Film critic and writer
|Francis Ford Coppola
|The Godfather Part II
|Francis Ford Coppola
|La dolce vita
|Francis Ford Coppola
|Singin' in the Rain
|Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
|The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
I saw Apocalypse Now on a small screen at a local film society in Northampton, 1982; and was instantly and forever rapt. Every film goes back to this I'd no idea it would colour, shape and extend my film-going cinematic life. As the years turned from VHS to DVD, my cinemagoing lapsed due to the antisocial behaviour of other patrons. (I actually asked for our money back after kids marauded through Captain Phillips.) I wrote about film as Radio Times magazine's Film Editor and, rather than scratch my goatee all week, I produced a truly honest Top 5, containing Coppola's meisterwerk, the two Godfathers, The Conversation and Metropolis. That way, we will always have Metropolis. The rest is noise; beautiful repetitive noise.
Their tendrils get inside me me at every sitting. That said, if I was only allowed to elevate one sequence above all others it would, in my case, involve Ralph Fiennes's concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He escapes a tight spot by simply dashing off through the lobby before anybody gives chase.
The Godfather Part II
My first Coppola? OK, hands up, I saw The Godfather Part II before I ever saw Part 1, on a row of screechy plastic chairs at a Northampton film society showing it 15mm-style in 1979, where I experienced a rush of narrative and aesthetic joy to the head. It's one of the few great movies that can be shown, and absorbed, in the wrong order (or at least a chronological one). The film society was my saviour, and come Christmas 1983, the televised, elegiacally chopped-up Godfather Saga was my Yuletide TV treat, and with not enough brown magnetic tape to keep it beyond the season. It's all wrong, in that Coppola conceived it as a saga, but even recut, with Marlon Brando a peripheral, partially bed-bound figure, it still fizzes my synapses.
Northampton Library was a municipal metropolis, and I treated its wares as relics. (During punk, I discovered Northampton's harder-to-find record library, which allowed me discover New Wave LPs without spending a penny. It was a hard-won race.) In the library itself, I discovered Alfred Hitchcock, especially the pictorial ones. I read every word that I understood from Spoto to Truffaut, and pored over the stills, from which I learned every word I understood. (My dad used to take my army-obsessed brother and me to the Northampton ABC, which broadened the palate.)
What I grew to know of Vertigo was a key to the locked secrets of a director who deserves to be Alfred Hitchcock.
It required the availability of video rental. But that was just the start of it. I re-absorb Vertigo five or six times a year, and don't intend to change that.
La dolce vita
In 1980, I joined the Foreign Legion. Having shunned foreign languages, it was with a deep, grateful lungful of salty air that I joined Film Club, held at Northampton College of Further Education's Arts Centre. There were no rules, except: “All films start at 7.30pm – please try to be punctual.” A flat membership fee (£7.50, or £6 for students, OAPs and 'claimants'), entitling you to see all 36 films showing in the 1980-81 season. A flash of your blue membership card also secured entry to and unrestricted use” of the 'Real Ale Bar' on film nights, where those of us at O-Level would comically nurse half-pints of shandy while making up nicknames for the more grown-up regulars. ('Stacy Keach', we called one of them). I have never looked back from my squeaky plastic chair. It gave me Memories of Underdevelopment, Solaris, Empire of Passion, Nosferatu and many more. La Dolce Vita gave me the emblematic sea monster, washed up on the shore.
Sometimes, I think that The Conversation is the best of Francis Coppola's 70s oeuvre. The fact that he slipped it in between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II ought, in many ways, to disqualify it, and yet it gives us twinkly veteran Gene Hackman in the best part of his life.
I risk making a mockery out of my own Top 10. And yet ...
In this year's round-up of Sight and Sound's best films, I belatedly started to spot a theme that's greater than the sum of its parts. I fell in love with it on first seeing, having already seen clips of it in Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam. These led me to the actual canvas. I wrote an amateur play with a college drama group and played Woody Allen in it. I played Woody Allen, playing Woody Allen. It reminds us how bendy the routes to pure gold can be. But why be so dull and choose a classic movie? Why not a Bergman? Or an Anderson? Or even a Spielberg? Or Lucas? I'll tell you why. Because I didn't see Casablanca. I was taught Casablanca. I attended the infamous two-day course by course by Robert McKee, played in the film Adaptation by Brian Cox. And if not for these starting points, I might still regard Casablanca as a love story in Casablanca. If it helps, McKee croons the final dialogue to end his seminar. It should really be number 1.
I have seen Bergman Island. I love everything about the idea of the film titled after the late, legendary Ingmar Bergman, now a tourist stay-cation for people exactly like me. And yet, if you are swept up by its cutely regurgitated verisimilitude and failure to find an ending, you might lodge it in a Top 10. Better, though, would be to watch my own favourite Bergman film, Winter Light.
Singin' in the Rain
Gotta dance! Gotta dance! Gotta dance!
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
There's a little-quoted, ruminative line in The Godfather, where the ageing Don shares a glass of red wine with his son Michael, and admits, "I seem to be drinking more." It's a self-reflection that hits many of us. In other words, we start to act like our parents. The Godfather says, "I like to drink wine more than I used to… [pause] Anyway, I'm drinking more."
It comes to us all. Especially those of us who take great note of minor matters. To twist Gloria Swanson's catchphrase: "I am big, it's the pictures that got small." Well, they didn't. They got even smaller. (You may recall Oscars host Jon Stewart larking about with a mobile phone, gasping, "You should see it in widescreen!") But it's neither the size, nor the ratio, but the aspect that killed Hollywood. The thrill has gone.
Which is why, for me, the western and the musical are the only genres that automatically grab any attention at all. It's why I've seen the entirety of Dwayne Johnson's ouevre and not felt in the least bit hoodwinked by his amenability. I'm going to watch Metropolis again this very day.
There is no film like it. There will never be another one like it. When I eventually conducted a down-the-line interview with the wild-haired pre-eminent film god, David Lynch himself, I almost froze when he used my first name. In heaven, I thought, everything is fine. I first saw Eraserhead, partially, in the corner of a flat in Chelsea when it was first premiered on Channel 4. I was scared of it then. I am scared of it now. I will watch it again now.
Whether it's my encroaching age, or the grinding gears of the sheer mass of moving pictures dumped into our daily trough, or even watch an episode to the end, I confess to be comforted by what I already know and love. I'm not looking for trouble. This will be my third participation in the S&S poll, and I wish it was vastly different from the first. There's something of the blockage about the familiarity of the Top 10 films I find myself wading through. Nobody is going to convince me that Bergman Island is of any artistic use to anyone, when I could be finishing off Better Call Saul. I want everything to be amazing. But much of it is rote. I'm already considering cancelling my subscription to streaming sites (who can afford them all?), and yet the cinema has failed to draw me back, post-Covid, under its proscenium arches. The cinematic highpoint of the year just gone was to accompany my Dad to the multiplex to share our childhood love of 'the James Bond film'. And it did the trick, but they had to work hard to get it to us up those steep steps.
My inbox overflows with links to forthcoming titles that I can too easily access, and although I am truly grateful to an industry that kindly supply my needs (except Netflix, which suddenly wants me to pay for it), the thrill is waning. I sat through The Outfit, starring Mark Rylance, and found it dull and derivative, and a total waste of the leading man's quiet talents. Where's the excitement? Where's the innovation? Where's the surprise? Who cares?
Like Don Corleone, sipping his wine, he admits he's watching more dross.
The thrills/spills small screen Saturday morning serial survives from cinema's early days, but spoilers, ironically, have spoiled that little ruse. More TV and TV channels, means more choice, but more event TV. Better serial drama is unavoidable in a utopia of anxiously contemporary 24-hour high-rise melodrama, usually about kidnapping and "something that happened in the past". But it's rare that a TV drama series goes beyond the comfy and the familiar. Are we at an axis point? It's no accident that The Great – Tony McNamara's boldly camp, youthful Regency history for Hulu, perhaps inspired by Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite – feels like a hit from this year when it was first aired closer to five years ago. You spend the money, you take your choice.
Time to watch Metropolis.