Old Movies

I was reading up on Vertigo at dcairns blog the other day and it really drove home something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and even talked about here. For some reason, cinema has regressed. It’s definitely regressed more in America, but even in countries that I consider to be ahead of everyone else cinematically, like Japan, it’s just not what it used to be.

Vertigo is so full of ideas, so rich in its cinematic language, so complex in its themes that it is impossible to find its equivalent in the last thirty years of movies. It’s a rare film these days that even tries out a visual theme, but when they do, it’s usually pretty simplistic. Vertigo is a puzzle that’s always puzzling, full of obsessions and fetishes and emotion and size, it’s a huge film.

If you’re interested in talking about Vertigo, here’s the link.

So what happened? It’s always easy to go back to the classics and say that things just aren’t as good. Mozart still holds his own. Sure, Mozart and Hitchcock were geniuses, but does that really explain anything? Where are the geniuses now? I love David Fincher, but even Fight Club didn’t come close to Vertigo in terms of rich, complex cinema.

Many people have pointed out that the great directors of the 50’s and 60’s came from silent films, and the studio system. They created the language and as they grew older they experimented and expanded it. The studio system also enabled them to be constantly working. Hitchcock and, say, Hawks, directed countless films. Directors these days spend three years or more trying to get a film off the ground. A modern director is lucky to have ten films in his career.

The audiences were more visually sophisticated in the past. I think it’s impossible to imagine this richness of cinema happening now with TV’s visual simplicity and blandness having taken over people’s idea of what cinematic language is.   Audiences used to go to the movies constantly, and they would go for hours. They weren’t just kids looking for a good time out, everybody went. So they all knew how to watch a movie.

It’s sad to think that films will never reach the dizzying heights of Vertigo again, but it’s also silly to mourn for a world that’s never coming back. We’re lucky that we have Vertigo at all, and with DVD and widescreen TVs we can pick it up and watch it whenever we want. As they always say in movieland, “we’ll always have Paris.”


9 thoughts on “Old Movies

  1. I agree that the J.A. Abramsification of popular (visual) culture is a disaster–however, it’s not a total eclipse!

    perhaps Fincher doesn’t measure up to the standard set by Vertigo (I agree that he doesn’t), but then–nothing else in the Hitchcock oeuvre does either (and let’s not forget that 1958 audiences did not appreciate Vertigo)

    but we’ve got David Lynch!


  2. If you want 20 great ideas… you watch 20 separate youtube “ideas”… Expecting them from one source faded as the system gradually expected less of their directors and more from a box-office bang… and audiences followed suit because they had no choice. But audiences, I think, still want their 20 great ideas… now they get them separately, from separate sources and this fulfills that need.

    Same can be said of a musical band. Think… Led Zeppelin made about 10 albums in 10 years. In these amazing albums you can find the source of most of the metal music that followed after. Now if you want that creativity… you find 10 separate bands… with about one idea apiece.

    Yes, we still have David Lynch. Mulholland Drive had a ton of great ideas in it and most of them were explored pretty enthusiastically. It’s a rich movie.

  3. “Where are the geniuses now?”

    Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami, Peter Watkins, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hong Sang-soo, Aleksandr Sokurov, Jia Zhangke, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Nuri Bilge Ceylan — to name just a few modern directors who make interesting, complex cinema that is wholly their own.

    And Godard, Rivette, Resnais, Garrel, etc. are all still around and kicking.

  4. Those are all great directors, and I like most of them (the ones I’ve seen), but the Dardenne Brothers are exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about. Sure, they make complex films, but they are complex in their subject matter. Their visual style is as simple as it gets, which is what they intend it to be. Claire Denis? Sokurov? They’re good, but come on. And, like I said, it’s worse in America.

  5. America: Jon Jost? Terrence Malick?

    It’s worse in America, sure, but not because there is less talent but because the system is worse. The studios are more interested in profit than quality, and they have a huge role to play when it comes to advertising (and the media in general). Geniuses still exist, they just have to be rooted out. And modern geniuses of cinema aren’t appreciated by the public anyway. Perhaps this is partially because, as you say, modern audiences are less visually sophisticated. Maybe, I’m not sure.

    Claire Denis is a director who is incredibly complex and innovative visually, favoring sensation to exposition and vignettes to overt narration. One could slightly alter your pro-Hitchcock statement and apply it to your dismissal of Denis’ genius: “TV’s visual simplicity and blandness have taken over people’s idea of what cinematic language is.” Perhaps using Hitchcock as your template for “genius” prohibits you from seeing the genius in what is wholly different from his kind of cinema?

    Abbas Kiarostami is incredibly complex formally even if his films might at first glance appear to be exercises in minimalism. Godard has said “Film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami,” and many others have said similar things. Kiarostami is a MAJOR figure. So if Kiarostami (or Hou) aren’t geniuses who have helped “create the language and experiment and expand it” then who really ever could post Griffith? (Many of the directors I mentioned are helping to push cinema in new directions.)

    Film as an art hasn’t regressed but progressed… Progressed to the point where the great geniuses of modern cinema aren’t making films much like the masters did 50 years ago. And good for them; that’s what genius is all about. Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu, Cassavetes, Dreyer, Renoir, Hitchcock etc. — they couldn’t be more different.

    If you’re talking about distribution and mainstream cinema only, then I agree: it has regressed. But then again, many of the major filmmakers of the past were commercial failures overall, and some of them even had to put up their own money to fund their projects. Aside from some of the names above, look at the entire career of Orson Welles.

    PS: Not to draw the entire focus to Denis, but… if you’re interested, perhaps these links can help open the door to her genius:


  6. I’ve read enough about Denis and Kiarostami, and I appreciate their films. Denis isn’t my favorite, but she’s good. And far be it from me to disagree with Godard, although he didn’t like Lolita, and I did. I like all those directors and more, and a lot of them are geniuses, I guess. Look, one of my favorite films is Under The Sun of Satin, by Pialat, but I don’t think that qualifies. I suppose I am talking about narrative film, artful storytelling, rather than the anti-narrative of some of the directors you’re talking about.

    I was talking about a time when audiences and directors had a more sophisticated cinematic language that they were communicating with. It was sophisticated enough to appreciate the New Wave when that came along. My comment about TV’s blandness was about the audience, not about the directors. Shit, I haven’t even heard of Weerasethakul, and I consider myself pretty up on these things, although my Sight and Sound subscription did run out a few months ago.

  7. Not sure if you’re being facetious about Lynch. INLAND EMPIRE was the end of the line for me…Jesus!

    Some recent films that have offered tremendous hope:

    THE UNKNOWN WOMAN (Guissepe Tornatore; Italy)
    THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (Jan Sverak; Czech Republic)
    MORPHINE (Aleksey Balabanov; Russia)

  8. I love Tornatore. He gets a bad wrap for being sentimental, but I don’t think he’s always like that. I read about Morphine, but I’ve never heard of Straight into Darkness. I’ll look it up now.

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