In February two things happened that allowed me to delve a little further than I had previously into the great world of classic and foreign films. The first thing was that TCM was playing the past’s best Oscar nominated movies non stop all month, so I just set my DVR to record everything I could. The second thing was that I got a library card to my local Austin Public Library.
Sidenote: Holy shit, have you been to a library lately? I mean, you walk into the place and it doesn’t look any different than it used to. Shelves of books with protective plastic and the kind of random eccentricity that screams “purely donated.” But then you get a card and they tell you that they have 80 locations in your city and you can borrow and return to any location as well as go through an online catalog and request something get sent to your local branch free of charge. They have e-book’s too, so you can just rent books straight from your Kindle. They let you keep everything for three weeks with very loose renewal policies and you can have five movies and some ungodly number of books at a time. I don’t know if this is just another testament to how sweet Austin is or if every library is like this now, but I urge you go get yourself a card. Libraries are not worth forgetting about.
Anyways, back to the point at hand. With my new super-powered library card and the little red light ensuring me movies are being recorded non stop, I took some time in the last two months to watch some movies that I had never had the chance to watch before. I’ve decided to choose some highlights for this post, and those were:
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington directed by Frank Capra in 1939
Casablanca directed by Michael Curtiz in 1942
North by Northwest directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1959
On the Waterfront directed by Elia Kazan in 1954
The African Queen directed by John Huston in 1951
Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952
Scandal also directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1950
The 400 Blows directed by Francois Truffaut in 1959
Port of Call directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1948
This is, for all intents and purposes, a random list. Beyond all being made over 50 years ago these movies share little in common with each other outside of a few actors or directors doing double duty on this list. Another trait they all share is that I really enjoyed all of them, which also shouldn’t be surprising since I chose these movies off of a slightly bigger list of movies I watched in the last two months. But there’s a reason I liked them beyond seeing them under the impression that they would be classics, and there’s a reason I wrangled them all together for this post. But before I get into that, a few short words about these movies.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington- Already having been a fan of Capra as many probably are, I was able to sit down and watch what has become my favorite movie from him. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington follows simple Mr. Smith, a hardworking and honest young man who is thrust into the position of a state Senator after a quick and exposition heavy opening sequence. The conflict arises when his honesty and determination to do good clashes with his fellow Senator’s plans to use their position of power to profit. It’s a great look at our Legislative process and Jimmy Stewart is as likable as ever.
Casablanca- Everyone has to see it for the first time at some point, right? It’s funny when you watch a movie that so many movies since have borrowed from and so many pop culture references based on. For example, I had no idea before watching this movie that Out Cold (2001) is practically a remake of Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart was at some career highs for coolness here, and that’s saying something, while the story was as touching and exciting as I would have hoped a movie that tops so many lists would be.
North By Northwest- Another oft referenced movie. I’m sure you’ve seen a reenactment of the crop dusting plane scene in at least five different places and the surprise ending is so worn out by now that any fifteen year old could watch it and say, “Saw that coming.” But there was enough Hitchcockian camera use and enjoyable acting from Cary Grant to keep anyone interested. In North by Northwest our protagonist finds himself the target of a spy conspiracy due to a simple misunderstanding. The way information is revealed to the viewer is really well done and the story is as intriguing as it is well acted.
On the Waterfront- Hailed as one of Brando’s best performances, I can’t say I loved the movie overall as much as I hoped I would but I can say the story and the acting were brilliant enough to warrant another view in the near future. Brando really did carry this one on his shoulders and he never crumbled under the pressure. Several scenes caught me by surprise with how emotionally invested I was getting and his character was so well written that the movie around him could have been much less than it was and still be great.
The African Queen- Probably my least favorite on this list, but an epic tale well worth your time nonetheless. It felt like an older, lower budget, yet more pure and higher quality version of Titanic. The story wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I have never not enjoyed watching Bogart do his thing. A solid film that was maybe not as up my alley as some others on this list.
Ikiru- Having been on a mission to delve further into Kurosawa’s rabbit hole ever since I saw Yojimbo last year I was delighted to find that my Library carries several of his movies. Ikiru was the first one I picked up, as it seems the complete opposite of Yojimbo. While Yojimbo was light hearted at times, full of badassery, and had the infinitely cool Toshiro Mifune, Ikiru is a much more character based and deliberately paced work with a much more depressing premise. After finding out he only has a few months to live, a boring government worker tries to find out what it means to live and how best to spend his remaining time. Going much more in depth than I thought it would, this was a great look at not only mortality and the meaning of living but also a wonderful movie about how people perceive you and how your actions are tied to that perception.
Scandal- A great mid point between Ikiru and Yojimbo. While the story isn’t as serious as putting an expiration date on a person, it’s not as light hearted or fantastical as an old samurai story. Scandal is the story of an artist who finds himself the center of a tabloid scandal after being photographed with a beautiful and famous singer. Not willing to accept the slander he becomes one of the few to fight back against the lying tabloid, but his lawyer is dealing with his own problems and is tempted to fight for the other side by desperate men. An apt look into the world of celebrity scandals and tabloids fueling the fire that is still as relevant today as it is entertaining to watch.
The 400 Blows- My first Truffaut movie and one of the better coming of age movies I’ve seen. Following a young boy who goes about being misunderstood, given poor advice, and generally being a kid perceived by the adults in his life as a trouble maker who won’t listen. As we follow the protagonist it becomes painfully obvious to the viewer why he acts out or does what he does, yet to the authority in his life he is just another unreachable youth and that is the real tragedy of this movie. An exercise in empathy and understanding, The 400 Blows is another movie that helps us remember that sometimes problems are easier to see than we think.
Port of Call- Another first but this time for Ingmar Bergman. One of his earlier works and somewhat similar to 400 Blows except that one could be the before story and the other the after story as to how troubled youths are dealt with and processed in society. Following a suicidal young woman who falls for a sailor that doesn’t know about her institutionalized past, Port of Call focuses on not only the relationship they build but the many ways in which society puts restrictions on our protagonist due to the state of mental health their very institutions imposed on her. I remember applauding Dirty Dancing after having seen it for being a movie that dealt with real issues like abortion, yet Port of Call comes in handling that and other disturbing events 40 years before and does it with great reverence.
So what do these movies have in common? And not just these movies, but movies from the larger sample of classics and foreign films that went beyond their own borders? What makes a story great, what makes it timeless? The answer is simple, relatability. The problems proposed by these movies, whether it be the troubles of a misunderstood youth or the pain that comes with not being able to be with the one you love, skewed public perception or a battle of the few honest against the many greedy, or being a pawn in something larger that you aren’t allowed to understand, these are stories that will always be relevant. They not only depict the time and place in which they happened to perfection but they also show us that no matter the time nor the place these are problems that don’t have real answers and will always be present in our lives as long as we feel.
The other day I saw a question posted to /r/movies that asked why we loved movies. Why, above all other art forms and ways to spend our time, why it was movies that we chose to watch and analyze and practically fetish over. And I thought about it for a while. I thought about all the ways movies have steered my personality or all of the moments I’ve been able to watch over and over and all of the props I wished I had simply because someone filmed them and how much I would stupidly be willing to pay for them. And that’s all great as to why movies entertain me, and why they are so accessible to everyone. But that’s not why I love them, or more importantly, why they are worth watching.
Movies are simply the most easily consumable form of storytelling, but no matter how good your movie looks or how interestingly you used a new filming technique, in the end the mark of quality in my eyes is in the storytelling and character. And the reason is because storytelling is how we as people learn to empathize and tolerate those around us. Listening to a story from the perspective of someone else reminds us for a moment that everyone around us is a main character in their own life and everything they do is the result of a lifetime’s worth of experience, and not just actions meant to affect you. The more stories we see, the more situations we see people other than ourselves react to, and the more we have to question our own morals and actions due to what we see on screen or read in a book, the more we learn to be accepting of other’s and their actions. And I think that is not only the real reason we all watch movies but also why the above movies were donned classics by those before me and still stand the test of time today.