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Category Archives: Classic Films
I’ve written about The Citizen Kane Effect — the idea that sometimes a work hailed as a classic can do something so innovative and so essential within the medium, that its techniques become woven into the fabric of how later works present themselves. As a result, modern audiences may consume the original work and walk away unimpressed because the great strides of the past have become commonplace in the present day.
But there’s another, similar phenomenon that can prove challenging to the appreciation of great art. Works within any medium or genre can become such classics that they ascend almost into myth, becoming iconic to the point that even critics and devoted fans forget about the real, warts-and-all work that once earned the lavish praise and became the fodder for that myth-making.
To understand something is to take away its power. A look behind the curtain renders the tricks in front of it less formidable. The mechanical dinosaur isn’t as scary after the director opens it up to show us the gears and pistons that make it move. The things that we understand are less imposing, even if they are beyond our control, because they can be classified, categorized, and broken down into digestible little chunks until they no longer represent the unlimited, terrible possibilities of the unknown.
In Halloween, director John Carpenter never gives the audience a chance to fully understand the monster he crafts in celluloid. He never lets us truly know Michael Myers — what makes him tick, what produced the cold-blooded killer who emerges from the void at the film’s beginning. Indeed, through the character of Dr. Loomis, Carpenter suggests that Michael may very well be something unexplainable, something that cannot be parsed or reduced to understanding. He simply is.
And that’s a sizeable part of what gives Michael Myers so much power on the screen, so much capacity to terrorize and frighten us. Michael stands a step apart from any discernible human thought or feeling. He is simply a force, lurking in the shadows, silent, cold, and methodical as he completes his grisly labors.
What makes a work of art a classic in one era and laughable in another? I’ve written before about the Citizen Kane Effect, or the idea that some works that were groundbreaking for their time had such a profound effect on the medium that they essentially became the new standard, to the point that the innovations of the past might appear mundane to the modern eye. But there’s a flipside to this phenomenon — sometimes a work is innovative and interesting for its time, but as the years pass on, the tropes of the genre change, or the grammar and shorthand for how particular ideas are expressed evolve. When this happens, older works can feel miscalibrated or even half-baked to viewers who come to them after their heydey, having grown accustomed to the conventions of follow-on works that build on, and eventually move away from, their hallowed predecessors.
Perhaps this is why, despite my best efforts, I essentially laughed my way through A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s prudent to go into any work of art, especially those considered landmarks of the genre, with an open mind. While some seminal works may be overpraised, it’s worth the effort to appreciate why something is considered a classic, even if a modern viewer may have trouble connecting with it. But at a certain point, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the baggage that we carry into our viewing experiences.
Perhaps it’s naive to expect a horror film to have the same impact thirty years after its debut that it did when it was originally released. And yet, my prelude to A Nightmare on Elm Street was The Exorcist, a film that predated Nightmare by nearly a decade, but was still just as vivid, striking, and scary in the present day as it was to audiences in the seventies. At the same time, my postscript to the film was Nightmare director Wes Craven’s own Scream, released a little more than a decade later, which manages to be both frightening and fun while trafficking in the same tropes that Craven himself helped establish in Kruger’s first slasherrific outing. So what makes the difference? Why is one scary movie chilling and another chuckle-worthy?
Depiction does not equal endorsement. An artist may explore the depths of something controversial or lurid or profane without giving it their stamp of approval. This is how we defend films, television shows, and other works of art against the myriad pearl-clutchers and watchdog groups who gnash their teeth, gather their pitchforks, and declare that “something must be done.” It’s how we protect the scores of transcendent works about unseemly, unsavory, or otherwise unpalatable personalities who offer compelling narratives, but who may never receive their societally-mandated dose of comeuppance or public shame by the time the story ends.
But here’s a dirty little secret – depiction is much more complicated than either the defenders or the scolds would readily admit.
Make no mistake — the fact that a film simply shows bad behavior, even in seemingly glamorous terms, does not necessarily mean that the director intends it as something to aspire to. The camera itself makes no judgments. Context speaks volumes. But merely pointing a camera at someone or something does still send a message. It says, “This is worth caring about, or at least worth paying attention to.” Aim it at a particular event, or individual, or group of people, and it says theirs is a story worth telling.
Which is to say that when Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to point his camera at the lightly-fictionalized men and women of the San Fernando Valley porn industry in the 1970s and 1980s, he never truly glamorizes their existence or expresses his unqualified approval for how they live their lives. To the contrary, though the film ends on a note of bittersweet hope, the thrust of the work is how the flash and filth depicted, and the lifestyle that accompanies, thoroughly and pervasively runs these poor folks through the wringer.
There are many works of fiction about people telling lies for so long that they start to believe them. These stories range from folks like Walter White putting on the costume of a villain only to realize that the role feels a bit too comfortable, to the cipher protagonist of Avatar, who spends so much time in his alien body that he decides he belongs with The Smurfs. Most of the time, these shifts are treated as triumphant awakenings or operatic betrayals. But few are as soft, simple, or sweet as when Royal Tenenbaum, in the film that bears his name, lives up to the lie he’s spun — that can be a better man.
When Royal (Gene Hackman) tells his pseudo ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) that he’s dying and wants to reconnect with his family, it’s a canard. Not only is Royal as healthy as a man who drinks, smokes, and eats three cheeseburgers a day can be, but his conciliatory gestures were merely a front to (a.) worm his way back into the Tenenbaum family homestead after getting kicked out of the hotel where he’d been living for the last twenty years and (b.) ward off Etheline’s suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
But the crux of the movie comes once Henry has unraveled Royal’s deceit and confronts him in front of the whole family, including Royal’s children: broken businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), gloomy scribe Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and washed up tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson). Royal doesn’t bother denying the accusations, but in one last attempt to manipulate his loved ones, he turns to the family and says, “Look. I know I’m the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say that the last six days have been the best six days of, probably, my whole life.” A strange expression suddenly creeps onto his face, and The Narrator (Alec Baldwin) says, “Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.”
The Room has quickly become one of my favorite movies. I cannot, and could not, begin to call it a good film, but it is enjoyably and transcendently inept. The movie’s premise is a love triangle between Johnny, a well-meaning banker, Lisa, his fiancée, and Mark, his best friend. But that basic description does not begin to capture all that is The Room.
The internet has exhaustively documented the film’s numerous flaws and the insanity going on behind the scenes, but in brief, Tommy Wiseau, the film’s writer, director, star, and overall creative visionary, produced the perfect storm of terrible movies. The writing is embarrassing; the acting is weak and wooden, and the dialogue is quotable for all the wrong reasons. Plots are picked up and dropped seemingly at random; characters emerge and disappear for no reason, and the film is so poorly directed and edited that it could be considered avant-garde if people believed it were a deliberate departure from the norm.
I’ve watched this unintentional masterpiece five times. I have shared it with my fiancée, with my parents, and with multiple groups of friends, because it’s one of the movies that just has to be seen to be believed. It’s the type of film that you would never expect to actually come to fruition. Its vision is too singular. Making a movie involves too much effort from too many people for one individual to be able to create something so unique and so awful. In short, The Room is a cinematic train wreck that is as breathtaking as it is bewildering.
But recently, a comment about the movie’s questionable notoriety gave me pause. Greg Sestero, one of the film’s “stars,” is writing a new book about the film. In an article about the book’s release, one online commenter complained about Sestero capitalizing on Wiseau and the movie’s infamy, arguing that,“at some point it feels like he’s exploiting a man who’s not all there.” It made me wonder if there’s something wrong about the joy I derive from The Room.
Classic films tend to evoke a decidedly mixed response from me at first blush. On the one hand, I’m drawn to them. I find myself enticed to not only find out what all the fuss is about, but to consume one more piece of our national zeitgeist. Seeing a film that’s as sewn into fabric of our popular culture as It’s a Wonderful Life gives me a connection both to the scores of other people who’ve seen the film and to the America that only exists in Norman Rockwell paintings.
That connection creates a yearning for an idyllic past that never existed beyond the original celluloid. It’s perpetuated annually as families gather ’round for another holiday rebroadcast. I don’t mean this as a knock against the film. In harmony with the story of the movie itself, the viewer can see something that might have been, but never was, and use it to gain a bit of perspective. It creates a connection to the myriad individuals who find themselves reaching for that same popular myth — real people united by a shared, imaginary reference point.
Despite this, and perhaps because of this, I also watch these films with an unavoidable air of skepticism. We live in an age that thrives on and revels in the slaughter of sacred cows. Irony, sarcasm, and cynicism are the order of the day, and I am hard-pressed to resist. I do my best to keep an open mind going into these movies, but there’s a part of me that invariably has to be tamped down — a part that’s perpetually prepared to ask, “what’s the big deal?”
3. The Citizen Kane Effect
Definition – When a modern viewer is nonplussed by a classic film or other such work of art, because the elements of the work that were impressive or innovative at the time of its release have since become commonplace or outdated.
The Story – “Citizen Kane” is a tremendous film. It’s done quite well for itself without any need for further accolades from yours truly, but suffice it to say, “Citizen Kane” is widely acclaimed as one of, if not the, greatest movies of all time. Personally, before I had ever popped it into my DVD player, I think I’d practically seen the whole movie based solely on the many many homages to the film on The Simpsons. Yet, very often a modern audience will see this film, so firmly acknowledged as a masterpiece, and somehow they have a reaction that roughly amounts to “so what?”