Now that we enter the second year of our pandemic purgatory, here is at least one bright spot: We come to terms with our past – our cinematic past, in fact. Two films around 1951 and 1966 represent a personal case. Miracle in Milan (1951) begins with a lost baby and an opera cop, but it’s touching and absurd. Laurence of Arabia (1966) delivers an empathetic protagonist with a Trumpian addiction to violence that seems relevant.
The fact that films like these get reviewed and debated tells us something about our post-viral culture: a sign of a vacancy hangs over what’s happening for the movie scene. But watching classic movies requires qualities that I lack – patience, for example.
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The pre-streamer filmmakers were quietly in their rhythm, which, by today’s standards, seems gratifying, but soporific. “Leave a lot of string between the pearls,” Billy Wilder used to advise his cronies, which translates to more time for storytelling and ambiance. Filmmakers of his generation tried to base their films on plays or novels rather than story pitches, like in the streamer days – so they often hit too high; but at least achieved.
Critics of late (with little else to do) have celebrated films released 50 years ago, from Midnight Cowboy at Five easy pieces. They even summoned a retro sob on Valentine’s Day to Love story.
To avenge myself, I decided to re-engage with Harold and Maude, also after an absence of 50 years. Wallowing in the ’60s, only Ruth Gordon would share weed with her teenage lover, Bud Cort, while Cat Stevens sings “Where Will the Children Play?” background.
Full disclosure: I was present at the creation of H&M, even bought the screenplay from Colin Higgins, then a pool cleaner. And organize the meeting between Hal Ashby, the director, and his future best friend, Cat Stevens, who was in reality Steve Georgiou, who will soon become Yusaf Islam. It was one of those meetings that wouldn’t zoom: Cat sang to Hal who read poetry to Cat. From this unlikely encounter, two unplayable film roles became something of a blast from the sixties.
I was not there for The graduation, but again, much of the magic of the movie stems from mistakes or oversights. In his excellent new Mike Nichols biography, Mark Harris reminds us that the director kept warning Ann Bancroft to put shivers down the spine of her boyfriend, Dustin Hoffman, who, in turn, was put in charge of to be Waspish, but “Jewish on the inside”. The graduation itself was a edgy film that fought its romantic plot, which itself reflected the personality of Nichols – a then neophyte filmmaker who maintained a state of war with both himself and those he worked with. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).
Cleverly avoiding the vanities of the 1960s, some pandemic escapees have turned to more orthodox remedies for boredom. Sing in the rain tough as some cinematic chicken soup – a cure as much as a movie. Moreover, it is the same Duck soup. In contrast, devout filmmakers find solace in revisiting and dozing off with Palme d’Or winners – Winter sleep (2014) being the classic example.
For some, the 3 hours, 48 minutes Laurence of Arabia is just as demanding. Still, film-lover columnist Maureen Dowd admires the scene in which Peter O’Toole, draped in his Bedouin robe, describes the act of killing. “I enjoyed it,” he admits, which for Dowd is reminiscent of our former president.
On the other hand, it was Francis Coppola, a filmmaker with different origins, who put me on the neglected classic of Vittorio De Sica. Miracle in Milan. During the lockdown, the filmmaker’s eclectic menu for his family ranged from A place in the sun at Empire of the Sun. The comforting darkness of a cinema still requires a little artistic light, he reasoned.