On Film Criticism #4: Relics of ancient times 

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Writing about films of the past should seek to expand our awareness of cinema and its possibilities, not freeze or constrict it

The question of how to write about films of the past is of course an extremely loaded one. Even setting aside the issue of changing mores and the particularities of different historical contexts, every person trying to write about an older film is bound to run into another, more fundamental and even existential obstacle: that of relevance. 

Animus is a publication concerned with cinema as something that should be alive and always moving towards the future. But it is no breaking news that films which feel genuinely electric and animated are more often found in the archives than among the stuff we get today (the main reason for this is simple maths: the past is bigger, there are more films to choose from there; the other reasons are complicated, more subjective and I won’t get into them here). Although many cinephiles first fall in love with the artform while watching a contemporary release, it usually isn’t long before they begin to discover and luxuriate in the riches of cinema’s earlier years. 

The knowledge that these archives could never be depleted by a single human being, that a whole lifetime would never be enough to see every film ever made, can be daunting. To me, it is an endless source of enthusiasm. Every day that I hear of another amazing-sounding film feels a little bit like Christmas. When I watch a new-to-me film that I love, I often want to find a way to share that enthusiasm. 

But we do not live in a world where most film outlets can afford to publish articles about some random old film just because a writer likes it. There needs to be a hook that would deem said film relevant to contemporary audiences. Part of the reason I created Animus was so that I would not have to do that. But while I sincerely believe that an interesting film, even an old one, can always make for an interesting essay, there are pitfalls one can almost unconsciously fall into when trying to write about older movies that every writer should try to remain aware of. 

One of them is the temptation to turn in what amounts to little more than a lesson in film history, where the importance or value of a given film seems to lie more in the big names that are associated with it rather than with anything the film itself is actually doing. Then there is the pull of the superlative, an understandable response to a great movie, and a seemingly sensible way of trying to make a work stand out from the crowd. But even more pernicious is the conception of old films as comfort blankets. 

Some of them definitely fit that definition, but not because they’re old — I am thinking in particular of Budd Boetticher’s westerns with Randolph Scott, which I discovered last year. Their pared down and matter-of-fact quality, the simplicity of their construction and the consistently economical and efficient craftsmanship from everyone involved are incredibly soothing to witness. Many other perfectly formed films, old and new, have the same power. It is when movies which were once exciting or groundbreaking are recast as relaxing classics that something is lost. Films that still have something to offer are, in writing, turned into beloved but dusty artefacts, part of a form of nostalgia that freezes them in time.

To cite an extreme example, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s films such as Breathless (1960), Contempt (1963) or Pierrot le Fou (1965) are often perceived and written about as examples of French chic and sexiness, while their sharp edges are smoothed out or basically written off as mere signs of the times. Even when writers do engage with their radical undertones or simply their anger (which are hard to deny once one leaves behind the black-and-white, Instagram-friendly stills and moved on to the actual moving images), the films are almost always sealed off as mere windows into another time, utterly detached from ours. It’s an understandable and largely logical impulse, since many things were different then from what they are now. But there is a reason archivists all over the globe try to make films physically survive the test of time; beyond their value as historical objects, they are works of form. Beyond their historical contexts, they are also about human beings who we can understand. Simply put, they are works of art.

This directness, this perpetual relevance, is evident whenever we watch these old films, but it is too often absent in the texts that are written about them. There seems to be an assumption among film writers that to write about old films, one must solely do the work of a historian. But go too far in that direction, and just as something is gained (revealing context, extratextual knowledge), something is lost, too. It is impossible to imagine that the filmmakers of yesteryear were making films only to reflect on their times, or bring to the screen some autobiographical detail of their lives, or even just to make a buck — the best of them were artists too, and it is on us writers not to reduce their work to mere relics of bygone times. 

This isn’t an abstract concern, for the most overpraised films today are precisely those that make a point of saying something about our current society, but very little else (remember Promising Young Woman?). All art is political, but not all politics are art. 

Fedor Tot’s essay in this September issue of Animus focuses on Occupation in 26 Pictures, a Yugoslav film that deals with politics very directly, but transcends the time in which it was made precisely because it is about human beings — about the people who live under, accept or are oppressed by ideological constructs. It shows “how individual decisions warp in on themselves and form part of a wider narrative.”

Robert Stinner’s piece on two films by Todd Haynes, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine, similarly emphasises the intersection of massive social forces — here, pop culture — with personal lives, those of artists and their fans. 

In his essay on Vincente Minnelli’s sprawling melodrama Home from the Hill, Joseph Bullock reveals the way in which the film uses the motif of recurrence, an essential component at the tragic heart of the genre, but opens it up to show how the sins of the parents not only impact their children, but are replicated by them. 

All three essays unveil the eternal resonance of the films they’re about, not by embracing anything that would resemble an ahistorical approach to cinema, but by finding the movements, forms and shapes inside of them that make them interesting works of art, beyond historical fact. 

It’s an approach that, far from seeking to reduce films to apolitical forms existing outside of history, seeks to expand the context in which they are looked at, to include our present and our future. In her evocative report from this year’s Venice Film Festival, Christina Newland discusses precisely the way cinema can expand our vision and awareness, especially after a year and a half that have encouraged and forced many of us to limit ourselves to the near and familiar. 

My conversation with Ira Sachs, about his largely misunderstood but brilliant film Frankie, may seem like a random addition here — this is a film about rich people on holiday, having rich people problems. But it is also a daring cinematic feat that culminates in a moment not of ambiguous open-endedness, but of actual abstraction. The kind of thing only cinema can do. What could be more expansive than that? 

Elena Lazic

Elena is the founder and editor of Animus.