuming I’m granted a normal lifespan. Although the targets are meant to be minimum touchpoints, they may become effective maximums; I’ll rush to tick off my Hitchcock by mid-January and then, with the pressure off, won’t think about him again until the following New Year. Almost everything carrying a higher and decent purpose, from financial regulation to health care routines, contains the risk of just becoming a hollow, abstract ritual. That’s why I deliberately kept the list to around 35 names. I mean, I could easily name 200 directors whose work deserves revisiting every year. But if I tried to do that, then I really would spend the year worrying more about the list itself than its core purpose, as well as perhaps not being sufficiently open to other major work that hasn’t been made yet, or that I haven’t discovered.
I’m hoping, in a way I can’t quite define, that more disciplined and serious film viewing will make me better, because this is serious engagement with the art form that most moves me, not just the somewhat disorganized, often self-defeating consumption that tends to come with cinephilia. And although this article is obviously based in neurosis, I know I’m just about the luckiest film lover there is. I was born early enough in cinema history, and I’ve been doing this for long enough, that I’ve actually seen all the key Ozu movies, and the Pasolini, and the Billy Wilder – for someone younger, who’s starting on it now, unless they watch five films a day and give up everything else in life, that’s no longer possible. And although I sometimes miss the old days when movies were less accessible, and tracking them down often felt like intercepting the last unicorn on the brink of extinction, I know that’s not valid. Not so long ago, it would have been taxing to watch even one Ozu film; now I can watch fifteen or twenty whenever I want. It follows from this though that I’m not really aligned with the purists who insist you haven’t seen a picture unless you see it on a movie screen, projected on film. I mean, even if that’s right, life is literally too short to allow most of us that standard. You have to do the best you can.
Because of course, seeing the films, in the sense of sitting in front of them as they play, is only the first step. If the main thing on your mind as you do that is trying not to nod off, or daydreaming about the grocery list, then again, all you’ve done is maintain a list. But my point here is to safeguard the experience, not the list; I can deliver myself to the right doorways, but not necessarily with the appropriate sensibility to access what’s on the other side. But then, that isn’t meant to be easy. The harder it is, and the more you sense and exult in that difficulty, the closer you are perhaps to getting it right. And it’s only partly, not even primarily, about watching films. It’s mostly about being fully alive.