Off late I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how the act of watching movies has changed for me.
The movies I watched as a child were usually on TV (HBO or Star Movies), awkwardly censored by awkward people, interrupted by commercials and by my dad taking the remote away to check cricket scores. We hardly went out to the theatre. If I did, it was with friends. Once I remember the entire family going to the army movie theatre because they were playing a Bollywood movie called Border. My dad’s entire interest in the film lay in the fact that the protagonists were army officers; my father was at the time colonel of his own regiment. He wouldn’t be caught dead watching a Bollywood movie for any other reason, and after we watched Border I think we all wanted to die.
In college I started taking cinema more seriously, in part because film-making was a significant aspect of my vocational media studies cluster but mainly because a friend of mine and I got invited to a film club that met every Saturday. I still go to these club screenings when I’m in Bangalore. The person who curates the films has been a huge influence on the way I watch and think about cinema. Also, I love that there is a place (to which I belong) in which people yell at each other for bad taste and general lack of intelligence. Hey, I’ve had words with people . . . about movies.
The point is, I went from point A (TV and the occasional big screen) to point B (a biggish screen and my computer screen at home—there was no way I’d find the movies I wanted on TV anymore).
Point C is now simply my laptop. I’ve watched a total of four movies in a movie theatre since I moved to the States and three of them were rubbish. That’s little over a movie a year. Now I just torrent things (if I’m lucky I’ll find a DVD in a library) or watch what I can find on Netflix.
Something serious needs to be written about this shift in movie-watching, which I am sure I am not the only one to have experienced. More likely, something already has.
From a somewhat older time than our current Netflix-era is an essay that Susan Sontag wrote for the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of cinema in which she elegizes what once was “the art of the twentieth century” and which is now merely “decadent.” It’s a fascinating piece and one with which I agree on many points. But here:
Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such magical immediacy All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder. . . . You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.
The prerequisite of being kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. And the conditions of “going to the movies” secured that experience. To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film. . . . It’s not only the difference of dimensions: the superiority of the larger-than-you image in the theatre to the little image on the box at home. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Since film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room or a bedroom, alone or with familiars. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theatre, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.¹
This unsettles me—I think because I agree with quite a bit of it. I want to watch all movies on a big screen, in a large, dark room, surrounded by people I either don’t know or can, for the space of a film, pretend not to. Unfortunately, I have failed to (a) find a theatre that plays the movies I want to see and (b) find an equivalent of my Bangalore film club in the States.
So it’s my laptop for now. Maybe when I grow up I’ll buy an abandoned theatre and pay people to come watch stuff with me. Or would that be perverse?
Not that I’m opposed to perversion.
What I would like to resolve is not so much the size of the screen and environment of anonymity (which are difficult to resolve) but the integration of a small, but undeniable, quantity of distraction in the way I watch movies on my laptop. How does eating apply itself to cinema? How do the mouth and eye relate? That sort of thing.
Meanwhile, I can offer at least this: one specifiable change in my movie-watching is that now I often see minor films by various filmmakers whose minor films I might otherwise not have seen. This is because Netflix will often not have, for example, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter in its instant catalog, but it does offer Calendar, which is quite good, as well as various, less important films by Claude Chabrol or Olivier Assayas. And, of course, occasionally you’ll find a real gem by a director unknown to you or some incredible classic works.
There have been a handful of “top [#] best films on Netflix” lists and my favorite is the one by Christopher Higgs at HTMLGIANT. That doesn’t mean I agree that every film on that list is stellar, but I found a number of films and directors I already loved and a number of films I hadn’t discovered (like Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures—Peter Jackson, who knew?). Sadly, because that list was published over a year ago, a number of those movies are no longer available on Netflix Instant (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Jan Švankmajer’s Alice, to name two).
I’ve tried not to repeat any of Higgs’s movies. Also, these are are a mere 10 films.
Robert Altman. The Long Goodbye. USA, 1973.
Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye is a neo-noir film starring Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe, easily one of the most compelling private-eyes known to literature and film. Altman is probably my favorite American director, despite the underwhelming quality of his more recent work; I suppose his work in the early 70s (see MASH, 1970; McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971; Thieves Like Us, 1974; California Split, 1974; Nashville, 1975; not on Instant) excuses everything else in a way that Tarantino’s good films do not excuse his execrable ones.
I won’t go into much detail describing these movies; I’d have to watch them again to make detailed comments; but here is a sad fact to ponder: Gould in all of Altman’s films is a stunning lead actor, playing to various degrees funny, cynical, dark men placed in difficult situations; for several years after this Gould is in a career slump; he then appears to return to a sort of fame on an idiotic 90s TV show playing an on-and-off character who is a doddering, uncomplicated fool.²
Aleksey Balabanov. Brother. Russia, 1997.
Discussing cinema with people who are not vrais cinéphiles has been one of the most challenging aspects of my social life. Books and TV shows are somehow manageable, but cinema is tricky. Almost everyone watches movies, but quantity is not quality and it is very difficult to convince a Scorsese or Coen brothers fan that there are films vastly superior to either of those œuvres if they have not seen work by a host of other filmmakers. It is also not worth convincing them.
At some point I decided that if were to enter into a serious discussion about movies with someone I’d just met, I’d ask them if they’d seen any Bresson or Balabanov. It is not that these two represent the best of all filmmakers that I know, although they probably do, but that having watched their films suggests a seriousness of purpose worth engaging. Neither Bresson nor Balabanov is a famous auteur like Goddard or von Trier (which is to the credit of Bresson and Balabanov), nor are they obscure; in fact, Bresson was deeply admired, even considered the best, by his fellow Nouvelle Vague directors, and Balabanov was highly popular in his native Russia.
Balabonov died earlier this year and . . . I mourned him. Brother was the film that launched his fame in Russia, though his early films must be watched as well. His best work (not on Instant) came a bit later: War (2002); Cargo 200 (2007); Morphine (2008). I recently acquired the last film he made before he died Me Too (2012); I’m saving it for a special day.
Bong Joon-ho. Mother. South Korea, 2009.
Here is the IMDB summary of this film: “A mother desperately searches for the killer that framed her son for a girl’s horrific murder.” Two other highly relevant facts: (a) the son is developmentally disabled and the world he lives in has little understanding for this, and (b) the mother is a bad ass.
I am trying to think of an astute description of Bong’s sense of the crime film, but am failing. Watching his Memories of Murder (2003; not on Instant), which is even better than Mother, would be a good way to understand him better. There are two other Bong films on Netflix Instant, but I haven’t seen them.
Laurent Cantet. L’Emploi du temps. France, 2001. & Vers le sud. Canada/France, 2005.
It’s been years since I watched these, but I was thrilled to find them on Instant—now I can watch them again whenever I want.
Cantet makes some of the most moving films today. Like his Ressources humaines (1999), L’Emploi du temps is a deeply political film of the social realist kind. It tells the story of a man who loses his job, but hides it from his family. This is debilitating.
Vers le sud is quite different, though just as political. It is set in 1970s Haiti, where sex tourism afforded wealthy, North American women the pleasure of poor, young Haitian men for a few dollars. A lesser filmmaker would have—as lesser filmmakers often do when portraying sex trade—focused merely on the “dark” aspects of non-romantic sex, ignoring the larger political and racial issues attendant upon such trade. Not Cantet.
David Cronenberg. Cosmopolis. Canada, 2012.
I’m a little grumpy about how poorly this movie was rated. Roger Ebert gave it two stars and said, “. . . “Cosmopolis” is flawlessly directed. Yes, it is. I can’t easily imagine a better screen version of the DeLillo novel, although I don’t much want to imagine one at all. David Cronenberg is a master filmmaker, whose films sometimes fail to reverberate with me, but whose genius cannot be denied. There is a coldness and abstraction in much of his work, a heartlessness.”
Isn’t that sad? It’s a good film, but it’s too intelligent for me? I don’t even want to imagine how this movie could possibly be better because the material it was working with was already something I couldn’t deal with? I never liked Ebert for precisely this sort of thing.
I will not say that Cosmopolis is a great film or one of Cronenberg’s best; it’s not. When I heard that who I used to call “the vampire guy” was playing the lead role, I was not enthused. But I watched the movie and I decided to learn his name—Robert Pattinson—because he is incredible in this movie. The film itself is quite dazzling, though I can’t say I remember or understand how it ends. In other words, I’m glad it’s on Instant so I can watch it again. Meanwhile, here is one of my favorite bits in which Eric Packer (Pattinson) is talking to Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton), his Chief of Theory.
I want a Chief of Theory.
Brian De Palma. Carrie. USA, 1976.
I watched Carrie very late in life and much of it was because of nostalgia for decades I didn’t live through. I went through a phase of watching all possible John Hughes movies because I wanted to “remember” the 80s (let’s not even broach the topic of my not growing up in the States). Then I moved to the 70s, a time when I believe there was a certain purity in horror.
Carrie, which is based on the Stephen King novel, doesn’t need an introduction. But I do have a question: does a vast majority of the movie-watching population have difficulty watching cinema from previous decades? I ask because
(a) I often use movie clips to create writing exercises for my students. One time, I had a particularly . . . mainstream class. They found my taste in movies “weird,” to quote one well-meaning individual. Another asked, “Who watches black-and-white movies anymore?” It is moments like these in which one’s composure is tested like a martyr’s delusional faith.
(b) why in hell are they doing a remake of Carrie? Did no one learn a thing from Gus Van Sant’s Psycho?
Another must-see from De Palma is Blow Out (1981; not on Instant), starring John Travolta.
Bruno Dumont. Hadewijch. France, 2009.
I think I’m ready to say: Dumont is for me the best contemporary French filmmaker. One must watch all his films, even the less inspired ones.
Dumont has been described as a descendant of Bresson. His films often depict a severe religiosity; one is made to confront religion and the result of that confrontation is decidedly ambiguous. Dumont’s films are also described as violent—sexually violent. In the most general terms, I am interested in how violence for him doesn’t seem to be an aberration or an excess; rather it is part of the order of things. As an example: in his Twentynine Palms (2003; not on Instant), a photographer and a model are driving around the deserts of California in search of a shooting location; they have sex all the time and everywhere, including on some very hot desert rocks. I have never seen sex scenes like these. Yes, it’s violent—but is it sadomasochistic? I don’t think so. It’s the way the characters orgasm, like they’re guided by something beyond biological or psychological need. A general warning: this is not an easy film to watch.
Hadewijch is the story of a novice, known to the members of her convent as Hadewijch (also the name of a thirteenth-century Christian mystic whose life is clearly an inspiration for this character). Hadewijch’s devotion to Christ is so strong it frightens and repulses her elders. She is kicked out and made to return to her civilian life as Céline. What in the Catholic faith is described as a (figurative) marriage to Christ is for Céline magnified and real. For her the marriage is not a metaphor and she aches for the literal body of Christ, her lover. She continues to experience these pangs in her privileged, civilian life in Paris, where she makes friends with a young Muslim boy and his older brother. The brothers are from the Parisian banlieues; the younger is sexually interested in Céline and is rejected in favor of Christ; the older, being a devout Muslim, decides to help Céline with her spiritual problems. It gets complicated.
I love Dumont’s sense of people. Inarticulate and in pain. And inseparable, somehow, from the landscapes in which they are placed. Sometimes I think I could listen to purely the soundtrack of one of his films: you hear the wind and the flora and the city louder than you hear the human beings which bear them. That is how I think people are, truly—softer than place.
Besides Twentynine Palms and Hadewijch, you must see Dumont’s Flandres (2006; not on Instant).
Atom Egoyan. Calendar. Armenia/Canada, 1993.
Has anyone seen Egoyan’s Chloe (2009; not on Instant, thankfully)? It’s probably his most seen film, but god, is it terrible. I hate when great directors turn bad.
Calendar, on the other hand, is a glorious piece of cinema; and if you get a chance to see Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), neither of which are on Instant, you simply must.
Werner Herzog. Encounters at the End of the World. USA, 2007.
It’s Herzog. What else do you need?
That’s 10 movies. This isn’t one of those definitive lists. It’s just what’s available on Instant at the moment and what I’ve managed to discover. When I find more, I’ll make another list. I seem to have stopped at H as it is.
¹Sontag, Susan. “A Century of Cinema.” Where the Stress Falls: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
²The idiotic 90s TV show is Friends and the character Gould played is Ross Gellar (David Schwimmer)’s father. Yeah.