Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 4, 2012
People love demarcation points, a specific time or place they can point to and say, “Here! This is where it changed.” It’s important to have markers if only to help organize that which is, essentially, resistant to all forms of organization: life. It provides a sense of security, of nostalgia, of a longing for a return to a starting point when life was uncluttered and uncomplicated. For me, I have no desire for any such thing in my personal life. It is exactly where I not only want it but where I long dreamed it would be after suffering through years of confused wanderings through some of the most depressing times of my life. I do desire it, just a little, in my work life. I would like to write a great deal more, including books, but have too many other things going on that keep me to a tight schedule. When I have time to write, it is almost exclusively about movies.
And that’s where I get that sense of longing. Sometimes I wish I could go back and start all over as a cinephile. It’s been decades since it all began and so much of it is smashed together in a jumbled blur I can hardly remember sometimes that I have even seen a movie, much less what it was about. When I get these bouts of longing, I think back to when movies officially took over for me and how I had so much to see that lay ahead. Oddly enough, in a strange way, it’s the same time movies died for me, too, so to speak. The year was 1976: The future had much to offer but the door was already closed.
The first movie I remember seeing in a theater was The Poseidon Adventure, starring Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine (among many others). According to my mom, I saw Pinocchio and Fantasia before my 1972 excursion into the upside down ship but I don’t remember that. I do remember The Poseidon Adventure, though, and how, for weeks afterwards, all I wanted to see were movies about ships.
Over the next two years I saw my share of movies but nothing too dark or dense. I didn’t see Chinatown, The Godfather movies, The Conversation, Mean Streets or any other movies for aimed at a more serious crowd but I did take in The Sting and American Graffiti as well as The Land that Time Forgot and At the Earth’s Core, both starring Doug McClure and the latter with Peter Cushing, as well. Jaws was a big movie on my radar, and everyone else’s, and that only whetted my appetite for more . By 1976, I wanted to see everything, whether I was the proper audience or not. I saw all the movies a young kid was supposed to see (King Kong, Logan’s Run) but I also wanted to see Bound for Glory, All the President’s Men and Network. By the time 1977 rolled around, I was a full blown cinephile doing all the things you’ve heard other cinephiles talking about: Staying up late to watch classic movies, liking movies that none of my friends liked, hating movies that they loved, reading old reviews and falling in love with the words of James Agee.
The thing is, I didn’t necessarily see all of those movies until years later, on cable, at revivals or on VHS. I said I wanted to see them, not that I did. And when I did finally see all of them I discovered that, somehow, magically, that year of 1976 was the year that movies ended for me as well. From that point on, my primary interest was films made in 1976 or before. Why? I have no idea.
Or maybe I do.
I have, of course, watched movies from every year on and can count many masterworks and favorites from the period of 1977 forward but 1977 to the present feels like current cinema, 1976 back feels like classic cinema and the only reason I can imagine why is because that’s when it started for me so I must perceive that as the before/after period of movies in my life. More than that, the movies of the late seventies have a different feel than the movies of the early seventies, at least for me they do. The earlier ones seem grittier, messier, darker. It’s not fair but in my mind I associate the late seventies with movies like The Goodbye Girl, Superman, Star Wars, The Muppet Movie and Moonraker while I associate the early seventies with The French Connection, The Last Detail, Mean Streets, The Conversation, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Network and so on. Oh, I know you can easily find those different types of movies in each part of the decade and simply reverse it, I’m just saying that, in my own mind, those are the associations I make.
I tend to have to be reminded of the great movies made after 1976 because of my psychological lock on that fork in the road. To me, great cinema occurs during and before 1976 and everything after is still current and needs more time for assessment. This is, of course, absurd as any movie made in 1982 will be thirty years old this year but, still, that’s how my mind works on the matter. Because of this, I’ve probably given short shrift to the movies made in the last 35 years and that’s where I’d like to start over. I was so focused in the late seventies and all of the eighties with seeing every single movie made before 1977 (usually on tv or on tape and in poor condition) that I neglected seeing some fantastic cinema that was in theaters, right there in front of my face. I saw all the big American and British releases in the theater, like Amadeus or Witness or Hannah and Her Sisters or A Room with a View but neglected many foreign ones as I was a bit too concerned with making sure I saw the entire French New Wave first. Movies like Babette’s Feast, which I could have seen in the theater and instead, saw years later on DVD. Mephisto which I saw on cable. Fanny and Alexander, Entre Nous, The Official Story – all available to me in theaters but I let the moment pass. I saw them all eventually on a much smaller screen with considerably less impact. What a fool.
But there are other areas of longing with this demarcation point. For one, I wish I could go back and pay better attention, quite frankly. There was a time when I took in three, four or five movies a day, depending on school and work. Definitely two, often three and on weekends, four and five. I was watching, in the early days of VHS, everything I could get my hands on from before 1976 and now I’ve probably forgotten half of what I’ve watched. In the mad rush to see everything I could, I lost the careful feel of examining something in detail, savoring it and exploring it before moving on. That’s what I do now. I take in a movie and watch and re-watch it for days afterwards (if not in the theatre, that is) before watching another. I wish I could go back and tell myself to slow down just a bit.
And so now, going on 35 years from the start of 1977, the day cinema became current for me and everything before became classic, I find myself longing for something more. Fortunately, with venues like the A.F.I. Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, my port of call, I find I am able to relive the past and, this time, get it right. I don’t go to the A.F.I. all the time but when I do, it’s special. No matter how many movies I took in in my younger days, none of it can compare to seeing glorious prints of La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria, The Earrings of Madame de… and countless other wonderful movies in the Silver’s main auditorium. Or seeing Strangers on a Train with Farley Granger, right there! Or seeing The Crowd with its original organ score performed live in the theatre! Or seeing Mon Oncle, Foreign Affair, White Woman, Scarlet Street and on and on and on. Many, if not most, of the movies I see at the Silver, I’ve seen before but once the movie strikes up and the screen lights up, I realize I never really saw them at all until now. Kind of like when, after seeing it multiple times on television and videotape, I finally saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on a big screen (the massive Uptown Cinema screen in DC) and thought, “Oh, so that’s what they mean about having to see certain movies on the big screen!”
I feel as if I’m entering a final, welcome stage of cinephilia, the savoring stage. It’s the point where the idea of savoring a particular movie at a particular place and time is infinitely more valuable than seeing ten movies in its stead. I’ll always think of the post-1976 cinema as current and do most of my exploring in the years before then but now, I won’t move so fast. What’s better? Racing through an art museum that contains all of the world’s masterpieces and seeing them as only a blur or going to a private collector who has, perhaps, a small, early Picasso or Wyeth or Bacon and staring at it, and into it, until you see it’s soul? I know which I prefer. The problem is, I didn’t know that until the blurs started to give me a headache and I realized I was full… but I hadn’t tasted a thing.
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