Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tolerance and Variety, Without Moderation: Notes on James Card’s Seductive Cinema

Nothing gets me excited about seeing movies like reading enthusiastic and well-informed writing about them. And sometimes it’s not the extraneous bits of negative criticism that are important to glean from a critical work—in fact, they may be best avoided. Truth time: I’ve only seen two of the numerous silent films mentioned in this book. The fact that both—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and L’Age D’Or—are treated with a reverence that I share for them is pleasing to me—at least, it lets me know I’m in good company—but should I avoid seeing D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance, which inspired my beloved Eisenstein (not to mention Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and Vertov) to experiment with cross-cutting and montage, because of the whim of an old and much respected film collector? Probably not.
            James Card began collecting film prints at a time when such a “hobby” was roughly on par, in most quarters, with hoarding Transformers figurines or antique gaming consoles (this metaphor, of course, is my own extraneous negativity seeping through—don’t let me deter you from anything you hold dear.) Card’s perseverance as a film collector and preservationist—which in fact became his life’s work—turned in his own lifetime from a distasteful low-culture pursuit into something venerated by museums and universities worldwide. His insights into the work of directors Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor and Cecil B. Demile seem invaluable to me, coming from a well-versed (or well-seen) man of his generation, and completely valid as artistically minded criticism, yet his relation to the basic shift in the social status of cinephilia in the United States—which appears to have come in the mid 1950s—is love-hate. In the only chapter in this otherwise canny book that put me off, Card lumps the early critics of Andre Bazin’s famous film magazine Cahiers du Cinema in with “academics” and “semiologists”, all of whom—if he’s to be believed—were dryly engaged in a (successful?) conspiracy to remove all pleasure from cinema and cinephilia.
            Yet, from the way Card tells it, von Sternberg’s early silents (which, to my delight, have recently been released in a Criterion Box set) sound like they foreshadow the poetic long shots of Antonioni’s L’Avventura and the film-within-a-film soul searching of Godard’s Contempt—sixties art house staples both, which Card implicitly rejects--just as much as they do Hollywood melodramas of the early sound era, many of which were directed by von Sternberg himself. And in this, I think may be some sort of key to what cinephilia actually is and how it survives. I have a friend who, among many things, seems to eat 80s vigilante cop actioners for breakfast, early Truffaut for lunch and recent selections of Hollywood and World cinema for dinner or a late night snack. Another who seems to care every bit as much for Seinfeld as for Jean Cocteau. And yet another anecdotal film person, who on our first encounter was watching the live action Mario Brothers movie on the internet while waxing poetic about Bergman’s Seventh Seal and suggesting we watch Pierrot Le Fou with her other cinema pal, who has a particularly delightful taste for hard-boiled forties film noir. As for myself, I’ve probably seen (and loved) just as many slasher films, dystopian sci-fi flicks, and screwball comedies—from The Thin Man to Wayne’s World—as I have anything normally accorded the status of “film art.” Like many voracious fiction readers I know, many cinephiles customarily consume the high with the low—say, by analogy, something by Nabokov or Joyce, followed by a Dan Brown book or a superhero comic. 
    All of us younger cinema-people are probably way too indebted to things like DVD, the internet and television as means for grasping our cinema to hack it as true cinephiles with rapidly disappearing elder generations who still emphasize movie theatres as the only way to truly experience film. Yet, in a sense, James Card, long deceased, whose extensive collection of silent films formed the bulk of the Eastman House’s early catalogue, may be more of a kindred spirit than he could have realized. He certainly, like many of us, seems to have loved and cared for many things cinema, not all of them doubtlessly prestigious or dubiously pulp (but definitely a few.) Cinema has changed and will continue to, but cinephilia (colloquially known as movie love or film nerdom) stays the same.

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