(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)
I had “Family Day” off, but my wife didn’t, so I devoted most of the day to watching Abel Gance’s 1921 silent epic La Roue. I’d recorded it from Turner Classic Movies months ago, and had been saving it for exactly such an occasion, because it lasts over four hours. I started around nine thirty and finished some seven hours later, having taken breaks to walk the dog, make lunch, answer emails, and do whatever else popped into my head. It was a great day. The film, built around a railroad engineer who falls in love with his own adopted daughter, is often dazzling, although of course a lot of it is hard to relate to now, other than as a record of a vanished cultural time. It refuses to end, adding one climactic embellishment upon another, but you sense that as a sign of Gance’s massively inventive delight in a then still relatively new medium.
Some people (see David Bordwell’s website as a wonderful example) love to track the development of the medium as we know it, scrutinizing cinema’s earliest surviving works for examples of shot-reverse shots, camera movements, or emerging psychological complexity. I admire that scholarship but it’s not really where my own heart lies; I suppose I’m sloppier in my appreciation. The very approach I took to watching La Roue, forcing it to coexist with the day’s other logistics and whims, probably rules me out as a serious spectator. Fair enough – we all do the best we can.
Actually, most films I watch at home don’t even get that good a deal: typically I’ll start watching a movie one evening, spend 45 minutes or an hour on it, maybe finish it a couple of days later, start right away on another one. A lot of people tell me they couldn’t watch films that way, and I’m not saying it’s ideal (to state only the most obvious reservation, it does increase the likelihood of getting confused about basic plot and character points), but if I only watched movies when I had two interrupted hours available, my consumption would plummet. So I proceed (as with various other things in life actually) on the premise that pragmatic forward progress beats waiting around for an unattainable ideal.
Recently though I’m finding that this fragmented kind of viewing, rather than being a necessary accommodation, is actually tending to become my preferred mode of movie watching. I’m just getting used to doing it that way. This intersects with other things. I love film just as much, but I’m progressively erecting a higher and higher bar regarding what I actually pay to see at the theaters. This year I’ve just gone once a week on average, which I know far outpaces the average viewer, but in the past it’s often been more like three or four times a week. Movies that would easily have made my viewing cut even twelve months ago (Last Chance Harvey, The International, The Necessities of Life) now don’t even strike me as next-year cable catch-ups.
It’s easy to be seduced by the artful marketing, and by all the reporting of the weekend box office results as serious “news”, into thinking Taken or He’s just not that into you are cultural events of some kind (rather than straightforward, calculated commercial products, like new cookie flavours or rebranded toilet paper); I’m certainly susceptible to being seduced myself. But I think I’ve reached a tipping point now, because the history of cinema is so deep and so rich, and (to my immense delight!) I have so much of it right here on my shelves, or available through the digital package, that it virtually always calls out louder than the passing appeal of the current new fad.
Added to that, movie theaters are too often annoying (the only locations where the saying ‘hell is other people’ regularly pops back into my head) and then, like everyone else, I’m into spending less anyway. And we moved to a new condo, and I really like hanging out here. And our old dog appreciates our company more and more. See what a hopeless case this is turning into?
So Steven Soderbergh’s Che posed a particular challenge to me. It’s almost four and a half hours along, conceived as a two-part film with a fifteen minute intermission. It was first shown at Cannes last year, where it got a mixed response, although Benicio del Toro as Che Guevara did win the award for best actor there. Some predicted it would never be seen again in that form, but it played New York and LA at the end of last year in a so-called “roadshow” engagement, before being generally released elsewhere as two separate films. I’d assumed Toronto would also get the part one/part two treatment, but then the Yonge/Dundas AMC came up with the full deal.
On to next week
I have no doubt Soderbergh would rather his film be viewed as a single entity. But frankly, that prospect depressed me. And my wife, who was coming with me, didn’t want to do it either; this, of course, is the bottom line on many issues. So we ended up going to the 1.30 show, staying until intermission and then leaving (we went to eat at the Osteria near Yonge and Queen, where Terroni’s used to be, which I entirely recommend; then we spent a quiet evening at home). As I write this, the following day, our plan is to return next week for the second half. Obviously this isn’t the most economical way of dealing with it, given that the AMC charged somewhat more than they do for a normal movie, but I didn’t say every decision we make is about the economics.
Anyway, I’ll let you know next week how part one takes on a different aspect in the light of part two (if, of course, I still remember anything about part one after the intervening week…no, I’m joking). On its own terms, the film is interesting, but much less radical or challenging as basic film-making than as commercial challenge. It focuses on the Cuban revolutionary years, as Guevara and Castro and an initially tiny band of rebels gradually grow in numbers and sophistication, culminating of course in overthrowing the Battista government. Soderbergh intercuts this with Che’s trip to New York in 1964, as a senior government representative now, to address the United Nations.
It’s all interesting, but mostly in a straightforward procedural kind of way; there’s very little insight into the man or his times, and nothing that strikes you as innovative cinema (let alone to a degree reflecting Che’s revolutionary ambitions). Maybe I’ll change my mind, but for now, I think I can handle this movie my own way.
(But then I went back the following week, and I did change my mind…)