Film Here we are, the year of my birth. Any film beyond here I have to have seen retrospectively, though that's of course true of everything from Pete's Dragon onwards. Apparently I've seen more films than most but I expect there'll still be some moments when I'll be trying to make a value choice between some storming classics, narrowed slightly by never having seen some of those classics yet. I've only seen half of The Godfather Part II for example, thanks to having worked through half of the tv mini-series created by Francis Ford Coppola in which he re-edited all of the footage from the trilogy into chronological order. Having not seen any of it before, the chronological messing about became too jarring so I put it to one side assuming I'd be back after seeing the films in their original version and still haven't gone back yet.
But there's potentially an irrational feeling of loss when watching non-contemporary films, a synthetic quality perhaps, because time has stripped them of their contemporary context. Watching a film like Chinatown years after production, especially if you didn't personally experience the moment in which it was made, means that you can't really understand what it would have been like to have seen the film as it was released. Would it have made a difference? In ten years when people catch Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, will they even remember that there was a European refugee crisis? Are the two even related? Nixon resigned on the day Chinatown was released in the UK. Was that really at the back of people's minds as they attended the cinema that weekend and did it really change how they viewed the film?
Told you it was irrational and I don't think it works that way. If there's an overall thesis so far in this series, it's that the wider world very rarely intrudes on the experience of watching films and that it's usually who we are as people and that context which effects on our viewing of the film. The BBC Genome reminds me that my first viewing of Chinatown was a timer recorded VHS of the 2nd April 1994 broadcast which was the first in Cinemascope (still something of a novelty for television twenty years ago). It was an Easter Weekend so I would have been home from undergraduate uni so in a position to set the video. Within a few days the Rwandan genocide began. Kurt Cobain died and co-incidentally so did Nixon by the end of the month. Only Nixon could go to to Chinatown.
Perhaps I should be more cynical when watching film documentaries, notably dvd extras self-publicising the film they're supporting, which talk about how they "came out of the time" and were part of some great vanguard or zeitgeist. But it's easy to get caught up in photo and archive film montages of, in the 70s, flares and disco and Vietnam. Some films clearly "came out of the time" but did Chinatown and to what extent did contemporary audiences notice? Robert Towne based his screenplay on an incident which happened in the early 1900s. There's also a thematic cynicism in relation to authority but does this mean Nixon? Probably not. Glancing through many interviews with Towne he barely talks about the film in those terms.
In other words, films are best taken on their own terms unless the historical context is obvious and I should get over myself. I've been lucky enough to have lived through a third of the time that cinema has existed and only seen a limited number of films in context anyway. In any case, we watch every film retrospectively to some degree anyway. Studios choose release days based on a range of factors and some films (Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret) don't find themselves in front of an audience for years. Even "live" television broadcasts have delays in fractions of seconds. If anything, watching a film retrospectively teaches us a lot about the time in which it was produced, even a period piece like Chinatown. But let me save that discussion for another time. Eighty odd films to go until the dawn of cinema.