Rediscoveries on Blu-ray
Exciting news: Hearty congratulations to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for being selected to co-host the new TV show, "Ebert Presents: At The Movies." The show is on PBS but my local affiliate in Buffalo doesn't carry it. Fortunately, the show has a nicely designed, regularly updated website where I was able to catch up with the episodes so far. My best wishes to Ignatiy with the show: here's to hoping he becomes a household name before too long!
I have a piece called "The 21-st Century Cinephile" in the latest issue of the Dutch film magazine Filmkrant. It's part of their "Slow Criticism" dossier, with pieces by Adrian Martin, Gabe Klinger, Dana Linssen, Neil Young, and others. In my piece, I discuss the need for a dialectical engagement with cinema discourse in this age of social media. The fragmented mode of cinema conversation on Facebook and Twitter is both invaluable (because of its dizzying stream of ideas, insights and stimulation) and challenging (because of its addictive allure). I find that these days I have to work hard to carve out time for engagement with long-form criticism in books or essays. Both modes of engaging with cinema discourse are important; it's a daily balancing act to be able to spend one time's wisely and well. I have a question for cinephiles: Do social media like Facebook and Twitter enhance and fuel your cinephilia? Do you find these social media valuable in your life, specifically your cinephilic life? I'm curious to know what you think.
I've seen Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) in nearly every format: the first time on the big screen when I was a teenager, and then, years later, on both VHS and DVD. I watched it on Blu-ray recently, and it suddenly struck me, with great vividness and force, as one of the great works of cinema.
Reading Vlada Petric's review in Film Quarterly, published when the film came out, I was surprised by its negative critical reception:
Everybody is fascinated by its visual (as well as auditory) qualities, yet many find its characters "unconvincing both as people and as symbols" (Joy Gould Boyum), "its drama deficient, and its psychology obscure" (Andrew Sarris); others claim that "most of its events take place abruptly, lacking adequate preparation or a dramatic payoff" (Arthur Knight); while some discard it completely as an "overwrought artifact" (Pauline Kael), or "a test case of pretension" (David Thomson), and "one of the most perversely undramatic, uninvolving and senseless movies ever made" (David Denby).
I can't fathom these criticisms. The drama in Days of Heaven issues only partially from the tragic love triangle at the film's center. For me, the main drama playing out in this film has to do with the way it stages confrontations between polar opposite ideas of what cinema is, what cinema can do. First, Days of Heaven's avant-garde impulses are as strong as those that drive its narrative. The film tells a compelling tragic-epic story, but at least as striking is its formal beauty, the way in which one stand-alone image after another stops you in your tracks. Malick often gives things -- both living and non-living -- their own shot, often unmotivated by the act of any particular characters looking at them. The conflagration, the locusts, the farm at the "magic hour," the broken wine glass at the bottom of the lake, the flying circus, the rooftop wind generator, the lone mansion: these images are indelible, their beauty and force far exceeding their merely functional requirement in the narrative.
The film embodies another primal opposition of cinema -- between the modes of documentary and fiction. Not only does the film capture and document nature better than most films, the credit sequence signals, with subtlety and imagination, the tension between the two modes. A montage of twenty-four sepia-toned archival photographs, the sequence introduces us to the time period in which the film is set. (In his book on Malick, Lloyd Michaels makes a case that every single photograph in this sequence bears a sly, glancing allusion to the narrative of the film itself.) Following these twenty-four historical photographs, the twenty-fifth, in the style of the preceding pictures, shows Linda Manz, playing the character of a poor urban kid. In one quiet, fleeting moment, the film has moved from its documentary opening into its fictional world. It is during such moments -- and they are many in Days of Heaven -- that I find this film profoundly "dramatic."
I'm wondering: Have you had the good fortune of rediscovering any older films -- and renewing or expanding your appreciation of them -- on Blu-ray? I'd love to hear about your experiences.
A few links:
-- A Blake Edwards special issue (plus other bonus pieces) in the new issue of Undercurrent.
-- The Senses of Cinema 2010 World Poll.
-- Cinema Scope now has a brand new online section with essays and a top 10 list.
-- Ignatiy has started a Tumblr site called Direct Transmission.
-- Videos at Catherine Grant's: "Fifteen Film Studies Guest Lectures at the University of Chicago."
-- Doug Dibbern at MUBI: "Cinephilia, the Science of Hope, and the Sacred Ground Beneath the Grapeland Heights Police Substation in Miami, Florida."
-- On the occasion of the new edition of his book Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell gives us "25 Classics: A Cheat Sheet."
-- "Moments of 2010" by various writers at Moving Image Source.