As a proud, full-fledged millennial, I am still tethered to my parents in many important ways. Few mean as much to me, however, as the passwords to all the streaming services they started paying for back in high school. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime still hold communal value for all members of the family with television and new releases aplenty. But with those services’ scourge of content from any time before 1980 (it seems), I could no longer freeload to get my fix of classic cinema.
So, with some holiday money, I decided to buy into a year’s worth of FilmStruck with the Criterion Collection add-on. January’s Sundance Film Festival and related preparation kept me from taking advantage of the service, so I decided to dive head-first in February. I held myself to a challenge that I called #FilmStruckFebruary, a pledge to watch something on FilmStruck each day. Ideally, the viewing would be a feature, but I built myself some wiggle-room by also allowing for shorts or the impeccable supplemental material provided on select Criterion Collection releases.
I chose the title initially for the purposes of alliteration, but I’m glad that also happened to be the shortest month of the year. I never back away from a good cinematic challenge, but if my six-movie day at Fantastic Fest was like the 100 meter dash, #FilmStruckFebruary was a marathon. The forced monthly viewing reconnected me with the borderline masochism of the writer who inspired me to start writing in the first place — Julie Powell of the 2009 film Julie & Julia.
But like Julie, I found that adding a purpose, narrative and checklist to an activity in which I already heavily partake can shine a new light on a familiar task. As a reviewer, I so often find myself trapped in the seemingly never-ending newness, the cavalcade of freshly released features that I watch less out of genuine passion for the medium and more to have an opinion. I convince myself I might need to reference it when reviewing a later work by that same actor or director. It mostly leads me to miss the forest for the trees. #FilmStruckFebruary helped break me out of a habit of viewing films as a series of fixed points by reminding me that the cinema is a living, breathing, adapting organism. Questions of cinema illiteracy aside, many of us focus on the craft’s giant leaps forward while ignoring the incremental steps that have nudged the medium toward its present form.
This became most apparent to me when watching Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller M in short succession with Wong Kar Wai’s iconoclastic 1994 film Chungking Express. In the former film, made just after the dawn of the sound era, Lang leaves long stretches of shots without any kind of noise. The making-of documentary (available on FilmStruck) speculated that this was an intentional choice meant to have a chilling effect on the viewer, but the complete lack of sound no longer produces that same physiological response (if it ever did). In Chungking Express, however, Wong exploits the repetitions of The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” to achieve a trance-like state through his film.
I also saw something similar in the evolution of the close-up (a topic near and dear to my heart). In Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, 1921’s The Kid, he still relied heavily on iris shots to draw attention to key details. Most of the action takes place in static long shots as well. These are perfect for highlighting the genius of his committed physical comedy, but they prove a little emotionally isolating as well. Of course, the true milestone for the development of the close-up is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1927 film The Passion of Joan of Arc, yet the agonizing proximity of the suffering faces in Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 drama Cries and Whispers struck me all the same for being a remarkable leap forward.
To be clear, none of this is meant to fault the filmmakers of antiquity. (I look forward to being an old man and reading some novice cinephile talk about every way that Moonlight’s craftsmanship is deficient or obsolete by that day’s standards.) It absolutely does not dismiss these films and their value. But to truly appreciate modern, incredible cinema, we should all know the evolution of the form as well as how filmmakers either worked around their limitations or found artistic liberation within those restrictions.
And at the same time, just because a movie was made decades ago by a team of now-deceased filmmakers does not mean it should be put on a pedestal. Of the two films I watched from the 1940s, George Cukor’s 1944 Gaslight was the one that held a more vaunted status since the title inspired the phenomenon of “gaslighting” that re-entered the cultural lexicon in 2017. I expected an immediately relevant thrill for the Trump era, yet I experienced a more conventional melodrama hitting rather familiar beats.
The more compelling watch was Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be, a bold comedy thumbing Hitler in the eye during a heated section of World War II. The film’s humor walks many a delicate line, a step afoul of which would have made the era’s version of the Internet commentariat scream “#PROBLEMATIC.” By the very act of not retreating into cheap sympathy or easy outrage, To Be or Not to Be makes for defiant political cinema — an example of which more present filmmakers ought to heed.
There’s so much more to say, and even more to watch — I think my watchlist grew over the course of the month as one watch tended to beget three more I needed to see. But to get a sampling of my eclectic selections cutting across 10 decades of cinema, here’s my #FilmStruckFebruary diet.
February 1: Black Girl, (Sembene, 1966)
February 2: Cléo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)
February 3: Incident by a Bank (Ostlund, 2009)
February 4: Gates of Heaven (Morris, 1978)
February 5: Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960)
February 6: Mala Noche (Van Sant, 1986)
February 7: Bonus material for Eyes Without a Face
February 8: Le chant du Styrene (Resnais, 1959)
February 9: Wasp (Arnold, 2003)
February 10: The Kid (Chaplin, 1921)
February 11: Bonus material for The Kid
February 12: I Vitelloni (Fellini, 1953)
February 13: Salesman (Maysles/Maysles/Zwerin, 1969); The Alphabet (Lynch, 1968)
February 14: To Be or Not To Be (Lubitsch, 1942)
February 15: Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)
February 16: Bonus material for Taste of Cherry
February 17: Gaslight (Cukor, 1944)
February 18: Chungking Express (Wong, 1994)
February 19: Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 1973)
February 20: Bonus material for Cries and Whispers
February 21: M (Lang, 1931)
February 22: Bonus material for M
February 23: Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)
February 24: Hotel Monterey (Akerman, 1972)
February 25: Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957)
February 26: God’s Country (Malle, 1985)
February 27: The Slow Business of Going (Tsangari, 2001)
February 28: Le Havre (Kaurismäki, 2011)
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).