Cinephile Accounting: Old vs. New
As a cinephile, I experience a certain tension between the desire/need to see older films versus new films.
Here’s a sample of a dozen older films I’ve seen within the last month: The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919); Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998); Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985); Shri 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955); Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979); Rajnigandha (Basu Chatterjee, 1974); Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1954); Passing Fancy (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933); Komal Gandhar (Ritwik Ghatak, 1961); Doomed Love (Manoel de Oliveira, 1978); J’entends plus la guitare (Philippe Garrel, 1991); and Day of the Outlaw (Andre de Toth, 1959).
In terms of quality, every one of these films is comfortably the equal of—sometimes better than—the best new films I saw last year. And yet, in terms of proportion, the number of new films I see each year is large, perhaps disproportionately so.
I see about 350 feature-length films a year (plus shorts), and of these, about 50-60 are new films. The majority of these new films (about 35-40) are seen in a ten-day period in Toronto in September. Thus, almost a full sixth of the films I watch each year are new. Given the century-plus span of film history, this strikes me as an extremely healthy, even overly generous, proportion.
Being part of the film-blogosphere often exerts a certain pressure on us to see recent films promptly. One wants to be part of—or at least comprehend—the conversation that these films spark. We feel left out of the loop—not allowed to play—if we haven’t seen the films that are being buzzed about (or reviled). Sometimes guilt follows, and occasionally, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, the act of putting off seeing a film just because it seems so required.
But these are the high-visibility examples, and I end up seeing most of them. Trickier are the scores of recent films that might play film festivals, receive decent reviews, show up occasionally on lists, and become easily available at theaters or on DVD. On a given evening, does one opt for Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding or Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary? Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Yasuzo Masumura’s Red Angel? George Ratliff’s Joshua or Johan van der Keuken’s I ♥ $? Sean Penn’s Into The Wild or Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya? I voted for the latter in all these cases, and they turned out to be excellent films, although I still haven’t seen the former films yet.
Of course, in theory, we don’t have to choose between these films with any finality since they are all available to us, but practically speaking, we are forced to make such choices on a daily basis in an environment that is deluging us with movies to see, both old and new, in all formats (theatrical, DVD, cable).
Physical location is a factor as well. For a cinephile in, say, New York or San Francisco, certain ‘gaps’ of key films or filmmakers may be attributed to foregoing the option of DVD and choosing to waiting for a retrospective or theatrical screening which may be imminent (or not). In my case, living where I do, it is unfortunate that I see the vast majority of older films on DVD; the only small upside is that I don’t feel compelled to put off watching a film in anticipation of a possible future theatrical screening.
Finally, what underlying personal objectives might dictate these viewing decisions? To answer this for myself, I'll invoke a fantasy. I still hold the naïve belief that cinema is a young art, and a century of it isn’t impossible to put one’s arms around. By this I don’t mean being able to see all films ever made (which is preposterous) but see a wide enough range of films to acquire a certain level of working knowledge about world cinema (both narrative and avant-garde) that will give one the facility to begin making associations and building networks in one’s head across decades, filmmakers, countries, and genres on dimensions like themes, formal strategies, stylistic characteristics, and performance. And to begin working toward this objective means building a personal foundation—amassing a repertoire—of film viewing from all periods of film history, rather than over-privileging the current moment.
The result is that while continuing to see about 50 new films each year, I find myself, on a daily basis, opting to see an older film much more frequently than a new film.
If you’ll allow me to toss out a few questions: Do you feel a similar tug-of-war between the desire or need to see older films versus new films? What guides your decision-making on what to see from day to day? What are the personal objectives that might underpin your decision-making on these matters? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these or any other related issues.
pic: Vidya Sinha, with the soon-to-wilt flowers of the film's title, in Basu Chatterjee's Rajnigandha (1974).