Movies, Movies, Movies


Les Enfants du paradis (1945)

by Jenny Diski

A friend of mine in his mid-twenties is a Film Studies graduate, and like a typical old person – both somewhat right and very annoying – I’m always mentioning old movies to him, being surprised he hasn’t seen them, and pointing out earlier connections to films he has seen, as if he can’t really know a film properly without knowing what came before. The films he studied at University seem to have made in and after the 1990s, with a few nods to earlier movies like Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner, some early Scorsese films, but not, for example, the work of Robert Altman. He’s a whizz on mise-en-scene, and shot analysis, but he’s never seen a film by Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Max Ophuls or Ernst Lubitsch. He isn’t, in other words, impassioned by film enough to have seen everything crucial (and even pointless) the form has to offer. Since he’s not planning to devote his life to the subject, it doesn’t matter. But it occurred to me to wonder if, perhaps, even if he wanted to, it would even be possible in the 21st century to take in the whole history and breadth of cinema. It’s another reminder of how my generation of post-war babies has probably been the most fortunate in history.

As a young reader, I was dismayed by the impossibility of how much I would have to read to ‘catch up’, and eventually understood that there could be no real, final catching up with literature. Or art, or music. But cinema being one of the newest art forms had a limited corpus, and I was perfectly placed as a teenager in the mid to late 1960s to catch up on almost everything I had missed, good and not so good, as well as to see the contemporary films as they arrived, some of which have now become classics of the distant past.

I was passionate about movies. As well catching up on the still-amazing A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, I watched the Bond films, Biblical epics and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leoni, as they arrived, and I queued for Mutiny on the Bounty, Tom Jones, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and the latest films by Karel Reisz and Lindsey Anderson. When a new Fellini or Antonioni movie came out (8 ½, Giulietta Degli Spiriti, Il Deserto Rosso), I’d truant from school and head off to Oxford Street, and the blessed Academy Cinema, where on the first afternoon of a new film, just a handful of people would be scattered around the auditorium, the atmosphere clouded with smoke and overhead light, buzzing with the rather solemn excitement of film buffery, as well as the occasional grim masturbator. I caught up with The Seventh Seal and Summer With Monica and took my estranged, visiting father to see Persona when it was released, in an attempt, I think, to show him what I thought I was like. (He said he didn’t understand why there had to be so much sex in it and had no more to say on the subject.) I’d stand in the queue for Les Enfants du Paradis yet again, and nod to the familiar people in front of and behind me. I went back to Pierrot le Fou eight times, enchanted by its mix of doomed but joyous romance and politics – and saw it again recently with as much, though slightly nostalgic, delight. They were coming from all over Europe, these films, shown in a handful of London cinemas, as I was becoming ready to spend as much of my life as necessary in the dark, attentive to the foreign lilts and unfamiliar northern English accents, reading subtitles, and siphoning up, it seemed to me, all the wisdom and the questions, spoken and unspoken, that needed to be asked by a subjective consciousness in the world.

But the Academy, the Paris Pullman and the Hampstead Everyman cinemas weren’t all. There was television. During the 1960s and 70s British television seemed to have a commitment to re-presenting all the great Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Melodramas, musicals and westerns. Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Cary Grant, The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton (I never got on very well with Chaplin). TV filled a good deal of its broadcasting time with old movies, bought in as Hollywood was fading, and shown in seasons devoted to actors or directors. Nothing would get me out of the house on the nights they were broadcast. There were movies I had heard about and was longing to see, and movies I knew nothing about, full of surprises. I can’t remember if I thought of films in terms of genre in the modern, studied use of the word, but I know that it would never have occurred to me not to see a film because it wasn’t ‘the kind of thing’ I didn’t care for. Nor did I didn’t mind much if a film was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, although I thought I could tell which was which.

Les Vampires (1915)

When I got a taste for a particular actor or director, it was time to check the schedule of the National Film Theatre, to complete my education. They put on seasons of Hollywood movies, silent movies, German expressionism, world cinema (as it wasn’t called then). The NFT showed three or four different films every twenty-four hours, and you could gorge yourself on all of it day after day and night after night. At one all-night sitting I saw Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali, Aparjito, and Apur Sansar. At another I survived an exhausting and gluttonous viewing of Les Vampires, a seven hour, non-stop showing of a 1915 silent ten-part serial directed by Louis Feuillade, that I would certainly not have either the passion or patience for now. I went back day after day for a Vincente Minnelli or Hitchcock season, watched all the Orson Welles movies, caught a rare viewing of Lola Montes and discovered Kurosawa. Although Paris was the quintessential movie city, with queues at independent cinemas on practically every street, London had enough venues to enable a devourer of film to catch up and stay in touch with what was going on.

I used to daydream about an impossible world in which you could watch any movie you wanted, any time you liked, at home. It was largely a wish to have access to films, but even then I liked my films best in solitude, and most enjoyed those afternoons in almost empty cinemas. Going to the movies with someone as a social outing was never my best way to see a film. And the idea of the community of an audience enhancing the watching of a film didn’t much work for me. I didn’t want to see or hear others. I didn’t want to join in knowing laughter or gasps of fear. I really wanted to sit on my own, perhaps with a handful of other people who also wanted to be on their own, and be absorbed into the film. So you won’t be too surprised to hear that I haven’t been to a cinema for years. Really years. I’m not a genuine cineaste at all, because I’m prepared to sacrifice the big screen for which films are made, and sound-surround, for my sofa: I want the remote control and the intense privacy of just the movie and me – although the Poet’s allowed in too so long as he doesn’t chatter. I never was a purist.

I still love the idea of film but I’ve lost the passion to keep up. I care much more whether a film is good or bad, and happily eject those that don’t work for me. Although even now it feels a little odd, even alarming, not going to see every movie that comes out, I’m very selective when choosing DVDs of contemporary movies. My young friend could quite reasonably counter my surprise at what he hasn’t seen by pointing out the number of modern popular and good films I haven’t seen, which must be climbing close now in number to the old movies he hasn’t watched. I pre-order anything by Charlie Kaufman or Todd Solondz, but I’ve happily allowed Avatar, The Lord of the Rings and numberless rom-coms to pass me by. I think I’ve got the best of the deal, but then I would think that, wouldn’t I?

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued. Translated from the Swedish, pubished in the Goteborg-Posten, May 2012.